Biological Theories of Crime

H. The Legacy of Eugenics and Social Darwinism

With unprecedented immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, American society struggled with increasing crime, poverty, suicide, and other social problems. Some, such as the theorists of the Chicago School, saw the solution in sociological explanations, whereas others turned to solutions implied in eugenics. Although a complete description of the misapplication of eugenics is beyond the scope of this research paper, it is important for the student of biological theories to understand the impact that eugenics had on the study of biological explanations of behavior.

In theory, eugenics argued for the improvement of human genetic qualities. Positive eugenics aims to increase the reproduction of desirable qualities, and negative eugenics aims to discourage the reproduction of undesirable qualities, to improve humanity and society. The underlying premise is that both positive and negative traits are inherited and passed down through generations. Early eugenicists focused on traits such as intelligence and on hereditary diseases or defects presumed to be genetic (Barrett & Kurzman, 2004). These eugenicists, following Galton’s philosophies, focused on societal changes (the provision of incentives) to encourage reproduction among those with positive traits and to discourage reproduction among those with negative traits.

In practice, however, and following a logical progression of thought, some believed eugenics to mean that persons with undesirable traits should be prevented from reproducing, or even be eliminated.

Although social Darwinists and eugenicists are alike in their goal to improve humanity and society through survival of the fittest, social Darwinists were more likely to assert that this improvement would take place in a natural process, with weak, diseased, undesirable, and unfit individuals being eventually weeded out. It is for this reason that social Darwinists opposed government intervention into problems such as poverty and crime, believing that natural forces would result in the reduction of elimination of these undesirable conditions. Eugenicists, on the other hand, encouraged active intervention.

It is this active intervention that became problematic, although it was not initially viewed as such. Activists promoted the use of contraception to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and state laws were written regulating marriages. Individuals who had ailments thought to be genetic were prohibited from marrying and forcibly sterilized. This included individuals deemed to be “feeble-minded” or mentally ill.

The popularity of eugenics spread throughout the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Charles Davenport (1866–1944), an influential American biologist, directed the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in 1910 and founded the Eugenics Record Office, hiring Harry H. Laughlin (1880–1943) as superintendent (Kevles, 1985).

Between 1907 and 1914, several states had passed sterilization laws. Laughlin, however, perceived these as ineffective and full of holes, prompting him in 1922 to draft a “model” law that was passed by 18 additional states (Lombardo, n.d.). In this model law Laughlin defined the populations that would be targeted by forced sterilization, including criminals, the very poor, epileptics, alcoholics, the blind, the deaf, the insane, and those who had a physical deformity. These practices were upheld as constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1927 in the case of Buck v. Bell and continued until 1981. More than 64,000 individuals in 33 states were forcibly sterilized under these laws.

With increased immigration came increased concerns about the quality and purity of the races. Responding to these concerns, Madison Grant (1865–1937), an American lawyer, wrote one of the first and most influential books about racial integrity, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). Grant wrote that the Nordic (i.e., white) racial line was the pinnacle of civilization. He warned against miscegenation (race mixing) and supported legislation against it. He argued for racial hygiene because the Nordic race was superior to any other, and any mixing would taint Nordic bloodlines, making them impure. He also warned that “undesirables” breed in greater numbers and would overrun the superior Nordic population if not controlled. He advocated the eradication of “undesirables” from the human gene pool coupled with the promulgation of more desirable and worthy racial types.

Grant’s work was immensely popular and was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted the numbers of immigrants from the less desirable regions, such as southern and eastern Europe. His book also was translated into several languages. In 1925, it was translated into German, in which Nordic was replaced by the word Aryan. Adolph Hitler, who read the book shortly after its translation into German, would later call Grant’s work his “bible.”

In 1928, with sterilization laws and immigration restrictions in full swing, E. S. Gosney (1855–1942) founded the Human Betterment Foundation, an entity whose primary purpose was to compile and distribute propaganda about compulsory sterilization. Gosney hired Paul E. Popenoe (1888–1979) to assist him in the study of the impact of these sterilization laws in California. Their collaboration resulted in the publication of Sterilization for Human Betterment: A Summary of Results of 6,000 Operations in California, 1909–1929 (Gosney & Popenoe, 1929), used by Nazi Germany to support its 1934 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. Furthermore, these arguments were used to justify policies of racial hygiene and racial cleaning that Nazi Germany enacted against Jews and other “undesirable” or “unfit” persons who did not meet the model of the Aryan ideal. The Nuremburg Laws enacted in 1935 consisted of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, and the Reich Citizenship Laws, which prohibited the mixing of Germans with Jews (which really meant anyone not deemed to be German) and stripped so-called undesirables of their citizenship.

Although population control policies based on eugenics enjoyed widespread support in many countries prior to World War II, Nazi use of its philosophies to justify the eradication of approximately 6 million Jews and an additional 3 to 5 million others brought an immediate halt to its proliferation. However, sterilizations, marriage restrictions based on fitness, and prohibitions of racial intermarriage continued for decades. Marriage counseling, ironically developed by Paul Popenoe as a eugenic tactic to ensure marriage between fit individuals, also became a viable area of practice.

Despite the fact that the word eugenics is usually avoided, modern efforts to improve humanity’s gene pool persist. The Human Genome Project is one notable scientific effort to understand the genetic makeup and properties of human beings with an eye toward eradicating or preventing inheritable diseases and defects. Advances in science and the development of ethical guidelines provide hope that struggles to better understand the transmission and development of human traits and characteristics are not yet abandoned. This is especially important to the future of biological theories of criminality.