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Who Killed Eugenics? Or Did They?

Frederic Weizmann, York University

Since the work of scholars such as Kamin (1974) and Samelson (1979), it has become clear that psychologists played an important role in providing scientific support for eugenics policies during the early 1900s. Much of the reaction to this fact has focussed not on psychology's role as a discipline, but on the individuals involved, occasionally defending (e.g., Cronbach, 1975) but more often attacking them. Henry Goddard has been a particular target of these attacks (see Zenderland, 1998, pp. 348-365).

This individualistic focus forms part of what might be considered the "received view" of the relationship between science and eugenics. The psychobiologist R. W. Oppenheim (1982) provides a good example of this approach, one more knowledgeable than most. Oppenheim argues that even at its height, eugenics did not reflect what most biologists or psychologists believed. It was supported by a "relatively small," albeit sometimes influential, group of scientists interested in "socio-economic questions. . . who. . . misused the new findings of genetics to support their conservative, and often racist, ideological preconceptions (Oppenheim, p. 42)."

The facts are, however, that eugenics enjoyed widespread support among scientists. Ludmerer (1972) has noted that all the geneticists on the board of the new journal, Genetics, founded in 1916, had been supporters of eugenics to one degree or another. William Provine (1986) has suggested that the interest of geneticists in race during the first quarter of this century was spurred by their interest in eugenics.

Eugenics enjoyed at least moderate support from prominent psychologists, such as J. McKeen Cattell, and, as Oppenheim acknowledged, R. S. Woodworth. As late as 1945, Woodworth wrote in his influential text, Psychology: A Science of Mental Life, that it "is wise for society to take measures to perpetuate the best family stocks, which have a tendency to die out from their low birth rate (Woodworth, 1945, p. 238)." He also wrote that "society may well take measures to minimise the number of such [feeble-minded] children (Woodworth, 1945, p. 240)." (Interestingly, Woodworth cited R. B. Cattell's book, The Fight For Our National Intelligence, as the source for data regarding birth rate and intelligence.)

It is difficult to portray Woodworth and many other psychologists sympathetic to eugenics as ideologues. The fact is that eugenics was popular across the political spectrum for many years, both in England and in North America (e.g., Paul, 1984; Soloway, 1990). In England, many socialists supported eugenics. Even those viewed as critics, such as J. B .S. Haldane, Lancelot Hogben and Julian Huxley were not against eugenics per se, but came to believe that eugenics in capitalist societies was infected with class bias. Even so, some (see Paul, 1984), accepted the idea of upper class genetic superiority.

Not only were R. B. Cattell's eugenic beliefs commonplace in that milieu, but he was influenced by prominent socialists who supported eugenics, men such as Shaw, Wells, Huxley and Haldane, some of whom he knew (Hurt, 1998). Jonathan Harwood (1980) actually cited the example of Cattell to demonstrate that British eugenics was not a right-wing preserve in the inter-war years (although Keith Hurt, 1998, has noted that Harwood later characterised Cattell's 1972 book on Beyondism as a "right-wing eugenic fantasy").

Oppenheim (1982) claimed that American eugenicists were opposed by those in the Progressive Movement, juxtaposing the hereditarian reformism of the former with the environmental reformism of the latter. Actually many progressives were also eugenicists and incorporated the idea of eugenic reforms into their larger agenda (e.g., Burnham, 1977); there was a great deal of cross-over between the two movements (e.g., Pickens, 1968).

Another aspect of the received view of eugenics is that scientific progress eventually undid eugenics. Oppenheim (1982, p. 42) states that the scientific "overemphasis on heredity" lasted only from 1900 to 1915 among biologists (and to 1920 among psychologists and sociologists.) The year 1915 saw the publication of The Mechanisms of Mendelian Heredity, by T. H. Morgan and his colleagues. This was an important book that established that there was no one-to-one relationship between genes and traits, and also demonstrated the role of environmental factors in development.

In his emphasis on scientific progress, Oppenheim agrees with historians such as Haller (1972) and Ludmerer (1972). The latter, however, portray the decline of eugenics as a later, more gradual occurrence, beginning in the late 1920s and extending to the eve of World War II. While they also implicate the increasing racism of the eugenics movement, like Oppenheim, they emphasize the role of science in the repudiation of eugenics.

However, the view that scientific progress was mainly responsible for the presumed undoing of eugenics is questionable. Diane Paul (1995) has argued that discoveries in genetics occurred much earlier than the decline of eugenics and thus had little effect on it. Oppenheim himself acknowledged that by 1910 the one-gene-one-character idea was discredited, and the importance of the environment established. Actually, the dominant figure in American eugenics, C. B. Davenport himself acknowledged both the complexity of the gene character relationship and the role of the environment (Davenport, 1911/1972). Moreover, if eugenics enjoyed scientific support much later than 1915, it becomes difficult to consider these early scientific developments as decisive.

