Shocking Ancient Greek origins of the Eugenics movement

(ORDO NEWS) — Eugenics, the science of selective genetic selection of human beings, 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 by lethal injections in concentration camps during World War II.

However, eugenic practices can be traced back to ancient times, where they were first thought about by Plato and Aristotle and even put into practice by the Spartans.

Centuries after the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking theory of evolution in 1859, eugenics regained popularity, primarily in the US, and influenced the Nazi Holocaust.

Ancient Greek eugenics

Plato believed that marriage should be abolished, and only men and women with the greatest intellect and the best physical characteristics should be allowed to reproduce.

He suggested that members of Athenian high society meet and mingle at specially organized festivals where potential spouses would temporarily marry and live together for one month.

Accompanied by poetry, dance and music, couples bonded for the sole purpose of childbearing, after which their unions were legally terminated and they re-entered celibacy until the next festival. Although relationships between parents and children were forbidden, unions between sisters and brothers were allowed.

The number of marriages was determined by the ruler, who could increase or decrease the number of short-term marriages according to the population. On the other hand, the lower classes had no limits on the number of children and could breed without limits.

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Plato believed that marriage should be abolished, and those of the elite with the greatest intelligence and the best physique should be the only men and women allowed to reproduce

The first opportunity to marry was given to the upper class through a lottery system in which preference was given to the most intellectually capable and attractive.

Women of beauty and grace and men who have distinguished themselves in battle will be preferred candidates, while young men who are considered inferior will be especially unlucky in the lottery and will always be left without a mate.

Informal relationships between women aged 20 to 40 and men aged 25 to 55, i.e. of childbearing age were considered illegal because they started outside the jurisdiction of legislators. However, relationships between lovers who had reached the legal age were allowed.

After the birth of a child, Plato advised that he be sent to a special nursery to be raised by matrons, and family life, with all its distractions, was forbidden. If the child was handicapped, he should, according to Plato, “hide”. Although the Greek sages did not openly speak of infanticide, it was ominously indicated.

The Greek scholar Aristotle, a contemporary of Plato, offered several criticisms. He argued that the community of wives and children was more suited to the lower classes, who would be more obedient to rulers and less likely to rebel if their family ties were weaker.

In addition, he foresaw problems if handicapped children who were supposed to be sent to the lower classes learn about their true noble origin.

In his opinion, tutelary classes should instead accept monogamous couples, with women ideally marrying at 18 and men at 37. He recommended that pregnant women go to the temple of Ilithyia every day for exercise, eat healthy food, and keep calm.

Finally, he saw the danger in the untapped reproduction of the lower classes, which he believed would lead to an increase in crime, and in their potential numerical superiority he saw a threat to the ruling elite, which, in the event of an uprising, would be outnumbered.

As a result, he believed that it was necessary to enact laws to prohibit unrestricted population growth. Women who gave birth to too many children were also to be aborted, and any defective or deformed offspring were to be killed immediately.

In Plato’s later work The Laws, perhaps in response to Aristotle’s answer, the scientist will change his mind on several aspects of his theory. Realizing the impracticality of the marriage feast, he instead spoke in favor of monogamous relationships, which were to be sanctioned by wise judges.

Men aged 25 and over were required to submit their marriage proposals to the state, and if accepted, they were required to marry their spouse before the age of 30. An unmarried man over 35 from the upper class had to pay an annual fine of 100 drachmas.

The newlyweds were expected to give birth to the best children, and each of them was assigned a matron for 10 years, who monitored the birth of healthy children. To do this, future mothers had to pray every day for 20 minutes in the temple of Ilithia and perform sacred rites to appease the goddess of marriage.

Spartan eugenics

One of the most famous examples of ancient eugenics came from the Spartans. This was an ancient Greek people who fought the Persians in the 4th century BC, who used the principles of eugenics to form from their citizens the strongest warriors, shrewd statesmen and spiritually pure priests.

For warriors, the weaker representatives of the Spartan aristocracy were removed from the gene pool and deprived of the opportunity to reproduce through various means.

Intense physical competitions, designed to test the fighting and physical prowess of Spartan youth, were a common way of identifying weaklings in the pack, who were stigmatized and stripped of their rights after being recognized as inferior.

