1

Eugenics, which I'll define here as the selective breeding, sterilization, and biological engineering of humans with political or utopian aims, was a major historical force between the late Victorian era and the end of WWII.

My question pertains to the early modern period. The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment were a high point for scientific optimism, ambitious political philosophy, the expansion of state power, utopian writing, and a belief in the perfectibility of humankind. It also saw major developments in the social sciences and medicine, and much theorizing about the causal processes involved in heredity and biological life.

Were there any early modern precursors to eugenics, in Europe, as defined above?

I'm interested from the vantage of intellectual history, in terms of social engineering, class, and disability as opposed to a focus on the development of ideas about race.

3
  • 3
    Jonathan Swift had A Modest Proposal concerning this Commented Mar 18, 2020 at 10:34
  • 1
    Please document your preliminary research Where have you already looked? What is absent from the Wikipedia article?
    – MCW
    Commented Jul 3, 2022 at 2:26
  • @LarsBosteen - as you said in another comment: the question is about "early modern"
    – cipricus
    Commented Jul 3, 2022 at 9:26

2 Answers 2

1

This is a troubling topic, but definitely one that has been around for a while. In the History Channel article linked below, they make this statement:

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato may have been the first person to promote the idea, although the term “eugenics” didn’t come on the scene until British scholar Sir Francis Galton coined it in 1883 in his book, Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. 3

It appears there was conceptual references to Eugenics ideas, but nothing substantial until the late 19th century. However, in the 20th century, as I show below, there is evidence of people practicing Eugenics as referenced in a NY paper in 1915.

Like such other turn-of-the-century catchwords as progressivism and efficiency, the term eugenics encompassed a large and shifting constellation of meanings. The term was first popularized by Charles Darwin's cousin Sir Francis Galton, who defined it as the science of improving heredity. American eugenicists sponsored a diverse range of activities, including statistically sophisticated analyses of disease inheritance, "better baby contests" modeled on rural livestock shows, forced sterilization of criminals and the retarded, selective ethnic restrictions on immigration, and even euthanasia for those deemed unfit to live. 1

Societies were developed, and laws passed to promote Eugenics in the US.

Eugenics made its first official appearance in American history through marriage laws. In 1896, Connecticut made it illegal for people with epilepsy or who were “feeble-minded” to marry. In 1903, the American Breeder’s Association was created to study eugenics. John Harvey Kellogg, of Kellogg cereal fame, organized the Race Betterment Foundation in 1911 and established a “pedigree registry.” The foundation hosted national conferences on eugenics in 1914, 1915 and 1928. 3

Here is a reference of physicians practicing eugenics with babies that were not deemed perfect.

Even those eugenicists who advocated death for the unfit sometimes won support from prominent public health officials. From 1915 to 1918, Chicago surgeon Harry Haiselden publicly permitted or hastened the deaths of at least six infants he diagnosed as eugenically defective. In the ensuing national debate, he won varying degrees of support from many public health figures, including visiting nurse pioneer Lillian Wald, Food and Drug Administration founder Harvey Wiley, antitoxin pioneer William H. Park, and public hygiene promoter Simon Baruch. Some supporters drew a parallel between eugenics euthanasia and the practice of killing infectious animals to protect public health. 1,2

Forced sterilization started in California -- to protect society from the mentally ill.

Eugenics in America took a dark turn in the early 20th century, led by California. From 1909 to 1979, around 20,000 sterilizations occurred in California state mental institutions under the guise of protecting society from the offspring of people with mental illness. 3

Finally, the absence of evidence is not iron clad proof of the absence of something. The last reference below is a great review of the history of public health and has no mention of sterilization or eugenics in the early modern period.

References

  1. Medical Journal Article
  2. The forgotten story of eugenic euthanasia in America is documented in Martin S. Pemick, The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of "Defective" Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures since 1915 (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1996). See also Francis Galton, "Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims," in Essays in Eugenics (New York, N.Y.: Garland Press, 1985 [orig. 1909]), 35.
  3. History Channel Article
  4. Great Article on the History of Public Health which goes back to Prehistoric Societies.
1
  • @LarsBosteen - thank you for pointing that out. I missed that detail. I'll edit to address that which is essentially -- not in any real substantial way.
    – david
    Commented Jul 3, 2022 at 13:55
1

While I am not aware of eugenics measures instituted by governments during the early modern period, ideas that seem to be more or less of a eugenic nature appeared in the writings of several writers of utopian fiction, in particular, Thomas More, Tommaso Campanella, and Frances Bacon. The writers were concerned with physical deformities and contagious diseases.

