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  Eugenics (Greek, ‘science of good breeding’) is the science of improving offspring and is generally applied to humans. The idea that scientific approaches might lead to an improvement in human stock became popular after the publication of Charles Darwin\'s Origin of the Species (1859), in which the concept of natural selection was proposed. The term eugenics was coined in 1883 by Francis Galton who conducted research into human genetics and intelligence, and, on the basis of this, campaigned vigorously on behalf of eugenic breeding. Eugenics is often divided into positive and negative categories: the former deals with the possibilities of breeding superior humans by encouraging reproduction between individuals with particular ‘desirable’ qualities; the latter is concerned with preventing the reproduction of those individuals who are perceived to carry inferior genes. Extreme measures, such as compulsory sterilization, were often countenanced by otherwise liberal individuals who believed that their ideas were supported by genetic facts.

In reality, proponents of eugenics are rarely objective or scientific in their opinions. In the early 20th century, eugenics was enormously popular in the UK and this interest spread, notably to the USA and Germany. Prior to World War II, compulsory sterilization of inmates in mental institutions was permitted in many American states. The rise of Nazism in Germany meant that compulsory negative eugenics programmes were directed against certain ethnic minorities, disabled people and other ‘undesirables’. Millions of people were murdered in the name of ‘genetic cleansing’, while those who bore ‘Aryan’ characteristics were encouraged to reproduce and their offspring given preferential treatment. As a consequence of these events, the use of the term eugenics has since been avoided, but even so the ideas are often still espoused for political reasons. Furthermore, when the frequency of harmful genes in the human population is calculated, the proportion of individuals carrying one or more is very high; even if such genes could be identified, the scale of a eugenics programme would be so vast that it could never be implemented without the use of force.

In a medical context, voluntary eugenics is beneficial provided that objective advice is given; people with a family history of certain serious genetic disorders may decide not to have children. In the future, such people may be helped by gene therapy, a developing medical technique which has great potential for the alleviation of suffering, but also for misuse by supporters of eugenics. RB

See also atavism.Further reading D.H. Labby, Life or Death; , S. Trombley, The Right to Reproduce.



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