If a Spartan man was considered unfit for childbearing, then his sisters also suffered, who were also forbidden to have children.

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Spartan woman giving a shield to her son (1826), Jean-Jacques-Francois Le Barbier

On the contrary, the bravest Spartan warriors occupied a privileged position in society, and they were even allowed to have sexual relations with the wives of other Spartan nobles.

Deformed children were disposed of shortly after birth, and even children who were considered ugly or awkward met the same fate, as the Spartans were obsessed with the idea of ​​maintaining perfect physical shape and beauty in the ranks of the nobility.

As a result, marriages with foreigners were illegal, as the Spartans condemned the mixing of foreign blood with their own.

Plutarch, the main source on Spartan society, described this Spartan hereditary law, which:

“… forbade the descendant of Hercules to give birth to children from a foreign woman and ordered to put to death anyone who left Sparta to settle among other peoples.”

However, the Spartan selection process proved too exclusive and caused a dangerous demographic crisis in the 3rd century BC. Between 480 B.C. and the middle of the III century BC. the number of Spartan men dropped from 8,000 to 1,000.

Realizing the existential threat, King Agis IV and then Cleomenes III tried to address the problem, and although they reluctantly expanded the requirements for candidates who were allowed to become part of the higher nobility, their decisions were still infused with eugenics. thinking.

Agis IV’s plan was to replenish the Spartan aristocracy with the highest-ranking periodikoi, the lower classes, and xenoi, foreigners, to revive the declining population.

The most handsome men and most charming women from these traditionally marginalized sections of the population were given a place in the Spartan hierarchy. Agis’s decision received great support and divine approval from Pasiphae, a Spartan deity, as well as from Lycurgos, the original Spartan legislator, who was also considered a god.

The warrior statesman Leonidas, who himself was married to a Persian woman and had a semi-foreign child, became Agis’s biggest critic and rather hypocritically disapproved of his leader’s plan to admit foreigners into the ranks of citizens, citing the expulsion of foreigners in the 4th century by Lycurgus as evidence that the gods don’t like his plan.

Agis responded by claiming that Lykourgos never had a problem with the physical forms of foreigners, only with their behavior:

“After all, he did not cast them out because he was hostile to their physical bodies, but because he was afraid of their way of life and behavior.”

After their confrontation, Leonidas was arrested by Agis’ staunch ally Lysandros for having a foreign wife. However, Leonidas was able to regain power by executing Agis in 241 BC. and forcing his beautiful widow to marry his son Cleomenes III, who continued the policy of Agis.

Cleomenes recruited 4,000 members of the periodicals class, selecting them not for intelligence or wealth, but solely for appearance. More benevolent than his father Leonidas, Cleomenes took a more moderate stance on the admission of foreigners, allowing only the “most powerful” to become members of the Spartan ruling order.

Modern eugenics

Inspired by Mendel’s experiments with genetically modified peas in 1865, which established the basic principles of heredity, and Charles Darwin’s revolutionary theory of evolution, the term “eugenics” was first coined by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, in 1884, deriving its meaning from the Greek word “eugenes”. “, which means “good by birth”.

Although Galton read the works of Plato and even derived the term from the Greek language, he did not think too highly of the theories of the ancient Greek, writing in a letter that he had read:

“Republic and Laws of Plato for eugenic passages; but they do nothing but purify the city by deporting all degenerates to the so-called colony!”.

Thus the idea of ​​modern eugenics, first attributed to Galton in his seminal work Inquiries Concerning Human Fertility and Its Development, which propagated the idea that intelligence is hereditary and that the “higher races” of mankind are destined for government, has very little in common with the doctrines of the ancient Greeks.

Following Galton’s landmark publication, interest in eugenics skyrocketed at the turn of the century, and in 1904 the German biologist Alfred Plotz founded the first eugenics journal, The Archive of Racial and Social Biology, which emphasized the superiority of the Nordic and Aryan races and the notion of “racial hygiene.”

With the founding of the Society for Racial Hygiene in Germany, the Society for Eugenics Education in Great Britain, and the American Breeders’ Association, eugenics became a truly global phenomenon in the first decade of the 20th century.

