Eugenics was a powerful movement in England, the United States and Nazi Germany from the late nineteenth century until 1945. The basic belief was that bad, ‘degenerate’ genes were the cause of problems in society, and the solution was to cleanse the gene pool. Eugenics receded from the world stage after Germany lost World War II. In its most extreme form, in Germany, it was the rationale for the Holocaust – the killing of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and schizophrenics. We’re talking 6 million murders. In the United States there were massive programs of forced sterilization. Traits that were seen as infecting the gene pool were poverty, feeble-mindedness, alcoholism, rebelliousness, criminality, prostitution, manic-depression, and schizophrenia. 60,000 forced sterilizations took place.
In 1913, twenty-nine states had laws preventing marriage between the races. It wasn’t until 1967 that most of these laws were changed. Hitler quoted the Eugenic Societies of the United States when he concluded that the creation of progeny should be based on what would be injurious to the racial stock. After 5000 sterilizations a month, the Nazis moved on to gas 80,000 schizophrenics, 20,000 manic-depressives, the deaf, the blind, the so-called feeble-minded, people with epilepsy, etc. American eugenic organizations were publicly jealous of their effectiveness. As is the norm, amnesia then set in and eugenics has disappeared from our consciousness. History, unremembered, repeats itself.
All of this took place with minimal understanding of genetics. During the rise of the eugenics movement there was no knowledge of what a gene actually was, nor DNA, RNA and protein genetic functions. There was no double helix, and the genome was a total mystery. In today’s world, armed with amazing genetic knowledge, we have once again returned to the myth of genetic determinism – with potentially dangerous implications….