The History of Eugenics

The human race today stands at a threshold unlike any in the past: it now possesses tools to reshape its own hereditary capacities, perhaps even to realize the dream of eugenicists that human beings might take charge of their own evolution. Over a long time, CRISPR could change the future of humanity, but no one is rushing into it. As President Barack Obama’s science adviser John Holdren has said, human germline editing “is a line that should not be crossed at this time.” The question is, will anyone be able to police that line? We are living in the age of biocapitalism, and it is entirely possible that commercial and consumer interests could find a way around the current commitments and controls of governments.

That is an ironic outcome. As anyone who lived in the twentieth century knows, “eugenics” is a dirty word largely because of its association with abusive governments, particularly the Nazis, but also as a result of race-improvement policies in the United States. Politically, it’s an untouchable third rail. But scientifically, it’s now far more plausible than it ever was. With the advent of a new way to modify humans—by transforming their genes, rather than through breeding and extermination—it’s not overly alarmist to say eugenics, or whatever we call it this time, could come back, only in a new, private form shaped by the dynamics of democratic consumer culture.

What could happen now is likely to be far more bottom-up than the top-down, state-directed racial programs of the past. We could see individuals and families choosing to edit their genes, whether to prevent illness or improve capacity or looks, and finding themselves encouraged to do so by what was absent in the era of eugenics: the biotechnology industry. Politicians are largely unaware of this possibility, but before long they’re going to have to take notice, especially if public demand starts to produce gene-editing services willy-nilly, perhaps at offshore clinics.

Examining why the dream of human biological improvement foundered in the past may help us understand why it may gain support in the future. The dream originated a century and a half ago with the British scientist and explorer Francis Galton, a younger first cousin of Charles Darwin’s. It was Galton who dubbed the idea “eugenics,” a word he took from the Greek root meaning “good in birth” or “noble in heredity.” It was well known that by careful selection, farmers and flower fanciers could obtain permanent breeds of plants and animals strong in particular traits. Galton, who believed that not only physical features but mental and moral capacities were inherited, wondered, “Could not the race of men be similarly improved?”

After the turn of the twentieth century, Galton’s ideas coalesced into a broadly popular movement that enlisted the new science of genetics and attracted the support of such luminaries as Teddy Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. They aimed, as Galton had said, to multiply society’s “desirables” and get rid of its “undesirables.”

A key problem was the difficulty of finding non-coercive means of multiplying the desirables. Galton proposed that the state sponsor competitive examinations in hereditary merit, celebrate the blushing winners in a public ceremony, foster wedded unions among them at Westminster Abbey, and encourage, by postnatal grants, the spawning of numerous eugenically golden offspring. But only the Nazis were willing, in practice, to enlist the state, establishing subsidies to racially meritorious couples in proportion to the number of children they bore. Heinrich Himmler urged members of the SS to father numerous children with racially preferred women, and in 1936 he instituted the Lebensborn—spa-like homes where SS mothers, married and unmarried, might receive the best medical care during their confinements.

Human improvers in the United States and Britain followed the route of voluntarism. Eugenics sympathizers such as Teddy Roosevelt, worried by the declining birth rate among their class, urged its women to bear more children for the good of the race. During the 1920s, taking a leaf from Galton’s book, they sponsored Fitter Family competitions in the “human stock” section of state agricultural fairs. At the 1924 Kansas Free Fair, winning families in the three categories—small, average, and large—were awarded a Governor’s Fitter Family Trophy. It is hard to know what made these families stand out as fit, but an indicator is supplied by the fact that all entrants had to take an IQ test—and the Wasserman test for syphilis.

Yet social-radical eugenicists, of whom there were a number on both sides of the Atlantic, were impatient with measures that sought to achieve human improvement within the constraints of conventional marriage and conception. A towering figure among them was J.B.S. Haldane, a brilliant British geneticist and evolutionary theorist. In 1924, in a slim book titled Daedalus, he laid out a method for producing human biological improvement that went far beyond urging high-class people to have more babies and behave well. The method centered on “ectogenesis”—the conception and nurturing of fetuses in glass vessels using gametes selected from a small number of superior men and women. Haldane predicted that the resulting offspring would be “so undoubtedly superior to the average that the advance in each generation in any single respect, from the increased output of first-class music to the decreased convictions for theft, is very startling.”

