Time for a new revisionist history of eugenics?

Carsten Timmermann's picture

Some of you may have seen the blog post by Antonio Marco, molecular biologist and lecturer at the University of Essex, on Hermann Muller’s eugenics program [thanks to my colleague Matthew Cobb for sending me the link]. Because Muller had long been a scientific hero of his, Marco writes, and because he feared that Muller's interest in eugenics might trouble him, he had been reluctant to read Muller's book Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future (1935). He finally did pick up the book, and was surprised. It struck him that most of Muller's proposals had become reality:

  • Dissemination of knowledge about birth control, legalisation and regulation of abortion
  • Provision of pain relief during childbirth
  • More effective ways of addressing the diseases of early childhood
  • Public provision of childcare
  • Encouragement for 'women of the highest type of intelligence' to become mothers

Marco's surprise about his findings reminded me of the challenge that eugenics poses for those of us teaching the history of biology. Yes, the Nazis celebrated eugenics. No, not all eugenicists were Nazis. In fact, a lot of them were not. Eugenicists could be found throughout the political spectrum, from left to right. Moreover, eugenics did not disappear with the defeat of Hitler's Germany in 1945 – the British Eugenics Society, for example, published the Eugenics Review until 1968 and only in 1989 changed its name to the Galton Institute. Its members were not just a bunch of lunatics; their contributions to biology and medicine are often celebrated today. Eugenics did not just, as Jonathan Freedland put it in the Guardian newspaper, lead 'to the gates of Auschwitz', it also provided the foundations for modern medical statistics and thus, for example, the toolkit for epidemiology and clinical trials.

Do we need an accessible yet nuanced, revisionist history of eugenics, which does not stop with the Nazis, and which we can give our first-year students to read?

Or does such a book exist? Here is the H-Net Review of Diane Paul's Controlling Human Heredity (1995) by Richard Weikert. Any other suggestions? Comments?

I don't know that such a book exists, and I'll be interested to hear if anyone has suggestions. I also think that there is potential to address this lack in other formats (blog posts, for example). I've taken some tentative steps in this direction (on a co-authored blog called Nursing Clio) and Nathaniel Comfort deals with similar topics on his blog. I also like Alexandra Stern's discussion of eugenics and genetics in her new book, Telling Genes, but I'm not sure that it would be as useful in an introductory format, and it isn't specific to eugenics history.

I do believe we need a more accessible and nuanced history of eugenics that does not stop with Nazis and white supremacists. Obviously, it needs to include these aspects of eugenics, but, as you say, it traversed the political spectrum and manifest in a variety of ways (including the so-called "negative" and "positive" forms). 

I think one problem with addressing post-war eugenics is the assumption that all medical reproductive interventions or other forms of population control are inherently eugenical, in the sense that they are related to a fascistic doctrine of reproductive control. Like your post makes clear, the popular image of eugenics is that of Nazi exterminations, or at the least their Lebensborn breeding programme -- or even 'positive' and 'negative' eugenics from Galton and Pearson-era eugenics. Later eugenicists, such as Fisher, Huxley, Haldane or Muller were aware that, for example, selective sterilisation was ineffective to alter population averages. As such, the post-war British eugenicists largely disdained Nazi eugenics for its faulty and confused scientific premises.

'Eugenics' is therefore associated with an idea of population change that was discredited quite early, but the concept itself was intended to develop along with biological and reproductive knowledge. As Galton put it, it was intended to be to evolution as engineering is to physics. Most histories emphasise that it had support from across the political spectrum, and it seems to have been rather chameleon-like in its ability to gain support from socialists and conservatives alike.

Most of Muller's suggestions are now common -- and some of them were policies that were introduced and/or supported by eugenics societies. But I think saying that this implies that eugenics is a reality is unhelpful, due to the instability of the concept and the multitude of subjective connotations that arise from its use. Like Marco's post indicates, the common associations for the term eugenics remains tied to early scientific eugenics and fascist ideology, even if the scientists that promoted them moved on from the '20s on.

That said, sterilisations under the banner of eugenics was practiced in many places post-WWII, up until at least the '70s (though I'm not sure if the eugenics label was used for those programmes).

Given the conceptual instability of eugenics, I've variously seen 'new eugenics' and 'newgenics' proposed as an alternative name for post-WWII reproductive control, though I don't think there has been any general and accessible historical treatment of it.

I agree that it depends on what one means by eugenics. Anyone familiar with the history and historiography of eugenics knows that there are a) lots of histories on positive and negative eugenics, b) national histories of eugenics, c) attempts at separating positive eugenics and examining it in terms of planned parenthood, birth control, pre-natal care, etc. Everyone in this set of comments seems most interested in at the very least c in my list. Robert Proctor did a very good job of looking at Nazi positive eugenics in his Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis (Harvard, 1990) in which he looked at everything from multi-grain breads to other pre-natal care programs, many of which, like their American versions, have become staples of pre-natal care, as well as the worst of the programs. Daniel Kevles’s history is a key starting point for all this as well (In the Name of Eugenics, which he takes up to the 1970s, both positive and negative). Wendy Kline starts out with a lot of the negative eugenics in America, especially California, but continues work into the 1960s with planned parenting (Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, U of Calif, 2005). I think it would be a mistake to overlook sex-change procedures as a key site in this, as Joanne Meyerwovitz examined in How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States (Harvard, 2004), a work which deals with challenges to all the accepted norms, but still depended on the medical establishment to make “identity” realities into “physical” realities and in which questions of genetics and norms were key. Perhaps of most relevance to these discussions might be one of the many spate of books that examines the possibilities of genetic engineering like Nicholas Agar’s Liberal Eugenics: In Defense of Human Enhancement (U of Calif., 2005).

If you are looking at only issues like birth control, pre-natal testing, etc. then perhaps these books are not in line with the discussion, but they do raise the optimal possibilities for enhancing the human species (especially Agar’s) along with the whole gamut of books on the potentials for genetic engineering. Agar, at least, considers the issue from a broader socio-political set of ramifications and tries to rationalize why such modifications, made available to a wider public, would be desirable, and at government expense. Recent research in epigenetics and proteomics may keep us from realizing any of our earlier dreams any time soon, but the basics of the operations become clearer every day. I don’t think any discussion of eugenics can any longer take place without a further discussion of human-machine interface – call it cybernetics or whatever you like. The two, if only because of enhanced machine “intelligence” are going to come together.

As a historian of science, and a historian of modernity, I am always drawn to the question of human liberation. Positive eugenics has never enjoyed a more potential future, but I agree with Dianne Paul and other skeptics, that it will be used for greater conformity to the existing order than to really be a key to re-invent the existing order. We tamper with the potential for real revolution under the shadow of fears of attempted revolutions carried out with blunt instruments of torture, internment, labor camps, etc. But the Enlightenment vision of liberation was not going to be carried out in a laboratory either. As early as the 18th century Pierre Louis Moreau de Maupertuis advocated that even human experiments could be carried out in the name of science – a shadow of the dangers of the dialectic of Enlightenment a la Horkheimer and Adorno. J. D. Bernal’s 1929 “The World, the Flesh, and the Devil,” is still one of the best starting points (1929, available at http://www.marxists.org/archive/bernal/works/1920s/soul/) I am also not a complete skeptic. Many of Agar’s arguments for liberal eugenics are intriguing. More than ever before, the discussion should be about, what is it we want for humans – not an abstract humanity, rather real humans, now, or in the immediate future – and for what do we want it? Too often arguments in favor of eugenics were about some abstract, distant future, and that may have to play something of a role, but I would hope we have become enlightened enough to realize that the sacrifice of thousands is terrible enough to stay our hand. For Bernal it was humans willing to merge with robotic machines to explore the universe. What is the vision that we have to make the change at all useful if necessary? Imagining the potential for humanity may not seem like a laudable enough goal, but I agree that we cannot say, by Thursday of 2040, we should be able to do x. We already have an abundance of goods and services that could enable all humans to at least grasp some kind of potential without any lab work to enhance them. If we want to enhance humanity then it should begin here, on earth, and only proceed when we have befitted humanity in the original sense of the Enlightenment – all of us and soon.