Another key scientific development thought to be vital in undermining eugenics, and in particular the logic of sterilization was the Hardy-Weinberg principle, enunciated in 1917. It demonstrated mathematically that it took thousands of years to eliminate deleterious recessive genes (thought to underlie mental deficiency) from the population (Barkan, 1992, p. 130). However, it was argued by R. A. Fisher (1924) and other geneticists at the time that these implications were misleading, and sterilization was more effective than thought. Although this is still the subject of debate (Barkan, 1992, p. 130; Paul & Spencer, 1995), Paul and Spencer (1995) have presented evidence that most geneticists and biologists in the 1920s and 1930s still continued to believe that "mental defectives" should be prevented from breeding.

The importance of social changes in understanding shifts in attitudes towards eugenics has been raised directly in the area of ethnic and racial differences. Provine (1986) has argued that in the first quarter of the century, geneticists believed that scientific evidence (largely contributed by psychologists) supported the idea of intellectual differences among races. They also believed that race crossing could be harmful. After 1925 (Provine, 1986), some geneticists increasingly argued that there was no convincing evidence for such differences. This of course did not constitute disproof, and many scientists still continued to believe privately in their existence. As the implications of the Nazi racial policies became clear, however, very few scientists espoused these beliefs publicly (Provine, 1986).

Most geneticists also came to believe that racial crosses were harmless. Provine (1986) has argued that this change was due to changes in social attitudes rather than scientific progress. This interpretation has been challenged by the geneticist Bentley Glass (1986), but Paul (1998) has reached a conclusion similar to Provine's.

Recently, historians such as Garland Allen, Barry Mehler, Diane Paul, and Daniel Kevles have begun to argue that the eugenics movement did not simply disappear. In fact, Paul and Spencer (1995) have pointed out that sterilization programs actually grew in the 1930s. Eugenics did, however, transmute itself into several new forms, including medical genetics and population control, as well as a newer "reform eugenics." (See Allen, 1998 for a review).

While Kevles (1986) has suggested that the newer eugenics flowed into more benign channels, Allen (e.g., 1998) and Paul (e.g., 1998) are less sanguine, while Mehler (1994) has stressed the continuity between the older eugenics and what appears to be the current resurgence of eugenic thinking.

Another development of direct interest to psychologists has been the emergence of a new "hereditarian research program," to employ Thomas Bouchard's (1987) useful phrase, associated with the names of Arthur Jensen, Richard Herrnstein and others. The relationship between this program and eugenics is controversial and ambiguous, but needs to be explored.

What is the relevance of the older eugenics to these newer developments? Some have argued that there are clear parallels between the circumstances that led to the rise of the eugenics movement originally and those that exist today (e.g., Allen, 1998). Beyond this, does it matter if the received view concerning science and the earlier eugenics movement is correct? If the belief in eugenics was confined to a few individuals and if eugenics was undercut by scientific progress, then science, including psychology, bears no responsibility for eugenics and for its consequences, but deserves credit for its eradication.

If, as we think the evidence indicates, traditional eugenics was closely tied to mainstream science and scientific progress had less to do with its fate than usually thought, it suggests the need for a more critical attitude toward science, especially in areas of social concern. That is why it is important to examine the work of R. B. Cattell; he not only links current eugenic thinking to an older eugenics tradition, but more than anyone else he tried to justify his eugenics through his science.


Allen, G. A. (1978). Thomas Hunt Morgan: The man and his science. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Allen, G. A. (1998). Opposition to eugenics in the United States, 1900-1940. Unpublished manuscript.

Barkan, E. (1992). The decline of scientific racism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bouchard, T. J. (1987). The hereditarian research program: Triumphs and tribulations. In S. Modgil & C. Modgil (Eds.), Arthur Jensen: Consensus and controversy (pp. 55-57). London: Falmer Press.

Burnham, J. (1977). Essay. In J. D. Buenker, J. C. Burnham, & R. M. Creden (Eds.), Progressivism (pp. 1-29). Cambridge: Schenkman.

Cronbach, L. J. (1975). Five decades of public controversy over mental testing. American Psychologist, 30, 1-14.

Davenport, C. B. (1972). Heredity in relation to eugenics. New York: Arno Press. (Original work published 1911)

Fisher, R. A. (1924). The elimination of mental defect. Eugenics Review, 16, 114-116.

Glass, B. (1986). Geneticists embattled. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 130, 130-154.

