International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity

by Daniel J Kevles

Introductory Essay by Nathan Hallanger

In the Name of Eugenics traces the history of the eugenics movement in the United States and Britain, beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing up to the mid-1980s and was the first significant analysis of eugenics after a long period during which the movement had been ignored as a subject of popular and scholarly interest.   

Eugenics purported to provide a scientific solution to a whole set of perceived societal ills by encouraging individuals with desirable traits to produce more offspring (positive eugenics) and by preventing those with less desirable traits from producing offspring (negative eugenics). Daniel Kevles weaves the history of the developing sciences of evolutionary biology and genetics into his narrative of the development of and debates over eugenics. He points out the intersections between eugenics and developing measures of intelligence, describing the misuse of such tests for determining those who were “feebleminded” and thus, in some cases, candidates for institutionalization or sterilization. In the United States, the eugenics movement fostered the implemention of laws allowing for involuntary sterilization of individuals determined to be suffering from hereditary ills such as criminality, low intelligence, and alcoholism. While the Nazi use of eugenic science in the “final solution” during World War II exposed the danger of eugenic ideals, Kevles describes the persistence of eugenic thinking in later discussions of race and intelligence, reproductive technologies, and genetics. Prenatal testing for genetic disorders and in vitro fertilization, gaining prevalence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, raised the question of eugenics once again, though with parents rather than government authorities providing the key decisions about genetic desirability. Kevles concludes by examining the interplay between private reproductive choices and public social goods: if society makes such technologies available, is society also willing to support the choices couples make?

In the context of the science and religion dialogue, Kevles notes that religion played an important role in the history of eugenics. Eugenic scientists urged society to adopt eugenics as a new religion, even writing new creeds, catechisms, and commandments to guide true believers in hereditary progress. Theologians and religious leaders were recruited to advocate for eugenic ideals. In the United States, the American Eugenics Society sponsored a sermon contest and received several hundred entries, each interpreting biblical texts or religious tenets as supportive of eugenic ideals. The eugenics movement, in this respect, advocated for a constructive relationship between science and religion, with religion adopting what was viewed as legitimate science in the service of “human betterment.” Christine Rosen’s more recent Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement (also included in the ISSR Library) provides an in-depth treatment of the sermon contest and of the interplay between faith and science in the eugenics movement.

Eugenics continues to arise in discussions of the relationship between new technologies focused on reproduction and genetics, often in the context of arguments about the potential ethical dangers of a particular procedure or technology. In the Name of Eugenics serves to provide key insights into how eugenic ideas persisted throughout the twentieth century, and to show the key features of the eugenics movement as it developed. Given the ongoing relevance and citation of eugenics in ethical and theological discussions in the context of science and technology, Kevles’ contribution to understanding the history of eugenics remains essential to understanding the appeal and success of eugenics in the early twentieth century.