The Origins of Eugenics

Social Darwinism

    Charles Darwin’s research on evolution in animals took the world by storm in the late nineteenth century. His findings about natural selection — the breeding of species to be better suited for their environments through the survival of the fittest — were able to explain why variations of the same type of animal existed in different places. A great disparity in wealth between the upper and lower classes led many wealthy Americans to apply the same model to themselves. They believed themselves to be best suited to exist in their environments, as evidenced by their financial success.The idea of a hierarchy based on environmental fitness also intrigued those who bought into the false racial pseudo-sciences that were prevalent at the time. Their existing beliefs about racial differences, in addition to the use of wealth as a metric of success, led many white Americans to see themselves as the “fittest,” fueling their contempt for people of color and immigrants.


    From the aforementioned beliefs rose the idea of social Darwinism, the theory that one’s ability to succeed in society was a result of biology. The German biologist Ernst Haeckel devised a social Darwinist hierarchy, with Aryans at the top and Jews and Africans at the bottom. In America, social Darwinists opposed aid to the poor and the regulation of working conditions, not wanting to impede what they considered to be the process of natural selection. Some social Darwinists were made nervous by the declining birth rates of white women, which Theodore Roosevelt referred to as “race suicide,” and crusaded for the preservation of the white race, the group they saw as the fittest. Darwin himself said that “If the prudent avoid marriage while the reckless marry, the inferior members will tend to supplant the better members of society,” explaining the fear felt by many social Darwinists: that human social behaviors were overriding the necessary functions of natural selection.

The Creation of Eugenics

    In 1865, Gregor Mendel published a paper explaining the process of gene inheritance in pea plants, detailing the most basic concepts of genetics. However, his findings were not popularized within scientific communities until 1900. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and avid social Darwinist, had spent years theorizing means of bettering the white race, through a pseudo-science he dubbed “eugenics.” Using Mendel’s discoveries, Galton’s followers took a more scientific approach to breeding virtuous traits into society and breeding out negative traits, all of which they believed to be controlled by single genes. Eugenicists believed they could breed humans to be intelligent, healthy, and strong, and eliminate criminality and other social ills. Charles Davenport, a eugenicist, started the Eugenic Records Office and published a textbook on eugenics for use in high school biology classesFor the first two decades of the twentieth century, America led the world in eugenics research.

Questions to Consider

  • What are the moral implications of trying to breed a better human race?

  • In what ways might your thoughts or actions be formed by eugenic ideals?

  • Although eugenics was considered a science, many of its fundamental theories have been disproven over and over again. Why do you think these ideas still had traction?

Gregor Mendel

Gregor Mendel, who was born a peasant, studied at the University of Vienna under the field of cytology (the study of the formation and structure of cells). He conducted the majority of his research during the 1850s and 60s, the same time as Darwin did. However, much of Mendel's work differed from Darwin’s in the respect that his was much more specific and focused on how species change as a result of crossbreeding in addition to species’ evolution. It was the idea of crossbreeding and the inheritance of characteristics that provoked a rediscovery of his work in the early 1900s.