Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Book Reviews

The New Eugenics

Philip Lorish

Athlete making standard high jump, Eadweard Muybridge; publilshed in Popular Science Monthly, 1913; flickr.

The human condition as something from which to escape.

Given the grave wrongs that were committed in the name of eugenics during the twentieth century, it may be surprising to see the concept of “fitness” frame an important work in contemporary medical ethics. It may be even more surprising to learn that eugenics is itself, in some sense, back, albeit in an updated “liberal” form.

Coined in 1883 by the polymath Francis Galton, the term “eugenics” was used to justify a series of crude technological interventions intended to “build better people” by preventing reproduction among “feeble-minded” or otherwise “defective” members of the species. In the American context, this ideology was most directly visible in the forced sterilization laws on the books of numerous states (well into the 1970s, it should be noted). These legislative efforts were infamously given a stamp of approval at the highest level of the judiciary in Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s chilling pronouncement in his opinion in Buck v. Bell (1927): “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In our own day, however, such dark chapters have largely faded into the annals of historical memory.

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