What is Eugenics?

If the word “eugenics” is remembered, its first association is with Nazi science. To be Jewish, to be Roma, to be disabled, to be sexually different, to be non-Aryan meant one was to be exterminated. All such identifications meant one’s physical appearance or perceived mental capacity was believed to determine one’s true identity of social and racial fitness.

Many of these ideas preceded the death camps, or even the bio-statistical formula of early 20th century eugenics. The term eugenics has Greek origins, meaning “well born” or “well bred.” The series of Papal decrees known as the “Doctrine of Discovery” justified Christendom’s claims over all “heathen” lands. In early Euro-American history, this fed colonial claims of “manifest destiny” to possess Indigenous lands and enslave “inferior” humans. Fit over unfit.

Eugenics became popular and influential in the United States, Great Britain and globally from the 1880s to the 1930s. The international eugenics movement promoted initiatives for forced sterilization, institutionalization, selective breeding, restricting reproduction for certain groups, restricting immigration, and genocide. It created legitimacy for the idea of biological destiny as the underpinning for racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other social issues rather than on the injustices of structural systems. These ideas, while eventually discredited by the 1945 Nuremberg Trials, percolated through history and culture and have emerged again in the social and political crises of the early 21st century. This thinking still persists today, in the guise of practices such as algorithmic decision-making and selective genetics.

Eugenics in America

Eugenics has roots in longstanding European racialized classification systems, Jim Crow-era segregation policies, and Chinese immigration exclusion. Eugenics emerged at the end of the 19th century — known as the Gilded Age — as the solution for elite patriarchs across the political spectrum to determine and manage all those deemed “normal” and “fit,” and to devise policies to keep all “others” institutionalized and excluded from civic life.

The Eugenics Record Office (funded by the predecessors of some of today’s influential institutions) on the North Shore of Long Island became central to the internationalizing eugenics movement. In keeping with eugenics’ data-driven practices, it collected data on “desirable” and “undesirable” familial traits. Its champions included Madison Grant—conservationist, a founder of the NY Zoological Society, friend to Teddy Roosevelt, and Secretary at the AMNH—who wrote The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a paranoid screed that Hitler later cited as his “bible.”

Image Source: Report of The Second International Congress of Eugenics, Panoramic View of the Second International Congress of Eugenics, 1921, Laughlin Special , HQ 750 A3 I6 1921D, page 1, Pickler Library, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri.

The Second Eugenics Conference

On September 22, 1921, over a hundred statisticians, biologists, racial theorists, and others gathered to take this photograph at the American Museum of Natural History.

This convened the 2nd International Eugenics Congress, effectively inaugurating New York City as ground zero of the globalizing eugenics movement. The Congress’s logo was a sturdy tree, with roots inscribed with disciplines including genetics, biology, medicine, psychology, history, geography, ethnology, law, politics, economics, biography, education, and religion. This illustrates how deeply into social thought these ideas were meant to penetrate.

The Anti-Eugenics Project will investigate these forgotten, haunted, fit and unfit spaces of enshrined knowledge, wealth, and power to reflect on eugenics in America. We’ll explore where it came from, its ongoing impacts on our lives today, and what it means for our future.