Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

Eugenics literally means "good breeding". It is defined as the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally. Both the word and the definition were fixed by Sir Francis Galton, the founder of the movement. The science has two chief divisions, namely, heredity and environment. Galton believed that heredity was by far the more important. He derived his main idea from the breeding of the race-horse. Just as we can breed horses for points, so also, it is contended, can we breed men for points. The eugenics movement, however, consists of more than study. It includes public action in the way of legislation, administration, and the influencing of human conduct.

Galton was born in 1822. His parents were people of means, and so he was enabled to receive a very liberal education and to devote his life to scientific research. He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Trinity College, Cambridge. He traveled in Syria and Central Africa. Charles Darwin was his cousin, both being grandsons of Dr. Erasmus Darwin. As early as 1865 Galton began his work of measuring the human faculties and of tracing similarities and differences in definite families through several generations. He founded several anthropometric laboratories. The chief of these is now carried on under Professor Karl Pearson at University College, London. Galton was much impressed by the hereditary phenomena of the Fellows of the Royal Society. From the information which he collected concerning their families he formed the basis of his future research. He also made use of the stud-book of the basset-hounds belonging to Sir. J.E. Millais. His earlier studies led him to formulate what he called the ancestral law. According to this, the contribution to the making of any one individual is by each parent one quarter, by each grandparent, one sixteenth, and so on. In 1869 he published his "Hereditary Genius, and Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences". In this he essayed to show a law of distribution of ability in families. In each group of ten illustrious men who have illustrious relations, there are three or four eminent fathers, four or five eminent brothers, and five or six eminent sons. Hence it is inferred that by mating eminent people with eminent people, we can produce eminent people.

It has been objected, however, that such breeding would make the race unbalanced. All the good, few in number, would be at the top, and all the bad, many in number, at the bottom. Galton replied to this criticism with his "law of regression towards mediocrity". A lower stratum, he said, would produce an offspring, on the whole, superior to itself. This in turn would produce a still better offspring, and so on until mediocrity was reached. Then more careful artificial selection would be needed. During the last ten years, through the work of Professors Bateson and Biffen of Cambridge, the principles of Mendelism have been brought into the question. These threaten to modify Galton's law of regression towards mediocrity, and indeed to nullify his ancestral law. The permanence of dominant qualities and the disappearance of recessive qualities (see MENDEL, MENDELISM) show that experiments are of little value which have not been spread out over at least three generations. Mendelian experiments, however, on human beings have not yet been conspicuously successful. Owing to disturbing and amplifying factors only few normal characters, eye-colour for instance, have been demonstrated to follow Mendelian laws. Abnormal characters can be more easily verified. Deaf-mutism, for instance, acts as a recessive. Selection implies rejection. Thus the science is divided into positive eugenics and negative. The one encourages parenthood of the fit or worthy, whilst the other discourages parenthood of the unfit or unworthy. Thus eugenics concerns itself largely with selection in marriage and with the exercise of the marital function. Negative eugenics also seeks to eradicate the racial defects of alcohol, venereal disease, lead poisoning, feeble-mindedness, and consumption. But the Church, too, has a doctrine concerning marriage and its use, and also a doctrine and a method of dealing with racial defects. The Church therefore has no fault to find with race culture as such. Rather does she encourage it. But she wishes it carried out on right lines.

The root difference between Catholic teaching and that of modern eugenics is that the one places the final end of man in eternal life, whilst the other places it in civic worth. The effectual difference is that the Church makes bodily and mental culture subservient to morality, whilst modern eugenics makes morality subservient to bodily and mental culture. But we must admit that modern eugenics shows a growing tendency to acknowledge the claims of religion. Dr. Saleeby is an advance on Galton, and Professor Whetham is an advance on Saleeby. In dealing with racial poisons, the Church provides the most radical remedies. Against alcohol she sets the virtue of temperance, against white-lead the virtue of justice, against venereal disease the virtue of purity. She provides for proper selection in marriage by setting impediments against unworthy marriages. The spirit life of the married pair and of the children is protected by the prohibition of mixed marriages. The proclamation of banns protects the parties against possible fraud or mistake. The requirement of consent of parents tends to promote prudent marriages. The impediment of a previous engagement unreleased is a safeguard against rash promises and heartless breach of promise. The impediments of consanguinity and affinity are universally acknowledged to have a great eugenic value. Moreover, since the most necessary and most difficult eugenic reforms consist in the control of the sex appetite, the practice of celibacy is an important factor in race culture. It is the standing example of a Divinely aided will holding the sensual passion in check.

The crux of the eugenic question is in the proposals for segregation and sterilization. Both may be either voluntary or compulsory. The aim is to prevent defectives from propagating their kind. Segregation means not only the separation of defectives from the rest of the community but also separation of the sexes from each other amongst the defectives themselves. Sterilization is a surgical operation by which the subjects are made incapable of procreation. Formerly it consisted of castration in men, and excision of the ovaries in women. But recently two much simpler operations have been discovered, namely, vasectomy for men and ligature of the Fallopian tubes (Kehrer's method) for women. They are not grave when considered as dangerous operations, but they are grave as regards their moral effects. Herein lies the difficulty of judging them. The Holy Office has not yet given any decision concerning them. Speculatively speaking, therefore, the question is open. The following, however, may be taken to be the prevalent teaching of Catholic theologians and physicians. Vasectomy or ligature of the Fallopian tubes is no remedy against concupiscence ; and even if it were, mutilation could not be permitted as a means of avoiding temptation. The operation would open the door to immoral practices which would constitute a worse evil than the one avoided. Being in itself slight and almost painless, it would be useless as a punishment for criminals or as a deterrent for others. If the principle were admitted it would encourage the abuse of matrimonial relations. The welfare of the State, if seriously threatened by the degenerate, could be better protected by segregation. Therefore the operation is not permissible, except as a necessary means to bodily health, and consequently except for this necessity may not be performed even with the patient's consent. The Church has never regarded the marriage of degenerates as unlawful in itself: they cannot be deprived of their right without a grave reason. Even eugenists like Dr. Saleeby and Dr. Havelock Ellis disapprove of compulsory surgery. As for compulsory segregation it seems to be both right and good, provided that all due safeguards are taken in respect of the grades of feebleness. The spirit of the Church is to extend rather than curtail the freedom of the individual. The Catholic conscience guards against the State being unduly exalted at the expense of the family. The latest activity of the eugenics movement was the First International Congress held in London in 1912. It was divided into four chief divisions: (1) the bearing upon eugenics of biological research, (2) the bearing upon eugenics of sociological and historical research, (3) the bearing upon eugenics of legislation and social customs, (4) the consideration of the practical applications of eugenic principles. See MARRIAGE; MENDEL, MENDELISM.


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 2:10-16
10 to us, though, God has given revelation through ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 145:8-9, 10-11, 12-13, 13-14
8 Yahweh is tenderness and pity, slow to anger, full ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 4:31-37
31 He went down to Capernaum, a town in Galilee, and ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for September 2nd, 2014 Image

St. Ingrid of Sweden
September 2: Born in Skänninge, Sweden, in the 13th century, St. Ingrid lived ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter