The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America

The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America

The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America

The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America

Synopsis

Eugenics was a term coined in 1883 to name the scientific and social theory which advocated "race improvement" through selective human breeding. In Europe and the United States the eugenics movement found many supporters before it was finally discredited by its association with the racist ideology of Nazi Germany. Examining for the first time how eugenics was taken up by scientists and social reformers in Latin America, Nancy Leys Stepan compares the eugenics movements in Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina with the more familiar cases of Britain, the United States, and Germany.

Excerpt

Eugenics was hardly a new idea in 1883, despite the new name coined for it that year. In some ways the weeding out of unfit individuals went back to the Greeks, as British eugenists were fond of pointing out, perhaps because the association gave classical authority to the otherwise shocking notion that since not all individuals are equally endowed in nature not all should necessarily be allowed to reproduce themselves.

Nevertheless, "our" eugenics, properly speaking, belongs to the late nineteenth century and to the era of modern hereditarian science. The eventual enthusiasm for eugenics expressed by scientists, physicians, legal experts, and mental hygienists must be seen as the culmination of a long process of intellectual and social transformation in the nineteenth century, in which human life was increasingly interpreted as being the result of natural biological laws. Early in the century, for instance, Thomas Malthus, whose works on the "laws" of the biological inevitability of human overpopulation haunted nineteenth-century political economy, remarked that it did not by any means seem impossible that by selective breeding "a certain degree of improvement, similar to that amongst animals, might take place among men." He added, however, "As the human race could not be improved in this way, without condemning all the bad speci-

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