Eugenics and the Rise of Population Genetics

Excerpt from my forthcoming book Epigenetics and Public Policy The Tangled Web of Science and Politics to be released February 2018 by Praeger

The history of eugenics in early 20th century science is well-traveled ground, and will thus not be a major focus of this chapter because it would take this chapter too far afield. Still, it must be addressed because of the sheer magnitude of its influence in the science and the politics of this era, its relation to the science of genetics that was to come, and because it provides such a strong example of the guiding model of this book of the inextricable connections between ideology, politics, and biology.

Eugenics as defined by Francis Galton, half-cousin to Charles Darwin and also one of the most respected scientists of his time, was “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.”[1] Eugenic beliefs of some kind were endorsed by most prominent biologists in the U.S. and Britain and Europe in the early 20th century, as well as by scientists in other fields, and public figures from George Bernard Shaw to Helen Keller.[2] The primary goal of eugenics and eugenicists was to prevent the degeneration of the ‘right’ characteristics within a population through methods which according to Galton are “by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognisance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had.”[3]

Eugenics: Populations and statistics

This desire to better understand the processes of biological development and inheritance so as to “give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing” spurred and informed much of the work that was done in biology in this period. As described at length by Stephen Jay Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man,[4] eugenics was without a doubt a primary motivation for Galton and other biometricians of the time to develop many of the foundational concepts of the modern practice of statistics, such as standard deviations, correlations, regressions, and factor analyses, in their efforts to establish mathematically (i.e., objectively) the distribution of characteristics within a population and to track the rate of change of those characteristics.[5]

Both this emphasis on populations and the use of increasingly sophisticated mathematical methods to describe the distributions of traits within populations which were such an integral part of the eugenics movement would go on to become important components of the Modern Synthesis, particularly through population genetics[6]—although this association with eugenics is now, quite understandably, downplayed considerably in conventional histories of population genetics and genetics.[7] Still, the prevalence and the prominence of eugenics in science in general, and in the development of Modern Synthesis of genetics and evolutionary theory in particular, should not be so easily dismissed.

Eugenics and the development of genetics

For example, from 1910 to 1939 the Eugenics Record Office (ERO) was located at the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory complex on Long Island in New York.[8] [9] This is particularly noteworthy because the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory also played a major role in the early development of molecular genetics and molecular biology at the same time the ERO was located there, and is still one of the premier research institutions in quantitative biology and genetics.[10]

The ERO was headed by Harry H. Laughlin, and funded by Mary Harriman, the widow of railroad magnate E.H. Harriman, John Harvey Kellogg, of the corn flakes and Battle Creek Sanitarium fame, the Rockefeller family, and the Carnegie Institution. This pattern of small groups of exceedingly wealthy patrons providing the financial support for scientific research and advocacy with direct links to eugenics is found again and again during this era, and will resurface in this book in the subsequent discussion of the political history of cancer. As such, far from being representative of a marginal reactionary movement, Laughlin and the ERO were well within the mainstream of Progressive Era science and society.

As described by P.K. Wilson in his article “Harry Laughlin’s eugenic crusade to control the ‘socially inadequate’ in Progressive Era America,” the ERO used the nascent methods of population genetics to analyze substantial amounts of genealogical information gathered from around the country. Once this data was gathered and analyzed, the ERO provided state legislators around the country with information about the number of ‘social defectives’ within their respective constituencies. Beyond merely providing this information, the ERO actively advocated for the forced sterilization of “feeble-minded, the insane, criminals, epileptics, inebriates, as well as those suffering from tuberculosis, leprosy, venereal disease, blindness, deafness and physical deformities,”[11] among other eugenic policies.

Eugenics and the changing political landscape

In this context, there are two key scientific and ideological and political affiliations which have particularly significant implications for understanding the eventual triumph of genetics in the 1930s, and its implications for the seemingly sudden emergence of contemporary epigenetics in our own era. The first is the widespread influence of Neo-Lamarckism—which is better known today by the curious misnomer of Social Darwinism—in American science, social life, and politics during the Gilded Age, and particularly as it was used in the justification of laissez-faire economic and social policies. The second key scientific and political combination from this era is the emergence of the Progressive movement in the United States with its invocation of Neo-Darwinism and support for the nascent science of genetics, which eventually supplanted this Neo-Lamarckism in both politics and in the prevailing understanding of biology.

That said, the endorsements for eugenics crossed disciplinary, theoretical, and ideological lines, as it was endorsed by Darwinians and Lamarckians (Neo- and otherwise), as well as by those who endorsed the other extant theories of evolution and biology that were in the air at this time. Thus, support for eugenics is not a distinguishing characteristic between the Neo-Darwinism and Neo-Lamarckism of this era, and cannot of itself account for the rise of one and the decline of the other. The intertwining of science, eugenics, and the particular politics promoted by the rise of the Progressive movement, and how this combination contributed to the rise of genetics and the eventual emergence of epigenetics in our own time, will be the topic of the next excerpt.

[1] Francis Galton, Memories of My Life (London: Methuen 1908), 321.

[2] Hansen, R., & King, D. (2001). Eugenic ideas, political interests, and policy variance: immigration and sterilization policy in Britain and the US. World Politics53(02), 237-263.

[3] Galton, F. (1883). Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development. London, England: Macmillan and Co., pp. 24–25.

[4] Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. WW Norton & Company.

[5] This connection between the emergence of the practice of statistics and changes in the exercise of the power of states on the populations within their borders is also discussed by Michel Foucault in a number of works in which Foucault describes the emergence of the science of state—christened as ‘statistics’—as compared to the art of statecraft. For a discussion of Foucault’s approach and conclusions about the historical connection between state power and the technology of statistics, see Curtis, B. (2002). Foucault on governmentality and population: The impossible discovery. Canadian Journal of Sociology/Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, 505-533. See also the English translation of Lascoumes, P. (2004). La Gouvernementalité: de la critique de l’État aux technologies du pouvoir (Governmentality: the critique of the technology of state power). Le Portique. Revue de philosophie et de sciences humaines, (13-14).

[6] Sturtevant, A. H. (2001). A history of genetics. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Chapter 17.

[7] Bouche, T. & Rivard, L. (2014). America’s Hidden History: The Eugenics Movement. Retrieved from

[8] “Eugenics Record Office.” Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library & Archives, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Retrieved 31 August 2017, from

[9] An interesting fact which emphasizes the prevalence of eugenics throughout the sciences during this time is that the information theorist Claude Shannon, who is more famous for his Master’s thesis which introduced digital theory, completed his Ph.D. in population genetics (An Algebra for Theoretical Genetics) at the ERO in 1939—although there is no evidence that Shannon was a committed eugenicist. Shannon was sent to the ERO at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory by his adviser, Vannevar Bush, perhaps the single person most responsible for the massive federal funding of science both during and after World War II, discussed in more detail in a subsequent chapter of this book (Pachter, L. (2013). Claude Shannon, population geneticist. Bits of DNA. Retrieved 15 August 2017, from

[10] Judson, H. F. (1996). The eighth day of creation: makers of the revolution in biology. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.

[11] Wilson, P. K. (2002). Harry Laughlin’s eugenic crusade to control the ‘socially inadequate’ in Progressive Era America. Patterns of prejudice, 36(1), 49-67.


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