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eugenics (yo͞ojĕnˈĭks), study of human genetics and of methods to improve the inherited characteristics, physical and mental, of the human race. Efforts to improve the human race through bettering housing facilities and other environmental conditions are known as euthenics.
Sir Francis Galton, who introduced the term eugenics, is usually regarded as the founder of the modern science of eugenics; his emphasis was on the role of factors under social control that could either improve or impair the qualities of future generations. Modern eugenics is directed chiefly toward the discouragement of propagation among the unfit (negative eugenics) and encouragement of propagation among those who are healthy, intelligent, and of high moral character (positive eugenics). Such a program involves many difficulties, especially that of defining which traits are most desirable.
The first half of the 20th cent. saw extreme coercive application of such principles by governments ranging from miscegenation laws and enforced sterilization of the insane and “feebleminded” (in truth, often poor and less educated), frequently by Progressive jurists, in the United States and other nations to the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. Regulated eugenics continues in some parts of the world; China enacted restrictions on marriages involving persons with certain disabilities and diseases in 1994.
In the United States in recent years, interest in eugenics has centered around genetic screening (see genetic testing). It is known, for example, that hemophilia, albinism, and certain structural abnormalities are inheritable. Family gene maps, called pedigrees, can help families with serious diseases avoid having children with the same diseases through genetic counseling, and, increasingly, prospective parents can be tested directly for the presence of genes linked to inheritable diseases and abnormalities. If conception has occurred, tests such as amniocentesis and chorionic villus sampling can be used to detect certain genetic defects in the fetus. Embryo screening can be used in conjunction with in vitro fertilization prior to pregnancy to test embryos for genetic abnormalities; only those found free of defects are implanted and allowed to develop.
See J. H. Bennett, Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics (1983); D. J. Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics (1985); M. B. Adams, ed., The Wellborn Science: Eugenics in Germany, France, Brazil, and Russia (1989); E. A. Carlson, The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (2001); A. Cohen, Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck (2016); T. C. Leonard, Illiberal Reformers: Race, Eugenics and American Economics in the Progressive Era (2016).
eugenicsthe study of human heredity founded by Francis Galton (Hereditary Genius, 1870), which led him and his followers to propose selective policies designed to improve the stock, e.g. fiscal and other policies to discourage child-rearing by those intellectually least well-endowed. Apart from wider ethical considerations, such policies assume a relationship between heredity and intellectual and cultural characteristics which has not been demonstrated.
the study of the genetic health of man and of the ways of improving his genetic characteristics, of possible methods of actively influencing the evolution of mankind for the purpose of further perfecting his nature, of the conditions and laws of inheriting giftedness and talent, and of the possible limitation of transmission of hereditary diseases to future generations.
The main principles of eugenics were formulated by the English biologist F. Galton in the book Hereditary Genius (1869). Despite the fact that progressive scientists set humanitarian goals for eugenics, it has often been used by reactionaries and racists, who, basing their ideas on pseudo-scientific notions of the inferiority of certain races and peoples and on national prejudices and dissensions, have justified racial and national discrimination; these reactionaries and racists have in the end replaced eugenics, as fascism did for its own political ends, with so-called racial hygiene and have legalized genocide. Controversy rages around the term “eugenics.” Along with those who consider the use of this term rightful in the present and in the future, there are scientists who believe that the basic content of eugenics (including its tasks and goals, as well as the most reasonable means of achieving them) will be transferred to such vigorously developing branches of science as human genetics, or anthropogenetics, and medical genetics.
These sciences, which study the inheritance and variability of characters of the human organism, have shown that the diversity of human beings is due both to their hereditary disposition and their conditions of existence (including natural-climatic and socioeconomic conditions). The study of monozygotic twins, in particular of their mental development, and also genealogical observations, testify to the fact that heredity plays a large, but by no means exclusive, role in determining the mental and creative abilities of a human being. If man’s morphological characters are determined predominantly by heredity, his mental characteristics and behavior are very strongly influenced by his environment, and chiefly his social environment—rearing, education, work habits, and the influence of the collective. There are many more persons with outstanding creative potential than there are persons who have succeeded in realizing that potential. It is for this reason that it becomes so important to bring out all positive potentialities deposited in the genotype of the individual by creating conditions that in every possible way foster his development and his formation as a personality. V. I. Lenin wrote: “Capitalism stifled, suppressed, and crushed the mass of gifted persons among the workers and toiling peasants. These gifted persons perished under the yoke of necessity, poverty, and outrage practiced upon human personality. Our duty now is to know how to find these gifted persons and put them to work” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 39, p. 235).
With respect to the possibilities and methods of improving human nature, there are different points of view. Much can be done along these lines by medical genetics, whose tasks include the study of the action of mutagens—chemical ones, radiation, and other factors of the external environment that damage genetic structures in human germ cells—and the prevention (including by sanitation of the environment in which man lives) of harmful mutations that threaten the health of future generations. The manifestation of harmful mutations is especially promoted by marriages between relatives, since in such cases the probability of obtaining from both parents an ordinarily masked (recessive) harmful character is increased. This explains the fact that in isolated human groups (isolates), where, as a rule, marriages between close relatives are more frequent, the percentage of hereditary diseases and deformities is higher. The harmful consequences of marriages between close relatives were noted even in antiquity, which led to their condemnation, prohibition by custom, and subsequently also by law. Prevention of the spread of harmful mutations and their combinations by limiting marriages between carriers of such mutations is accomplished by medical genetic consultations, whose purpose is to evaluate the possibilities of manifestation of a defective heredity in the off-spring of persons entering marriage. Quite precise predictions in this respect can already be made for many hereditary diseases, such as hemophilia and color blindness. Contrary to precautionary (preventive) measures, which prevent deterioration of human heredity, so-called positive measures of acting on human nature (including artificial insemination, creation of “semen banks,” and “heteronomous fertilization”), which predominantly contemplate increasing the number of offspring among persons with outstanding mental or physical qualities, are addressed to the future. Such methods of improving the human species have been repeatedly criticized and have not been recognized or practiced on a large scale. The solution of the problems associated with strengthening the genetic health of mankind, which remains an important contemporary problem, requires further detailed research in human genetics, with ever wider use of the methods and achievements of molecular genetics.
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Lobashov, M. E. Genetika, 2nd ed. Leningrad, 1967.
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Stern, C. Osnovy genetiki cheloveka. Moscow, 1965. (Translated from English.)
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