Kansas State Fair
The science of eugenics gained wide popularity during the early 20th century, as the book on eugenics in the previous image and this photograph from the 1929 Kansas state Fair demonstrate. The term “eugenics” literally means “well born,” and eugenicists wanted to control human mating so that only “desirable,” well-born people could produce offspring. They believed that traits such as “genius” or “criminality” were inherited in the same way as eye color or skeletal structure, and thus they used the new science of genetics as a tool for “improving” the human race.
Eugenics in the U.S. was driven by a fear among middle- and upper-class white Americans of being out-bred by those they deemed “inferior”—poor people and recent immigrants, especially those from southern and eastern Europe. By the 1930s, however, more and more scientists began speaking out against eugenics, citing lack of conclusive scientific evidence in its support.
Although Darwin has been linked to eugenics— sometimes under the rubric of “social Darwinism”— the term “eugenics” was coined after Darwin’s death by his cousin Francis Galton. It is true that Darwin shared many of the prejudices of his time, and discussed the implications of natural selection for human societies. However, he ultimately concluded that trying to control human breeding was not only ineffective but also immoral.
Photograph of Kansas State Fair, 1929. Eugenics Society Records.