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A set of photographs depicting anthropometry (measuring people) at the Second International Eugenics Exhibition held in 1921

Eugenics was most enthusiastically received in the United States, and in 1910 Charles Davenport, with the financial support of well-known businessman John Harvey Kellogg, founded the Bureau of Eugenics Records.

This institution trained workers to collect information about US families, which were evaluated on such grounds as “dementia”, “crime” and “alcoholism”. The latest developments in the field of eugenics were collected in the magazine “Eugenic News”, which was distributed throughout the country.

In 1912, the first International Eugenics Congress was held in London, bringing together over 400 of the most famous scientists and figures of the time, including Winston Churchill and Alexander Graham Bell.

Through his influence, by the end of World War I, eugenic societies sprang up all over the world, in countries such as Argentina, Mexico, Italy, France, and Hungary.

In the United States in the 1920s, Fitted Families Contests, sponsored by the Bureau of Eugenic Records, appeared. Families competed to become the most genetically perfect specimens in competitions held throughout the United States.

After a series of physiological and psychological tests and the presentation of medical records, families judged to be the most genetically exceptional and most often white were awarded medals and distinctions for their unsurpassed “eugenic merit”.

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Left: Winners of the Fit Family Contest stand outside the eugenics building at the Kansas Free Fair in Topeka, North Carolina. (Right: Best Child Contest at the 1931 Indiana State Fair

At the second International Eugenics Congress in 1922, this time held in New York and bringing together representatives from Central and Latin America, immigration became a central topic of debate.

Henry Laughlin, the country’s most respected eugenicist, put forward the idea that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were genetically defective due to higher levels of mental retardation and crime, and posed a threat to the Nordic race.

This prompted President Calvin Coolidge to pass the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which established a quota on the number of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who were allowed to enter the US, while no restrictions were placed on immigrants from Northern Europe.

In 1927, Buck v. Bell became the dominant headline in Virginia as 18-year-old patient Carrie Buck fought against the state’s ruling to sterilize her. In 1924, the Eugenic Sterilization Act was passed in Virginia, which allowed the forced sterilization of those who were considered “mentally retarded”. This was not a new phenomenon.

In 1907, the first sterilization law was passed in Indiana in response to the intellectual discussions of the late 1800s that blamed bad genetic inheritance on criminality and mental defects. By the 1930s, 27 states in America had introduced similar sterilization laws.

Buck, who was admitted to a psychiatric clinic due to her “dementia,” lost her case, as did many other unfortunate victims in the US and around the world. In the state of Indiana, about 2,500 people were forcibly sterilized before 1974, and in California, about 20,000 cases of sterilization were recorded from 1909 to 1979.

Oregon became the last state to repeal its sterilization laws in 1983, after 2,648 people were sterilized. Outside the US, sterilization laws have been enacted in countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Germany, and Norway. In Sweden, from 1935 to 1976, 60,000 Swedish women considered mentally ill were sterilized against their will.

Death of a bad idea

As early as 1922, William Bateson, the founder of genetics, declined an invitation to the Second International Eugenics Congress, stating that: “The real question is whether we should not separate genetics (and eugenics)”.

By the 1930s, the Third International Eugenics Congress drew fewer than 100 participants as eugenic ideas fell out of favor with American and European intellectuals.

Critics pointed to problematic experimental methods, insufficiently understood economic and environmental factors, and an overly simplistic approach to Mendel’s theories viewed through the questionable lens of class and racist bias.

In addition, the troubling policies of Nazi Germany in the 1930s convinced many to distance themselves from eugenics.

Adolf Hitler and Nazi scientists were inspired by the Americans to forcibly sterilize Jews and minorities in Germany by passing the Prevention of Hereditary Offspring Act in 1933, which did not sit well with many American proponents of the theory.

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Eugenics Records Bureau was finally closed and funding was cut off. After the untold horrors of the Holocaust, eugenics became a taboo subject in the second half of the 20th century.

Now America’s and the West’s flirting with such a dangerous ideology remains a shameful reminder of the devastating consequences of a bad idea.


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