Eugenics: how bad science was used to promote racism and ableism

Eugenics is the idea to selectively ‘improve’ humankind by only allowing specific physical and mental characteristics to exist. It focuses on systematically eradicating ‘undesirable’ physical traits and disabilities, and although it has been long discredited as a science, some of its ideas are still surprisingly prevalent in today’s society.

A Eugenics Society poster (1930s) from the Wellcome Library Eugenics Society Archive. Wikimedia Commons.

In some forms, eugenics actually has a remarkably long history. Some indigenous peoples of Brazil practiced infanticide against children born with physical abnormalities, and in ancient Greece, the philosopher Plato argued in favor of selective mating to produce a superior class. The Roman Empire and some Germanic tribes also practiced some forms of eugenics. However, eugenics didn’t truly become a large-scale idea until the 20th century.

Progress didn’t just happen in Europe

The foundation of eugenics lies on racist beliefs and ideologies — and especially something called scientific racism: a pseudoscientific belief that tries to empirical evidence to support or justify racism.

In 1981, American paleontologist Stephen Gould wrote ‘The Mismeasure of Man’, a book in which he discusses the problems of the continuous belief in biological determinism that later became eugenics. He gave examples of the instances of scientific racism and how some scientists contributed to providing ‘evidence’ to the superiority of white people, shaping faulty beliefs for decades or centuries. In the book, you can find the a remarkable list of horrid theories and studies which the researchers insisted on putting one race above the other. 

The most famous ranking of races was developed by 19th-century physician Samuel George Morton. Morton, believing himself to be objective, used his collection of skulls of different American Ethnicities to compare cranial capacities and try to prove superior intelligence of one group over the other. His study was basically done by ranking average head sizes (which is not directly connected to intelligence) but mixed different heights in his samples, which induced an obvious bias to his analysis. The analysis was strongly skewed towards linking intelligence with white men, and Morton’s conclusion was that white men were the most intelligent race on the face of the Earth. Gould criticized Morton’s data (though he does mention that the bias may have been unconscious), noting that the analysis includes analytical errors, manipulated sample compositions, and selectively reported data. Gould classifies this as one of the main instances of scientific racism.

But it gets even worse. Colonialism was working hand in hand with the idea that Europeans were carrying out a ‘civilizing mission’. White Europeans were doing nothing but a generous act of ‘helping’ ‘inferior’ races to develop and become civilized. This patronizing notion is easily debunked with historical evidence. For instance, we know Mesoamerican and Andean civilizations were empires and they didn’t need foreign influence to achieve progress. Take Stonehenge for instance, a monument in England we believe was built around 3000 or 2000 BC. Though very impressive and with enough complexity, it is not as advanced as the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt, which was created around nearly the same period, proving how civilizations were evolving independently. 

Social Darwinism

Image credits: Gennie Stafford.

Another interesting aspect of eugenics is so-called social Darwinism. Social Darwinists believe that “survival of the fittest” also happens in society — some people become powerful in society because they are somehow innately better.

Social Darwinism was invented by one of the founders of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, one of Charles Darwin’s cousins. He believed that eugenics should ‘help’ the human race to reach its ultimate ‘potential’ accelerating the ‘evolution’ by eliminating the ‘weak’ and keeping the ‘appropriate races’. 

The problem is it does not fit any scientific evidence. First, genetics has clearly shown that we don’t have a separation in races, race is rather a social construct more than a genetic one. Differences do exist, but they have to do with common ancestry. In our species, we share 99.9% of our DNA, regardless of race. As a result, one ethnicity is not better than the other in anything, not in appearance, behavior, or intelligence.

The other misconception lies in natural selection itself. Evolution, for humans, is a slow process, it takes time for a genetic trait to become dominant in a species. Social change, on the other hand, is much faster; regimes fall, presidents change, policies change. The changes in society can be beneficial or not for some people, maybe everyone will have easy access to vaccines and survive an epidemic, while in a different regime people can get sick for not having these basic rights. Or worse, shorten the number of people simply because they do not have enough to eat. This has nothing to do with a group being stronger than the other, but the choice of leaving some unassisted. Simply put, social Darwinism has little scientific evidence to back it up — and a lot of evidence against it.

How technology fits in

Morton’s ideas are obviously flawed, but scientists took them as an objective analysis for decades — and that’s when the chaos started. One scientist cites the other, and the other, propagating false ideas and sending their echo through history affecting millions of lives for years. More theories like those emerged, with developments that come with the evolution of science, but the insistence of ranking white men as the ‘apex predator’ perpetuated. Even leading scientists can fall prey to racist ideas, and mask them as scientific racism.

