The University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley) announced on Oct. 26 that it would repurpose its Genealogical Eugenics Institute Fund.
According to the school, the fund was originally a private trust set up in 1960. By 1975, the trust was transferred to the University of California regents and later assigned to UC Berkley.
The fund’s complete history remains unclear, but it was used to establish a genetic counseling program in the 1980s. More recently, the fund had regularly been giving out $70,000 annual payouts for research that was not related to eugenics.
In 2018, the school suspended the fund in response to faculty protest.
This recent announcement explained the school is moving forward with a plan to rename the fund, using it to support projects that educate about the horrible legacy of eugenics and “benefit communities most harmed by this practice.”
The term “eugenics” dates back to 1883, but the ideas go back much further.
In Republic, Plato argues for eugenics principles when he insists the state should control the marriage process and breeding in order to ensure a better future for humanity.
Couples were matched based on desirable hereditary traits in order to weed out undesirable traits. In a similar vein, the Romans practiced infanticide as a form of eugenics right up until the Christianization of the empire.
Despite these ancient influences, the eugenics movement did not take off until it was fueled by evolutionary thinking in the 19th century. The modern expression takes root in the works of Sir Francis Galton after he was influenced by Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and the idea of natural selection.
Galton argued that genius and talent are hereditary traits similar to eye color and body shape. In the introduction to Hereditary Genius, he argues, “I propose to show in this book that a man’s natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world.”
Galton used his ideas to create a spectrum of valuable traits, placing criminals and undesirables on one end and the intellectual elites on the other, with the working class making up a bulk of the middle. It was an evolution of the class system purposed by Plato over two millennia before.
Later generations used Galton’s ideas to argue that undesirable traits lead to antisocial behavior and criminal activity. Therefore, these traits must be weeded out.
Eugenics made its mark in the United States around the turn of the century, most notably with the work of Charles Benedict Davenport in his infamous paper, “The Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding.”
Early eugenics research adopted racial biases, and there were countless attempts to limit the immigration of certain ethnic groups perceived as dirty and unclean.
Many states developed laws prohibiting epileptics and “the feeble-minded” from marrying, and by 1907 the state of Indiana required sterilization of specific types of mental patients. Indiana would soon be joined by dozens of states by the 1920s. This led to public health sterilization practices that, tragically, still show up today.
Most Americans are unaware of this country’s history of eugenics, associating the theory with Nazi Germany. In many respects, German scholars developed their eugenics theory based on what was taking place in England, Canada and the United States.
Centers of international learning like Stanford, Yale and Princeton all participated in the movement, receiving funding from well-known philanthropic groups like the Carnegie Institute. The Rockefeller Foundation provided funding to the early German eugenics’ programs.
While the eugenics movement slowly began to lose ground in the years leading up to World War II, the movement rapidly fell into disfavor during the post-war era. The reports of atrocities from the war and crimes against humanity revealed during the Nuremberg trials forced public opinion away from eugenics.
By the 1950s and 1960s, universities, academic groups and societies were rebranding themselves in order to be viewed in a more positive light. In addition, these decades saw countless states repeal their sterilization and marriage restriction laws.
Because ideas associated with eugenics and racial hygiene still show up today in discussions of public health policy and immigration reform, it is necessary for academia and schools like UC Berkeley to acknowledge past participation in the evils of eugenics and push for appropriate social change.
It is a small step for UC Berkeley to acknowledge this fund’s existence and actively transition it into something positive. More needs to be done in that other public and private institutions need to step up and acknowledge their participation in the eugenics movement.
Acknowledgement of past sins is only a starting point. We need to continually remind the public of what can and does happen when we use science to justify our racial and elitist biases.
This idea that human beings can be improved through selective breeding is simply arrogance at its finest.
Improvement always implies progression toward something. Eugenicists argue for the perfection of the human race, but what they are talking about is not an ideal perfection but merely a reflection of themselves.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.