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Racist origins of eugenics and its expression in modern environmentalism.

Eugenics arose from the scientific and social climate of the nineteenth century. It was during the twentieth century that the synthesis eugenic ideologies took place, using a scientific rhetoric from the previous period. Marie Stopes, Margaret Sanger, and, famously, Adolph Hitler played crucial roles in the implementation of eugenic methods in their respective countries. In many ways America and Germany were leading countries in the eugenic movement, and the ideas and methods of one nation had a direct influence on the other, with this difference: while Hitler imposed negative eugenic methods upon an unwilling population, Sanger and Stopes aggressively marketed birth control as a woman's right, so that those races and social classes they considered sub-human would desire the means of their own extermination.

After the racial atrocities of World War II, eugenic organisations were quick to distance themselves from the undesirable connotations and brutal images associated with the word 'eugenics'. Such superficial changes have enabled the eugenics movement to advance their agenda under a different name into the twenty-first century. In spite of Pope Leo's XIII encyclical Rerum Novarum, which gave the world the principles on which to found modern environmentalism by addressing the core problems of society, modern environmentalists have adopted eugenic ideologies and commonly endorse eugenic practices.

This idea of refining human beings by selective breeding is, at the least, as old as ancient Greece. In the late nineteenth century, human breeding was being promoted by Francis Galton (1822-1911), a statistician who has been called "the father of the eugenics movement". (1) The term eugenics was coined by Galton in 1833, from the Greek eugenes, which means "hereditarily endowed with noble qualities". (2) In 1859, Gallon's cousin, Charles Darwin's theories of evolution affected Galton. (3) Galton traced the lineage of prominent British men, and published his work in 1869 under the title Hereditary Genius. Galton argued that physical, mental, and moral traits were all hereditary. (4) This motivated Galton to endorse methods for accelerating the process of human evolution, writing, "What nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly". (5)

Eugenics is closely related, though it still remains distinct to the ideology of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism stressed the improvement of human hereditary by natural selection, while eugenics typically emphasises artificial selection, a distinction made more complicated as some eugenicists are devoted to Social Darwinism. (6)

The rediscovery of Gregor Mendel's genetic studies on pea plants was used to support Galton's work in order to further convince social reformers that eugenics could improve human life. (7) In Inquiries into the Human Faculty and Its Development (1883), Galton wrote that eugenics was "the science of improving stock ... 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." This process of selection and improving a species is "equally applicable to men, brutes and plants." (8)

Galton distinguished between two methods in eugenics: positive and negative eugenics. Positive eugenics endorses mentally and physically fit individuals to over-reproduce. Examples of positive eugenics are state subsidized education, tax incentives and birth stipends to encourage "fit" parents to have more children for the common good, counting on those who are unfit to selflessly self-sterilize to prevent the spread of their hereditary flaws. (9)

It has generally been accepted that positive eugenics is not enough to significantly improve the genetics of the human race, therefore negative eugenics were also required. Negative eugenics is preventing the propagation of unfit individuals, those who differ from the fit, the fit individuals being those who achieve the sort of success that the fit think of as successful. Methods included and continue to include abortion, child permits, sexual sterilization, and euthanasia. (10)


The synthesis of misapplied ideas, picked out from the work of Mendel, Malthus, Darwin, and Galton, provided the rhetoric needed to bring about negative eugenics through birth control campaigns that continue today.

The modern birth prevention, which runs under the misnomer the birth control movement, began with Annie Besant's trial for republishing (with Charles Bradlaugh) in Britain a work by the American Charles Knowlton, The Fruits of Philosophy. This book contained explicit information on contraceptive methods. (11) Besant and Bradlaugh also republished a propaganda pamphlet of Knowlton's for eugenics, which began with:

"We believe, with the Rev. Mr. Malthus, that population has a tendency to increase faster than the means of existence, and that some checks must therefore exercise control over population." (12)

Besant, in her Law of Population, gave the underlying scientific, philosophical and economic myths as to why contraception was indeed necessary, emphasising Malthus's theories of over-population. She argued that natural checks of "war, infanticide, famine and murder of the aged" restricted populations in "primitive people", whereas in "civilised" society the "feeble-minded" are sustained by advances in medicine, charity, and therefore reproduce and increase the population. (13) These principles outlined the arguments following from a superficial reading of the concept of "survival of the fittest". [Editor's Note: The correct biological understanding of "survival of the fittest" is the survival and persistence of any animal or plant that is able to reproduce, with the ability to reproduce being evidence for fitness. Turning the concept upside down to argue that only the fittest should reproduce has no basis in biology or economics, but I cannot vouch for what philosophers might think.]

