Why Is the “Nature
Debate So Heated?
Discussions of whether personality traits and intelligence
are a function of genes or environment are a continual
source of often acrimonious debate. At least some of this
controversy can be attributed to the concept of eugenics in
both the United States and Europe.
British statistician Sir Francis Galton coined the term
eugenics in 1883 to refer to the science of the improvement
of the human race by “better breeding.” Better breeding
implied that the quality of the human species could be
improved by using a newfound understanding of the
evolution and genetics. Eugenics was the human equivalent
of selective animal and plant breeding.
Eugenics was first embraced as a scientific means of
halting the stream of impoverished immigrants who
came to the United States between 1880 and 1914. These
new immigrants arrived principally from eastern and
southern Europe, the Balkans, and Russia. They were ethnically
and culturally different from earlier waves of foreigners,
who had migrated mostly from the countries of
western Europe such as Germany, England, Ireland, and
Scotland. Many Americans thought these new immigrants
were “defective”—less intelligent, more radical,
and willing to work for low wages (Figure E4.2). To combat
the purported damage these new immigrants would
do to the nature of future generations of Americans, eugenicists
successfully lobbied for restrictions on immigration
from these groups.
In the 1920s and 1930s, eugenicists began working on
the passage of a number state laws mandating “eugenical
sterilization.” These laws were intended to eliminate the
production of offspring of individuals—typically those in
mental institutions or jails—who were considered likely
to give birth to defective children. By 1940, more than 30
states had enacted such compulsory sterilization laws. Between
1907 and 1941, more than 60,000 eugenical sterilizations
were performed in the...