Eugenics, as it was implemented in the Province of Alberta in the 20th century, was a form of artificial selection or selective breeding similar to what is often applied to improve stocks of domestic animals. Prior to the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution, many people thought that humans were fundamentally different from other animals. The theory of evolution by natural selection, however, convinced most scientists that humans are much like other animals and in fact evolved from common ancestors shared with other animal species. It inspired the notion that humans too can be improved by selective breeding, and it gave rise to the doctrine of eugenics.
Many writers and academic authorities in the pre-scientific era taught that human traits, including criminal tendencies and intelligence, are fixed by heredity and therefore human society will remain the same for many years into the future. Plato (c. 387 B.C.E.) devised his “Myth of the Metals” (The Republic, Book III) to justify large differences in wealth and privilege, arguing that the kind of metal found in the father is generally reproduced in the child. More than 2000 years later, Francis Galton (1869) in his book Hereditary Genius noted how often outstanding citizens come from distinguished stock. He championed a like-begets-like theory of heredity that fit nicely with religious teachings that the world has existed pretty much unchanged since it was created only a few thousand years earlier.
Origins of the theory of evolution
The first big challenge to those ideas arose not from biology but from the study of rocks. Lyell (1830-33) and others proposed that changes sculpting mountains and shorelines of seas today are the same kinds of processes that acted long ago, and that the rates of change through erosion of mountains and accumulation of sediments in seas have been steady for a very long time. By measuring those rates of change and the thicknesses of rock layers, geologists concluded that the earth is far older than what is asserted in holy books and in fact is many millions of years old. If entire mountains can disappear and then new ones form in another place as earthquakes and volcanoes bring material up from the depths, perhaps living things might have slowly evolved too. The notion was supported by the discovery of fossils of fantastic life forms in ancient rocks that no longer exist among living species.
In the mid-19th century, many scientists were studying variations in plants and animals, and they were trying to understand how the variations were transmitted to future generations. Especially in work with domestic animals and plants used to produce food in agriculture, animal breeders utilized selective breeding to create improved strains with useful characteristics. When a new colour or colour pattern appeared in a flower in a garden, for example, the gardener might deliberately choose to propagate that new plant in order to generate more with the same characteristic. If the new form were indeed hereditary, it would become more common in the offspring of future generations. After only a few generations of selective breeding, a new variety or strain might be created in which almost all offspring have the new characteristic. That kind of deliberate breeding was being used in the 19th century to generate many new strains and breeds of flowers, wheat, cats and cattle. The laws of hereditary transmission were not well understood at the time, but the benefits of selective breeding were clear enough that it was widely practiced with animals and plants.
In the same period, there was also growing interest in the diversity of animal species in remote regions of the world that were being newly explored. Many surprising kinds of animals were being found and brought back to England. Charles Darwin was a naturalist who accompanied a sailing ship (the Beagle) on its tour of remote lands, and he observed in intricate detail the relatively small variations in animal forms living on nearby volcanic islands that had been in existence a relatively short time. In his masterwork The Origin of Species, Darwin (1859) proposed that if some of the small variations in a characteristic give the individual possessing them some slight advantage in the struggle for survival and reproduction, those variants should become more common in future generations. The theory of evolution by natural selection asserts that the gradual accumulation of useful characteristics through differential reproduction can help a population adapt to new environmental conditions and after many generations can eventually create such a large change that the altered plant or animal population becomes an entirely new species. The process was thought to happen very slowly and require millions of years, but as geologists had shown with rocks, the earth is very old and there has been sufficient time for big changes.
The change in the frequency of a beneficial trait in a species when no deliberate selection by a human is involved is termed natural selection. The rate of change may be slower than when a human with a well-laid plan decides who will mate with whom, but the mechanism of the change is the same as in artificial selection done systematically for a purpose. Darwin presented extensive evidence that gradual change in the frequency of a trait does indeed occur in nature without human intervention and can result in the creation of a new species. His suggestion that human beings may have evolved from ape-like ancestors released torrents of commentary pro and con.
