Eugenics is the study of improving the human race by genetic means and dates from ancient times. In his Republic, Plato depicts an ideal society through the effort to improve human beings through selective breeding. English scientist Sir Francis Galton pioneered the use of statistics in genetic thought. In his first important book, Hereditary Genius (1869), Galton proposed that a system of arranged marriages between men of distinction and women of wealth would eventually produce a gifted race, but the idea never won widespread acceptance. Many people fear that a eugenics program would take away basic human rights, such as people's rights to marry whom they choose. The term eugenics was coined in 1883 by Galton and he continued to expound its benefits until his death in 1911. Since the 1950s there has been a renewed interest in eugenics because certain diseases as hemophilia and Tay-Sach's Disease are now known to be genetically transmitted. Moreover, some states in the United States have laws that are aimed at preventing persons with known defects from having children. To date expanding eugenics programs, which range from the creation of sperm banks for the genetically superior to the potential cloning of human beings, have met with extreme resistance from the public, which often views such programs as unwarranted interference with nature or as opportunities for abuse by authoritarian regimes.

Ancient Eugenics is an essay that explores eugenics from its pre-history barbarism to its roots in the classical philosophical era of Socrates and Plato was written in 1913 by Allen G. Roper (Late of Keble College, Oxford Vol. 32, Mankind Quarterly, 06-01-1992, pp 383). It received the Arnold Prize for its informative nature, pertaining to the improvement of humans in the past. The ancient Greeks and early Romans believed that all human qualities were rooted in heredity. The essay is in public domain and contains quotes from Aristotle to Xenophon on classical breeding.

Ancient Eugenics

The preface to a history of eugenics is most probably to be found in the Paleolithic, for the first eugenists (sic) was not the Spartan legislator, but the earliest hominid who killed the critically impaired child. The lower the economic level of the community, the more rapidly it reproduces itself. There is an extravagant production of raw material, and the way of Nature is the ruthless rejection of all that is superfluous. When there is no differential birth rate, nature adjusts the balance by means of a differential death rate. In the days when human or animal foe threatened on every side, when "force and fraud were the two cardinal virtues," the life of man was "poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Natural selection was both ruthless and severe. Eventually, some conception of the wasteful processes of Nature at some time dawned upon the increasingly intelligent human mind. While they lived their short lives, the weakly, the deformed, and the superfluous were a burden to the band. Human custom, superseding natural law, would be tempted to eliminate them at birth. This was the atavistic basis on which subsequent eugenics was built.

In Greece, however, primitive eugenic practices underwent a logical development. It was recognized that the occurrence of the non-viable child was inevitable, and remedial custom and subsequent legislation essayed by anticipation to reduce this waste of life to a minimum. It was realized that to increase the productivity of the best stock is a more important measure than to repress the productivity of the worst. Out of the negative aspect of eugenics develops the positive.

Speculation on Earliest Days

With the advance of civilization, conditions became increasingly stable: war is still imminent, but, instead of being an essential element of existence, it comes to be regarded as a necessary evil. Eugenic measures are still necessary, but in the altered conditions a new ideal is born. The conception of a race of competent warriors develops into the ideal of a state of healthy citizens. All these formulations of eugenics are aristocratic and parochial; they are to benefit the people of a single state, and only a section within that state. Any wider conception of broad eugenic regeneration was impossible to a people who dichotomized the state into free citizens and slaves who were devoid of legal status.

Thus the earliest elements of eugenics are to be found in the attempt of early men to combat the wasteful processes of nature by eliminating the non-viable at birth. Modern efforts, on the contrary, have been directed to the prolongation of the lives of the non-viable. Instead of sacrificing the unfit in the interests of the fit, we employ every resource of modern science, in the words of one early eugenicist, "to keep alight the feeble flame of life in the baseborn child of a degenerate parent."

The weapons forged by nature have been taken from her hands. Side by side with the rapid multiplication of the unfit there has been a marked decline in the birth-rate of the creative and productive elements of the community.

In the second place, the abolition of infanticide has confronted us with the necessity of knowledge. The methods of the animal breeder are ruthless and precise. He slaughters or he spares, and divergent variations are a matter of no moment. So the Spartans and Plato, with this analogy before them, were saved from the necessity of any deeper knowledge by the preventive check of infanticide. If Nature erred in her intentions, this art was at hand to rectify her mistakes. Infanticide saved the Greeks from many of the problems of defective heredity.

When concerned with the question of eugenics, there is the problem of selection. Though physique is easily estimated, and correlated, perhaps, as Galton held, with other good qualities, the modern eugenicist has before him no simple homogeneous ideal. He has to recognize the psychical as well as the physical aspect of the intricate mosaic of human personality. The altruistic claim their place no less than those of brilliant intellect such as a Marcus Aurelius or an Adam Bede. Even though we hold it possible to compile a list of qualities for selection universally acceptable, we cannot, under the present limitations of our knowledge, prove personal value to be synonymous with reproductive value. No schema of economic eugenics, inferring the aptitudes of individuals from social position or income, can solve the hopeless perplexities that wait upon constructive methods. Passing from the individual ethnic group to the panorama of diverse world populations, eugenic theory is confronted by the conflicting ideals not only of alternative characters, but also of incompatible cultural values, themselves often reflecting differences in heritable personality. Since differentiation is an indispensable factor in human progress, there thus arises the further problem of a eugenic ethnology.

In this we find the roots of the opposition that has grown up in modern times to eugenic theory. Lost in egotism, eugenics has also met with opposition arising from misguided and imprudent altruism. Only scientific altruism renders it once more practicable.

Early Infanticide

To return to our theme, from the early origins of primitive eugenic practice in the unreflective intuition of the atavistic past, eugenic theory became an increasingly conscious practice among the Greeks until it finally flowered in the pages of Aristotle, only to become lost from view amid the throes of a pessimistic and decadent age that followed the collapse of the golden age of Greece.

