“Chapter XXVII Eugenics” (1926)


In this chapter of A Textbook of Embryology by Harvey Ernest Jordan and James Ernest Kindred, published in 1926, the authors trace the roots of eugenics in scientific study and argue that eugenics is relevant to studying the formation and development of an embryo because heredity is the most fundamental aspect of “human racial improvement.” Jordan, a professor of histology, embryology, and genetics at the University of Virginia, made the medical school a leader in eugenics, a pseudoscience that promoted the idea that humans could be bred selectively bred like plants or animals for the betterment of society.


Consideration of the causes of various deviations from the normal process of development leads logically to a search for ways and means of obviating such malformations. We saw, in the preceding chapter, that teratological conditions were in part determined by a defective heredity, in part by defective environment. The efforts to prevent the occurrence of such anomalies as are of genetic origin constitute a portion of the art of eugenics. Efforts directed to the prevention of defects of environmental origin belong to the art of euthenics. Both arts, in their entirety, are interested, in possibly greater measure, in a preservation and gradual improvement of the genetically best endowed human stock, and in a gradual humane elimination of genetically seriously unfit and defective strains. The doctrine that all such efforts for the improvement of the human race are fruitless, and that a laissez faire attitude toward race hygiene in general will the better permit the emergence of a gradually enlarging and slowly improving human type from out of the common mass, is known as eudenics. Such doctrine, however, is largely the child of cynicism. The scientific attitude is one suffused with optimism. Moreover, it seeks to govern action by the light of facts. The student of human embryology, face to face with the fact of heredity, not unmindful of the importance of environment, inevitably comes to entertain the idea of racial improvement through control of the mechanism of heredity. Control of heredity presupposed an understanding of the laws of heredity. Eugenics, or race biology, employs the data of heredity as its foundation. It does not ignore the importance of environment. It recognizes that with regard to racial welfare, heredity and environment are interdependent. Both are essential. However, heredity is fundamental. The best environment cannot materially change a defective heredity. But an unfavorable environment can vitiate the full expression of the best heredity. Perfect development calls for the cooperation of a perfect heredity and a perfect environment.

Eugenics, as based on the data of human genetics, is properly designated a science. The science of eugenics then is the study of the conditions of improving the human race; the art of eugenics consists of the application of the

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results of such study. Modern conceptions of heredity date from the rediscovery of Mendel’s work, and the triple independent confirmation of his results by De Vries, Correns and Tschermak about the year 1900. Hence eugenics is a very recent science. The several figures of this chapter are illustrative of family histories showing various types of hereditary defects.

Historically, three names stand out prominently among the pioneers: Galton, Mendel and Pasteur, all born in the year 1822. The word eugenics was first used by Galton in his book, Inquiries into the Human Faculty, published in 1883. It was only in 1901, however, when Galton delivered the Huxley lecture before the Anthropological Society of London on “The Possible Improvement of the Human Breed Under Existing Conditions of Law and Sentiment,” that the idea of eugenics began to receive widespread popular attention. Galton defined eugenics as “the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.” He wished that eugenic ideals might “enter the national consciousness like a new religion.”

Pasteur was, of course, not directly interested in eugenics, and his marvelous scientific work was not prosecuted with any idea of influencing human heredity. But his repeated demonstrations of bacteria in relation to disease succeeded finally, about 1900, in focusing popular interest on the importance of environment in human welfare.

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since the rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of heredity in 1900, first demonstrated for plants, their general application, with certain qualifications and modification in the case of animals and even man, as regards both mental and physical characters, has been amply confirmed. The example of eye color in man may serve as an illustration. This is possibly the most clear-cut case of the mendelian inheritance in man, and has been thoroughly investigated in this country by Dr. C. B. Davenport, and in England by Major C. C. Hurst. Brown eyes are dominant over blue eyes. Brown-eyed parents will have only brown-eyed children, or brown-eyed and blue-eyed children in the proportion of 3:1, depending respectively upon whether both parents are pure bred (homozygous) brown-eyed or hybrid (heterozygous) brown-eyed. In other words, the alternate unit characters of brown and blue eyes conduct themselves in heredity according to the mendelian formulae.

Eugenics proceeds tentatively and cautiously, where complete data are lacking, upon the assumption that human characters in general follow mendelian principles in heredity. In other words, it confidently accepts the evidence disclosed by plants and animals in general as applicable also man, namely that “a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree yield good fruit”; that what is not represented in the germ-plasm cannot appear in the soma; that “like produces like”; “as the seed so will be the harvest”—and it

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sees the force of Darwin’s statement as bearing on human social progress, that no one is so foolish as to breed from his worst animals.”

This chapter makes no pretense at anything approaching a complete statement or discussion of eugenics. It aims simply to point out the connections between human embryology and eugenics by reason of the basic relation of heredity to both; and it aims thereby to arouse added interest in individual development as well as in racial improvement. Only one other point need be mentioned; namely, the racial effect of war. The initial death of 10,000,000 men in the World War, representing, in large measure, the best blood of the white race, viewed in terms of racial effect, is appalling. One is stunned when one attempts

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Further to contemplate the racial damage in the subsequent and indirect loss of possibly 20,000,000 more as the result of wounds, pestilence, famine and a differential, falling birth rate. The racial loss of the World War becomes poignant when one attempts further to visualize the possible effect of substitution for these dead millions of the better, an equal number of millions of living, multiplying, less well-endowed of the race. Many other applications of eugenic principles will occur to one whose interest and conscience have been stirred by the idea of human improvement.

Means proposed for cutting off the supply of human defectives and degenerates (in part after Davenport):

  1. Life segregation or segregation during the reproductive period.
  2. Sterilization (vasectomy; tubectomy). Seventeen states now have sterilization laws.

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  • Restrictive marriage laws and customs. Seventeen states have laws requiring medical certificates from prospective husbands.
  • Eugenic education of the public and prospective marriage mates.
  • System of matings, purporting to remove defective traits.
  • General environmental improvement.
  • Polygamy. Inapplicable to civilized races, and utterly incompatible with modern standards of civilization.
  • Euthanasia. Inapplicable to civilized races, and utterly incompatible with modern standards of civilization.
  • Neo-Malthusian Doctrine. (Birth control.)
  • Laissez-faire.

The following questions are suggested by this classification:

Which of these remedies shall be applied? Shall 1, 2, several, or all be made to operate? What are the limitations and possibilities of each remedy? Shall one class of the socially unfit be treated with one remedy, and another with a different one? Shall the specifically selected remedy be applied to the class or to the individual? What are the principles and the limits of compromise between conservation and elimination in cases of individuals bearing a germ-plasm with a mixture of the determiners for defective and sterling traits? What are the criteria for the identification of individuals bearing defective germ-plasms? What can be hoped from the application of some definite elimination program? What practical difficulties stand in the way? How can they be overcome?


Davenport, C.B. Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. Henry Holt and Co., 1911.

Castle, W. E. Genetics and Eugenics. Harvard University Press, 1916.

Holmes, S.J. The Trend of the Race. Harcourt, Brace, and Co., 1921.

APA Citation:
Jordan, Henry Ernest & Kindred, James Ernest. “Chapter XXVII Eugenics” (1926). (2023, July 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia.
MLA Citation:
Jordan, Henry Ernest, and James Ernest Kindred. "“Chapter XXVII Eugenics” (1926)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (17 Jul. 2023). Web. 26 Sep. 2023
Last updated: 2023, September 11
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