Eugenics, intelligence, and superiority: How quantifying human value created a history of invisible violence

Author’s note: This post is the third part of a series discussing ideas from Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. To read the previous post, click here.


Human intelligence and creativity are truly amazing phenomena, unique to us among billions of species. Indeed, these two traits have been incredibly impactful to our society; through the repeated process of imagination, construction, and alteration, over thousands of years, we have been able to create everything from the calculus that powers rockets to the religions which billions follow. Clearly, the history of human accomplishment deserves to be celebrated. Spurred by these advancements, scholars in the 20th century posed several questions regarding the progress of society: Can a country’s level of development describe how far it has advanced? Do the most productive individuals contribute the most to societal progress? And should we bias our society towards having such productive individuals? Despite their seemingly innocuous nature, these questions were undergirded by a framework of utilitarianism that would justify atrocities such as eugenics and nation-building. In this post, we’ll carefully examine this history and better understand the mechanisms by which eugenics came to be.

In the early 1900’s, Francis Galton, among other scientists, investigated a question key to almost every field of science at the time: Which aspects of ourselves are we born with, and which are influenced after birth? If answered, this striking question would offer novel perspectives to every classroom around the world by offering insight into the fundamental differences that exist between people. Galton contended that if a person was well-off, in terms of wealth and socioeconomic status, they would contribute up to 20% more to society than their “dumb” counterparts—this led him to believe that there was a fundamental genetic difference between productive and unproductive workers. Thus began his theory of eugenics, which grew in popularity in the early 1900’s. Selective breeding, a phenomenon used to create desirable qualities in animals, was now encouraged for people as well. Senators around the nation voted to pass bills that would allow local authorities to forcibly sterilize those deemed unfit: those physically impaired, cognitively impaired, or mentally challenged. These laws were not only passed with bipartisan support but were masqueraded as protecting human rights—by preventing children being born to parents with disabilities, the children’s welfare was being guaranteed, politicians said. At the time, eugenics was becoming wildly popular among scientists and politicians alike.

Legislative map of forced eugenical sterilization in the U.S.
Source: PBS

However, as we know today, the theory of eugenics was founded on ableist ideals of society; the idea of ridding ourselves of “the undesirables” was indeed problematic in many aspects.

First, which governing body would determine whether someone was “unfit” for society? As the physical bills put into law included phrases such as “those deemed idiots… or morons,” these terms were loosely defined and their interpretations were left to local authorities who often acted on personal and racial prejudices. Not only did eugenics policies enable local policemen to oppress minority groups, but the codification of such policies into United States law gave this behavior an air of permissibility, when such inhuman acts should have been rejected by all ethical standards.

Secondly, how could one accurately quantify a qualitative trait like intelligence? At the dawn of the 20th century, Alfred Binet tried to solve this problem by inventing the intelligence quotient (IQ) test. Binet created the test with virtuous intentions: to find which students were lagging in class so they could be given additional help. In fact, he himself stated that it was never meant to be “a general device for ranking all pupils according to mental worth” (Binet, 1916). He was correct that the IQ test isn’t the end-all-be-all of mental capacity: At the time, studies found that IQ tests were not tracking brainpower, but rather, a subject’s proficiency in English and the socioeconomic status they had been born into. Furthermore, tests were often crudely made, often providing inaccurate results. Clearly, intelligence and human worth cannot be quantified into a single printed digit. It is a unique characteristic that we all possess, and although some may be more proficient at some tasks than others, we all bring something valuable to the world.

In fact, I argue that society benefits from having a wide variety of people, each with unique ways of approaching and contributing to the world. From history, one can see that it is impossible to quantify human value, and when attempted, it results in unjust cruelty to many. We each have our own perspectives, talents, and shortcomings. Society has benefited from this wide diversity in human capabilities, as it has resulted in a broader range of people who each bring something valuable to the world, from mathematicians and professors to construction workers and farmers. We should be proud of the diversity we have in our civilization. Instead, if we were to homogenize the population into a single “superior class” through eugenics, it would result in a world far worse than the one we thrive in today.

Although eugenics lost support several decades ago, re-examining this dark history has perhaps never been more important than now to avoid future atrocities. Current events call into question our perceptions of ourselves and each other. In an era when leaders pursue nationalism and pit their subjects against “a lesser stock” of humans at their doorstep, we must refuse to be persuaded by such rhetoric, recognizing and rejecting its underlying evil. Instead, we each deserve to be valued as simply people, regardless of our race, heritage, or geographical location. In the upcoming years, the world may turn towards the better or the worse, but hopefully, by examining this era of history, we will learn a lesson.


Further reading:

Frank, Natalie. “Intelligence Testing and the Beginning of Eugenics.” Owlcation, Owlcation, 25 June 2018, www.owlcation.com/social-sciences/Intelligence-Testing-and-the-Beginning-of-Eugenics.

King, Charles. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. Doubleday, 2019.

Norrgard, Kagen. “Human Testing, the Eugenics Movement, and IRBs.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 2008, www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/human-testing-the-eugenics-movement-and-irbs-724/.

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