Besant cited Gabon's proposal to implement "scientific checks to population", where the natural checks of Malthus had been made redundant by civilised society. (14) Besant provided the necessary eugenic rhetoric that would underpin future campaigns for birth control, notably those of Margaret Sanger. (15)


Widespread negative eugenics occurred in the twentieth century, under the direction of Marie Stopes (Britain), Margaret Sanger (America) and Adolf Hitler (Germany). While historians favourably record the relationship between Stopes and Sanger, the relationship between Sanger and Hitler is usually not acknowledged. Sanger, who believed an astonishing array of ethnic groups to be "sub-human", sent Hitler a book of her love poems to encourage him in his own eugenic efforts. Their correspondence between Germany and America had a direct effect on shaping the respective eugenic programs in each country. To prevent the "feebleminded" from reproducing, American eugenicists urged the court to implement compulsory sterilization laws, which became reality for thirty-two American states between 1907 and the 1930's. (16) Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes stated in 1927, when the U.S Supreme Court upheld these laws, that "the principle that sustains compulsory vaccination of schoolchildren is broad enough to cover the cutting of fallopian tubes ... Three generations of imbeciles are enough." (17)

The German eugenics movement existed long before the Nazis took power, and Nazi eugenicists were inspired by American developments, which stirred them in their own quest for "racial hygiene". (18) The racist work The Passing of the Great Race by American Madison Grant was praised by Germany's racists, and Adolf Hider called it his "Bible". Indeed, the "Law for the Prevention of Genetically Progeny" instigated in Germany in 1933 depended on examples from America, especially the model law drafted by Harry Hamilton Laughlin. Laughlin was awarded an honorary degree in 1936 from the University of Heidelberg for his contributions to "racial hygiene" by the command of Adolph Hider. (19)

The United States eugenic sterilization laws of 1927 to 1979 caused more than 60,000 individuals to be sterilized. (20) The negative eugenics program of Nazi regime which began in 1933 and ended in 1945 led to 400,000 "feebleminded" and "racially unfit" people being sterilized, while another 70,000 individuals were euthanized, a grisly foreshadowing of the murder of six million Jews, and tens of millions of others who were deemed "racially impure" such as Poles, Catholic priests, Romani, Russians or any others who opposed the Nazis. (21)

Despite this record of mass murder, the Sanger and Stopes approach to negative eugenics has proven to be very successful. Sanger stated in 1919, "More children from the fit; less from the unfit--that is the chief issue of birth control". (22) Birth control was marketed to their target "inferior" minority groups as a "woman's right to reproductive freedom". While Hitler imposed eugenics on an unwilling population, Sanger and Stopes disguised their agenda so that target groups desire the means of their own demise.

Sanger even used religion to cover her insidious motives:

"We do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out the idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members." (23)

Eugenics has been able to continue after the of World War II, under the guise of "women's reproductive freedom", aided by organisations who changed their titles. Most notably, the "Birth Control League" founded by Sanger, was re-branded as "Planned Parenthood," (24) and Australia's "Racial Hygiene Association" was renamed the "Family Planning Association". (25)

Sanger wrote in Pivot of Civilization, that birth control:

"is nothing more or less than the facilitation of the process of weeding out the unfit, of preventing the birth of defectives or of those who will become defectives." (26) Much of her success is due to her advocating sexual freedom, offering "lower classes" of women the freedom that came from birth control that the rich already had access to. Thus, while people were sold into eugenic enslavement to doctors, abortionists and pharmacists (27), they would delude themselves into thinking they were sexually liberated. (28)

Eugenicist Frederick Osborn, reflecting on his association with Sanger over the decades, aptly concludes that "Birth control and abortion are turning out to be great eugenic advances of our time. If they had been advanced for eugenic reasons it would have retarded or stopped their acceptance." (29)

The answer to any environmental problems is not to exploit the common good of humanity or the human person, but a rethinking of our relationship with nature as communion. It is difficult to have an authentic relationship of communion with the land, when one violates the environment through which humans learn the meaning of communion and common good--the family. Pope John Paul II spoke of the family as the first and most fundamental "structure of human ecology". (30)

The family as the most foundational cell of society is capable of transmitting and transforming culture. Culture is the weaving together of the past and the future. As human nature has a cultural profile, one cannot do justice to the common good of a society if one loses sight of the big picture of the whole human family. Eugenics does not produce any reverence for the human family--far from it; eugenics subjugates humans to a so-called "greater good". If one is wondering what this "greater good" would look like, look at the German expression of eugenics in the twentieth century: the holocaust.

