Childhood Studies Eugenics
Kieron Sheehy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 May 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0110


Charles Darwin (b. 1809–d. 1882) published On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871). These texts instigated public awareness and discussion of evolutionary theory. They inspired the development of social Darwinism, which attempts to apply evolutionary ideas to the social world as route for social progress. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (b. 1822–d. 1911), proposed that the “human stock” could be improved by controlled breeding. Galton founded the science of human eugenics. He defined human eugenics as “the study of the agencies under social control that seek to improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally” (Memories of My Life. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1908, p. 321). Part of Galton’s argument, described in Hereditary Genius (Galton 1998, cited under History) was that social hierarchies and class were indicative of “fitness” and therefore reflected inborn differences in ability and worth. He assumed that men of status in society held this position due to their natural superiority and therefore that the structure of society reflected inborn natural differences. Consequently social welfare was perceived as inherently flawed, as allowing less “fit” members of society to procreate was detrimental to developing a healthy society and against the laws of nature. A central issue for eugenicists was that of preventing or remediating racial deterioration. Breeding better people, through eugenic marriages and removing the weaker elements of society improves society and does “providentially, quickly and kindly” what nature did “blindly, slowly and ruthlessly” (Galton cited in Kevles 1985, p. 12; cited under General Overviews). Galton established an anthropometric laboratory to collect measurements of human abilities and characteristics. He developed the use of the statistical concept of normal distribution from which he could predict, for example, how many people one could expect to find at different levels of mental ability. The categorization and measurement of abilities became a central part of eugenic thought. Eugenics has had a far-reaching effect on how differences between children have been constructed and acted on. Eugenics assumed a hierarchy of races, classified people according to ethnic groups, and fostered discrimination based on that assumption. Similar discrimination was practiced according to measures of intellectual ability. The influence of eugenic thinking was global and hence the bibliography necessarily draws on research encompassing each continent and many individual countries. As a research topic, eugenics is explored in many overlapping areas of research but particularly in the areas of disability, education, child care, and the application of new technologies. The issue of the eugenic conceptualization of race pervades all of these areas.

General Overviews

The study of eugenics and its influence can be found in the fields of education, history, social and biological sciences, ethics, and technology. An excellent introduction to this diverse field is Kevles 1985, a classic text that allows the reader to see how eugenics came to have such a significant and far-reaching influence. Eugenic ideology and practice has had a global impact, and Bashford and Levine 2010 presents a comprehensive, international account of eugenic ideology and its expression through different policies and social practices. This work offers both transnational overviews of eugenic influences and an examination of the development of eugenics across a range of individual countries, written by key researchers in the field. The relation between historical and contemporary contexts is highlighted in Lombardo 2011. Together these texts give an excellent overview of this diverse area. The methods that historical researchers in the area adopt can be seen in Burke and Castaneda 2007. An important issue in the contemporary and future lives of children is the use of genetics and biotechnology for eugenic purposes. This topic is a controversial area, and Agar 2004 offers a critical insight into key debates about the ethical and practical possibilities of eugenic practices.

  • Agar, Nicholas. Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470775004E-mail Citation »

    This book is a readable introduction to an often controversial area. It introduces genetic concepts in a way that is accessible for nonscientists and takes a philosophical perspective on issues of genetic enhancement, cloning, and genetics therapy.

  • Bashford, Alison, and Philippa Levine, eds. The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195373141.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    The strength of this comprehensive handbook is that it examines both transnational and national issues. The transnational issues include race, disability, gender, and genocide. The national sections allow the reader to explore the influence of eugenic ideology on social policies and practices in a specific country or continent. It also considers contemporary practices in which eugenic ideas can be discerned. Available online by subscription.

  • Burke, Chloe S., and Christopher J. Castaneda. “The Public and Private History of Eugenics: An Introduction.” In Special Issue: The Public and Private History of Eugenics. Edited by Chloe S. Burke and Christopher J. Castaneda. Public Historian 29.3 (2007): 5–17.

    DOI: 10.1525/tph.2007.29.3.5E-mail Citation »

    This article is part of a special issue reflecting the different methods that are utilized within the historical investigation of eugenics. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Kevles, Daniel J. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf, 1985.

    E-mail Citation »

    This book, a key text in the field, examines the development and influence of the eugenics movement across the world.

  • Lombardo, Paul A., ed. A Century of Eugenics in America: From the Indiana Experiment to the Human Genome Era. Bioethics and the Humanities. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011.

    E-mail Citation »

    The discussions presented examine the development of key historical issues and also the ongoing impact of eugenic thinking on contemporary medicine and legislation.

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