Even with modern machine learning and big data, these ideas can still continue to propagate. If the scientists involved don’t make sure that their code is not being susceptible to biases, the computer won’t be objective. That happened to a machine learning routine using data from hospitals in the US. The algorithm wanted to find patients with risks, one of the easy ways is to look for the amount of money spent by a patient in one year. Seems reasonable, but the problem is the model excluded a large number of black people, for obvious reasons, our society is biased. The fact that this particular system involves money has nothing to do with the patient’s condition. 

Machine learning is based on statistics, and some of the fathers of statistics are intertwined with eugenics. If you ever took a statistics course, you may have heard the name ‘Pearson’. Karl Pearson developed hypothesis testing, the use of p-values, the Chi-Squared test, and many other useful tools for science still used today. However, the scientist held strong beliefs in Social Darwinism, a distorted idea that due to natural selection some groups struggle more because in the end ‘the stronger survive’. Pearson even supported wars against ‘inferior races’. In 2020, the University College London renamed lecture halls and a building which originally honored Pearson and Francis Galton.

The search for the ‘special mind’

Besides ethnicity, the next eugenicist target is intelligence. The French psychologist Alfred Binet invented what we know today as the first version of the IQ test. He wanted his test to be used to help kids at school — those who performed poorly would be sent to special classes to get help adapting. He didn’t want that to be a label to segregate people. However, his ideas were distorted by some scientists in the USA. In the American continent, the test was used to reinforce the old fallacies for ranking people, even becoming a mechanism to select immigrants. 

In time, the IQ test became the one you know today. The problem with it is that it’s often used to segregate people, without accounting for cultural or socioeconomic factors that could affect IQ scores. That’s not all: American psychologist Henry Goddard, the one responsible for corrupting Binet’s ideas, defended the idea that ‘feeble-minded’ people should not have children. In addition, he and other gentlemen chose words like ‘idiot’, ‘moron’, and ‘feeble-minded’ to classify people — words we still use today to insult someone.


The ultimate goal of eugenics is perpetuating only the ‘good’ genes — which means not allowing those who have ‘bad’ genes to reproduce.

This led to forced sterilizations in people with mental disorders. The most famous example was the case Buck vs. Bell in the US in 1927. Most of the over 60,000 sterilizations happened in the United States in people whose conditions were labeled as ‘feeble-minded’ and ‘insane’ between the 1920s and 1950s.

These procedures were typically carried out in asylums or prisons, with a medical supervisor having the right to decide whether the inmates’ reproductive systems should be altered or not. The practice is now considered a violation of their rights — and the motivation that “it would improve inmates’ lives” is considered bogus, as is “concern about the financial burden the inmates would provide if they had children”, punishment, and of course “avoid the reproduction of the unfit”. All these with California’s law that the person had no right for objection or appeal.


A lot happened from Goddard’s time to the 1930s and 1940s when autism was discovered. Know the famous guy, Hans Asperger? Well, he was a nazi Austrian pediatrician known for understanding one ‘type’ of autism, later known as Asperger Syndrome. The diagnostic criteria for Asperger Syndrome were removed from the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 2013. There are no longer sub diagnoses, it is all called Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Asperger observed there were autistic children who were more ‘adaptable’ to the social norms, they could act ‘normal’, so he labeled those children as “high functioning”, while others were “low functioning”. The low functioning was considered a burden and not fit for the Third Reich because they couldn’t do the tasks of a “normal” person. In other words, they wouldn’t be profitable. Asperger would then transfer these ‘genetically inferior’ children to the ‘euthanasia’ killing programs, making the choice of who was worth living and who wasn’t. Next time you meet people suffering from autism, ask if they want to be connected to that idea before calling anyone low functioning/high functioning/aspie — spoiler, they almost definitely don’t.

Genetic research can be eugenist, without mentioning the word or directly defending the idea. Nobody seems to ask autistic people what types of research could be done in order to make their lives better, it is usually a concern on ‘how parents should not have a burden’ – pay attention to the advertisements, do they display autistic people in successful positions, or are they pictures of children with their parents? 

More recently, Spectrum10k research was paused. The UK-based researchers wanted to interview and collect DNA from autistic people and their relatives. The autistic community was not consulted and questioned on who the data would be shared with. They realized people involved in the project had a history of questionable research regarding autistic DNA, so advocates protested and the study was paused with the promise they will listen to autistic people.

“People with disabilities are genuinely concerned that these developments could result in new eugenic practices and further undermine social acceptance and solidarity towards disability – and more broadly, towards human diversity.”

Said Catalina Devandas on 28 February 2020, a UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Gould saw a problem with many ideas back in the 90s, he edited the book to add the biased ‘research’ of his time, with the hope to alert scientists not to make those same mistakes. It is evident that our world of today has no more space for racist/ableist science like thise, so why is it ok for labels which came from those eras to be in machine learning, the therapists’ offices, and schools? It’s about time to cut the eugenics out of our civilization.

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