Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

Everybody knows Khan Noonien Singh. He's one of the most famous Star Trek characters who isn't a starship crewmember. But he's also the poster boy for eugenics, the notion that you can improve the human race by rewriting our genes.

For the past century, pop culture has told plenty of stories about eugenics. Some of them have criticized the notion that you can make people "better" — but others have been wishful fantasies about making a better world through genetics. Here's the weird history of eugenics in popular culture.

Before we start, just to clarify — this article won't deal with all forms of genetic manipulation — such as transgenic people who are part-cat, part-human. That's a really broad topic, and too much ground to cover in one place. This is just about fantasies of using genetic manipulation, breeding or extermination to encourage or remove certain genetic traits.

Pre-World War II

Eugenics goes back to the late 19th century — basically, it arose along with Darwinism and Natural Selection.

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

But one important early text in the United States is the 1910 booklet Eugenics: the Science of Human Improvement by Better Breeding by C.B. Davenport, founder of the Eugenics Record Office, who says that people wouldn't interbreed if they knew for sure their offspring would be mentally inferior.

Davenport did years of research, collecting people's family histories and trying to figure out how certain traits had been passed on, or not as the case might be. Davenport believed not only that people of African ancestry were inferior, but also that Polish people, Irish people and Italians were fundamentally different genetically. For example, Italians had a genetic tendency towards "crimes of personal violence." Immigration, thought Davenport, would eventually leave Americans darker in pigment and more likely to commit "crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex-immorality."

Spurred on by thinkers like Davenport, a eugenics movement took hold in the United States, leading to the forced sterilization of 65,000 people who were deemed "unfit," which continued into the 1970s. (I love how one Georgia law provided for "immunization from procreation" for convicted criminals — as if procreation were an infectious disease.)

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

One of the earliest novels about eugenics is Eduardo Urzaiz's Eugenia: A Fictional Sketch of Future Habits, published in 1919. Urzaiz, a Cuban doctor and scholar who moved to Mexico as a child, was an early advocate of birth control — a taboo subject in 1919. And Eugenia, his only work of fiction, explores the 23rd century world of Villautopia, where "the reproduction of the species was supervised by the State and regulated by science." The narrator visits the Bureau of Eugenics, where tough choices are made to ensure the "evolutionary march toward an ideal of perfection." Once all humans are equally fit, various characters suggest, we can achieve absolute social and economic equality.

Another early eugenics utopia is Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, published in 1915. One of the earliest women-only societies (see below for more examples of these), Herland features entirely Aryan women — and only the fittest are allowed to reproduce.

There were also several other early fictional accounts of eugenics, including Edward Payton Jackson's The Demigod (1886), Trygaeus' The United States of the World (1916), Jacques Binet-Sanglé's The Human Stud-Farm (1918) and William Margrie's The Story of a Great Experiment: How England Produced the First Superman (1927).

But meanwhile, in 1931, Aldous Huxley published Brave New World, which features babies born in "hatcheries" and carefully bred for their role in society. "Alphas" are supposed to be highly intelligent leaders, but the other four castes (Beta, Gamma, Delta and Epsilon) are selected for their value as laborers — and the lower castes tend to be identical clones, with arrested development. Other novels which criticized or satirized eugenics included Rose Macaulay's What Not (1918) and Charlotte Haldane's Man's World (1927).

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

But meanwhile, E.E. "Doc" Smith began publishing his Lensman series in 1934, with the serialization of Triplanetary in Amazing Stories. In the Lensman universe, the super-advanced Arisians have been doing a eugenics program since before Atlantis, culminating in five super-humans. (Although I believe this doesn't become fully apparent until First Lensman, published in 1948.) As the introduction to Old Earth Press' edition of First Lensman says, "eugenics presents no moral challenge to Doc Smith, and the fact that his chosen race is unmistakably Aryan needs to be assimilated by readers, and then — for the duration — completely and utterly ignored."

Also in the 1930s, Olaf Stapledon published the novels First and Last Men and Odd John, which concern themselves with genetic engineering and divergent evolution that create far-future races of superhumans as well as sub-humans.

Also the 1933 movie The Island of Lost Souls, based on the H.G. Wells novel, dealt with a scientist trying to create the perfect human being — and Paramount Pictures even invited eugenicist Julian Huxley onto the film set to vouch for the scientific accuracy of the film.

On the other hand, you had the 1936 musical comedy College Holiday, starring Jack Benny, George Burns, Gracie Allen and Martha Raye. College Holiday takes place at the ridiculous Eugenic Mating Headquarters, which is devoted to "the creation of a Greek-like super race." The movie is full of spoofs on eugenics, including the notion of eugenic beauty pageants, and the idea that the Greek gods themselves practiced eugenics. The Greek god costumes in the movie are deliberately made to look like "glorified gunny sacks." (You can listen to a radio presentation of it here — the comedy starts at 3:20 and is laugh-out-loud bizarre.)

