In his new book, Better for All the World, Harry Bruinius tells how America became the “guiding light” of the eugenics movement.
While the eugenicists’ preferred instrument was mass sterilization, that was not the only tool in their demonic toolkit. They also advocated segregation of the “unfit” and even euthanasia.
If these last two sound familiar, that’s because, as Bruinius tells us, what the Germans called “racial hygiene” was based on American efforts. While serving time in Landsberg prison in the 1920s, Adolf Hitler read The Passing of the Great Race by American eugenicist Madison Grant and called it “my bible.”
After the Nazis came to power, they naturally looked to the United States as a model. The Nazi sterilization law explicitly cited a similar California statute. The Nazis, who were not restrained by what Grant called “mistaken” and “sentimental” beliefs in “divine law” and “the sanctity of human life,” soon surpassed their American teachers. This prompted one American eugenicist to admiringly proclaim, “The Germans are beating us at our own game!”
It was not until the defeat of Germany and the full horror of the Nazi eugenic program and medical experiments became widely known that eugenics became discredited. Actually, it was the expression eugenics, more than the idea itself, that was discredited. While overtly racist eugenics is hopefully a thing of the past, what we might call the “eugenic temptation” is very much alive and well.
For instance, women seeking donor insemination are practicing a kind of eugenics. In seeking donors who meet certain physical and intellectual criteria, they are following in the footsteps of Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, and the father of modern eugenics.
The more obvious contemporary example of “directing human evolution”—what Christians call “playing God”—is biotechnology. As philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler has written, biotechnology is about more than “the eradication of some particularly horrible diseases such as Alzheimer’s.” It’s about the reinvention of what it means to be human.