Infanticide and exposure, terms which in early ages were virtually synonymous, appear on first consideration to have been practiced among uncivilized tribes for a bewildering multiplicity of reasons. There is the female infanticide of China and the Isles of the Southern Pacific, the male infanticide of the Abipones of Paraguay. There are the Carthaginians who sacrificed their children to Kronos, the Mexicans to the rain god. There is the murder of twins and albinos in Arebo, and the cannibalism of the aborigines.

Co-existing with all these various practices there is the definitely eugenic motive. Among the aborigines, deformed children were killed as soon as born. The natives of Guiana killed any child that was " deformed, feeble, or bothersome." The Fans killed sickly children.

The question arises, therefore, whether the eugenic motive first led to the institution of infanticide, or whether it was merely a by-product, a later growth, springing out of a practice which owed its inception to totally different causes. Setting aside infanticide when prompted by mere brutality or cannibalistic cravings, the motives may be classified as irrational or rational.

Irrational motives are the religious or superstitious, rational the eugenic. Between these two there is a wide line of demarcation.

The origin of religious infanticide is obscure. There may be in it something of a sacramental meal, or possibly the primal idea in its many variations is the gain of some benefit by the sacrifice of something of value. In any case, whatever the basic intention, the religious motive in infanticide has no relation to the eugenic. Such melancholy theology implies some degree of social organization, and was, therefore, a later and independent conception.

Even before man became his own worst enemy, brute creation must have furnished formidable foes to the naked and defenseless savage. Under pressure of want, the group must adjust their numbers to the available food; under pressure of war, the same problem rises in still more urgent form. From these circumstances arises the practice of infanticide. It is circumstance, says Plato,and not man, which makes the laws.

The nomadic group, passing from district to district in search of food, would find the children a burden. The earliest infanticides, casual rather than premeditated, were probably in the nature of a desertion. This preparing the way for an extension of the practice would lead to its adoption in the attempt to adjust numbers to the available food-supply. In the same way non-producers and non-combatants would be regarded in the nature of impedimenta, since they consumed food without benefiting the group in return.

The first system of infanticide is therefore a policy of immediate need. The first victims would probably be infants who were severely deformed, the maimed, and the weaklings, and female infanticide might also follow. We have evidence of Neanderthal adults who were cared for by their compatriots even though by accident they had suffered crippling handicaps. But newborn infants have not yet been emotionally integrated into the group.

Infanticide in the Classical World

Infanticide, sanctioned by long usage, eventually passed into the custom, and subsequently into the laws of several civilized nations. It appears in the legislation of Solon, while at Rome it was ordained by the Twelve Tables for a definitely eugenic motive. A child conspicuously deformed was to be immediately destroyed. But this limitation was frustrated by the control conceded to the father, which power, restricted in Greece by all legislators alike, was absolute in Rome as in Gaul.

So at Rome the eugenic motive fades into the background, and abuses become so frequent that they have to be checked by further legislation. Romulus is said to have forbidden the murder of sons and first-born daughters, and the "Lex Gentilicia" of the Fabii, who were in danger of extinction, decreed that every child born must be reared.

Under the Empire we find Seneca asserting once more the eugenic justification of infanticide. "We drown the weakling and the monstrosity. It is not passion, but reason, to separate the useless from the fit." Two distinct tendencies appear, control of reproduction diminishing infanticide among the upper classes, exposure taking its place among the lower.

The lower classes, on the contrary, propagating recklessly amid extreme pauperism -- for rapid multiplication was then as now a frequent concomitant of bad environment -- resorted to unselective exposure, which is the antithesis of eugenic infanticide. Quintilian, indeed, declared that the exposed rarely survived, but the possibilities of acquiring a free slave by saving an abandoned infant must have led to frequent preservation -- "vel ad lupanar vel ad servitutem." Occasionally the luckless child falls into the hands of unscrupulous mendicants, who maim it and exhibit it for gain.

So the Christian Councils and the Christian Emperors set themselves vehemently to oppose the practice, but, using palliation instead of prevention, relieved the world of one problem and left another in its place. Despite the legislation of Constantine, Valentinian, and Justinian, exposure continued. Marble vessels were set up at the doors of the churches, and gradually there came into being hospitals, asylums, refuges, crèches, receiving and tending the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the crippled, and defective, regardless of whether these were congenitally handicapped or the unhappy products of accident or disease. Out of the failure of the Christian Fathers to find the right solution to a difficult problem arose what late nineteenth century eugenists (sic) perceived as an imperative need for the scientific altruism of eugenics practices.

Beyond infanticide, which, despite its many perversions, was in part eugenic, the Romans made no conscious effort to build a scheme of racial regeneration. Whatever the appeal of "patient Lacedaemon" to the sentimental vulgarity of the Romans, they learnt no lesson from their admiration, though the biographer of Lycurgus lectured to Domitian. In the crude scheme of the Germans, Tacitus finds no eugenic moral.

Restrictive marriage, perhaps, would have been a perilous lesson to teach to the Caesars, who, from Julius the epileptic to Nero the madman, may have suffered from hereditary insanity. Pliny's boast that for 600 years Rome had known no doctors shows that there was little interest among the Romans in schemes of hygiene or social reform. The Greeks themselves had forgotten, by the time they came under Roman domination, the teaching of Plato and Aristotle. Eugenics was lost in Stoicism, and Stoicism was the creed of the Empire.

"This age is worse than the previous age, and our father will beget worse offspring still," declared Horace; and Aratus voices again the lament of Horace: "What an age the golden sires have left behind them, and your children will be worse even than you!"The Golden Age of Rome lay forever in the past.


Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.