Brad Hume


as a matter of fact, there was a conference in Basel (CH) almost exactly eight years ago in which I gave a paper on JBS Haldane. The conference was titled "What's National Socialist about Eugenics?", and its agenda was to look at the debate over Eugenics aside from Nazi science (or what the Nazis took for science). There's been a book published out of that conference (http://www.boehlau-verlag.com/978-3-205-78203-2.html, page is in German). Some of the chapters are in English, some in German (mine is in English).

I think there's a lot to be said about a "revisionist" history of eugenics. However, as I pointed out in that paper mentioned above, Haldane et al. would dismiss sterilization measures as too crude, while their own belief in "positive" eugenics was naive at best (and would have perhaps ended in sterilization, too, for what else can you do to make sure that only the "good" genes are passed on?). Some of the discussion at the famous CIBA conference in 1962, for example, still would make your hair raise. Crick (the co-discoverer of the DNA double-helix), for instance, would still insist on "marriage licenses", i.e. couples would have to undergo genetic screening before they are allowed to marry (and have children). Apparently, he'd never heard of babies born out of wedlock.



I am rather surprised that nobody has yet mentioned Bashford and Levine's Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics (2010), which is a magisterial overview of the entire field in international perspective , synthesising the current state of the art. It demonstrates the rather different contextual meanings and alliances that eugenics acquired, and concludes with an overview of 'Where did eugenics go?'

This volume is probably the starting place for any consideration of whether we do, in fact, need 'a new revisionist history of eugenics' or whether one has already been happening.

(I should perhaps declare an interest as the co-author of one of the chapters.)

Simon Jenkins mentioned the Oxford handbook in a brief response at our fellow network, H-Eugenics, a day or two ago.  You can follow the discussion on both networks on this page.

Peter Knupfer, H-Eugenics Interim Editor

Bradley W. Hart's dissertation British, German, and American Eugenicists in Transnational Context, c. 1900-1939  (which he is revising into a book) makes very clear the fact that eugenics during this time period included far more than only Nazi ideology/policy.  I recommend it.  If you want more details about Hart's dissertation, my recent review of it is at http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/7242.

Alison Bateman-House
Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health
Mailman School of Public Health
Columbia University

Looks like I'm ressurecting an older thread here, but I wanted to add a couple thoughts in case folks were still looking for something. 

First, I do agree we need desperately new revisionist histories of eugenics which remains nuanced without sacrificing accessiblity. They should emphasize just what Carsten iterated: that eugenicists came from across the political spectrum, and also that eugenics in the United States came from impulses different than those in Germany, resulting in a movement that only superficially resembled the Nazi programs. And that the movement lasted longer than is popularly taught.

The best, and perhaps not surprisingly most recent, one I've read that fits this bill is Nathaniel Comfort's The Science of Human Perfection. He ressurects medical genetics from eugenics, and traces the therapeutic impulse of eugenics from the early days of the movement to the hijacking of eugenics (and subsequent abandonment by geneticists) by less nuanced elements in the late 1920s and 1930s, and the return of genetics to eugenics in the 1940s and 1950s. Really excellent book. 

If it's not completely crass to mention it, too, my dissertation (to be completed September 2014) will attempt a revisionist history of eugenics that similarly acknowledges these subtle interactional matrices. Looking specifically at eugenics on the southern plains of the United States, I'm attempting to show how the eugenics "movement" should probably, in fact, be described in far looser terms than is currently done, precisely because it came to encompass such a diversity of characters, ideas, motivations, and consequences. Supporting this, one of the main aims of this manuscript will be to show that from 1910-1940 eugenics drew various academics and commentators from their various disciplines and discourse communities into the movement, where they played a role in debate and the instantiation of law. After 1940, when the movement supposedly "died," many of these same actors remained interested in eugenics as they returned to their original places. So, interestingly, you get academics, journalists, lawyers, and legislators who carry back with them the eugenic impulse, their language and ideas (sometimes changed and sometimes not) as they return to sociology, psychology, public commentary, etc., long after the Nazis fell from power. 

Anyway, that's what it's going to try to do. In the meantime, Comfort's is still the best option, and definitely readable by an undergraduate audience (he's a bonafide storyteller). 


Ry Marcattilio-McCracken

Okahahoma State University