When Charles Darwin published his groundbreaking theory of Natural Selection in 1859, it was received by the public with considerable vexation. Although the esteemed naturalist had been kind enough to explain his theory using mounds of logic and evidence, he lacked the good manners to incorporate the readers’ preconceived notions of the universe. Nevertheless, many men of science were drawn to the elegant hypothesis, and they found it pregnant with intriguing corollaries. One of these was a phenomenon Darwin referred to as artificial selection: the centuries-old process of selectively breeding domestic animals to magnify desirable traits. This, he explained, was the same mechanism as natural selection, merely accelerated by human influence.
In 1865, Darwin’s half-cousin Sir Francis Galton pried the lid from yet another worm-can with the publication of his article entitled “Hereditary Talent and Character.” In this essay, the gentleman-scientist suggested that one could apply the principle of artificial selection to humans just as one could in domestic animals, thereby exaggerating desirable human traits over several generations. This scientific philosophy would come to be known as eugenics, and over the subsequent years its seemingly sensible insights gained approval worldwide. In an effort to curtail the genetic pollution created by “inferior” genes, some governments even enacted laws authorizing the forcible sterilization of the “insane, idiotic, imbecile, feebleminded or epileptic,” as well as individuals with criminal or promiscuous inclinations. Ultimately hundreds of thousands of people were forced or coerced into sterilization worldwide, over 65,000 of them in the country which pioneered the eugenic effort: The United States of America.
From the beginning, Sir Francis Galton and his league of extraordinary eugenicists were concerned that the human race was facing an inevitable decline. They worried that advances in medicine were too successful in improving the survival and reproduction of weak individuals, thereby working at odds with natural evolution. Darwin himself expressed some concern regarding such negative selection:
“[We] do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. […] Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. […] Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”
The early proponents of eugenics were also distressed over the observation that the poor segments of an industrialized society tend to have more children than the well-off, an effect now known as the demographic-economic paradox. It was feared that this lopsided fertility would dilute the quality of the human gene pool, leading to the deterioration of socially valuable traits such as intelligence. Indeed, this “reversion towards mediocrity” was suspected by some historians to be a major contributor to the fall of the Roman Empire. The gloomy prediction of mankind’s decline was dubbed dysgenics, and it was considered to be the antithesis of the eugenics movement; but it was not considered inevitable. It was believed that a society could reverse its own genetic decay by reducing breeding among the feebleminded and increasing fertility of the affluent.
The cornerstone of eugenics was that everyone has the right to be “well-born,” without any predisposition to avoidable genetic flaws. The 1911 edition of The Encyclopædia Britannica looked fondly upon the philosophy, defining it as “the organic betterment of the race through wise application of the laws of heredity.” Prominent people gravitated towards the idea and engaged in vigorous intellectual intercourse, including such characters as Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, H.G. Wells, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and US presidents Woodrow Wilson and Calvin Coolidge. Supporters popularized eugenics as an opportunity to create a better world by using natural processes to elevate the human condition, both mentally and physically.
The eugenicists’ concerns regarding a falloff in average intelligence were not entirely unreasonable. It had long been observed that intelligence is inheritable to a large degree, and history had illustrated that science and culture owe much of their advancement to the contributions of a few gifted people. Ingenious composers such as Beethoven and Bach advanced the art of music, thinkers such as such as Pascal and Newton improved the power of mathematics, and insights from scientists such as Einstein and Hawking have furthered the field of physics. Deprived of any one of those men, today’s world would be a measurably poorer place. Even before modern IQ tests existed, it was evident that a population’s intelligence adheres to a Gaussian distribution, or “bell curve.” Consequently, even a small decline in average IQ causes a sharp reduction in the number of geniuses. For instance, if the average intelligence of a community were to decline by five IQ points, the number of individuals in the 130+ “Gifted” category would drop by 56%. A ten-point decline would result in an 83% drop. Although IQ testing is far from perfect, it is clear that even modest erosion of average IQ could severely compromise the long-term progress of a society.
As a cautionary measure, many US states enacted laws as early as 1896 prohibiting marriage to anyone who was “epileptic, imbecile or feeble-minded”. But in 1907, eugenics truly passed the threshold from hypothesis into practice when the state of Indiana erected legislation based upon the notion that socially undesirable traits are hereditary:
“…it shall be compulsory for each and every institution in the state, entrusted with the care of confirmed criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles, to appoint upon its staff, in addition to the regular institutional physician, two (2) skilled surgeons of recognized ability, whose duty it shall be, in conjunction with the chief physician of the institution, to examine the mental and physical condition of such inmates as are recommended by the institutional physician and board of managers. If, in the judgment of this committee of experts and the board of managers, procreation is inadvisable and there is no probability of improvement of the mental condition of the inmate, it shall be lawful for the surgeons to perform such operation for the prevention of procreation as shall be decided safest and most effective.”
Although this particular law was later overturned, it is widely considered to be the world’s first eugenic legislation. The sterilization of imbeciles was put into practice, often without informing the patient of the nature of the procedure. Similar laws were soon passed elsewhere in the US, many of which withstood the legal gauntlet and remained in force for decades.
Meanwhile the founders of the newly-formed Eugenics Record Office in New York began to amass hundreds of thousands of family pedigrees for genetic research. The organization publicly endorsed eugenic practices, and lobbied for state sterilization acts and immigration restrictions. The group also spread their vision of genetic superiority by sponsoring a series of “Fitter Families” contests which were held at state fairs throughout the US. Alongside the state’s portliest pigs, swiftest horses, and most majestic vegetables, American families were judged for their quality of breeding. Entrants’ pedigrees were reviewed, their bodies examined, and their mental capacity measured. The families found to be most genetically fit were awarded a silver trophy, and any contestant scoring a B+ or higher was awarded a bronze medal bearing the inscription, “Yea, I have a goodly heritage.”