From natural selection to eugenics
The widespread acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection inspired his cousin Francis Galton to apply the theory to humans. He proposed that deliberate selective breeding could accelerate evolutionary change. He founded the political program of eugenics and claimed that measures to prevent the reproduction of less fit individuals and encourage reproduction by the best individuals could improve the quality of the human stock (Galton, 1905). Political action groups such as the Eugenics Education Society were formed to influence government policies and begin programs of large scale sterilization of people they judged to be inferior or mentally defective. Eugenics never was translated into policy in Great Britain, but the work done there by Galton and his collaborators influenced many in the USA and Canada, and later in Nazi Germany (Kevles, 1985).
The rise of genetics
Eugenic programs could have some effect if the characteristic in question, be it colour, shape, intelligence or anything else, was indeed hereditary. However, in the 1900s, the mechanisms of heredity were largely unknown. Tracing traits through pedigrees over several generations could be downright confusing. The study of laws of heredity took a major leap forward with the work of the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel (1865), who bred and cross-bred large numbers of garden peas having differing characteristics such as plant height and seed shape and colour. Early in the 20th century Mendel’s work was rediscovered and then extended to virtually all sexually reproducing species, including humans. It became apparent that heredity consists of a large number of different kinds of chemical entities termed genes, and each kind of gene can exist in different forms (alleles) in a population. It was shown that genes reside on the chromosomes in the nucleus of a cell and they code for the structure of protein molecules, which sometimes serve as an enzyme to promote specific chemical reactions in the cell.
In the early 20th century, sophisticated mathematical models of gene frequencies and their changes during natural and artificial selection were devised by R. A. Fisher (1930), Sewall Wright (1930) and J. B. S. Haldane (1924-1932), and in the 1930s an elaborate mathematical theory of selective breeding was widely accepted among scientists. But political programs of eugenics in the USA and Canada did not take into account the new and better understanding of real genes in real populations. The political leaders responsible for eugenic sterilization of thousands of people had little or no understanding of the genetic science of selective breeding. Prominent scientists published devastating criticisms of eugenics (Hogben, 1933; Haldane, 1938), but were ignored by devout believers in the eugenics creed.
By the 1950s, when many sterilizations of children in the Alberta Provincial Training School for Mental Defectives were done by the order of the Eugenics Board, the principles and methods of artificial selection applied with farm animals were well understood and were taught to undergraduate students at the University of Alberta using, for example, the text by Lush (1945). A detailed statistical analysis of the Alberta eugenics program based on information readily available during the 1950s (Wahlsten, 2010) revealed that the net effect of that program would have been to increase the average intelligence (IQ) test score in the province from 100.0 to 100.043 after about 20 years, a trivially small change. While the Alberta Eugenics Board was operating, however, nobody involved in eugenic sterilization bothered to make that calculation of the likely consequences of government-mandated artificial selection.
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Fisher, R.A. (1930). The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Galton, F. (1869).Hereditary Genius. London: Macmillan.
Galton, F. (1905). Studies in eugenics. American Journal of Sociology, 11: 11-25.
Haldane, J.B.S. (1924-1932). A mathematical theory of natural and artificial selection. Transactions of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 9 parts.
Haldane, J. B. S. (1938). Heredity and Politics. London: Allen & Unwin.
Hogben, L. (1933). Nature and Nurture. London: Williams & Norgate.
Kevles, D. (1985). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. New York: Knopf.
Lush, J. L. (1945). Animal Breeding Plans. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State College Press.
Lyell, C. (1830-1833). Principles of Geology. 3 volumes. London.
Mendel, G. (1865). Versuche über Pflanzenhybriden. Verh. Natur. Vereins Brünn, 4: 3-57. See also Mendel, 1970, Braunschweig: Friedrich Viewig & Sohn. [reprints of several papers in German, including the original 1865 classic].
Wahlsten, D. (2010). Eugenics in Alberta: Science and politics. Keynote address, conference on Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, Community University Research Alliance program, Edmonton, Alberta.
Wright, S. (1930). The genetical theory of natural selection: a review. Journal of Heredity, 21: 349-356.