Eugenics, the study of hereditary traits with the aim of producing an ideal human, and “on a societal level, programs that control human reproduction with the intent of changing the genetic structureof the population”, (Lewis, 299) are not a new concept. The history of eugenics reaches as far back as 400 B.C., and extends to dates as recent as 1994. From Athens to Sparta, United States to Germany and China, the quest to improve the human race has spanned the world. ‘Improve’, however, is a highly subjective term.
Who decides what an ideal human looks like? And what are the appropriate ways to build a race of such people? The answers to these questions have changed throughout the centuries. People considered ‘ideal’ by the eugenics program in one culture would be scheduled to be euthanized as ‘undesirable’ in another culture a few centuries later. Upon reviewing the history of eugenics, it becomes apparent that the section of a society in power at a particular time in history, usually seeks to eliminate those least like themselves, in order to impose not only their values, but their very phenotype on society at large.
The first written accounts of eugenics reach back to 386 B.C. In his work “The Republic”, a description and plan for an Utopia, or ‘ideal society’, the Athenian philosopher Plato is said to have written that procreation should be controlled by the state. Through a state-sponsored selection of mates, “race would be strengthened by improved children”. (“Life of Plato”). Men aged 30-45 would be allowed to reproduce, as well as women aged 20-40. Any child born in violation of these laws would be abandoned outside the walls of the city. Some of Plato’s ideas had already been put into action in Sparta, around 431 BC. In line with the concept of ‘Eunomia’, weak male infants were left to die on slopes of Mt. Taygetus. (“The true story…”) “The Spartans practiced an uncompromising genetics programme. Newborn babies were raised only if healthy and perfect, so as not to be a burden to the state and to ensure genetic up-breeding.” (“Leonidas the Spartan”).
It is worthy of noting that the Spartans were Greeks- with olive skin, dark curling hair, and brown eyes. To them, physical fitness was more important than moral virtues: "Sparta was hardly famous for chaste women," according to Euripides, a then-contemporary writer. (“Leonidas…”) The ideal person was a strong, fit male, and a woman who could reproduce often, bearing healthy children. This ideal was written into law by the Spartan King Leonidas, and adhered to until the eventual fall of the Spartan city-state.
The next worldwide resurgence of eugenics occurred in the Victorian era. In 1863, Britain’s Sir Francis Galton, who was a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term ‘eugenics.’ (Lewis, 300). He theorized that the mating of two talented people would produce better offspring. (“Eugenics Timeline”). His ideas rapidly spread to the United States and Germany. The concept of selective mating to achieve the elimination of undesirable traits became popular. “Stanford President David Starr Jordan originated the notion of "race and blood" in his 1902 racial epistle "Blood of a Nation," in which the university scholar declared that human qualities and conditions such as talent and poverty were passed through the blood.” (Black, Edwin.) Soon after, in 1907, the US state of Indiana passed the world’s first mandatory sterilization law. (Smith, pg.136-137). The aim of the law was to prevent the birth of children which might inherit such undesirable traits as ‘criminality, mental defects and feeble-mindedness’. In 1911, the “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population”, a venture which was supported by Andrew...