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Eugenics, Its History and Modern Development

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What is Eugenics

Eugenics is recognised as a science that involves controlled breeding within a population to improve the occurrence of desirable traits and decrease the inheritance of genetic diseases and undesirable traits. The origin of the term eugenics derives from the Greek word ‘eu’ meaning good and the word genēs which means ‘born’.


Eugenics has a rich history with it being a prominent player in science and politics during the late1800’s through to the 1950’s and 60’s. The idea of eugenics was based off of the science of the time (late 1800’s). At this time scientists were grappling with the idea of specific genes and their phenotypes being passed from parents to their offspring. Scientists struggled explain how this occurred but they knew it somehow happened. This basic knowledge then lead to the assumptions that all of a person’s physical and mental traits could be passed on. This assumption is what Henry Goddard based his famous ‘scientific’ experiment on (The Kallikak family).

The Kallikak family was a research experiment into intelligence and whether or not it is hereditary. Goddard decided to study supposedly feebleminded children at the Vineland Training School. Goddard in his experiment performed an early version of an IQ test on the children. The results enabled him to categorise them into either normal or a variety of so-called feeble mindedness categories. After the completion of the study Goddard decided to research why these children were feebleminded. To do this he turned to genetics and began looking at the family tree of one of the children named Emma Wolverton. Upon investigation Emma’s family tree revealed a split that backed up Goddard’s belief. Emma’s great great great grandfather had children with two women. One of these women was believed to be feebleminded and the other normal. In Goddard’s eyes this then proved that feeblemindedness is passed on genetically, as the side of the family that Emma was a part of contained a large number of people who we were feebleminded. The other side didn’t have any. This then lead Goddard to the question how can we decrease the amount of feebleminded people? The answer to this lay with eugenics. Eugenics in America was beginning to gain support, the idea of selectively breeding to decrease the occurrence of undesirable traits seemed the perfect way to remove feeblemindedness from the population. This idea was gaining popularity around the globe and was gradually making its way into politics. This resulted in some laws being passed in certain countries enforcing sterilization of citizens that weren’t considered to be normal. This idea gradually faded out however due to some concerning ethics.

What About Australia

Australians jumped aboard the eugenics train in the early 1900s. The hub for Australia’s eugenics movement would be Victoria and its uprising all began with a man named Richard Berry. Richard Berry was a Professor of Anatomy at Melbourne University from 1903 to 1929. Berry raised awareness of this movement throughout Australia delivering talks to the general population as well as those with higher authority (politicians etc.). Berry proposed laws to people in higher places that eventually lead to a bill almost being passed in parliament that stated that citizens who were considered to have undesirable traits, were to be institutionalised and sterilised. Some of those that fell into the undesirable category include:

  • Individuals with low IQ’s
  • Homosexuals
  • Slum Dwellers
  • Indigenous people
  • Anyone carrying a hereditary disease.

Another interesting eugenics project that occurred in Australia happened in 1928, when William Ernest Jones conducted his national mental deficiency survey (Jones, 2011). This survey returned results that seemed to support the thought that the lower socioeconomic class had higher rates of mental deficiency. However, Jones didn’t take into account that this may have been due to a lack of education opportunities because of a lack of money. He instead pointed to genetics and claimed that mentally weaker people are incapable of producing mentally stronger offspring. This is another ethical issue as the other variables that contribute to a person’s mental capacity such as education availability and the environment they live in were ignored.

Modern Times

These days the science that is incorporated into eugenics is more conserved and well monitored, there are no longer rash decisions and laws passed to sterilise a percentage of people within a population just because they have a lower IQ than what is considered average. The ethics have definitely improved, however there are still ethical issues surrounding eugenics that can be very scary if not dealt with cautiously.

With ever advancing technology a new ethics debate is gathering steam, the concept of genetic engineering is already very real in many ways however it has the capacity to explode and become an ethics minefield. Genetic engineering/manipulation exists already in the food we eat (rapid growth salmon, long-life tomatoes etc.) and the animals we keep as pets (cross breeds) just to name a couple. The recent harnessing of CRISPR which is a component of DNA along with Cas9 (a protein) has opened a door that can never be shut in regards to what is possible with genetic engineering. Cas9 is an incredibly precise protein which can cut out parts of a DNA sequence that aren’t wanted. This can lead to all sorts of positives in regard to curing genetic diseases such as Huntington’s as well as other diseases such as HIV and even cancer. This is one of the many positives about CRISPR. However, it may have negatives.

As CRISPR and Cas9 can alter genes to eradicate disease, it also means they can change other genes as well. This may lead to designer babies, which could alter the gene pool of humans. It can do this as a person’s genes are passed on to their children and over time if genes have been edited it can lead to large changes. This has both a for and against argument for it. By editing a gene to remove an unwanted trait a can of worms is opened that may lead to excessive changes to the human gene pool, however not removing these unwanted genes or traits such as diseases can also be considered to be unethical as the individual still has the risk of obtaining such diseases. Either way preselecting humans before birth can be seriously unethical, so the question still remains how far is too far?


  1. Jones, R. (2011, September 21). Eugenics in Australia: The secret of Melbourne’s elite. Retrieved from The Conversation:
  2. Shiel, W. (2018, 4 12). Definition of Eugenics. Retrieved from MedicineNet:
  3. Williams, G. (2006). A Civic Biology and eugenics. Journal of Creation 20(3), 123-127.

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