In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Eugenics and Philosophy

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Classic Historical Work on Eugenics, 1963–1994
  • More Recent Historical Work, 1995–2010
  • Recent Books and Special Issues of Journals, 2010–
  • Representative Eugenics Publications, 1865–1952
  • Sterilization
  • Oral History, Eugenics Survivors, and Postwar Sterilization
  • The Idea of Newgenics
  • Contemporary Bioethics
  • Moral Philosophy
  • The Philosophy of Disability
  • Disability and Eugenics
  • Prenatal Screening, Testing, and Selective Abortion
  • The Mental Sciences: Mind, Psychology, and Psychiatry
  • Science and Eugenics

Philosophy Eugenics and Philosophy
Robert A. Wilson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0350


Eugenics raises issues in a range of philosophical subdisciplines, including the philosophy of science, the philosophy of mind and psychology, and bioethics and moral philosophy. “Eugenics” was coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1883 to refer to the mixture of meliorative science and social movement that he founded to study human improvement across generations and translate that study into social policy. Eugenics rests on the observation that both desirable and undesirable traits run in families, and the idea that we could influence the prevalence of those traits in the next generation by actively intervening into who reproduces. Just as we can selectively breed plants and animals for their physical traits, so too can we use technologically driven social policies to favorably direct the sorts of people who are present in future generations. The idea and appeal of eugenics grew steadily in the last third of the 19th century, but it was only in the first half of the 20th century that eugenics came to be influential through research, popular publications, and social policies. After the implementation of eugenic policies of sterilization and euthanasia by the Nazis from 1933 until 1945, and particularly in the immediate postwar period, eugenics came to be regarded as a manifestation of evil, with the eugenic era running from roughly 1865 until 1945 providing a series of lessons from history. Interest in eugenics both as a historical phenomenon and as a set of ideas that deserve further probing in their own right has been revived since the 1990s, particularly in light of reproductive and enhancement technologies, and sweeping research projects such as the Human Genome Project. Philosophers of science and bioethicists have both contributed to this revival of interest in contemporary forms of eugenics. Although philosophers have contributed less to the understanding of the history of eugenics and eugenic thinking, recent developments in the historiography of eugenics, including interests in oral histories and in the relationship between eugenics and disability, make this an area rich for philosophical reflection and engagement. Starting with material primarily on the history of eugenics relevant to philosophical reflection in the first five sections, this bibliographical essay then considers more specific clusters of issues that have drawn such reflection organized around the following themes: sterilization, oral history and eugenics survivors, newgenics, bioethics, moral philosophy, the philosophy of disability, disability and eugenics, prenatal screening and selective abortion, the mental sciences, and science and eugenics.

General Overviews

The general dearth of textbook introductions to eugenics stems from the fact that, until recently, eugenics had been viewed as a topic primarily of academic, historical interest, particularly in relationship to the Holocaust and the Second World War, and more recent introductory resources for learning about eugenics have developed in less traditional academic forms. Online learning tools and resources and films constitute two of the best media for students and others to gain an introduction to and overview of eugenics, particularly ones that can be readily integrated as a self-contained module into introductions to the biological and social sciences, ethics and political philosophy, and medicine and the health sciences. Two of these resources derive from large-scale initiatives. The Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement contains over 2,200 items, primarily relating to the history of eugenics in the United States and drawing heavily on archive material associated with the Eugenics Record Office. The more recent Eugenics Archives site was developed by the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada project, articulated in the wake of a 1996 landmark legal case in which eugenics survivor Leilani Muir successfully sued the province of Alberta in Canada for wrongful confinement and sterilization, and more than 900 subsequent legal actions filed by or on behalf of citizens who had survived eugenics in Canada. Both sites’ anchoring to the histories they represent, and the intrinsic connections they make between eugenics in the past and some issues of ongoing concern, such as the uses of genetic technologies in reproduction and bioenhancement, make them especially powerful resources for motivating and capitalizing on student interests. They also provide philosophers and other researchers in the humanities with an entry point into relevant material for reflection on eugenics and its significance. Carlson 2001 and the essays in Paul 1998 provide good introductions to the history of eugenics, while Levine and Bashford 2010 represents a more recent perspective. Facing History and Ourselves Foundation 2002 is a textbook introduction aimed at high school students and emphasizes race. The entries in Engs 2005 give a reader bite-sized introductions to specific topics and people, while Goering 2014 covers contemporary discussions. Miller, et al. 2015 is a film that works well in classroom environments, especially for students in philosophy classes, while Wilson 2014 provides an introduction to the eugenic family studies between 1877 and 1926 that collectively constituted a core part of the scientific and popular support for eugenics in North America.

  • Carlson, Elof Axel. The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, 2001.

    An encompassing history by a professional biologist that includes discussions of degeneracy theory and some informative, simplified diagramming of some general trajectories in the history of eugenics in an appendix.

  • Engs, Ruth Clifford. The Eugenics Movement: An Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2005.

    More than 250 short entries on eugenics that cover key concepts, organizations and institutions, people, and a timeline. Focuses primarily on North American eugenics.

  • Eugenics Archives.

    The product of a five-year Canadian initiative, the Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, this is an interactive site organized around twelve interconnected modules, containing over 900 short articles on eugenics as well as video narratives with eugenics survivors from Alberta and a newgenics video game. Designed for both self-directed explorations and classroom use.

  • Facing History and Ourselves Foundation. Race and Membership in American History: The Eugenics Movement. Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves Foundation, 2002.

    Written as a textbook for high school students with a focus on race and American history.

  • Goering, Sara. “Eugenics” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2014.

    One of the few overviews of eugenics written by a philosopher and that focuses on contemporary discussions of liberal eugenics.

  • Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement.

    Created through funds provided by the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications (ELSI) component to the Human Genome Project, this is an image archive that contains some general overviews to key topics and draws strongly on the holdings of the Eugenics Record Office (1910–1940), co-located at Cold Spring Harbor in New York.

  • Levine, Philippa, and Alison Bashford. “Introduction: Eugenics and the Modern World.” In The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Edited by Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine, 3–24. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    The editors’ introduction to an encompassing volume on the history of eugenics that discusses the relationship between eugenics and racism, nationalism, gender, and genocide, as well as exploring eugenics in various national contexts.

  • Miller, Jordan, Nicola Fairbrother, and Robert A. Wilson, dirs. Surviving Eugenics. Vancouver, BC: Moving Images Distribution, 2015.

    A documentary film produced from the oral histories recorded as part of the Eugenics Archives initiative that provides a powerful, personalized introduction to eugenics in Canada and North America more generally. Draws on interviews with survivors Judy Lytton, Leilani Muir, Ken Nelson, Glenn Sinclair, and Roy Skoreyko.

  • Paul, Diane. The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

    Ten accessible essays that mounted an early challenge to much conventional wisdom about eugenics: that was associated with right-wing politics, that eugenics ended due to the prevalence of good science over bad science, that eugenics is past.

  • Wilson, Robert A. “Eugenic Family Studies.” Eugenics Archives. 2014.

    A brief overview of the fifteen eugenic family studies, starting with Dugdale’s The Jukes in 1877, that over the next fifty years used genealogical and genetic reconstructions to generate popular and scientific support for eugenics, especially in the United States.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.