Some scholars also suggest that early-1930s horror movies like Frankenstein and Dracula reflect unease with eugenics. Frankenstein is all about scientific experts trying to control human life (and thus, human reproduction.) And Dracula is about what can go wrong when you have a "pure" bloodsucking elite. But meanwhile, the many movie adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde play on fears that humans could return to our simian, animalistic roots if we're not careful.

And then of course the 1930s ended with the creation of Superman, whose very name suggests that he's the embodiment of the Aryan ideal of the racially pure Ubermensch — even though he actually comes from another planet and wants to interbreed with our human women.

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

In 1942, Robert A. Heinlein published his second novel, Beyond This Horizon, serialized in Astounding Science Fiction under the name Anson McDonald. It depicts a world in which people have been selected for longevity and health, resulting in a race of super-humans and an economic utopia in which there is no scarcity. (But this particular form of eugenics does not involve racism, just selection for overall health.) Heinlein's later novels, such as Stranger in a Strange Land, would also deal with the emergence of superhumans.

After World War II

The Nazis took eugenic ideas to a horrific extreme, in their quest for the Aryan superman. And in the wake of the Holocaust, many people had a harder time advocating selective breeding or genetic fitness. Writes Richard Dawkins:

In the 1920s and 1930s, scientists from both the political left and right would not have found the idea of designer babies particularly dangerous - though of course they would not have used that phrase. Today, I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change. Nobody wants to be caught agreeing with that monster, even in a single particular.

And this change was reflected in pop culture. Movies that dealt with eugenics in the early 1940s typically depicted Nazi-like mad scientists who attempted to create super soldiers through horrifying means, including The Mad Monster (1942), The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942) and Revenge of the Zombies (1943).

The rash of "Nazis won World War II" alternate history stories and novels that started after the Nazis actually lost World War II frequently include some horrible outcomes — in Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle, the Nazis solve the "African problem" by nuking Africa.

In the 1950s and 1960s, B-movies became obsessed with the idea that radiation from atomic testing could degrade our DNA. Some stories even explicitly brought up the notion that the only way to protect against this damage was to "improve" our DNA now by selecting for superior traits. (Or by splicing in mutant wolf DNA, as in The Werewolf (1956).

Two television programs came along in the 1960s which were obsessed with the evils of trying to create the perfect human.

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

One of them, of course, was Star Trek — many of the stories in the Original Series have to do with foolish attempts to improve humanity. And Captain Kirk often meets superior beings (like the Organians, and the disembodied voice in "The Arena") who taunt him that humanity is not yet evolved enough to understand various concepts. But probably the most memorable TOS villain, other than the Klingons and Romulans, is Khan Noonien Singh, a genetically enhanced superman who's a veteran of the "eugenics wars" of the 1990s. Paradoxically, Khan is depicted both as the next stage of human evolution and as a throwback — Kirk frequently refers to the fact that Khan comes from an earlier, more barbaric time. It's not until 1982's movie sequel Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan that his "superior intellect" is mentioned in every other sentence.

The theme of eugenics in Star Trek is brought up again in the later series, most notably in the character of Julian Bashir in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, who turns out to be the beneficiary of illegal genetic manipulation to make him a genius. (In Star Trek's bright future, almost any medical problem can be fixed by waving a salt shaker over you, but certain improvements are still taboo, thanks to Khan.)

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

And then there's Doctor Who, the British show that has the spectre of World War II hanging over it. Doctor Who's most famous villains are the Daleks, who are obsessed with racial purity and the extermination of anyone whose genetic stock is different. "A dislike for the unlike," Ian calls it in the first Dalek adventure. The Daleks' connection with Nazis is made explicit in "The Daleks Master Plan" and "Genesis of the Daleks," but it runs through pretty much all their stories. And their obsession with genetic purity is brought up frequently in the new series, when they deem only one human cell in a billion worthy of becoming a Dalek.

But classic Doctor Who is also full of failed utopias, fascist leaders, and people who find themselves transforming into something bizarre and horrible. A key theme of many Doctor Who stories is the need to hold on to your humanity.

And starting in 1965, Frank Herbert's Dune series includes some major themes of eugenics — the Bene Gesserit use selective breeding programs to attempt to create the ultimate human, the "Kwisatz Haderach." They place their members into different families by marriage or concubinage, to try and select for certain traits, and then keep the offspring as members of their own order. [Thanks OOglebooze!]

