From Francis Galton to George W. Hunter: Breaking Dogmatic Barriers and the Rise of the Eugenics Movement

by Douglas O. Linder (2005)

Francis Galton, the cousin of Charles Darwin, said the publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 “marked an epoch in my own mental development, as it did in human thought generally.”  Writing in Memories of a Life, Galton wrote that the book’s “effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science.” 

For Galton’s part, the rebellion prompted by The Origin of Species included sarcastic attacks on religious dogma, including the belief in the power of prayer.  Galton, for example, asked how the public might react to a proposal for a “special inquiry” to determine “whether the laws of physical nature are ever changed in response to prayer.”  Such an inquiry, he suggested, might measure whether “success has attended the occasional prayers in Liturgy when they have been used for rain, for fair weather, for the stilling of the sea in a storm, or for the abatement of pestilence.”   He concluded—happily, for him—that “the modern feeling of this country is so opposed to a belief in the occasional suspension of the general laws of nature, that most English readers would smile at such an investigation.”

Galton proposed a replacement for traditional religious dogma, the new field (with a name he coined) of eugenics, which he defined as “the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, whether physically or mentally.”  He proposed that after eugenics first gains acceptance as an academic matter and then as a practical matter, that it should enter a third and final stage: “It must be introduced into the national consciousness as a new religion.”

As early as 1864, Galton complained of the scant attention society has given improving its own genetic stock, even while devoting generations to improving the quality of pets and livestock.  In an article entitled “Hereditary Character and Talent,” Galton speculated about the positive change such attention could achieve:  “If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!  We might introduce prophets and high priests of civilization into the world, as surely as we might propogate idiots by mating cretins.  Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern town are to our own highly-bred varieties.”

Galton considered whether plausible practical means existed to create “a highly-bred human race,” and he determined that they did.  By way of illustration, he demonstrated how simply dividing persons into two castes, A and B (A selected for “natural gifts” and B being “the refuse”), and adopting a policy that hastened marriages in caste A and discouraged marriages in caste B, dramatic improvement in human genetic stock could be achieved in just a few generations.  In short, he concluded, “I see no absurdity in supposing that, in some way or other, the improvement would be carried into effect.” 

Galton recognized that genetic improvements in human populations could be brought about in two ways: through positive eugenics, the practice of encouraging those with natural gifts to produce more children, or through negative eugenics, the practice of encouraging the weak and unfit to produce fewer children.  Of the two approaches, Galton saw the former as more politically practical and desirable.

Galton’s ideas about eugenics began to take hold by the early 1900s when developments in Mendelian genetics made it seem more plausible. Leading universities such as Harvard, Columbia, Cornell, and Brown offered courses in eugenics, taught as legitimate science. In 1907, Galton founded the Eugenics Education Society (later simply the “Eugenics Society”), whose ranks included prominent academics, politicians, and industrialists.  Charles Darwin’s son, Leonard, succeeded Galton has head of the Society and was at its helm in 1925 when the Scopes trial began.  Writing in that year in Eugenics Review, Leonard Darwin proposed preventing conception of persons with genes considered to be defective.  To do this, he recognized, compulsion “would be necessary in many cases.”  Darwin noted that sterilization of “criminals, lunatics, and mental defectives” was already accepted practice in some jurisdictions, and argued that the practice “must be extended to all who, by having offspring, would seriously damage future generations.”  Winston Churchill was among the many who favored serious consideration of Darwin’s ideas of compulsory segregation or sterilization.

