‘Legacies of Eugenics’ explored in new exhibition and website
Marking a century since the influential Second International Eugenics Congress was organised at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Professor Marius Turda has curated a new exhibition exploring the history and legacies of eugenics.
He leads the Confront Eugenics project.
What is Eugenics?
Professor Turda: “Francis Galton―a half-cousin of Charles Darwin―coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883, drawing on the Greek expression ‘well-born’. Galton defined eugenics as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally’.”
Does eugenics still exist?
Professor Turda: “When asked about eugenics, many will think of the Nazi state and the Holocaust, and believe that the backlash after 1945 dealt a decisive blow to eugenics. But eugenics continued to influence society - its legacies continue to affect current politics and culture, promoting discrimination, inequality, and divisions in society.
“During the last decade, eugenics also manoeuvred its way back into a position of authority by associating itself with human concerns - from ‘designer babies’ to the rise of ethnic nationalism.”
What influence did eugenics have on ordinary people in the 1920s?
Professor Turda: “Many men and women getting married followed eugenic advice. In February 1914, Benjamin R. Bell and Laura van Slyke became the first couple in California to produce medical certificates before marriage, proving they were both in good physical and mental health. Choosing your spouse wisely was advocated by the eugenicists - with idealised versions of white masculinity and femininity commonly used to depict ideas of marriage, racial vitality, and motherhood.
By the time Second International Eugenics Congress convened in 1921, eugenic societies had been established across Europe, North, Central and South America. Eugenics had become a global phenomenon spreading across the political spectrum, embraced by both the right and the left, and equally by freethinkers, anarchists, and religious figures.”
Why did the movement gain such traction?
Professor Turda: “Eugenicists claimed to act in the name of future generations by ensuring the continuity of people who were believed to be ‘hereditarily healthy’. They believed the practical application of eugenic ideas was beneficial to society and therefore improved the wellbeing of individuals.
“Historically it flourished in racial democracies such as the United States, India and Brazil, in totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and communist China, as well as in liberal democracies such as Sweden and Britain. It was popular in Eastern Europe, and it reached to the far corners of Australasia. Eugenics was a polymorphous entity which transcended political and religious affiliation.”
Are there examples of eugenics at play in today’s society?
Professor Turda: “Sterilization programmes targeting ethnic minorities and individuals with mental disabilities did not end after the Holocaust. For instance the sterilization programme implemented by the government of Alberto Fujimore in Peru in the 1990s is considered one of the most brutal. According to official estimates, more than 270,000 women and around 22,000 men were irreversibly sterilized as part of Fujmore’s family planning policies.
“Another example connects to the rapid progress in genomics and in gene editing technologies. There is a ‘new’ version of eugenics which focuses not on ‘feeblemindedness’, criminality and so on, as it was during the early part of the twentieth century, but on genetic diseases caused by chromosomal disorders or single gene mutations. The aim remains the same: to control reproductive practices, influencing the transmission of unwanted hereditary traits.”
How can eugenics be kept in the history books?
Professor Turda: “Teaching the history of eugenics is essential to understanding of the modern world.
“We can explain the views of individuals involved, their ideas and the doctrines of political and social movements; highlight the distinct features of a period, a country or a region. And we certainly need to point out the elements of continuity and discontinuity in the history of eugenics.
“But perhaps more importantly, we need to expose erroneous claims made by eugenicists and show that none of these are substantiated by credible scientific evidence, and none are socially or morally justified.
“By knowing this history, we can confront eugenics in all its forms and prevent it from re-emerging in the future.”
What can we learn from this new exhibition?
Professor Turda: “Eugenics was truly global, and while the full extent of its impact will probably never be known, it cut deep and wide into the texture of our modern world.
“It is important to engage with the legacies of eugenics and to reclaim the academic, cultural and social spaces it occupied for so long. This exhibition focuses on creating a sense of togetherness, acceptance and inclusion - helping us to confront our eugenic past and its reverberations into the present.”
Professor Turda was awarded a grant of £60,000 from the Public History Project to curate the exhibition and to continue his research.
Main image: A woman calling for justice, 17 September 2020, in Lima, Peru. Part of the campaigns organised by ‘Somos 2074 y Muchas Más’ (‘We are 2074 and Many More’) [Credit: Rosa Villafuerte/Demus ‘Acción bordado’]