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Richard Weikart


Father of Eugenics

Notorious today as the founding father of eugenics, Francis Galton was honored as one of the leading scientists of his day.

With this article we begin an occasional series, "Eugenics Again," which will explore the present-day return of eugenics to respectability, the history of eugenics, and the ethical questions raised by new genetic technologies. In the early decades of the twentieth century, eugenics was widely practiced in the United States and Europe. The horrors of the Nazi era, once revealed, relegated eugenics to the shadowy fringes of science and public policy: anyone in the postwar liberal democracies who openly espoused the hereditary "improvement" of a nation, a race, or humanity at large immediately became a pariah. Indeed, merely to acknowledge the significance of heredity in human development was suspect.

In recent years, however, there are signs on many fronts that this taboo is losing its force, and we have begun to hear—even in the pages of the preeminent journals, Science and Nature—that, while the Nazis were of course quite awful, perhaps the general condemnation of eugenics should now be seen as an understandable overcorrection. Meanwhile, embryos are routinely being screened and selected out with no particular fuss: everyday eugenics.

Notorious today as the founding father of eugenics, Francis Galton (1822-1911) was honored as one of the leading scientists of his day. He held various offices in the British Association for the Advancement of Science, was elected a member of the prestigious Royal Society, received both the Darwin and Copley Medals of the Royal Society, was named an honorary fellow of Trinity College, and was knighted in 1909. He devoted much of his life to investigating human heredity and ways to "improve" it, coining the term "eugenics" to describe this enterprise. In the course of his studies (many, but not all, related in some way to heredity), he made significant contributions to fields as diverse as geography, statistics, meteorology, psychology, and forensic science.

It is tempting to see Galton as a "hereditary genius," to borrow the title of his ...

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