A few themes started emerging in the 1970s that connected, at least tangentially, to eugenics:

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

  • Mutants: The X-Men first achieved real fame in the 1970s, and the theme of mutated humans with superior powers, who were hated and oppressed by normal humans, became a major theme — building on such works as The Chrysalids by John Wyndham.
  • Eco-catastrophe: A huge rash of films in the 1970s dealt with the idea of an ecological disaster, and in several of these, mad scientists attempt to upgrade or modify humanity genetically to survive.
  • Feminist utopias: We already mentioned Herland above — and starting in the 1970s, there was a string of utopian novels about women-only or female-dominated societies, in which one common feature was genetically engineered babies. In some cases, male babies are genetically engineered to lack aggression or to be more obedient. We published a brief survey of these here.

Blade Runner (1982) deals with a race of genetically engineered people, Replicants, who have superior abilities — but a built-in time limit, causing them to die within a few years.

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

And the novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (1985) takes place in a future where breeding is controlled by the state, although Ender himself was conceived with special dispensation. (See the comments for longer discussions of Ender's provenance.) There are hints throughout the series that Ender's parents, however, were genetically engineered — and this may have contributed to Ender's tactical brilliance in the war against the alien Buggers.

The 1988 movie Twins involves a genetic experiment to create the perfect man — but Arnold Schwarzenegger gets all the "purity and strength" genes, while Danny DeVito gets all the "genetic garbage." (Schwarzenegger has recently said he wants to make a sequel, Triplets, in which they turn out to have a third twin: Eddie Murphy.)

1990 and Beyond: Genetic Engineering

Starting in the early 1990s, the prospect of actual genetic engineering started to seem less far-fetched, as we start to map the human genome. Dolly the Sheep was cloned in 1996, and things like Alba the glowing bunny and a mouse with a human ear began to seem commonplace.

And science fiction started to explore these topics more seriously. Nancy Kress' 1990 Hugo- and Nebula-winning novella "Beggars in Spain" features children who are genetically engineered not to need sleep.

Probably the most famous movie about genetic enhancement is the 1997 dystopian film Gattaca, in which in-vitro children are tested to select the ones with their parents' best traits. There's a genetic registry that lists the peopel who were genetically selected using this method, aka "valids," while the people who are still susceptible to genetic problems, aka "invalids," are relegated to menial work. Technically, genetic discrimination is illegal — but it goes on all the time.

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

But Gattaca was part of a huge wave of dystopias and false utopias around eugenics. Tons of movies in the past two decades or so have used genetic engineering as a plot device in one way or another — in the horrible Batman and Robin, Mr. Freeze is trying to cure his wife's rare genetic disorder. In Code 46, people are using anonymous sperm donors so much that the government must control people's reproduction to avoid in-breeding. In Blade II, an evil vampire scientist tries to use genetic manipulation to create a new "pure race" of vampires. In The Nutty Professor, Dr. Klump alters his DNA to become the suave, amoral Buddy Love. And so on.

Pop Culture's 100-year Obsession With Eugenics

And meanwhile, science fiction books became obsessed with posthumans who had evolved beyond our current limitations. Iain M. Banks' Culture novels depict a highly advanced society in which people are able to change their physical form, including species, at will. Alastair Reynolds' recent House of Suns depicts a future in which "shatterlings," multiple clones of the same person, live for hundreds of thousands of years across the stars. As Alan DeNiro pointed out in Rain Taxi in 2007, much of the "new space opera" is about humans who have given up much of their humanity to live in space.

So how close are the ideals of posthumanism and transhumanism to eugenics? These philosophies certainly suggest that we can "improve" the human race by merging with machines — but also by hacking our bodies in various ways. These improvements are often imperfectly distributed, due to socioeconomic status, among other things.

The magazine Foreign Policy asked eight thinkers to name the single idea that could "pose the greatest threat to the welfare of humanity" if it were embraced, including Francis Fukuyama, a professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and member of the President's Council on Bioethics. Fukuyama chose transhumanism.

Fukuyama wrote:

The first victim of transhumanism might be equality... If we start transforming ourselves into something superior, what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind? If some move ahead, can anyone afford not to follow? These questions are troubling enough within rich, developed societies. Add in the implications for citizens of the world's poorest countries — for whom biotechnology's marvels likely will be out of reach — and the threat to the idea of equality becomes even more menacing.

Of course, stories about heroic posthumans are usually careful to avoid any suggestion that undesirable traits have been bred out, or that one particular group of humans was more "fit" to become posthuman. But it's hard not to feel a bit worried that some versions of posthumanism might spring from the same notions of improving the human race that drove the popularity of eugenics 100 years ago.

In the Name of Eugenics by Daniel J. Kevles
Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency And American Mass Culture in the 1930s by Susan Currell
The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction by Rachel Haywood Ferreira
Race in American Science Fiction by Isiah Lavender
Science Fact and Science Fiction: An Encyclopedia by Brian M. Stableford
The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy: Themes, Works, and Wonders, Volume 2 by Gary Westfahl
"The Devil in Our DNA: A Brief History of Eugenics in Science Fiction Films" by David A. Kirby