Journal of the History of Biology

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 337–362 | Cite as

American geneticists and the eugenics movement: 1905–1935

  • Kenneth M. Ludmerer


I have attempted to show that between 1905 and 1935, both internal and external factors were important in producing and influencing geneticists' attitudes toward the eugenics movement. Internal factors operated in several ways during this period. In the first decade of the century, discoveries within genetics supplied geneticists a mode of expression to evoke their already existing social concern by providing a new vocabulary with which to present eugenic proposals. In addition, because these findings were relatively easy to explain to the layman, it became an easy matter for geneticists to popularize eugenics. After 1915, by suggesting the complexity of inheritance, other developments within genetics helped dim their initial enthusiasm for the movement. During this period, factors external to the science of genetics also were important. By producing a general interest in social affairs among many geneticists, the intellectual and social milieu of the late 1800's lay the foundations for their early participation in the eugenics movement. In the 1920's and 1930's the subjection of genetic theory to support preconceived social and political doctrines prompted them to renounce the movement publicly.

While both internal and external factors operated on geneticists, the lesson of this study is that external factors were more important in influencing their attitudes toward the movement than internal factors. At the turn of the century, geneticists inherited from Social Darwinism a general interest in applying biological principles to the analysis of social problems; discoveries within genetics mainly provided a convenient and persuasive terminology with which to express their interest. Later, both internal and external factors caused their enthusiasm for the movement to wane, but their public renunciation of it was caused primarily by external factors alone.

The importance of external factors is seen to be even greater by considering the model I suggested to explain the development of social responsibility in modern form among scientists. According to this model, social responsibility results after a crisis in the social uses of a given science—as a response to external factors. This model appears to account satisfactorily for the emergence of geneticists' sense of social responsibility: alarmed by eugenicists' frequent endorsement of Nazi “eugenic” programs, many geneticists claimed it was their duty to explain the facts of their science to the public so that the layman could see for himself the scientific errors of racism. Geneticists were now presenting the layman the facts, though not necessarily interpreting the facts for him. This same pattern—the emergence of modern social responsibility after an externally induced crisis-appears to be present in the other examples that I gave.

The ironies revealed by this study are many. First, it is ironic that principles of genetics created feelings of both pessimism and optimism among many geneticists. Early developments in genetics-Mendel's laws, the concept of unit inheritance, and Weismann's theory-supplemented Social Darwinism in creating an atmosphere of pessimism among many geneticists by posing the grim assumption that human defects are hereditarily determined and incapable of medical cure. In recognizing the importance of heredity in development, many geneticists for a while were overly pessimistic in their forecasts of the evolutionary future of the human race. These same three genetic developments, however, by suggesting the feasibility of a eugenics program, of controlling reproduction to eliminate defective genes from the population, provided a remedy to the “problem” they had helped create.

It is also ironic that even though the classical eugenics movement has been discredited in America for over thirty years, many individuals today are speaking of certain “dangers” to society in terms remarkably similar to those used by the classical eugenicists. The explosion of the atomic bomb created a sudden awareness among the public of the dangers of gene mutation from radiation and other sources41. Today, as topics such as the “genetic load” are increasingly discussed, many individuals are experiencing a growing alarm over the future genetic condition of the American people, a marked concern over the rising genetic and financial costs to society of modern medicine for preserving “defectives” and allowing them to reproduce.

Although geneticists in the 1930's generally abandoned the ideal of using science to prescribe policy, to construct ends for social action, it was this ideal which initially attracted many of them to the eugenics movement in the first place. In the early years of the century, geneticists viewed science in a new light: as a restraint upon conduct. Hitherto, science had been valued for its products, for releasing man from old burdens, for supplying him new opportunities to enjoy and to explore life. In supporting the eugenics movement, geneticists departed from this mode. They now appealed to science, not for a particular product, but to determine who should and who should not reproduce. They let science act as a constraint upon their actions; they let science tell them that individual desires are less important than the biological and moral imperative of improving the human race42. Thus, it becomes understandable why many geneticists for a time regarded eugenics as a religion, for they had permitted biology to assume religion's traditional function of defining permissible conduct. The history of geneticists' involvement with the eugenics movement reminds us that science can play many roles and be put to many purposes.


Social Responsibility External Factor Internal Factor Atomic Bomb Genetic Theory 
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Copyright information

© President and Fellows of Harvard College 1969

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kenneth M. Ludmerer
    • 1
  1. 1.Reed HallJohns Hopkins UniversityBaltimoreUSA

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