The absurdity of eugenics
Whilst eugenics is based, in theory, in the perfectly valid science of genetics, its application is always far from scientific. For obvious reasons the room to experiment is limited in the extreme. Furthermore, whereas it is relatively easy, for example, to breed cattle for higher milk yield, defining what is meant by a “better” human being is a very difficult question. At this point eugenics stops being scientific and starts being normative and political, and a rather nasty type of politics at that. Eugenics drew heavily from various racist and racialist tracts of the period.
The most obvious flaw with application of eugenics is that its proponents have tended to conflate phenotypical (read: superficial) traits with genotypical traits. Even humans (or any species) that look fit on the outside may carry recessive traits that don’t exhibit themselves but will be passed on. The development of the field of epigenetics,[wp] i.e. heritable environmental factors in genetic expression that occur without change to underlying DNA structures, poses further problems for eugenics.
There is no reason to believe that a selective breeding plan to encourage certain physical traits in humans will mean the same results that plant and animal breeders have achieved for centuries (who were without specific knowledge of the genes they were selecting in and out). Odds are that the purebred humans with distinguishing features would be less healthy than the offspring of unconstrained mating would be, for the same reason that kennel-club purebred animals are often less healthy than mutts. This concept of “purity” is flawed in that it creates many of the same problems as inbreeding — a loss of biodiversity can in fact lead to increased susceptibility to a common concentrated weakness. An example of this would be deer populations. A long time ago, natural selection selected for fitter males with antlers, but cue the rise of sport hunting and antlered populations plunged down fast. Another example of concentration is haemophilia, which became the plague of the royal families.
The extreme reductionism of eugenics often crossed into what is now comical territory. Nearly every social behavior, including things such as “pauperism” and the vaguely defined “feeble-mindedness,” could be traced back to a single genetic disorder according to eugenicists. Many works of eugenics recall the similar trend evident in phrenology (indeed, there was some overlap between eugenics and phrenology).
While eugenics gained widespread support in the early 20th century (even within the scientific community) of a number of nations, there was also strong opposition during this period. The biologist Raymond Pearl, for example, once a supporter of the movement, turned against it in the late 1920s. The geneticist Lancelot Hogben argued that eugenics relied on a false dichotomy of “nature vs. nurture” and that it infected science with political value judgments; Hogben was asked by the (then-director of the London School of Economics) William Beveridge to create a “Chair of Social Biology” department on campus, gave him the finger and prevented any of his eugenic ideas from being taken seriously in the formation of the British welfare state. Clarence Darrow famously denounced it as a “cult.” The Carnegie Institute, which initially funded the Eugenics Record Office, withdrew its funding after a review of its research, leading to its closing in 1939.
Stephen J. Gould was strongly opposed to eugenics. He wrote extensively on the topic, including his treatment on intelligence in The Mismeasure of Man.