Race and Eugenics

This particular piece of writing has been quite a few years in the making. I first encountered the Eugenics Movement when studying about inclusion in education, which I have written about here. Following that I studied European Identities as part of my degree and started to come across the same ideas. It is something we do not teach, that we do not even consider it a lot of the time. Adam Rutherford has written ‘How to Argue with a Racist’ on the science behind the Eugenics Movement, and how it relates to racism today. This is a brief history behind that movement, and what implications it has had on race and European and American lives.


We always consider that the Enlightenment movement was just that, a way of thinking that changed our perspective, and that drove the abolition of slavery. However, that is just one side of it. Enlightenment was about the freedom of expression, and supposedly about tolerance. Enlightened thinkers believed that the past was about prejudice and irrational behaviour and wanted that to change, but that was only some of them.

Rousseau wrote in his Discourse (1754) that Europe ‘was more continuously and better civilised than other parts of the world’. This was the view that became prevalent, that those of a different nation or colour had failed to progress and had not formed a civilised society. In 1795, in his conclusion of Sketch, Condorcet wrote ‘[S]urvey the history of our settlements and commercial undertakings in Africa or Asia, and you will see our trade monopolies, our treachery, our murderous contempt for men of another colour or creed.’ Rosseau also created the idea that there were distinct human races. This was continued with the Theory of Progress, in which man could improve the world, and the Theory of Evolution.

Origin of Species

Darwin’s idea of evolution is still studied in schools today, I was teaching it a couple of weeks ago. What is not taught is the unintended consequence of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

In 1859, Darwin published his Origin of Species, which Darwin only used to categorise plants and animals, not humans. These ideas led to Social Darwinism, that those who do the best are the fittest and that there was little point in doing anything for those who did not fit into that category. Social Darwinism and social reform are linked, but only from the viewpoint that reform for people in the lower rankings was not worth the time and the effort.

Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, was also a scientist and on reading Darwin’s book he set about investigating human development. In 1871, Darwin mentions Galton several times in his book on The Descent of Man, which he claims humans were part of natural selection, mainly through sexual activity.

Galton believed in the idea that you could improve human “stock” by controlled breeding, as you would farm animals and racehorses. Of course, it would not be any old stock but those who were classed as worthy ‘eminent men are naturally superior and […] superior men are naturally eminent’ (Miller, 1962). These were what the Americans would later describe as ‘Anglo-Saxon, Nordic types.’


In 1873, Galton wrote to The Times espousing that Africa should be left to the Chinese, that they should alter ‘and finally displace’ the native African. The Chinese were considered far more productive and committed than the work-shy and useless African. A little while later he wrote in Fraser’s Magazine that there was a genetic underclass which needed to be bred out of society. Soon his ideas would travel across the Atlantic.

In 1894, the Immigration Restriction League was founded in America. They believed that immigrants were diluting the Anglo-Saxon heritage of the American stock and wanted a literacy test for all immigrants. The belief was that immigrants were poorly educated and not intelligent enough to pass the tests so would not be allowed in the country. The Bill was overruled on a number of occasions, until it was finally passed in 1917.

In 1902, Galton was awarded the Darwin Award by the Royal Society, as well as made an Honorary Fellow at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1909 he was awarded a knighthood. This was not only for his work on eugenics, sadly this has overshadowed his amazing life as a scientist. His supporters for eugenics included H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, as well as some who we would now consider social reformers such as the Webbs.

In 1904, Galton created a research fellowship at UCL. This was followed soon after by the creation in Berlin of the German Society for Race Hygiene, who were staunch supporters of Galton. Galton appointed Karl Pearson as the Director of the Eugenics Record Office in London. The Record Office stored thousands of pedigrees of suitable people, and this was followed up by Offices in Germany, Canada and America in 1911.

In 1906, J.H. Kellogg created the Race Betterment Foundation, and at the same time The American Breeders Association was also founded. This was for breeding of humans, not animals.

The creation of the Eugenics Education Society (EES), in 1907, was hoped to run alongside Pearson and the Record Office. Pearson though, was not as extreme in his thinking, and diverged from the EES.

Galton died in 1911, but his legacy of eugenics lived on.

The Liberal government and the start of the welfare state, in Britain, stopped the Eugenics Movement taking hold except in 1931, when the first compulsory sterilisation act was put forward, but never passed.

Thirty-two American states had sterilisation programmes for ‘undesirables.’ These included immigrants, people of colour, the poor, unmarried mothers, the disabled and mentally ill as well as Native Americans. California was so successful in its programme that a man called Adolf Hitler copied some of their ideas into his own vision of the perfect Aryan.

After 1924, Americans became concerned about the ‘inferior stock’ coming from Eastern and Southern Europe, so a hierarchy of nationalities was created of those welcome in the country. The top included anyone of Anglo-Saxon or Nordic descent, with those from China and Japan at the bottom.

The Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring was created by the Nazi party in 1933. This prevented children being born to people with certain medical conditions, it is estimated that 400,000 sterilizations were carried out.

1935 saw the Nazi party introduce the Marital Health Law, which made marriage between those who were healthy, and those who were genetically unfit, illegal. The same year saw the Nazi Blood Protection Law introduced which made marriage between Jews and non-German Jews a criminal offence. Followed by the Reich Central Office for Combating Homosexuality and Abortion, the year after.

In 1938, The Euthanasia Society of America was started, but luckily did not take off and ideas of segregation and sterilisation were the preferred methods.

Between 1939 and 1940, 140,000 physically and mentally disabled people were murdered by the Nazi Party, in Germany. The period of 1941-1945 saw six million Jews murdered; 1.8-3 million Poles; 5.7 million Soviet Civilians; 2.8 million – 3.3 million Soviet POWs; 300,000-600,000 Serbs; 270,000 disabled; 130,000-500,000 Romanies; 80,000-200,000 Freemasons; 20,00-25,000 Slovenes; 5,000-15,000 Homosexuals; 3,500 Spanish Republicans; 1,250-5,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses. This was the extreme end of the Eugenics Movement, but it did not stop the movement from continuing.

Lower class whites, and all people of colour were determined as a risk to the breeding of the perfect Americans. There was a need to control those who were part Asian and part Mexican, and in the Southern States the need to control the reproduction of black African Americans. ‘Mississippi appendectomies’ was the name for the sterilisation of those who went in for simple appendectomies. Girls between the ages of nine and eighteen were sterilised as practice for medical students.

In the 1970s and 1980s appendectomies of Native American women also involved sterilisation. Between 1970 and 1976 in the region of 25-50% were sterilised in this way.

Between 2006 and 2010, 150 female inmates in Californian jails were sterilised without consent, because of their criminality.

The Eugenics Movement had such an impact on American society that in 2015 the Eugenics Compensation Act was passed. This allowed survivors of the Eugenics Movement to be financially compensated. In North Carolina they gave $35000 to 220 survivors, in Virginia the compensation amounted to $25000 each.

From the late nineteenth century and into the twenty-first century, eugenics has formed the basis of policy and political thinking across continents. This brief history is only a small part of what the Eugenics Movement has achieved.  From the poor to the disabled, those of colour, non-Christians, LGBT, we are still carrying on the myths created by the Movement back in the 1870s, and sadly, these ideas are still flourishing in some areas. When we finally recognise where the problem exists, it may be easier to stop it.

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