The eugenics movement took another swerve for the sinister in 1924 when the state of Virginia enacted a matched set of eugenics laws: The Sterilization Act, a variation of the same sterilization legislation being passed throughout the US; and the Racial Integrity Act, a law which felonized marriage between white persons and non-whites. In September of the same year, this shiny new legislation was challenged by a patient at the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Eighteen-year-old Carrie Buck— child to a promiscuous mother, and mother to an illegitimate child— refused her mandatory sterilization and a legal challenge was arranged on her behalf. A series of appeals ultimately brought the Buck v. Bell case before the Supreme Court of the United States. The Supreme Court’s ruling was delivered by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.:
“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
With the apparent vindication of these myopic eugenics laws, sterilization procedures were ordered by the thousands. Carrie Buck and her daughter Vivian were among them. It was later discovered that Carrie had been become pregnant with Vivian after being raped by her foster parents’ nephew, and that her commitment into the Colony had been a gambit to preserve the family’s reputation. It seems that Carrie was neither feebleminded nor promiscuous, she was merely inconvenient.
These sorts of negative eugenics policies enjoyed widespread adoption in the US and Canada throughout the 1920s and 30s, with some lawmakers contemplating plans to make welfare and unemployment relief contingent upon sterilization. In the years leading up to the Second World War, however, the eugenic philosophy received the endorsement of the Nazis, and their “racial hygiene” atrocities rapidly dragged the eugenic philosophy from public favor. When Nazi leaders were put on trial for war crimes, they cited the United States as the inspiration for the 450,000 forced sterilizations they conducted. The eugenic laws in the US remained in force, however, and sterilization programs continued quietly for many years thereafter. One by one the state laws were repealed, and by 1963 virtually all US states had dismantled their sterilization legislation— but not before 65,000 or so imbeciles, criminals, and fornicators were surgically expelled from the gene pool. As for the legal precedent of Buck v. Bell, it has yet to be officially overruled.
Even with the shifts in public opinion, concerns regarding the decline of the species still remained. It was believed that certain undesirable diseases could be reduced or eliminated from humanity through well-informed mate selection, including such maladies as hypertension, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and certain types of cancer. In an effort to improve general quality of life, some scientists hypothesized that the ideal way to save humanity would be for healthy and attractive women to breed with men of science. Unfortunately, no orgy of intellectuals ensued.
In 1980, millionaire inventor Robert Klark Graham took a similar positive eugenics approach when he established the Repository for Germinal Choice in an underground bunker in Escondido, California. His goal was to procure and propagate the crème de la crème of genius DNA. It was his earnest hope that this institution would spawn thousands of gifted children to offset the unbridled copulation among the “retrograde” population. For nineteen years he courted the semen of Nobel Prize laureates, prosperous scientists, Olympic gold medalists, or anyone with a proven high IQ. Even as news reports decried Graham’s scheme to produce a “master race” of “superbabies,” hundreds of pre-screened women made the pilgrimage to his fortress of fertility. Owing to the popularity of the Repository and the stiff requirements demanded of the donors, there was never quite enough sperm on hand, and the founder was forced to spend much of his time seeking brilliant men to come to his aid.
Graham died in 1997, aged 90, and within two years his reservoir of super-sperm dried up due to lack of funding. Reports vary regarding the exact number of babies produced by the Repository for Germinal Choice, but at least 215 were born in almost two decades of operation. Only a few of the offspring have since come forward as products of the Repository, and though they tend to exhibit intellectual and physical excellence, the sample is too small to draw any concrete conclusions. Time will tell whether these superbabies are secretly plotting to enslave humanity for their own diabolical ends.
The breeding behaviors of humans remains of utmost interest to geneticists today. In Israel, the Dor Yeshorim organization was founded to provide genetic screenings for couples considering marriage. If it is discovered that both the man and woman carry the recessive gene for Tay-Sachs disease— a genetic defect which causes a slow, painful death within a child’s first five years— the couple are advised against marrying. The same process screens for several other hereditary diseases which are common among Jews, and owing to this eugenic guidance, the number of affected individuals has been reduced considerably. A similar screening system has been successful in nearly eradicating the disease thalassemia on the island of Cyprus. Such applications align with the original vision of eugenics before it became distorted by misguided minds: voluntary, altruistic, and based upon scientifically measurable criteria. Unfortunately the imperfections in screening methods have occasionally led to bizarre “wrongful life” lawsuits, where disabled individuals seek compensation for their unprevented afflictions.
It is only a matter of time until advances in genetic engineering place true “designer babies” within our grasp, and because the offspring of such offspring would receive a complement of tweaked genes, they fall well within the realm of eugenics. It seems that the eugenic philosophy of intelligent evolution is inseparable from humanity’s future— and we have only just begun to open the massive ethical worm-cans. Historian Daniel Kevles from Yale University suggests that eugenics is akin to the conservation of natural resources; both can be practiced horribly so as to abuse individual rights, but both can be practiced wisely for the betterment of society. There is no doubt that the forced sterilizations in the name of eugenics were an indefensible trespass upon the rights of individuals; but considering the value of programs like Dor Yeshorim, and the potential of ideas such as the Repository for Germinal Choice, one must be careful not to throw out the superbaby with the bathwater.