The Biology Book: From the Origin of Life to Epigenetics, 250 Milestones in the History of Biology (2015)


Charles Darwin (1809–1882), Francis Galton (1822–1911)


Francis Galton, a man of many intellectual talents, made significant contributions to such diverse areas as meteorology (weather maps), statistics (correlation and regression analysis), and criminology (fingerprinting). Upon reading his cousin Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, he became inspired by the notion that if natural selection enables the fittest organisms to survive and pass on their traits, it must also apply to humans—human ability and intelligence must be hereditary.

In 1883, Galton initiated a social movement, which he called eugenics (“good birth”), intended to improve the genetic composition of the human population. Eugenics, called “social Darwinism” by some, enjoyed its greatest popularity during the early decades of the twentieth century. It was practiced throughout the world and actively promoted by governments and some of society’s most influential and respected individuals. While its advocates argued that the results would lead to more intelligent and healthier people by eliminating such hereditary diseases as hemophilia and Huntington’s disease, its opponents viewed eugenics as a justification for state-sponsored discrimination and human rights violations.

Practices arising from the eugenics movement varied among countries. Great Britain sought to decrease the birth rate among the urban poor. In the United States, many states enacted laws prohibiting the marriage of epileptics, the “feebleminded,” and mixed-race individuals. Thirty-two states had eugenics programs that resulted in the sterilization of 60,000 individuals from 1909 to the 1960s.

By far, the most egregious interpretation of eugenics was responsible for the racial policies of Nazi Germany seeking to promote a pure and superior “Nordic race” and eliminate the less fit and undesirable, which led to the annihilation of millions of Jews, Romani (Gypsies), and homosexuals. By the end of World War II, because of its association with Nazi Germany and concerns that what is improved or beneficial is highly subjective and often based on prejudice, the active pursuit of eugenic programs fell into disfavor. More recently, some have argued that medical genetics, with in utero testing for mutations leading to diseases or fetal gene manipulation, is the new eugenics. These are decisions made by the individual, however—not the state.

SEE ALSO: Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection (1859), Mendelian Inheritance (1866), Genetics Rediscovered (1900), Sociobiology (1975).

Ultrasound, commonly performed during the eigteenth to twentieth weeks of pregnancy, can be used to detect birth defects such as spina bifida and Down syndrome.