The Shocking Ancient Greek Origins of the Eugenics Movement
Eugenics, the science of selectively choosing human genetics, is most synonymous with the modern world and the horrors of Hitler’s ‘final solution’, in which millions of Jews and other ‘undesirable’ groups were gassed or lethally injected at concentration camps during World War II. However, eugenic practices can also be traced back to the ancient times, where they were first pondered by Plato and Aristotle and even put into practice by the Spartans. Centuries later, and following the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution in 1859, eugenics would experience a revival in popularity most notably in the United States, and it would go on to influence the Nazi Holocaust.
Ancient Greek Eugenics
The ancient Greeks were the first philosophers to propose theories surrounding eugenics. In his legendary work the Republic, Plato contemplated a system of ‘judicious matings’ which would ensure that the most desirable qualities and traits would remain inside the Athenian elite classes. He argued that men, at 25, and women, at 20, were at the ideal ages to produce offspring and to ensure the steady proliferation of the aristocracy.
Plato believed that marriage should be abolished, and that nobles with the most intelligence and best physical forms, should be the only men and women allowed to reproduce. He proposed that the creme-de-la-creme of Athenian high society should meet and intermingle at specially arranged festivals, in which prospective mates would temporarily marry and live together for the duration of one month. Accompanied by poetry, dancing, and music, the couples would be brought together for the sole purpose of procreation before having their unions legally broken off and readopting celibacy until the next festival. Although parent-child relations were forbidden, sister-brother unions were allowed. The number of marriages was to be determined by the ruler, who could increase or decrease the occurrence of short-term marriages in accordance with population sizes. On the other hand, the lower classes had no limit on the number of children, and could reproduce without restrictions.
Plato believed that marriage should be abolished, and that nobles with the most intelligence and best physical forms, should be the only men and women allowed to reproduce. (Zzvet /Adobe Stock)
The first opportunities for marriage would be given to superior stock in a lottery system that was rigged to favor the most intellectually capable and attractive. Woman of esteemed beauty and grace and men who had performed well in battle would be the preferred candidates, with youths deemed inferior purposely having bad luck in the draw and always left without a mate. Unofficial relationships between women aged 20 to 40 and men aged 25 to 55, the child-bearing ages, were deemed illegal since they commenced outside the jurisdiction of lawmakers. Relationships between lovers who were past the legal ages however, were permitted.
- Are We in Tyrannical Times? Has Plato’s Terrible Prediction Come True?
- What Makes Spartan Women So Different From Other Ancients?
Once a baby was born, Plato advised that it should be taken to a special nursery to be raised by matrons, and that family life, with all its distractions, should be prohibited. If the baby was defective, it was to be, in Platos’ words “hidden away”. Although infanticide was not overtly referenced by the Greek sage, it was ominously indicated.
The Greek savant Aristotle, a contemporary of Plato, offered some criticisms. He contended that the community of wives and children would better suit the lower classes, who would be more obedient to rule and less likely to rebel if their family ties were weaker. In addition, he foresaw problems in the event that inferior children, who were to be given to the lower classes, found out their true noble origins. In his opinion, the guardian classes instead should adopt monogamous pairings, with women ideally being married off at 18 and men at 37. Pregnant women were further advised to walk to the Temple of Ilithyia every day for exercise, to eat healthily, and to remain calm.
Finally, he saw danger in the untapped breeding of the lower classes which he believed would lead to an increase in criminality, and saw in their potential numerical superiority a threat to the ruling elite, who would be outnumbered if a rebellion were to take place. As a result, he held that laws should be sanctioned to prohibit uninhibited population growth. Women birthing too many children were also to be the subject of abortion, and any disabled or deformed progeny were to be immediately killed.
In Plato’s later work, the Laws, perhaps in reaction to Aristotle’s riposte, the scholar would change his mind on several aspects of his theory. Realizing the impracticality of the marriage festival, he instead favored monogamous relationships, which were to be authorized by wise judges. Men of 25 or over were to submit their marriage proposals to the state, and if accepted they were obliged to marry their spouse before the age of 30. Any man over the age of 35 from the highest class who was not married would have to pay an annual penalty of 100 drachmas. Newlyweds were expected to produce the finest children, and were each appointed a matron for 10 years to oversee the delivery of healthy babies. To ensure this, expectant mothers were to pray at the Temple of Ilithyia for 20 minutes each day and to perform sacred rites to appease the Goddess of Matrimony.
One of the most famous instances of ancient eugenics came from the Spartans. They were an ancient Greek people who fought the Persians in the 4th century BC, and who used eugenics principals to mold their citizenry into the strongest warriors, the most astute statesmen, and the most spiritually-pure priests.
