When Galton gave birth to Eugenics

When we talk about racism and xenophobia, the first name that comes to our mind is Adolf Hitler. Most picture him as a madman with unconceivable ideas. For the most, Germany, as the Nazism epicenter, is seen as the birthplace of concepts such as race hygiene or ethic cleansing. Nevertheless, the extent of Holocaust may be deceptive and, in this case, it surely is.

Let us go back to the 19th century second half to meet a Victorian scientist named Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), Charles Darwin’s cousin.

Influenced by Darwin’s Origin of Species and inherent work, Galton began to study heredity in 1865. He believed that mental and behavioral capacities, as well as physical health qualities, passed down to offspring through heredity. As though, he tried to prove it through statistics — making use of value-laden categorization and populations rankings based on measurable traits and natural ability.

To perceive evolution as a direct consequence of natural selection helped ideas such as selective parenthood improvement or even feeble-minded breeding restrictions to sprout. And, opened door to a new concept, or I must say, a new branch of science? The later was the intent of Sir Francis Galton. Coined Eugenics, he defined it, in 1904, as

(…) the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage. The improvement of the inborn qualities, or stock, of some one human population will alone be discussed here.


The American Journal of Sociology, Vol.10, No.1 (Jul.,1904), 1-25

At the very same document, Eugenics aim is established.

The aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave them to work out their common civilization in their own way. (…) The community might be trusted to refuse representatives of criminals, and of others whom it rates as undesirable.

(….) The aim of eugenics is to bring as many influences as can be reasonably employed, to cause the useful classes in the community to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation.


The American Journal of Sociology, Vol.10, No.1 (Jul.,1904), 1-25

In the end, he proclaimed superior mental and physical capabilities as essential for the well-being of society as a whole.

Think this way: if the fittest were, by nature, to survive, was not anti nature to give the weakest the possibility to do so, too? Allowing and helping the poor, the sick, the retarded to prosper was not a mean by which we interfere with evolution mechanisms? Were they not a threat to the social progress?

This questions were taken seriously since, at that time, class conflicts were an issue either in Britain, Germany or United States of America.

Certificate of appreciation from the Second International Congress of Eugenics

In 18th century, with regard to the British context, few were the englishmen allowed to vote — women were forbidden as well as the working-class community. The ruling class needs were fulfilled and they were… satisfied. Any political reform meant loss of privilege and, as that were unrequited, any alteration on Constitution were unrequited too. Lower classes, in addition to minorities such as Catholics and slaves, were struggling. Yet, in the end of the century, Industrial Revolution happened. Economy changed rapidly and Britain became one of the world’s strongest economic power. With higher living standards, population started to grow rapidly. The undemocratic government became to be unsustainable. There was a need to change.

It came, in 1832, with the first Reform Act that, amongst other things, extended the right to vote to any man owning a household worth £10, thus, bringing additional 217,000 voters to an electorate of 435,000. One year after, slavery is abolished in British Empire and later, in 1867, the second Reform Act extended, even more, the right to vote — the country had gain one million more voters! Last but not least, in 1885, the electorate tripled with the Redistribution Act with most agricultural laborers being allowed to go to the polls.

Albeit women were forbidden to vote, british communities were, finally, being presented with some civil and political rights. Lower and higher classes were “sharing” the power.

It is noteworthy that was in 1893, precisely, that Independent Labour Party foundation occurred. This, in addiction to the trade union movement legalization and respective increasing growth, pressured the government to address working-class requirements. Still, in early 20th century, the Suffragettes were putting the spotlights in the women’s rights and children were given the right to education! The rules to acquire a significant social status were changing, worrying higher classes.

Science is shaped by the ones than fund science. They have the money so they trace science pathways accordingly to their interests. Which problems should be solved first? The ones that matter for the ones that have the power. Ideas germinated on this paradigm will pass on to people, whom will be picture science based on them.

We could see this bidirectional relationship between science and society reflected on british policies and on their public acceptance.

So, in 1896, we have the set up of the National Association for the Care and Control of the Feeble Minded which goal was the segregation of disabled people in order to fight genetic deterioration in British lands. Eleven years later, the Eugenics Education Society is founded, launching a campaign for voluntary sterilization of the unfit.. Eugenics Society aimed to turn public opinion to its favor and, thereby, convince the Ministry of Health and Board of Control to implement and sponsor legislation on its behalf but, with the Labour Party as its strongest opponent, did not succeed.

Fortunately, scientific community, too, was unsure about the grounds where the hereditarian analysis of mental defect had been being built. And, concerning the nature of the patient consent, even eugenists were divided. Whatever the approach, there were always an ethical and legal concern.

Galton dies in 1911 and in 1912 London is the stage of the first International Eugenics Conference dedicated to him and presided by Major Leonard Sarwin, Charles Darwin’s son. Amongst the attendants we could find several European ambassadors as well as Winston Churchill.

Government policies soon started to arise as answers to “How do we curtail feeble-minded offspring?” question. With the First World War, people with disabilities were pilling up and the government just couldn’t bare the costs. Villas were created and segregation gave a step further.

We may think this mindset is against our perception of Human Rights but, once more, if you look closely to that period’s social context, you may see that those measures were aiming to make humans persevere — they were, by their terms, helping nature evolve (quicker).

Eugenics got widespread. We saw it in Germany, with Adolf Hitler. We saw it in United States, with Margaret Sanger. It take a blow with the Holocaust but we still can see it now. Make no mistake — Eugenics is not dead. (But I will leave that to another post.)

See you, soon!

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