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The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea

Subject Area(s):  Biology in SocietyGeneral Interest TitlesHistory of Science

By Elof Axel Carlson, Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Stony Brook

© 2001 • 451 pp., illus., bibliography, indexes
Book of the Year for 2001 in Amazon's Professional Science Category!
Paperback • $26
ISBN  978-162182225-7

  •     Description    
  •     Contents    


The Unfit, by Elof Carlson, explores the sources of a movement—negative eugenics—that was used to justify the Holocaust, which claimed millions of innocent lives in World War II. The title reflects the nearly three centuries of belief that some people are socially unfit by virtue of a defective biology, and echoes an earlier theory of degeneracy, dating to biblical antiquity, in which some people were deemed unfit because of some transgression against religious law. The author presents the first biological theory of degeneracy—onanism—and then follows the development of degeneracy theory throughout the nineteenth century and its application to a variety of social classes. The key intellectual theories and their proponents form the framework of this exploration, which includes the concepts of evolution and heredity and how they were applied to social problems. These ideas are followed into the twentieth century with the development of theories of positive and negative eugenics, the establishment of compulsory sterilization laws, racism and anti–Semitism, and the Holocaust.

This story of misapplied science and technology is one that still haunts humanity in the twenty–first century. The ghost of eugenics recurs in many guises during debates and controversies about intelligence testing, genetic screening, prenatal diagnosis, gene therapy, new reproductive strategies, and uses of our genomic information. Carlson ends his discussion of the history of humanity in this arena with an exploration of the future of genetics that is based on new technologies and application of the Human Genome Project findings, as well as a discussion of the death of the old eugenics and of the problems that will not go away, including our ambivalence about our own biology.


Part 1: Before Darwin
Chapter 1.    Who Are the Unfit?
Chapter 2.    The Unfit in Biblical Times
Chapter 3.    Self-pollution and Declining Health
Chapter 4.    Degeneracy Theory: Identifying the Innately Depraved and the Victims of Vicious Upbringing
Chapter 5.    Dangerous Classes and Social Degeneracy
Chapter 6.    Poor Laws, and the Descent to Degeneracy
Chapter 7.    The Perfectibility of Man Confronts Vice and Misery
Chapter 8.    Evolutionary Ethics before Darwin
Chapter 9.    Hereditary Units and the Pessimism of the Germ Plasm
Part 2: Eugenics Takes the Spotlight
Chapter 10.   The Jukes and the Tribe of Ishmael
Chapter 11.   A Minor Prophet of Democracy
Chapter 12.   Isolating the Unfit through Compulsory Sterilization
Chapter 13.   The Emergence of Two Wings of the Eugenics Movement
Chapter 14.   Europe's Undesirables Replace the Domestic Unfit
Chapter 15.   Eugenics Becomes an International Movement
Part 3: Racism, the Holocaust, and Beyond
Chapter 16.   Racism and Human Inequality
Chapter 17.   Jews as People, Race, Culture, Religion, and Victims
Chapter 18.   The Smoke of Auschwitz
Chapter 19.   The Abandonment of Eugenics by Genetics
Chapter 20.   The Future of Eugenics
Chapter 21.   Dealing with Life's Imperfections
Appendix 1: Flow Diagrams and the History of Ideas
Appendix 2: Useful Books on the History of Eugenics
Appendix 3: Bibliography