Aldous Huxley brilliantly spelled out the dystopian potential of Haldane’s scheme in Brave New World. But Herman J. Muller joined with a collaborator in Britain named Herbert Brewer to agitate for the realization of Haldane’s goal by the use of artificial insemination.

Brewer was a scientifically self-educated letter carrier and Muller an innovative experimental geneticist who would eventually win a Nobel Prize. Both men held, as Brewer put it, that if the salvation of the human species required socialism “to make a better world to live in,” it also required eugenics “to make better men to live in the world.” Both men fastened on artificial insemination to achieve that purpose because, although it was an imperfectly reliable technology, it was being used successfully with animals, was making headway among women, and took advantage of the fact that men produced millions of times more sperm than women produced eggs. It would thus enable a small number of superior men annually to father thousands of comparable children.

In his 1935 book, Out of the Night, Muller declared that “in the course of a paltry century or two…it would be possible for the majority of the population to become of the innate quality of such men as Lenin, Newton, Leonardo, Pasteur, Beethoven, Omar Khayyám, Pushkin, Sun Yat-sen…or even to possess their varied faculties combined.” Would thousands of women willingly make themselves vessels for the sperm of great men? Assuredly yes, both Muller and Brewer predicted. Muller confidently explained: “How many women, in an enlightened community devoid of superstitious taboos and of sex slavery, would be eager and proud to bear and rear a child of Lenin or of Darwin! Is it not obvious that restraint, rather than compulsion, would be called for?”

What proved obvious was the opposite. Muller and Brewer were naïve in assuming that thousands of women would break out of the day’s conventional child-bearing practices and standards.

Ultimately, the dreams of all the eugenicists went awry for a variety of reasons—not least because of increasingly controversial efforts by governments to get rid of the undesirables from the top down. Many U.S. states enacted laws authorizing compulsory sterilization of people considered unworthy and sterilized some 36,000 hapless victims by 1941. The Nazis went much further, subjecting several hundred thousand people to the gonadal knife and eventually herding some 6 million Jews—their ultimate undesirables—into the death camps.

Postwar developments

After World War II, eugenics became a dirty word. Muller, now an anti-eugenicist, revived a version of his and Brewer’s idea in 1959, calling it Germinal Choice. Despite Muller’s disapproval, a wealthy plastic-eyeglass maker established a sperm bank for Germinal Choice in Southern California to make the gametes of Nobel laureates available to women eager to improve the quality of the gene pool. Few women—only 15 by the mid-1980s—availed themselves of the opportunity.

The voluntarist multiplication of desirables, whether socially conventional or radical, was also problematic for technical and moral reasons. The aim of producing more desirables called on people to invest their reproductive resources in the service of a public good—the quality of what they called “the race” or, as we would say, the population or the gene pool. But, by and large, people have children to satisfy themselves, not to fuel some brave new world. Moreover, it was—to say the least—uncertain that the sperm of one of Muller’s heroes would produce offspring of comparable powers. And at the time, Haldane’s ectogenesis was technically unrealizable; no one knew how to produce test-tube babies. The reliance on artificial insemination was a vexed strategy. It was offensive under prevailing moral standards, which counted artificial insemination by a donor who was not the woman’s husband a form of adultery and which stigmatized single women who bore children.

But now, just about all sexual and reproductive practices among consenting adults are acceptable, and although no one knows what genes may contribute to exceptional talent, biologists possess precise and increasing knowledge of which ones figure in numerous diseases and disorders. And CRISPR offers the prospect of biological improvement not for the sake of the gene pool, but for whatever advantages it offers to consumers. Indeed, perhaps the most potent force driving its use will be consumer demand aimed at achieving the health of individuals ill with a genetic disease or improvement of the genetic profile in succeeding generations.

