The term ‘eugenics’, coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, refers to efforts to improve humanity through selective breeding. ‘Positive eugenics’ aims to increase the frequency of desirable traits in the population and ‘negative eugenics’ to decrease the frequency of negative ones. Although eugenics was once an international and widely supported movement, it was ultimately discredited as scientifically naïve and racially and class‐biased. Today, the word has highly pejorative connotations and is often equated with Nazi efforts to create a master race. However, there is disagreement over whether the use of prenatal diagnosis and other contemporary reproductive technologies constitutes a new eugenics, and in recent years, several scholars have also argued that eugenics' fundamental aim of human genetic improvement is laudable, even if earlier efforts to accomplish it were marred by coercive means, faulty science, and social prejudice.

Key Concepts

  • In the first three decades of the twentieth century, eugenics was a popular movement of international scope.
  • Eugenicists assumed that most mental, moral, and personality traits were hereditarily transmitted from parent to offspring.
  • In the United States, family pedigree studies conducted by eugenic field workers seemed to prove that many such traits followed a Mendelian pattern of inheritance.
  • Eugenicists assumed that most social problems were due to bad heredity and that their solution lay in discouraging those with hereditary defects from breeding.
  • American eugenicists were primarily concerned with mental deficiency or ‘feeblemindedness’ and British eugenicists with ‘hereditary pauperism’.
  • Fear that the incidence of mental deficiency was increasing intensified in the wake of intelligence (IQ) testing, especially of US army recruits in World War I.
  • In several countries, eugenicists viewed immigration from particular countries or regions as a primary threat to the biological quality of the population.
  • There is much greater agreement on when modern eugenics began than on when or why it came to seem disreputable.
  • Today, there is intense debate over whether prospective parents' voluntary use of reproductive genetic services constitutes a new, consumer‐driven eugenics.
  • Recently, some commentators have argued that eugenics' core aim of human genetic improvement is defensible.

Keywords: Buck v. Bell; Charles B. Davenport; feeblemindedness; Francis Galton; immigration restriction; intelligence testing; Mendelism; sterilisation; pedigrees; prenatal diagnosis


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Further Reading

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Porter TM (2004) Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zenderland L (1998) Measuring Minds: Henry Herbert Goddard and the Origins of American Intelligence Testing. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

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Paul, Diane B(Feb 2015) Eugenics. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003485.pub2]