Eugenics and Nature vs. Nurture

File:EnthanasiePropaganda.jpg“60000 RM, this is what this person suffering from hereditary defects costs the Community of Germans during his lifetime. Fellow Citizen, that is your money too.”

File:Wir stehen nicht allein.jpg“We do not stand alone”


–noun (used with a singular verb )

the study of or belief in the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a human population, esp. by such means as discouraging reproduction by persons having genetic defects or presumed to have inheritable undesirable traits (negative eugenics) or encouraging reproduction by persons presumed to have inheritable desirable traits (positive eugenics).


In its early days eugenics was mainly passed off as an attempt to “improve” humanity. Later it was widely used as thinly, if at all, veiled racism. As can be easily seen with Nazi Germany, “improve” can be subjective, and lead to horrific results. It should be noted that Nazi war criminals cited the United State’s early attempts at eugenics (sterilizing criminals and sterilizing patients at mental institutions) as inspiration for racial cleansing. After the war some of the Nazis also failed to see the connection of forced sterilizations and genocide, which is incredibly obtuse. We do have to remember how much propaganda existed in Germany at the time. The posters I’ve included are a great example. A common person might see these and perhaps think “Look how much money they cost us” and “It must be ok if other countries are attempting it”.

Many of the early proponents of eugenics thought that pauperism was genetic. Clearly they were born with money. I wonder how much they would approve of negative eugenics had they been born in poverty. Improving the state of humanity is something that is fundamental and inherent in science, but doing it in a way that removes our own humanity is destructive. In America people that were criminals, mentally retarded, epileptic, or anything else seen as “undesirable” were being sterilized in the early twentieth century. Back then “undesirable” really included anyone not of western European decent and anyone impoverished (including whites). The prejudices overwhelmed the science.

I think that this directly ties in to the nature versus nurture debate. Undoubtedly IQ is a heritable attribute. Yet, intelligence can be fostered, nurtured, and encouraged among our children of any race. It is the idea of a self-fulfilling prophesy in psychology. A child that grows up being told he or she is intelligent, is encouraged to think critically, and has intelligent parents is more likely to achieve. Many of the supporters of eugenics were simply ignorant and bigoted. They would point to a poor black child and say he was evidence of inferiority, when in fact that child could have had a much sharper mind than them, and was simply a victim of learned helplessness and a current that was much too strong to swim against. We all have potential for greatness.

While I can see how the idea of positive genetics could be attractive on some level, I think that its establishment will undoubtedly bring with it negative genetics. The repercussions of negative genetics in its most drastic form can be seen in the Holocaust. I don’t think that eugenics should be re-visited in any form because of this danger. Only when we learn from our past mistakes will we really “improve” our state of being.

-Carl S. Wilkins

~ by cswilkins on February 14, 2010.

One Response to “Eugenics and Nature vs. Nurture”

  1. To me, the whole connotation of eugenics implies coercion. Preventing people their basic freedoms. A more positive spin is genetic counseling, mentoring parents of certain risks for disease, and allowing them the freedom to choose.

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