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2.2: Historical Perspectives on Developmental Disability

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     As eugenics became popular, institutions became places to separate and sterilize Americans with developmental disability and other disabilities (Jirik, 2014). Eugenics is the idea that some people are smarter, healthier, and better because of their genes. In 1883, Sir Francis Galton came up with the term “eugenics,” meaning “well-born” (Kurbegovic & Dyrbye, n.d.). He believed that by encouraging certain people to marry and have children while discouraging or stopping other people from doing so, humans would improve and get rid of problems. Galton, who was cousins with Charles Darwin, is known as the father of eugenics.  As Lennard Davis (2013) writes:

    On the one hand Sir Francis Galton was cousin to Charles Darwin, whose notion of the evolutionary advantage of the fittest lays the foundation for eugenics and also for the idea of a perfectible body undergoing progressive improvement. As one scholar has put it, “Eugenics was in reality applied biology based on the central biological theory of the day, namely the Darwinian theory of evolution” (Farrell 1985, 55). Darwin’s ideas service to place disabled people along the wayside as evolutionary defectives to be surpassed by natural selection. So eugenics became obsessed with the elimination of “defectives,” a category which included the “feebleminded,” the deaf, the blind, the physically defective, and so on. (Davis, 2013, p. 3).

    Charles Darwin was a scientist and explorer. In 1859, his theory of evolution, based on his observation of animals, was published. The title of his book was On the Origin of Species. One part of Charles Darwin’s theory was natural selection. In 1859, Darwin wrote, “It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinising, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good” (1859/2009, p. 83). Natural selection meant that the animals (including ancestors of humans) who adapted best to their environment and had the best qualities would be most likely to survive, mate, and have offspring. The genes of the “fit” animals would also live on in the successful animals’ descendants. On the other hand, natural selection also meant that the least fit animals, who did not adapt “well,” would be unlikely to be chosen as a partner, and therefore pass their genes down to future generations. One biologist, Herbert Spencer, framed natural selection as the idea of “survival of the fittest” (Kurbegovic, 2014).

    Portrait of Charles Darwin, a white man with a long beard wearing a dark jacket.

    Charles Darwin.

    Portrait photograph of Charles Darwin. Credit: Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain

    People got excited by Charles Darwin’s theories. Some people began to think that natural selection should apply to human beings in society. Erna Kurbegovic (2014) says,

    Social Darwinists tried to explain inequality between individuals and groups by misapplying Darwinian principles. Thus, those who were successful were seen as superior to those who were not. This type of thinking helped set the stage for the eugenics movement to emerge. (Kurbegovic, 2014).

    Social Darwinists used Darwin’s theories to try to understand society and thought that groups of people who were struggling were biologically worse.

    Natalie Ball (2013) describes how Charles Darwin contributed to eugenics. Ball explains that Darwin’s theories advanced biology and genetics research, so people used his theories to justify eugenics. She writes,

    The segregation, sterilization, and murder of various groups was justified by some as being done for the greater good of evolution – those groups were considered to be ‘less fit’, and by preventing their reproduction, advocates argued that the human race would improve and evolve into a better species. (Ball, 2013).

    Darwin’s part in the eugenics movement is shown by his family members, including his cousin Sir Francis Galton, the father of eugenics, and two of his sons, who were involved in eugenics leadership and promotion (Ball, 2013).

    Was Charles Darwin himself a eugenicist? Eugenicists are people who studied, practiced, and believed in eugenics. In his book The Descent of Man, he included racist arguments that fit into eugenicist thought, while arguing against laws controlling who had babies (Ball, 2013). But as Natalie Ball (2013) writes, “Whether or not he would have agreed with it, the theory of evolution and natural selection provided a scientific and theoretical basis for eugenic ideas and actions” (Ball, 2013). Arguing about whether Charles Darwin was or was not a eugenicist is not important. What’s important is how his ideas supported eugenics as a legitimate science.

    Eugenics is part of the history of people with developmental disability. Eugenicists wanted “better” people to have children and live freely. Eugenicists thought some people weren’t worthy of having children, living in the community, or even being alive. In America, people thought of eugenics as a “science.” Many Americans supported public policies based on eugenics. At Ellis Island, disabled immigrants, including immigrants with developmental disability, were judged and deported (Nielson, 2012, p. 103). States passed laws to sterilize disabled people. American eugenicist Harry Laughlin’s “model sterilization law became internationally renowned, eventually taken up by Adolf Hitler in his own bid for a national racial purity” (Nielson, 2012, p. 102). In 1927, the United States Supreme Court said it was acceptable to sterilize people with developmental disability. It didn’t matter if people wanted to have children. The Buck v. Bell case said doctors could sterilize disabled people without their permission. The Supreme Court said it was best for public health to stop people with developmental disability from having children. They believed that parents passed developmental disability to their children (Buck v. Bell, 1927).

    American eugenics made a worldwide impact. As Nancy E. Hansen, Heidi L. Janz, and Dick J. Sobsey write (2008), Nazis put laws in place with “similar, if more radical, eugenic understandings [which] resulted in the systematic murder of almost 250,000 disabled people during the period of National Socialism in Germany” (pp. S104-S105). Some Nazi policies were based on American and European laws. Other Nazi laws went further by killing people they saw as unworthy. One group Nazis targeted were people with disabilities.

    Nazi propaganda poster with a photo of a woman consulting a doctor and the message in German: "People should be open and candid with their doctors about hereditary illnesses, so that the German state can act to eliminate them."
    A 1933 Nazi propaganda poster tells Germans to talk to their doctors about genetic disabilities. People should be open and candid with their doctors about hereditary illnesses, so that the German state can act to eliminate them. Color lithograph, 1933/1945. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY

    Eugenics and Nazism play a role in autism history. Historians credit both Dr. Hans Asperger and Dr. Leo Kanner with creating the autism diagnosis (Czech, 2018, p. 4). The two doctors each had “types” of autism named after them—Kanner’s autism and Asperger syndrome (Silberman, 2015). Today, different autistic people with different support needs share the same disability name. During the Nazi regime, Asperger was a doctor in Austria. Some of Asperger’s ideas about autism changed our understanding of developmental disability. People in English-speaking Western countries often thought Asperger resisted the Nazis and protected disabled people (Czech, 2018, p. 3). Newly-available documents from Nazi times show that the real story is more complicated. According to Herwig Czech (2018), Asperger referred at least two children with developmental disability to Am Spiegelgrund. Am Spiegelgrund was an institution that Nazis used to murder disabled people (p. 20). When Nazis sterilized disabled people, Asperger seemed ambivalent. New facts make older stories about Asperger harder to believe. Czech suggests to think about Asperger’s discoveries about autism in context (p. 32). In other words, remember that Asperger contributed to present thinking about developmental disability, but don’t forget his actions in Nazi-occupied Austria. As Czech points out, the roots of the autism diagnosis comes from a time of eugenics.

    This page titled 2.2: Historical Perspectives on Developmental Disability is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Emily Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.