What is eugenics?

Eugenics or eugenics is the desire to manipulate genetic inheritance and artificial selection to “improve” or “enhance” the traits that future human generations will have. It is a form of social philosophy, often accused of being pseudoscientific.

Eugenics gained great importance in Western thought from the 19th century, and numerous acts of discrimination and genocide were ideologically based on it. Eugenic thinking proposed that, through inheritance control, one can aspire to stronger, healthier, more intelligent human generations or with certain ethnic and/or aesthetic traits.

The philosophies of the so-called social-Darwinism applied the findings of Charles Darwin on the origin of species and the survival of the fittest in political and social life. Thus, it was proposed that reproduction should be allowed only under strict selection criteria, denying it to those who do not fit into the desired pattern, to whom death or forced sterilization was imparted instead.

Despite its controversial origins, much of eugenic thinking survives today, in modern scientific applications, which allow future parents to vary degrees of genetic manipulation and artificial selection, to avoid bringing offspring with serious genetic problems into the world. This, of course, without incurring the immoral practices of the past.

Background of eugenics

The antecedents of eugenicist thought date back to ancient times and can be traced back to classics such as Plato’s “Republic” (c. 378 BC). There the philosopher defended the need to incorporate artificial selection into the improvement policies of society.

This practice was carried out in its way by the Spartan people, whose highly militarized educational model applied a strict eugenic policy: a commission of elders examined each newborn child to determine if it met certain standards of robustness and beauty.

If he did not do so, he was thrown from the top of Mount Taygetus to the so-called Apóthetas (“place of abandonment”), and only if he managed to survive on his own, could he be accepted in society. They also bathed newborns in wine, since at the time it was believed that this was how the child was induced to have seizures, which guaranteed that only the strong would survive from the start.

On the other hand, the Spartan nurses were particularly cruel, raising each child without pampering or whims of any kind. They used to be used from early on to be alone and not fear the dark, all to harden them to the maximum and separate the strong from the weak.

Much later, the idea of ​​eugenics appeared in Ciudad del Sol (1632) by the Italian philosopher and poet Tommaso Campanella (1568-1639), a utopian work inspired by the Platonic Republic. There he imagines a radical communist society, where private property is impossible and where the State guarantees that everyone has what they need, even a sexual partner, since reproduction is studied to improve the species.

Origin and history of eugenics

The term eugenics was coined in 1883 by the British natural philosopher and explorer Francis Galton (1822-1911), in his book Investigations on human faculties and their development.

However, the idea had already been explored in his previous texts “Hereditary Talent and Personality” (1865) and The Hereditary Genius (1869), in which, influenced by the reading of The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, he proposed that Human civilization and its values only slowed down and hindered the advancement of the strongest and best-adapted races, above all others.

According to Galton, in the same way, that artificial selection was used to improve domestic animal species, it should be done with the human species, expecting similar results.

In his view, it was inconceivable that the least intelligent and least capable of human beings would reproduce the most. That is why policies should be designed that would make people understand the importance of thinking and planning reproduction in terms of the welfare of the species.

Born thus as a “science” (nowadays it is no longer considered as such), eugenics was supported by several of Darwin’s descendants, who considered it close to the studies of their father. It also had great advocates throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Alexander Graham Bell.

In 1896, a eugenic movement was founded in the United States that prohibited marriages with any “epileptic, imbecile, or mentally weak”, carried out forced sterilizations of “imbeciles”, and xenophobic and racist laws were applied against the incorporation of “inferior lineages” from other geographies. An example of such laws was the law of immigration Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924.

The greatest eugenics movement in history was constituted by Nazism. Nazi “philosophy”, strongly influenced by eugenics and social Darwinism, proposed that the German people (actually the Aryan people, that is, the descendants of a supposedly pure Proto-Indo-European people, whose existence today is put into doubt) was called to dominate the world.

Their superiority was supposedly due to their genetic greatness, which was the greatest treasure to preserve. Therefore, the “inferior races” not only had to refrain from mixing their genetics with the German, but they had to be exterminated to give up their resources to those who were stronger or fitter.

The application of these models of thought led to the genocide perpetrated against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the disabled, and other groups during the Second World War in the extermination camps of the self-proclaimed III Reich.

Modern eugenics

After World War II, eugenics continued to appear in various forms. On the one hand, in the form of forced sterilizations of people of races considered “inferior” or simply poor people, by dictatorial regimes such as Alberto Fujimori’s Peru.

But, on the other hand, it opened the doors to more moral forms of application, although not less controversial, as part of programs for the early detection of genetic diseases, which has improved enormously thanks to technological advances in genetics and medicine.

The term eugenics is rarely used for these types of policies, given its historical implications with Nazism. However, they have accepted forms of eugenics, subject to ethical and legal regulations.

Such is the case of the selection of viable zygotes in in-vitro fertilization, of the biosynthetic examination of the fetuses in their first weeks and possible abortion in case of serious diseases or problems that could put maternal health at risk. It is also included in forms of genetic diagnosis, which are not without debate and criticism.

Criticism of eugenics

The main criticisms of eugenics have to do with the decision about the lives of others, and with the ease with which prejudices can infiltrate decisions about it.

On the one hand, no one in their right mind today believes that there is anything true in the pseudosciences of the 19th century or the racist and xenophobic delusions of Nazism. But on the other hand, no parent would like to bring into the world a sick, disabled or troubled child that will make life miserable.

Therefore, the line between what is considered acceptable and not acceptable can always be up for debate. Should people with difficulties be brought into the world that will make their existence more difficult than it already is for everyone? What is a genetically “normal” person? Is it acceptable for a couple to reject their child because they don’t have the eye color they would like?

These are questions that require bioethical debate and have been on the table since the decipherment of the human genetic code in the early 2000s.

What is eugenics? Origin and history of eugenics