Another person who found considerable merit in eugenics was George W. Hunter, a biology teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York.  When Hunter and his colleagues wrote what would become by 1925 America’s best-selling biology textbook, they devoted several pages to singing the praises of selective human breeding.  Hunter called eugenics, which he defined as “the science of improving the human race through better heredity,” the solution to a variety of social problems caused by the mentally ill and retarded, epileptics, and criminals.  “If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading,” Hunter opined in his Civic Biology.  “Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibility of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race.” (CB, 263)

Hunter’s book, however, has importance far beyond the controversial ideas from eugenics it promotes.  A Civic Biology was the biology textbook prescribed by Tennessee in 1925 and it was the six pages of that book addressing the topic of evolution that supported the charge against John Scopes for violating Tennessee’s Butler Act.  (EL, 23-24)

The theory of evolution was itself evolving in 1919, the year Hunter published his Civic Biology, as scientists struggled to reconcile new findings from Mendel's work on genetics with Darwinian theory.  Readers of his biology textbook could gain little appreciation of the ongoing controversy that would eventually lead to a neo-Darwinian synthesis. (EL, 24-25) Hunter wrote in his textbook, “In animal life, from the Protozoa upward, there is constant change, and the change is toward greater complexity of structure and functions.”  (CB, 193)  “Evolution means change,” Hunter told students.  “Millions of years ago, life upon the earth was very simple, and that gradually more and more complex forms of life appeared. The great English scientist, Charles Darwin…explained the theory of evolution.  This is the belief that simple forms of life on earth slowly and gradually gave rise to…the most complex forms.”  (CB, 193)  Hunter took no side in the mutation versus individual differences debate, nor did his book provide a basis for understanding natural selection. 

The subject of human evolution warranted a separate one-page discussion.  Unfortunately, that discussion reflected the scientific racism of popular at the time.”  (EL, 23)  Hunter reported in his book, “There once lived upon the earth races of men who were much lower in their mental organization than the present inhabitants.”  (CB, 195)  At first, man was “little better than one of the lower animals.”  (CB, 196)  Hunter indicated that of the “five races or varieties of men” found today, some are clearly more evolved than others.  There are, Hunter claimed, the four lower types of humans, including the “Ethiopian or negro type,” “the Malay or brown race,” “the American Indian,” and the “Mongolian or yellow race.”  “Finally,” Hunter concluded, there is “the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” (CB, 196)


Throughout his two-week stay in Dayton, William Jennings Bryan uses what spare time he has to work on the closing speech he hopes to deliver in the Scopes trial. 

In a speech that he hopes will alert the nation to the dangers of evolution, Bryan identifies eugenics as a reason for not teaching evolution.  He calls it his “fifth indictment.”  Bryan quotes Darwin, who he calls “the high priest of evolution, to whom all evolutionists bow.”  He highlights the words of Darwin that appear on page 149 of The Descent of Man:
“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health.  We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who, from a weak constitution, would have succumbed to smallpox.  Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind.  No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.  It is surprising how soon…care wrongly directed leads to the degeneration of a domestic race.”

“Darwin,” Bryan concludes, “reveals the barbarous sentiment that runs through evolution” and “speaks with approval of the savage custom of eliminating the weak so that only the strong will survive.” (T, 335) “How inhuman such a doctrine as this!”  Darwin “drags mankind down to the level of the brute.” “Could any doctrine,” Bryan asks, “be more destructive of civilization?”  (T, 335-36)

Bryan is not content to leave his criticism with Darwin’s nineteenth–century views on the subject.  He quotes a recent book popular within the eugenics movement, The New Decalogue of Science, which Bryan described as “even more frankly brutal than Darwin.” Bryan notes that the author complains, “Evolution is a brutal business, but civilization tries to make it a pink tea. Barbarism is the only process by which man has ever organically progressed, and civilization is the only process by which he has organically declined.”  The author advises that unless we allow the “beneficent hand of natural selection” to work its will, we will “bungle the whole task.”  (t, 336) 

Bryan's moves his summation to a rhetorical flourish.  He asks the jury to reject evolution--“a bloody, brutal doctrine.  Your answer,” he says, “will be heard throughout the world; it is eagerly awaited by a praying multitude.” (T, 338) 

 FN: The year after the Scopes trial, George Hunter substantially revised his popular textbook.  The entire six-page section dealing with evolution was dropped from a special edition of the book intended to satisfy school boards in southern states.  Only a vague reference to Darwin’s “interpretation of the way in which all life changes” survived the edit.  The word “evolution” did not even appear in text or the index of the edition called New Civic Biology.  (GMT, 454)

 Evolution/Creationism Page