For the warriors, weaker members of the spartan aristocracy were removed from the gene pool and barred from breeding through a variety of means. Intense physical competition, which aimed to test the martial and physical prowess of Spartan youth was a common way to identify weaklings in the pack, who would be stigmatized and stripped of their rights once recognized as inferior. If a Spartan male was considered unfit for procreation, his sisters would also suffer, and were similarly banned from having children.
‘A spartan woman giving a shield to her son’ (by 1826) by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier. (Public Domain)
In contrast, the most courageous Spartan soldiers occupied privileged positions in society, and were even allowed to engage in reproduction with the wives of other Spartan nobles. Deformed children were promptly disposed of shortly after birth, and even children considered ugly or awkward looking would meet the same fate, as the Spartans were obsessed with maintaining fine physical form and beauty within their noble ranks. As a result, marriage to foreigners was illegal, as Spartans deplored the mixing of outsider blood with their own.
Plutarch, a principal source on Spartan society, outlined this Spartan hereditary law, which:
“…forbade a descendant of Herakles from producing children from an alien women and ordered that anyone leaving Sparta in order to settle amongst other peoples should be put to death.”
However, the Spartan selection process proved overly exclusive and precipitated a dangerous population crisis in the 3rd century BC. Between 480 BC and the mid 3rd century BC the number of Spartan males fell from 8000 to 1000. Realizing the existential threat, King Agis IV and later Kleomenes III sought to rectify the problem, and although they reluctantly broadened the requirements for candidates allowed to become part of the high nobility, their solutions remained infused with eugenics thinking.
- Spartan Soldier From Birth: Growing Up In A City of Warriors
- Darwin’s Natural Selection Theory May Not Be True, Gene Study Says
Agis IV’s plan was to supplement the Spartan aristocracy with the most superior members of the periodikoi, the lower classes, and xenoi, foreigners, in order to revive the falling population. The most handsome men and most bewitching women of these traditionally marginalized populations were granted a place in the Spartan hierarchy. Agis’ solution garnered great support, and enjoyed divine approval from Pasiphae, a Spartan deity, as well as by Lykourgos, the original Spartan lawmaker who was also considered to be a god.
Warrior-statesman Leonidas, who himself was married to a Persian and had a half-foreign child, became Agis’ greatest critic, and rather hypocritically disapproved of his leader’s plan to allow foreigners into the citizen body, citing the expulsion of foreigners in the 4th century by Lykourgos as evidence that the gods disliked his plan. Agis retorted, arguing that Lykourgos never had a problem with the physical forms of foreigners, and only their behavior:
“For he had expelled them not because he was hostile to their physical bodies but because he feared their lifestyles and ways.”
Following their confrontation, Leonidas was arrested by Agis’ staunch ally Lysandros on the grounds of having a foreign spouse. However, Leonidas was able to re-gain his power, having Agis executed in 241 BC, and forcing his winsome widow to marry his son Kleomenes III, who continued Agis’ policies. Kleomenes went on to recruit 4000 members of the periodikoi class, selecting them not on their intelligence or wealth but solely on their good looks. More accepting than his father Leonidas, Kleomenes had a more moderate stance on the enrollment of foreigners, only permitting “the most powerful” to become member of the Spartan ruling order.
Inspired by Mendel’s experiments with genetically modified peas in 1865, which established the basic principles of hereditariness, and Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, the term ‘eugenics’ was first coined by Francis Galton, a cousin of Darwin, in 1884, deriving its meaning from the Greek word ‘ eugenes’ which meant ‘good in birth’. Although Galton had read the works of Plato and had even derived the term from the Greek language, he didn't think much of the ancient Greek’s theories, writing in a letter that he had read:
“Plato’s Republic and Laws for eugenic passages; but they don’t amount to much beyond the purification of the city by sending all the degenerates to from what is termed a colony!”
Thus, the idea of modern eugenics, first attributed to Galton in his seminal work Inquiries into Human Fertility and Its Development, which disseminated the idea that intelligence was hereditarily acquired and that the ‘higher races’ of humanity were destined to rule, shared very little continuity with the doctrines of the ancient Greeks.
After Galton’s landmark publication, interest around eugenics exploded around the turn of the century, and in 1904 the first eugenics journal, the Archive for Racial and Social Biology would be founded by German biologist Alfred Ploetz, focusing prominently on the superiority of the Nordic and Aryan races and the notion of ‘racial hygiene’. With the establishment of the Society for Racial Hygiene in Germany, the Eugenics Education Society in Britain, and the American Breeders Association, eugenics was becoming a truly global phenomenon in the first decade of the 20th century.
