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Richard Weikart

Brave New China

Is eugenics—the movement for improving human characteristics by controlling heredity—reviving? No more than two decades ago, such a revival would have seemed extremely improbable. Eugenics was almost universally condemned as a horrifying example of science run amok, conjuring up grotesque images of Nazi death camps and "euthanasia" centers, where German physicians murdered millions in an attempt to fulfill Hitler's dreams of a racially pure breed of Germans, free from genetic "defects."

Other factors had also contributed to the decline of eugenics in the mid-twentieth century. By the 1960s, the social sciences and psychology had for the most part rejected biological determinism, which exerted a powerful hold on many intellectuals in the early twentieth century. Social scientists in the 1960s placed far greater emphasis on the power of the environment to shape individuals and their character. The civil-rights campaign and the women's movement brought intense pressure against all forms of biological determinism. The new emphasis on reproductive freedom that accompanied the abortion-rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s dealt a further blow to eugenics. Progressives, who earlier in the century promoted government measures to control reproduction, were now appalled by eugenics legislation of the early twentieth century, such as compulsory sterilization of the mentally handicapped. Individual choice supplanted responsibility to society in reproductive matters.

In Imperfect Conceptions: Medical Knowledge, Birth Defects, and Eugenics in China, Frank Dikotter explains that the trajectory of eugenics in twentieth-century China has roughly paralleled developments in the rest of the world. Despite the popularity of eugenics among physicians and intellectuals in early twentieth-century China, after the success of the Communist revolution in 1949 eugenics lost official approval. Chinese Communists, like their Soviet counterparts, rejected Mendelian genetics in favor of ...

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