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drawing of a scientist writing on a clipboard with two strands of DNA above, one labeled with a check mark and the other with an X

What is the first period that comes to mind when one hears the term “eugenics”? For many, the answer is obvious: the Nazi dictatorship in Germany (1933-1945). And for good reason. The Nazis were indeed outspoken proponents of eugenics, carrying out multiple eugenic policies, including the T-4 involuntary euthanization program and compulsory sterilizations. The aim? To uplift and “purify” the “Aryan race” by weeding out “undesirables” from the gene pool and increasing the number of those deemed to be of “sound” genetic material. Nevertheless, the obsession of popular culture with World War II has obscured an uncomfortable truth: the survival of eugenic ideas after the collapse of Nazism. Rather than ending abruptly, modern eugenics was gradually phased out and ingeniously re-invented, allowing it to survive past 1945.

Optimizing Mankind: Eugenics Before the Nazis

In her book Controlling Human Heredityhistorian of genetics Diane Paul explains that manipulating human reproduction to optimize a population’s traits is an old idea. Utopian thinkers, such as Plato in the 4th century BCE, and Tommaso Campanella in the 17th century CE, frequently formulated such...