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A Science Odyssey
People and Discoveries
Fitter Family Eugenics movement reaches its height
1923

Photo: This family was awarded Honorable Mention, Large Family Class, as part of a eugenics exhibit at a Kansas fair in 1923.

The term eugenics comes from the Greek roots for "good" and "generation" or "origin" and was first used to refer to the "science" of heredity and good breeding in about 1883.

Within 20 years, the word was widely used by scientists who had rediscovered the work of Gregor Mendel. Mendel had meticulously recorded the results of cross-breeding pea plants, and found a very regular statistical pattern for features like height and color. This introduced the concept of genes, opening the field of genetics to a tumultuous century of research. One path of genetic research branched off into the shadows of social theory, and in the first quarter of the twentieth century became immensely popular as eugenics. It was presented as a mathematical science that could be used to predict the traits and behaviors of humans, and in a perfect world, to control human breeding so that people with the best genes would reproduce and thus improve the species. It was an optimistic school of thought with a profound faith in the powers of Science.

The trappings of science, anyway. Even in its day, many people saw that eugenics was a dubious discipline, riddled with inconsistencies. But it was championed by a very prominent and respected biologist, Charles Davenport, and its conclusions told many people what they wanted to hear: that certain "racial stock" was superior to others in such traits as intelligence, hard work, cleanliness, and so on. In this view of human behavior, the work of Sigmund Freud was disregarded, while the ideas of behaviorism were just gaining ground.

Local eugenics societies and groups sprang up around the United States after World War I, with names like the Race Betterment Foundation. The war had given many Americans a greater fear of foreigners, and immigration to the United States was still increasing. In 1923, organizers founded the American Eugenics Society, and it quickly grew to 29 chapters around the country. At fairs and exhibitions, eugenicists spread the word and hosted "fitter family" and "better baby" competitions to award blue ribbons to the finest human stock -- not unlike the awards for prize bull and biggest pumpkin. Not only did eugenicists promote better breeding, they wanted to prevent poor breeding or the risk of it. That meant keeping people with undesireable traits in their heritage (including alcoholism, pauperism, or epilepsy) separate from others or, where law allowed, preventing them from reproducing.

These vocal groups advocated laws to attain their aims, and in 1924, the Immigration Act was passed by majorities in the U.S. House and Senate. It set up strict quotas limiting immigrants from countries believed by eugenicists to have "inferior" stock, particularly Southern Europe and Asia. President Coolidge, who signed the bill into law, had stated when he was vice president, "America should be kept American. . . . Biological laws show that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races."

Behaviorism was introduced in 1913, and the genetic work of Thomas Hunt Morgan and others became known through the 'teens. After World War I, few scientists joined the ranks of the eugenicists. As the weight of the scientific community shifted toward behaviorism and true genetics, popular opinion followed. John Watson's articles about childrearing and self-improvement popularized behaviorism still further. The eugenics craze was already fading when the horrors of institutionalized eugenics revealed in Nazi Germany during World War II doused it entirely as a movement.




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