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The Early Days of Eugenics

Our editorial from 1911 praising the new science of eugenics also hints at the darker side of this philosophy



Scientific American

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Editor's note: This editorial was written and published in 1911. Although our editors of a century ago pondered some lofty aspirations for the orderly future of humans, it was only three decades later that the brutal reality of a Nazi social order suffused with a eugenicist ideal brought home the practical shortcomings of the philosophy.

The Science of Breeding Better Men

ADA JUKE is known to anthropologists as the "mother of criminals." From her there were directly descended one thousand two hundred persons. Of these, one thousand were criminals, paupers, inebriates, insane, or on the streets. That heritage of crime, disease, inefficiency and immorality cost the State of New York about a million and a quarter dollars for maintenance directly. What the indirect loss was in property stolen, in injury to life and limb, no one can estimate.

Suppose that Ada Juke or her immediate children had been prevented from perpetuating the Juke family. Not only would the State have been spared the necessity of supporting one thousand defective persons, morally and physically incapable of performing the functions of citizenship, but American manhood would have been considerably better off, and society would have been free from one taint at least.

Instances such as these are not isolated. Ever since the late Sir Francis Galton gave us his science of Eugenics, which in its most literal sense means "good breeding," the scientific students of mankind, the directors of insane asylums and hospitals, criminologists the world over, have been compiling statistics to show not only the danger of permitting the marriage of criminals, lunatics, and the physically unfit, but the effect upon" mankind. Thus, Prof. Karl Pearson, Galton's ablest disciple, has driven home the necessity of the scientific study of the human race in many a telling statistical comparison and monograph. He has shown that in Great Britain 25 per cent of the, population (and that the undesirable element in England) is producing 50 per cent of English children, and that if this goes on unchecked, national deterioration and degeneracy must inevitably result.

Galton originally worked only with statistics, and in his capable hands, they proved a powerful weapon. After he had enunciated the principles of Eugenics, Mendel's law of heredity was revived and applied to the problem. Imperfectly understood as that law may be as yet, nevertheless it enables us to prophesy with considerable accuracy what the offspring of animals, plants and human beings may be, not only in the next generation, but in generations to come. Mendelian principles have no doubt long been followed by professional animal breeders in an empirical way, but only within recent years have enough data been accumulated to show that they apply with equal force to human beings. We know enough about the laws of heredity, we have enough statistics from insane asylums and prisons, we have enough genealogies, to show that, although we may not be able directly to improve the human race as we improve the breed of guinea pigs, rabbits or cows, because of the rebellious spirit of mankind, yet the time has come when the lawmaker should join hands with the scientist, and at least check the propagation of the unfit. Prizes have been offered to crack trotters for beating their own record, $10,000 for a fifth of a second, all for the purpose of evolving a precious two-minute horse. Yet we hear of no prizes which are offered for that much worthier object, the physically and intellectually perfect man. Fortunately the need of intelligent legislation on the subject is being driven home by scientific men and Eugenic associations here and abroad. The Eugenics laboratory founded by Sir Francis Galton and the American Breeders' Association have done much to clear away the popular prejudices inevitably encountered in such educational work and to prepare the ground for legislative action. Some States have already passed laws that show an appreciation of the situation.

The proper attitude to be taken toward the perpetuation of poor types is that which has been attributed to Huxley. "We are sorry for you," he is reported to have said; "we will do our best for you (and in so doing we elevate ourselves, since mercy blesses him that gives and him that takes), but we deny you the right to parentage. You may live, but you must not propagate."

The absurdity of legislation to cure social evils without scientific facts to base that legislation upon, is no more apparent than in the disposal of the insane. In Wethams's "Family and the Nation," it is stated: "According to the mid-Victorian concept, a man was either sane or insane-quite mad or completely cured. How he became mad, how completely he was cured, were not taken into consideration." It is not enough to take care of an insane man. To discharge him after a period of a few months or a few years and brand him as cured, when his whole family history points to the fact. that he is a hereditary epileptic or lunatic, and to place no barriers in his path when he attempts to marry, is statesmanship of the poorest order.

If the Eugenist has his way, "well-born" will acquire a new meaning. It will not cease to mean descent from a proud and noble race that has accomplished great things in the past, but it will also mean that the stock descended from that race is composed of men and women who will live up to its traditions, who will have that perfect physique and stable mental organization which Maudsley, that most literary and philosophical of psychiatrists, calls "the highest sanity."

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