Rather than destroying or limiting the family for the greater good of society, the correct thing to do is to defend the family as the most effective school of both the common good and of communion. Over 100 years ago, the Church gave us the encyclical Rerum Novarum, which based its principles on and around the family, whereas "modern environmentalism" seeks to sacrifice the most vulnerable members of the human family on an altar in order to preserve Mother Earth. Modern civilisation, as John Paul II puts it, has a "desire to have and to enjoy rather than to be and to grow. Man consumes the resources of the earth and his own life in an excessive and disordered way." (31)

The answer then lies on a level of correct ordering of goods. The human person cannot be subjugated to the "common good". (32) Nor can the common good of society be achieved by violating the primary good of the person.

Rerum Novarum defended widespread ownership of private property: "every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own," (33) and argued that such ownership resulted in higher and sustainable productivity: nobody cares for the land and the environment as much as the household of the family farm. (34) Ownership is becoming a rarity in our civilization, the norm being that both parents must work to earn enough to support their family. This pressure for both parents to be employed places strains upon the most fundamental cell of society, the family.

As a result of neglecting the message of Rerum Novarum, modern environmentalists conclude that there are not enough resources available to meet the ever increasing needs of the human population:

"The environmental crisis is real and of magnitude that will certainly transform modern global industrial society beyond recognition. In the process, the well-being and even survival of the world's expanding population is directly threatened." (35)

Many modern environmentalists employ eugenic ideologies and methods in order to limit the number of humans relying on the earth's resources. Thus, the amount of stress that is placed on the environment by the population is reduced, by necessary population regulation. (36) Population Control has became the new catch phrase while maintaining the same eugenic meaning. Modern environmentalism does not offer constructive solutions rooted in the human person; rather, it accepts the current distorted state of social justice, dividing the family as it tries to solve social injustice by controlling the population. Methods commonly endorsed by modern environmentalists are abortion and euthanasia in order to limit the number of children born, and eliminate the disabled and elderly. Thus, for the many modern environmentalists, to save the environment it is justifiable and necessary to destroy human life.

Overpopulation has become a socially acceptable synonym for eugenics. This concept ignores the principles of high productivity brought about by widespread ownership of private property as outlined in Rerum Novarum. There are more than enough resources for everyone's needs, but there will never be enough for even a few people's greed. Modern environmentalists would solve non-existent ecological problems by killing those they deem "sub-human". This ruins the only real solution to modern social and ecological problems: the stable family. The family alone is capable of teaching concepts of authentic communion and common good.


(1, 4, 6, 23) Richard Weikart, "Eugenics." Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics. Ed. Carl Mitcham. Vol. 2. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005. 707-710. Gale Virtual

Reference Library. Web. 3 Feb. 2014

(2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 10, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21) Gregory Michael Dorr, "Eugenics." Genetics. Ed. Richard Robinson. Vol. 2. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2003.16-21. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 3 Feb. 2014

(5) Gillham, Nicholas Wright, A Life of Sir Francis Galton: From African Exploration to the Birth of Eugenics, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

(11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 25) Jane Carey, The Racial Imperative of Sex: Birth Control and Eugenics in Britain, the United States and Australia in the Interwar Years. Women's History Review 21, no. 5 (2012) Monash University.

(22) Margaret Sanger quoted in Weikart, Eugenics op cit.

(24) Jennifer Chesworth The Margaret Sanger Papers Project. Encyclopaedia of Science, Technology and Ethics, pp.1679

(26) Margaret .H. Sanger, Women and the New Race, Blue Ribbon Books, New York, 1920. pp. 229.

(27, 28, 29, 37) Anne Barbeu Gardiner, "The Unfit To Be Tied", Touchstone, July/August 2006.

(30, 31) Centesimus Annus

(32) Carl A, Anderson, and Jose Granados. Called to Love: Approaching John Paul II's Theology of the Body. (New York: Doubleday, 2009), pp. 235

(33, 34) Rerum Novarum

(35, 36) David Holmgren, "Essence of Permaculture" Holmgren Design Services, Victoria Australia, 2007.

Francis Hopkins is a graduate of Campion College in Australia and OLSWA in Ontario. She writes from Australia..
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Author:Hopkins, Frances
Publication:Catholic Insight
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Date:Jul 1, 2014
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