, Volume 99, Issue 2–3, pp 77–88 | Cite as

The social and economic origins of genetic determinism: a case history of the American Eugenics Movement, 1900–1940 and its lessons for today

  • Garland E. Allen


Eugenics, the attempt to improve the genetic quality of the human species by ‘better breeding’, developed as a worldwide movement between 1900 and 1940. It was particularly prominent in the United States, Britain and Germany, and in those countries was based on the then-new science of Mendelian genetics. Eugenicists developed research programs to determine the degree to which traits such as Huntington's chorea, blindness, deafness, mental retardation (feeblemindedness), intelligence, alcoholism, szhiophrenia, manic depression, rebelliousness, nomadism, prostitution and feeble-inhibition were genetically determined. Eugenicists were also active in the political arena, lobbying in the United States for immigration restriction and compulsory sterilization laws for those deemed genetically unfit; in Britain they lobbied for incarceration of genetically unfit and in Germany for sterilization and eventually euthanasia. In all these countries one of the major arguments was that of efficiency: that it was inefficient to allow genetic defects to be multiplied and then have to try and deal with the consequences of state care for the offspring. National Socialists called genetically defective individuals ‘useless eaters’ and argued for sterilization or euthanasia on economic grounds. Similar arguments appeared in the United States and Britain as well. At the present time (1997) much research and publicity is being given to claims about a genetic basis for all the same behaviors (alcoholism, manic depression, etc), again in an economic context — care for people with such diseases is costing too much. There is an important lesson to learn from the past: genetic arguments are put forward to mask the true — social and economic — causes of human behavioral defects.

Key words

eugenics genetic determinism immigration restriction Nazi science sterilization laws 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1997

Authors and Affiliations

  • Garland E. Allen
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of BiologyWashington UniversitySt. LouisUSA

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