A set of photographs depicting anthropometry (the measurement of humans) at The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held in 1921. (Public Domain)
Eugenics was most enthusiastically received in the United States, and in 1910 the Eugenics Record Office was founded by Charles Davenport with funding from noted businessmen John Harvey Kellogg. The institution trained survey workers to collect information on US families, who were judged on such attributes such as ‘feeblemindedness’, ‘criminality’, and ‘alcoholism’. The latest developments in eugenics were compiled in a journal called Eugenical News which was nationally distributed.
In 1912, the first International Eugenics Congress took place in London, attracting over 400 of the most celebrated scientists and figures of the day, including Winston Churchill and Alexander Graham Bell. Through its influence, by the end World War One eugenics societies sprung up around the world, in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Italy, France, and Hungary.
In the USA, the 1920s saw the emergence of ‘Fitter Family Contests’, sponsored by the Eugenics Record Office. Families would compete to be the most genetically perfect specimens in competitions held across the USA. Following a series of physiological and psychological tests and the submittal of health records, families deemed the most genetically exceptional, and who were most often white, would be awarded with medals and accolades for their unequaled ‘eugenical worth’.
At the Second International Eugenics Congress in 1922, this time taking place in New York and attracting representatives from Central and Latin America, immigration became the central topic of debate. Henry Laughlin, the country’s foremost authority on eugenics, put forward the idea that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were genetically inferior due to their higher rates of mental disability and criminality, and represented a threat to the Nordic races. This spurred President Calvin Coolidge to pass the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 which set a quota on the number of immigrants from the southern and eastern parts of Europe allowed to enter the United States, with no limits set on northern European settlers.
- Did He Create a Blissful Utopia or a Tyrannical Communist Nightmare? Plato’s Ancient Class System and Social Engineering Revealed
- The Myth of National Socialism: How the Nazis Distorted the Nordic Past
In 1927, the case of Buck versus Bell dominated the newspaper headlines in Virginia, as 18-year-old patient Carrie Buck fought against the state’s mandate to have her sterilized. In 1924, Virginia had passed the Eugenical Sterilization Act, which allowed for the forced sterilization of those considered ‘mentally disabled’. This was not a new phenomenon. In 1907, Indiana had passed the first sterilization act in reaction to the intellectual discussions of the late 1800s, which blamed criminality and mental defects on poor genetic inheritance. By the 1930s, 27 states in America would institute similar sterilization laws.
Buck, who had been institutionalized into a mental facility because of her ‘feeblemindedness’, would go on to lose the case, as would many other unfortunate victims around the USA and the wider world. In Indiana until 1974, around 2500 people were forcibly sterilized, and in California between 1909 to 1979 there were nearly 20,000 cases of sterilizations. Oregon was the last state to repeal its sterilization laws in 1983, after victimizing 2648 people. Outside of the US, sterilization laws were passed in countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and Norway. In Sweden, between 1935 and 1976, 60,000 Swedish women deemed mentally ill were reportedly sterilized against their will.
The Death of a Bad Idea
As early as 1922, William Bateson, founder of genetics, had declined an invitation to the Second International Eugenics Congress, stating that: “the real question is whether we ought not to keep genetics (and eugenics) separate.” By the 1930s, the Third International Eugenics Congress would attract less than 100 attendees as eugenic ideas fell out of favor with American and European intellectuals. Critics pointed to problematic experimental methods, understudied economic and environmental factors, and overly-simplistic approaches of Mendel’s theories seen through a dubious lens of classist and racist biases.
In addition, the worrying policies of Nazi Germany in the 1930s persuaded many to distance themselves from eugenics. Adolf Hitler and Nazi scientists had been inspired by the Americans to forcibly sterilize Jews and minorities in Germany with the passing of the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring in 1933, a fact that sat uncomfortably with many US proponents of the theory. In 1939, at the eve of World War II, the Eugenics Record Office was finally shut down and funding was cut off. Following the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, eugenics became a taboo subject in the second half of the 20th century. Now, America and the West’s flirtation with such a dangerous ideology remains a shameful reminder of the devastating consequences of a bad idea.
Top Image: ‘The selection of the infant Spartans’ (1840) by Giuseppe Diotti. The origins of eugenics are traced back to ancient Greece. Source: Public Domain
By Jake Leigh-Howarth
History. 2019. Eugenics. History. Available at: https://www.history.com/topics/germany/eugenics
National Human Genome. Project 2021. Eugenics: its Origins and Development. National Human Genome Project. Available at: https://www.genome.gov/about-genomics/educational-resources/timelines/eugenics
Doran, T. 2017. Eugenic Ideology in the Hellenistic Spartan Reforms. Historia.
Galton, D.J. 1998. Greek theories on eugenics. Journal of Medical Ethics.
Wilson, P. K. Eugenics. Britannica. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/science/eugenics-genetics/Popular-support-for-eugenics