Ideas of heredity, reproduction and eugenics in Britain, 1800-1875


Abstract
In this paper I begin by arguing that there are significant intellectual and normative continuities between pre-Victorian hereditarianism and later Victorian eugenical ideologies. Notions of mental heredity and of the dangers of transmitting hereditary 'taints' were already serious concerns among medical practitioners and laymen in the early nineteenth century. I then show how the Victorian period witnessed an increasing tendency for these traditional concerns about hereditary transmission and the integrity of bloodlines to be projected onto the level of national health. Tracing the gradual emergence of eugenical thought, I also highlight some of the more fundamental social, political and intellectual factors that promoted this predilection for extrapolating from the individual lineage to the nation and race. In doing so I argue that fully fledged eugenical thought was always unlikely to emerge prior to the early Victorian period. However, I am also able to show that Francis Galton's 1865 eugenical proposals were far from innovative and that identifying him as the 'father' of the eugenics movement is highly misleading.
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