Throughout the course of time, science has been somehow responsible nearly every time a major concept in society was changed. The early twentieth century is no exception. This was a period of novelty; new inventions, new luxuries, and new ideas. One of these new ideas was the concept of eugenics, or genetically improving the overall quality of the human race. It started out seeming like a practical way to eradicate certain genetic deficiencies, but became a full blown revolution in the attitude of many towards those with even slight deficiencies.
The impact of the eugenics ovement started small, but within a few years it had spread worldwide and defined many of the political ideas of the time. The concept behind eugenics was not a new concept in the early 1900s, but had never been given a name before. Even early societies put eugenics into practice. For instance, in ancient Sparta, sickly children were killed or abandoned. They filtered out the undesirable traits in children, a practice which has come to be called negative eugenics. In the late nineteenth century, a man named Francis Galton gave eugenic thought great emphasis.
Yet it as not until Gregor Mendels theories on genetics were rediscovered by Charles Davenport in 1901 that the ideas of modern eugenics was given any credibility. Davenport conducted experiments that proved what Mendel had said years before in his laws of genetics. Davenport, however, took it another step. He extended Mendels laws to include characteristics such as pauperism, alcoholism, and the popular term of the day, feeblemindedness. Davenport also connected behavior to race, class, and pedigree.
While all of Davenports ideas were up to date with all current research, such as his conclusion that characteristics such s what he called thalassophilia, or the love of the sea, were sex-linked recessive traits given that they were almost always in males. This conclusion and many others made by Davenport are grossly oversimplified, and often even ludicrous. However in the early twentieth century, people believed it, and they used it to their advantage. To people in the early 1900s, eugenics seemed perfectly logical because they wanted the ideas to be correct.
Eugenics gave a scientific veneer7 to racist arguments, and people used it to support the concept of a master race. Eugenics held that everything was determined by DNA, and that by altering DNA, or otherwise controlling what is passed on in DNA, a perfect race will eventually be attained. The methods of controlling what is passed on in DNA is what is known as positive and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics was simply filtering out only desirable traits. This was done in many ways, the most common of which was in marriages.
In 1905, Indiana passed a law that forbade the marriage of the mentally deficient, persons having a transmissible disease, and habitual drunkards; required a health certificate of all persons released from nstitutions, and declared void all marriages contracted in another state in an effort to avoid the Indiana law. Negative eugenics was much more prevalent in society, as it seemed much more practical to eliminate defects than to try to isolate positive characteristics. The critics of the movement called negative eugenics artificial selection, in contrast to Darwinian natural selection theory.
The selection was practiced in several forms, the most common of which was restricting marriages. The other most common method was through sterilization of those who carried genetic handicaps. Like marriage, there were sterilization laws passed in states, the first one being in 1907, again in Indiana. Within 10 years, 15 more states had passed sterilization laws. These laws gave states the power to compel the sterilization of criminals, rapists, drug addicts, epileptics, the insane, and idiots in state institutions.
Other methods of this artificial selection included induced abortion, but only after an amniocentesis, and physical elimination of the handicapped individual, or euthanasia. This practice of administering euthanasia was mostly used on those who were institutionalized. These laws were only the beginning of the effects of the eugenics movement on the legislature. The eugenics movement inspired many different types of laws to be passed in Congress. These laws include not only the marriage and sterilization laws, but also laws about sexual segregation and immigration restriction.
As to marriage, all eugenicists across America were in agreement. They believed in the righteous idea of wiping out social defect through the marriage restrictions. This was also applied in sterilization laws. As for segregation, the American Eugenics Society published pro-segregation amphlets explaining how it would be beneficial, as opposed to simply sterilization. As for immigration issues, in 1924, eugenicists successfully lobbied for an Immigration Restriction Act that was based on the ratios from the Act passed in the 1890s.
The active role played by the government in the eugenics movement was not only seen in the U.S. , but in Europe as well. Hitlers attempt to create a master race in Germany was inspired and fully justified by the ideas Davenport. The Nazis began their eugenic program with sterilization laws, just as many states in the U. S. had. Another program tilized by the Nazis to attempt to improve German stock was the government policy of loaning money to biologically sound couples, whose fecundity would likely be a credit to the Volk. Then, when these couples gave birth to a healthy baby, the amount of money they owed would be reduced by twenty-five percent.
In the beginning of Nazi power, these eugenic policies were run independently of the anti-Semitic policies. Instead, it was supposed to help create Hitlers ideal society, what he called a living organism of a single nationality. This living organism was called the Volksgemeinschaft or the national ommunity, and it supposedly transcended all social differences. This is a contradiction in itself. A 1936 issue of Survey Graphic stated that the German program was not intended to exterminate non-Aryans, but to improve the German National Stock.
The article went on to say that, [the program] does not include in its scope the sterilization of Semites or other non-Aryan groups. There is no evidence that the law has been violated so as to cause the sterilization of patients exclusively because they were non-Aryans. It was only in later years, as Hitler became more anti-Semitic, that the Third Reich moved into dministering euthanasia to classes of the mentally diseased or disabled in German asylums. Hitler put all Jews into these some of classes, no matter what their mental condition.
In the U. S. , many of the state sterilization laws had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court by the time World War I broke out. As a result of this, in 1924, the Virginia Legislature passed a sterilization statute designed to meet the constitutional objections. The advocates of the legislation needed, however, a test case to see if it would pass through the Supreme Court. The perfect pportunity arose when a girl named Carrie Buck was checked in to the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded.
What made Carrie perfect was that she seemed to fit the category of a moral imbecile, and when Carrie was given an I. Q. test, she was found to have a mental age of nine years, fitting well into Henry Goddards definition of moron. Her mother was given the same test, and found to have a mental age of eight years. In September of 1924, the Colonys directors ordered Carrie sterilized, and legal proceedings were initiated by a court appointed guardian on behalf of Carrie. The case was brought against Albert S.
Priddy, superintendent of the Colony, who, by the end of the litigation, had been replaced by John H. Bell. The case, known as Buck v. Bell, ended with the sterilization order being held up, which meant that the Virginia Legislature had accomplished their goal. These laws epitomized the effect of the eugenics movement on civil liberties. As the eugenics movement spread, the impact became bigger and the threads of social change of the movement entangled themselves deeply in the fabric of society.
In the U. S. here were laws passed that were supposed to purify he population, from restricting marriages to ordering sterilization of certain individuals to restricting immigration. In Europe, what began as a program to purify the population with sterilization laws ended up in a Nazi reign of terror over the Jews. The ideas that caused such wrinkles to appear in the fabric of society seemed simple enough when they were proposed. The idea was that everything, from poverty to intelligence, was determined by a molecule found in every single cell of the body called DNA. This idea sparked a virtual cultural revolution that lasted nearly 50 years.