During the first third of the twentieth century, hundreds of men and women wrote to the Eugenics Record Office, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, asking for advice about what kind of children they might produce. In offering advice, eugenic experts had nothing to go on except analyses of family pedigrees for deleterious traits, a strategy fraught with epistemological and prejudicial pitfalls. Still, the demand for advice continued after the post-World War II decline of the eugenics movement, providing a clientele for the increasingly medically oriented service of genetic counseling. The demand was multiplied in the latter half of the century by a series of technical advances that enabled prenatal diagnosis for flaws in a fetus’s genes and that, coupled with Roe v. Wade, permitted prospective parents to abort a troubled fetus.

The ability to have a healthy child—or, for infertile couples, to have a child at all—was further amplified by the advent in the late 1970s of in vitro fertilization (IVF)—that is, the joining of sperm and egg in a petri dish. Here was Haldane’s ectogenesis, only with the insertion of the resulting embryo into a woman’s womb. The method was pioneered by the British scientists Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards, who first conducted pioneering research—it eventually won a Nobel Prize—on conception and early gestation. At the time, they faced moral condemnation from scientists and ethicists for experimenting with an ultimate child without its consent and for bringing about, in the vein of Haldane, a test-tube-baby eugenics.

They effectively rebutted the warnings of their critics with the birth, on July 25, 1978, of Louise Brown, the world’s first test-tube baby, perfectly formed and healthy, a joy to her hitherto infertile mother. But Edwards had predicted that IVF could also be used to check embryos fertilized in a petri dish for genetic or chromosomal flaws with the aim of implanting one free of them. IVF is now used for that purpose as well as for assisting infertile couples. It is not hard to imagine couples taking the next step—exploiting IVF to modify pre-implantation embryos by replacing a disease gene with a healthy one.

What seemed like a moral or technical issue in the past is—in this society—very likely to become a consumer question of who can afford it. Will parents want to use germline modification to enhance a child’s genetic endowment? Will they be willing to insert into their embryonic offspring a set of genes—should any such set ever be identified—associated with extraordinary mental, physical, or artistic capacities? Conceivably, yes, given what they already do, if they can afford it, to advantage their children through environmental encouragements such as good schools or biomedical interventions such as the administration of human growth hormone. They might readily cross the line between germline medical treatment and enhancement if today’s enhancement—say, the ability to do complex computing—turns into an essential capacity, like language, tomorrow.

Whatever purpose they might choose for germline editing, the contemporary right to reproductive freedom would assist their pursuit of it. The offspring would not be test-tube products of Huxley’s fascist, anti-family reproductive technology. They would be babies born of women, not conditioned but nurtured as much or as little as any other child. As early as 1989, at the beginning of the Human Genome Project, the journal Trends in Biotechnology pointedly noted: “’Human improvement’ is a fact of life, not because of the state eugenics committee, but because of consumer demand. How can we expect to deal responsibly with human genetic information in such a culture?”

How indeed, we might further ask amid the increasing commercialization of biomedicine. Biotechnology companies have rapidly embraced CRISPR/Cas9, exploring new ways to treat patients with genetic diseases. If they find methods of safely editing human germlines for medical or enhancement aims, they would likely pressure regulators to permit their use and, as they do with drugs, heavily advertise their availability to consumers.

As Haldane observed in Daedalus, biological innovations initially regarded as repugnant tend eventually to become commonplace. Just as it occurred with artificial insemination, so it may happen in the age of biocapitalism with human germline editing.

Daniel J. Kevles, a former professor of history at Caltech and Yale University, is an interdisciplinary fellow at the New York University School of Law. A longer version of this article was published in Politico.

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Cite this Article

Kevles, Daniel J. “The History of Eugenics.” Issues in Science and Technology 32, no. 3 (Spring 2016).

Vol. XXXII, No. 3, Spring 2016