Historical and Theoretical Overview of the Eugenics Movement
The science of eugenics developed and eugenics movements proliferated during the latter half of the nineteenth century and continued through the middle of the twentieth century. Although the word "genetic" was not coined until 1905, the term "eugenics" was adapted from the Greek word eugenes (meaning "wellborn") by British scientist Francis Galton in 1883 to encompass the social uses to which knowledge of heredity could be put in order to achieve the goal of "better breeding" ( Stepan, 1991, pp. 1, 11). Later, eugenics became a movement to improve the human race or to "preserve the purity" of certain groups ( Mazumdar, 1992).
Stepan notes that the growing economic competition among nations and the rise in demands from previously marginalized working class and women's groups during the last three decades of the nineteenth century caused the early optimism of the mid-Victorian period to give way to widespread pessimism about modern life. During the Boer War (1899- 1902), the "discovery" that many enlisted men were "unfit" for military service because of low scores on screening tests heightened eugenicists' fears ( Abbott & Sapsford, 1990). Science, a highly social activity, is not sealed off from the values of the society in which it is practiced ( Harding, 1993). The science of eugenics figured prominently in recommending solutions for the social ills of modern life. Darwin's theories of evolution with their concepts of "survival of the fittest" and "natural selection in breeding" ( 1871, 1898) resulted in, or at least coincided with, beliefs about biological determinism in heredity (social Darwinism) and fears of individual and societal deterioration.
Different theories about the nature of genetic influence have been endorsed over time. Dugdale ( 1877) popularized "familial" social inefficiency
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Publication information: Book title: Sterilization of People with Mental Disabilities:Issues, Perspectives, and Cases. Contributors: Ellen Brantlinger - Author. Publisher: Auburn House. Place of publication: Westport, CT. Publication year: 1995. Page number: 3.
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