Thomas More, Utopia, 1516, compares selecting a spouse to buying a horse, in which the buyer tries to ensure the animal is free of (possibly hidden) physical defects. Quoting from book II of the Open Utopia edition:

In choosing their wives they use a method that would appear to us very absurd and ridiculous, but it is constantly observed among them, and is accounted perfectly consistent with wisdom. And if it seems not modest, nevertheless it is most cautious. Before marriage some grave matron presents the bride, naked, whether she is a virgin or a widow, to the bridegroom, and after that some grave man presents the bridegroom, naked, to the bride. We, indeed, both laughed at this, and condemned it as very indecent. But they, on the other hand, wondered at the folly of the men of all other nations, who, if they are but to buy a horse of a small value, are so cautious that they will see every part of him, and take off both his saddle and all his other tackle, that there may be no secret ulcer hid under any of them, and that yet in the choice of a wife, on which depends the happiness or unhappiness of the rest of his life, a man should venture upon trust, and only see about a handsbreadth of the face, all the rest of the body being covered, under which may lie hid what may be contagious as well as loathsome. All men are not so wise as to choose a woman only for her good qualities, and even wise men consider the body as that which adds not a little to the mind, and it is certain there may be some such deformity covered with clothes as may totally alienate a man from his wife, when it is too late to part with her; if such a thing is discovered after marriage a man has no remedy but patience; they, therefore, think it is reasonable that there should be good provision made against such mischievous frauds.

Tommaso Campanella, The City of the Sun, 1602, describes a society in which the state imposes rules to manage the selection of sexual partners for the benefit of society as a whole, and in which physical deformity is therefore unknown. From the Project Gutenberg edition:

Moreover, the race is managed for the good of the commonwealth, and not of private individuals, and the magistrates must be obeyed. They deny what we hold--viz., that it is natural to man to recognize his offspring and to educate them, and to use his wife and house and children as his own. For they say that children are bred for the preservation of the species and not for individual pleasure, as St. Thomas also asserts. Therefore the breeding of children has reference to the commonwealth, and not to individuals, except in so far as they are constituents of the commonwealth. And since individuals for the most part bring forth children wrongly and educate them wrongly, they consider that they remove destruction from the State, and therefore for this reason, with most sacred fear, they commit the education of the children, who, as it were, are the element of the republic, to the care of magistrates; for the safety of the community is not that of a few. And thus they distribute male and female breeders of the best natures according to philosophical rules. Plato thinks that this distribution ought to be made by lot, lest some men seeing that they are kept away from the beautiful women, should rise up with anger and hatred against the magistrates; and he thinks further that those who do not deserve cohabitation with the more beautiful women, should be deceived while the lots are being led out of the city by the magistrates, so that at all times the women who are suitable should fall to their lot, not those whom they desire. This shrewdness, however, is not necessary among the inhabitants of the City of the Sun. For with them deformity is unknown. [...] Furthermore, if at any time a man is taken captive with ardent love for a certain woman, the two are allowed to converse and joke together and to give one another garlands of flowers or leaves, and to make verses. But if the race is endangered, by no means is further union between them permitted.

Frances Bacon, New Atlantis, 1626, briefly makes reference to the passage from More's Utopia quoted above. From the Project Gutenberg edition:

I have read in a book of one of your men, of a Feigned Commonwealth, where the married couple are permitted, before they contract, to see one another naked. This they dislike; for they think it a scorn to give a refusal after so familiar knowledge: but because of many hidden defects in men and women's bodies, they have a more civil way; for they have near every town a couple of pools, (which they call Adam and Eve's pools,) where it is permitted to one of the friends of the men, and another of the friends of the woman, to see them severally bathe naked.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.