Which Ancient Greek philosophers supported what we would call eugenics?

Which Greek philosophers ( if any) supported what we would call eugenics ? Was Seneca among them?

  1. Nitpick: Seneca was not Greek. He was a Roman.

  2. Less nitpicky: Seneca’s world was broadly accepting of certain practices that we would regard as eugenic, or potentially eugenic. Specifically, the exposure (leading to death) of unwanted infants was legally and socially sanctioned in the Roman world, and of course infants with obvious deformities, handicaps or other characteristics considered undesirable were at high risk of being killed in this way. This perhaps wasn’t strictly eugenic in that the object was not to improve the gene pool by preventing these infants from reaching adulthood and reproducing - the deformities, etc, might not have been heritable. It was mainly to prevent the infants themselves from being a continuing burden.

Thank you UDS1 for that clarification.

It seems like it would be hard to be a “eugenicist” before the discovery of genetics. You could certainly be a racist, but your arguments wouldn’t have the veneer of pseudoscience that “eugenics” implies.

IIRC Eugenics was the invention of Francis Galton (who discovered fingerprints and composite photography). This was before the discovery of genes.

Well, Mendel had discovered them, but the rest of the world hadn’t taken notice. Dalton coined the term eugenics in 1883. Darwin’s major works had been published by then. The term “genetics” wouldn’t come along until 1900, but it seems fair to say that Dalton was applying the scientific method to the study of the heritability of traits; he was designing experiments and gathering data. I would say that makes his approach qualitatively different from that of Greek or Roman philosophers. Certainly he viewed himself as a scientist and not a philosopher.

But maybe modern scientific knowledge isn’t essential. Obviously even in ancient times farmers had figured out the advantages of breeding the healthier animals with each other. Possibly someone might have come up with the idea of applying the same idea to humans.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates describes an ideal polis in which sex between elites is regulated by a lottery system that is actually rigged by the even-more-elites so that only the ‘best’ citizens will reproduce. The fake lottery is needed to keep the undesirables from feeling resentment: ‘sorry Xanthodentus, better luck next year!’

Yeah, this. We’ve been doing selective breeding with plants and animals for almost as long as we’ve been doing farming. Even if we didn’t know the mechanism by which traits were inherited, it would have been pretty clear to the average farmer that it was possible to have some control over the process, even if it’s not complete control.

Eugenics is just applying the same principles to humans. It’s one of those things that should work in principle, but fails in practice due to the fact that humans often object to being treated like farm animals.

In Ancient Greece, where slavery was legal, treating humans like farm animals was no problem. In my opinion, the main obstacle is that our breeding cycle is too long, and our lifespan is too short. The person running the experiment will not live long enough to produce significant results. The experiment might be run by an organization, but there is no guarantee that the next generation of leaders would be interested in continuing the experiment.

Yeah, but even then, slaves have a habit of sneaking out and having sex with who they want to, not who you force them to. Without absolute control, you can’t really tell who the father is, unless there’s an obvious physical difference like skin tone or such.


Yeah I’d say it’s reasonable to describe some ancient Greco-Roman attitudes as eugenicist. Even if concepts like genetics (and race and racism as we know them) hadn’t been invented yet.

Can’t quote any specific philosophers (other than Plato as mentioned above) but I think there is reasonable evidence the whole thing about Spartans killing weak or disabled babies was actually a Roman myth. Designed to encourage the perceived soft, effete and spoiled “modern” (as in late republican, early imperial) Romans to be more hard, ruthless and eugenicist like the Spartans of yore.

But they didn’t do that, because there wasn’t even widespread acceptance of the general idea that the best way to gain knowledge is by forming testable hypotheses, running experiments to test them, and saving your data for the use of future generations.

Aristotle also advocates exposure for deformed kids. But you’re right that there’s an argument that this was just talk, and not regular Greek (or even just Lacedaemonian) practice.

Sort of like a fun fact I read once - that humans have never domesticated for example, nut trees. The breeding cycle for trees to get results is too long, particularly for acorns and walnuts, where it can take decades to see any results. Even most orchards, the fruit trees are mostly selected by grafting branches from existing productive trees.

the problem with early eugenics in the USA and Europe was a lack of understanding what traits were hereditary. it was assumed, for example, that a lot of social problems were hereditary, when often they were the result of environment and poor nutrition. (For example, the US Army was surprised to see the level of improvement in southern recruits when fed a diet that was not mainly nutrient poor corn; whereas the Native Americans had known for eons that they had to add extra food like beans, squash, and meat to stay healthy. yet those backwoods types were held up as an example of what eugenics needed to improve - usually by limiting their breeding. (Not even getting into the racial aspects of eugenics).

So perhaps the earlier civilizations were no better able to judge what constituted hereditary characteristics (which breeding could improve) versus environmental or cultural characteristics. Plus, where an elite relies on controlling or suppressing the greater masses, the last thing they really need to do was make their underlings better or even equal. And naturally, they were less concerned about eugenics for themselves and the other elite, than making family connections and alliances through marriage.

Mass graves containing infant skeletons have been found in Ashkelon, and in Buckinghamshire. The were found near Roman bathhouses. So far, no one has offered an explanation other than prostitutes killing unwanted children. The Romans of the early imperial period were quite ruthless.

I think its safe to say that, as with modern day commentators about such things, Plutarch and the other rich old male elites comparing the soft effete modern youth to the tough manly menfolk of yore, knew absolutely nothing of the actual struggles of people who were not rich old and male.

I don’t think there is any argument that infanticide was fairly widespread in the ancient world, there is plenty of evidence for that. I think the specific description of state-run widespread infanticide as policy in Sparta (which was clearly “eugenics”, as it was described in much later Roman account), is more dubious.

But the point is those Roman accounts weren’t “Oh god, look how awful those Greeks were! They killed babies”, it was “Look how soft and spoiled we’ve become! We’ll never have an army as tough the Spartans any more as we don’t kill enough babies”

One comment I saw was regarding historical infanticide, specifically female infanticide… The process of limiting population apparently came down to limiting the number of females. Plus in many societies (something South and East Asians still grapple with) girls are valued less; a boy, even if they never marry, can still do heavy lifting and grunt work and does not need to be supervised and protected to prevent unwanted grandchildren. So when they didn’t need another mouth to feed, newborns - especially girls - were the first to go.