Haller, M. H. (1972). Eugenics: Hereditarian attitudes in American thought. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Harwood, J. (1980). Nature, nurture and politics. In J. V. Smith & David Hamilton (Eds.), The Meritocratic Intellect (pp. 115-131). Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press.

Hurt, K. (1998, October 5). Raymond Bernard Cattell (1905-1998) [bibliography to 1963] [Online]. Available: [verified November 5, 1998].

Kamin, L. (1974). The science and politics of I.Q. Social Research, 41, 387-425.

Kevles, D. (1986). In the name of eugenics: The uses of human heredity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ludmerer, K. M. (1972). Genetics and American society. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mehler, B. (1994). In genes we trust: When science bows to racism. Reform Judaism 23, 10-13; 77-79.

Oppenheim, R. W. (1982). Preformationism and epigenesis in the origns of the nervous system and behavior: Issues, concepts and their history. In P. P. G. Bateson & P. Klopfer (Eds.), Perspectives in Ethology Vol. 5 (pp. 1-100). New York: Plenum.

Paul, D. B. (1984). Eugenics and the Left. Journal of the History of Ideas, 45, 567-590.

Paul, D. B. (1995). The hidden science of eugenics. Nature, 374, 302-305.

Paul, D. B. (1998). Did eugenics rest on an elementary mistake? In The politics of heredity: Essays on eugenics, biomedicine and the nature-nurture debate (p. 117-132). Albany: State University of New York Press.

Paul, D. B., & Spencer, H. M. (1995). The hidden science of eugenics. Nature, 374, 302-305.

Pickens, D. K. (1968). Eugenics and the progressives. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.

Provine, W. B. (1986). Geneticists and race. American Zoologist, 26, 857-887.

Samelson, F. (1975). On the science and politics of the IQ. Social Research, 42, 467-488.

Samelson, F. (1979). Putting psychology on the map: Ideology and intelligence testing. In A. R. Buss (Ed.), Psychology in social context (pp. 103-168). New York: Halstead Press.

Soloway, R. A. (1990). Demography anddegeneration: Eugenics and the declining birthrate in twentieth-century Britain. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Woodworth, R. S. (1945). Psychology: A study of mental life (17th ed.). London: Methuen.

Zenderland, L. (1998). Measuring minds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

FREDRIC WEIZMANN is Associate Professor of Psychology at York University, and Director of Clinical Training in the Clinical-Developmental Program. E-mail address: <>.

Recent publications relevant to this special issue include:

Weizmann, F., Wiener, N. I., Wiesenthal, D., & Ziegler, M. (1990). Differential K-theory and racial hierarchies. Canadian Psychology, 31, 1-13.

Wiener, N. I., Weizmann, F., Wiesenthal, D. L. & Ziegler, M. (1990). IQ, economic productivity and eugenics. International Journal of Dynamic Assessment and Instruction, 1, 105-115.

Yee, A. H., Fairchild, H. H., Weizmann, F., & Wyatt, G. E. (1993). Adressing psychology's problem with race. American Psychologist, 48, 1132-1140.

Weizmann, F., Wiener, N. I., Wiesenthal, D., & Ziegler, M. (1996). The (Mis)uses of evolutionary theory and biology. In L. R. Reynolds and L. Lieberman, (Eds.) Race and other misadventures: Essays in honor of Ashley Montague. New York: General Hall Publishing.

Wiener, N. I., Ziegler, M., Weizmann, F., & Wiesenthal, D. (1996) Straightening out the "Bell Curve". In M. Luther, E. Cole, & P. Gamelin (Eds.), Dynamic assessment for instruction: From theory to application. Toronto: Captus Press.

Weizmann, F., Wiener, N. I., Wiesenthal, D., & Ziegler, M. (1996). Scientific racism in contemporary psychology. In M. Luther, E. Cole, & P. Gamelin (Eds.), Dynamic assessment for instruction: From theory to application. Toronto: Captus Press.

Dr. Barry Mehler incorporated the Institute for the Study of Academic Racism (ISAR) in Lansing, Michigan in 1993. ISAR monitors academic racism and serves as a resource center for scholars, legislators, civil rights organizations, and journalists. ISAR is independent of Ferris State University and the materials presented on this web site do not necessarily reflect the views of Ferris State University's Board of Trustees or Administration.

All original ISAR materials as well as Dr. Mehler's posted publications are Copyrighted. All rights reserved. Electronic redistribution for nonprofit purposes is permitted, provided this notice is attached in its entirety. Unauthorized, for-profit redistribution is prohibited. For further information regarding reprinting and syndication, please call ISAR at (231) 591-3612 or (231) 591-2331 or send email to Barry Mehler at

This article originally appeared at: but seems to be only sporadically accessible so is reproduced here also.

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