Comparing Eugenics with Modern Genetics

In this essay we will consider whether classical eugenics and the use of modern gene technology both share the same goal of human perfection. To do this, we will first define the terms, and then compare and analyse the similarities between the practices, followed by the differences.

Eugenics comes from the Greek eu – “good” + genos “birth”. Sir Francis Galton defined it as “the science of improving stock – not only by judicious mating, but whatever tends to give the more suitable races…a better chance of prevailing”[1]. Within this we can consider both positive and negative eugenics, whereby positive eugenics involves encouraging breeding of the best, and negative is the avoidance of breeding of the worst. ‘Best’ and ‘worst’ could, at a minimum interpretation, be understood to mean healthy, but in the past the definitions also included traits like intelligence, race, and physical ability. The concept of eugenics is intertwined with the ideals of Social Darwinism: the belief that society would filter out those unfit to survive and that only those who were naturally the best would prosper.

Modern gene technology includes the ability to identify or change genes. This can be used in a variety of ways, in living patients or in prenatal diagnostics. From this information decisions can be made or treatment prescribed. For example, preimplantation genetic diagnosis allows for the selection of embryos without certain genetic traits — in the UK conditions like Downs syndrome and sickle cell anaemia can be screened for[2]. Pregnancy screening tests are available too, where the option to abort is available if a condition is discovered. In living patients, gene technologies can be used to identify genetic conditions and suggest treatment.

To what extent are these practices similar? We can consider the minimum interpretation of eugenic practices which specifically focused on optimising the health of the population. Especially if we consider positive eugenic approaches, like ‘Fitter Family Fairs’ in 1920’s Indiana which aimed at encouraging American hygiene and reducing child mortality[3]. Modern gene technology is used for medicine as well, to screen for and provide the option to reduce the prevalence of certain conditions, like Downs syndrome, and so here there is an overlap in the goals of the two practices. This is as far as the similarity goes, and requires a very strict, but unrealistic example of eugenics. Many eugenics programs argued that their motivation was to improve the fitness of the population, however often this was not the case. Even in this example, the families who entered the competitions were “white, native-born, Protestant” which “narrow the definition of “healthy, normal””[4]. Looking at negative eugenics the distinction is made clearer, Sweden’s sterilisation act of 1934 aimed at producing a healthy future citizenship, but also sterilised people purely for being Romani.[5]

Whilst some may argue that gene technology and eugenics differ in that modern gene technology is based on science and eugenics was based on quasi-science, it is here that another similarity can be found. The science at the time of the eugenicists believed that single genes were behind traits like criminality, alcoholism, or “feeblemindedness”[6] — this was due to a simplified assumption and limited understanding of heritance which had just recently be outlined by Mendel. Nevertheless, they worked within the scientific scope of the time, much as we do today. What has changed, among other things, is an increased awareness of other factors influencing ‘fitness’.

Differences are apparent when we consider the motivations behind the practices. Motivation plays a crucial role in moral evaluation: consider the simple distinction between accidently killing someone (not through negligence) and doing it with intent. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory, meaning that intentions are often not factored in. Utilitarian arguments are thus often used to justify eugenic practices[7]. It is here we can outline a difference: eugenics aims to improve the quality of some people’s lives in the future, at the cost of others, treating them as a means to an end. The idea being that the consequence of eugenic breeding will be a perfectly healthy and optimal functioning society. The motivation behind medicinal genetics is to improve the life of the individual, the consequence of which is the improvement of population overall. Whilst one may argue for a slippery slope from the latter to the former, the important moral distinction remains in the intention of the two practices, one has a stronger focus on the needs of the state and the other of the individual.

This leads to another distinction: classical eugenics was often forced, either physically or through putative measures. Modern genetics has not yet been commonly associated with forced abortions, forced selection of embryos, or forced treatment — apart from some exceptions which prove the rule.[8][9]

If we consider the less generous definition of eugenics, which includes race and intelligence in its definition of ‘fitness’, we can draw a clear distinction with modern gene technology, which as of yet, does not select for these things. One may argue that selecting for conditions such as Downs syndrome is selecting for intelligence. This is, strictly, correct. However, assuming one has a clear definition of what constitutes treatment, this rather counts as a medical selection. With these considerations we can see that gene technology, as it is used today, allows for more pluralism, whereas eugenics reduces it. It is important to note here, that if gene technology did start to deviate from its use only for illnesses, that the two practices would come considerably closer together.

The application of genetic technology and classical eugenics draw parallels, from their basis in biological science and their goal of improved health. However, they are mostly distinct from one another: eugenics focuses on state-biased outcomes, and often coerced its compliance. Eugenics also slips into discussions of intelligence and race whereas genetic technology remains, so far, in medicinal treatment.


[1] Galton F., Inquiries Into Human Faculty and Its Development, Macmillan, 1883, p.17

[2] Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, Pre-Implantation genetic diagnosis – – 16.12.19

[3] Stern A. M., “Making Better Babies: Public Health and Race Betterment in Indiana, 1920-1935”, Public Health Then and Now, Vol. 92 May 2002

[4] Ladd-Taylor, M. (2014, April 29). Fitter family contests. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from

[5] Lynoe N.,”Race Enhancement Through Sterilization: Swedish Experiences”, International Journal of Mental Health, Vol 36 2007

[6] Norrgard, K. (2008) Human testing, the eugenics movement, and IRBs. Nature Education 1(1):170

[7] Vizcarrondo F. E., “Human Enhancement: The new eugenics”, The Linacre Quarterly, 81 2014

[8] BBC News (2019), “Judges Overturn ‘forced abortion’ ruling”, – 16.12.19

[9] New York Times (2012), “Forced to Abort, Chinese Woman Under Pressure”, – 16.12.19


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