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Eugenics And The Early Conservation Movement Are Connected

Wikicommons /
Logo from the Second International Eugenics Conference, 1921, depicting eugenics as a tree which unites a variety of different fields.

Eugenics, which got its start in the 1880s, is a set of beliefs and practices that aims at improving the genetic quality of a human population. It was the basis for forced sterilization laws in the United States and spread to Germany in the first part of the last century.

The American conservation movement started around the same time and was championed by Theodore Roosevelt, who became president in 1901.

It may seem strange today, but those two movements were closely linked at the time.

“I don’t know anyone on either side who denounced the other or said it wasn’t a viable connection,” said Garland Allen, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis.

That includes Roosevelt, who didn’t champion eugenics the way he did conservation, but expressed admiration for the pseudo-scientific field.

“He was very much in contact with all the eugenics people,” Allen said. One common theme between the two movements was the idea of “preserving the best,” he said.

In the early 1900s, elements of the eugenic philosophy were the basis for U.S. state laws on forced sterilization and marriage restrictions. Ultimately, some 60,000 Americans were sterilized. The movement was taken up by the Nazis in Germany and led to the murder of Jews and others deemed to be unworthy.

The conservation movement is no longer linked to eugenics in the public’s mind, but there is fallout from the connection, Allen said.

He sees it in the way that expert opinions are still looked at with suspicion when they come with a strong message of how things ‘should be.’

“The long shadow of eugenics still hangs over conservation,” he said.

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Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.