Frederick Osborn, Galton and Mid-Century Eugenics, 1956 Eugenics Review published lecture and “Voluntary Unconscious Selection”

Frederick Osborn, president of the Population Council and steadfast advocate for eugenics, in a 1956 speech recorded in the Eugenics Review.  [SOURCE]


Galton never envisaged any system of arbitrary controls, except for the more serious mental and physical handicaps, which should be treated like a form of communicable disease.  But he did propose that we should attempt to assign eugenic calue to particular people, and single them out for rewards for having children.  The values he proposed related to health, intelligence and fine qualities of personality.  They are generally accepted.  No one could object to them.  Yet somehow the idea of designating certain people as desirable progenitors of the next generation, and rewarding them for having children, has never found acceptance.  It has not been neglected.  Othes have worked on it since Galton’s time, and it has been quite constantly before the public in one way or another.  But it seems to arouse more indignation than sympathy and more ridicule than serious consideration.  I believe that Galton would have recognized by now that public opinion was pretty well fixed in this matter.

This opposition does not seem reasonable to the eugenist.  He recognized more than others that the conditions of modern life may bring about a genetic degeneration of the race; he feels perhaps more deeply than others the need for genetic improvement and the possibility of accomplishing it.  But the public in general is less willing to accept the idea that any individuals are genetically superior.  In the United States they say that there is no mother who does not sometimes think that her son might become President. … The genetic odds may favour one mother far more than another, but in races, horse or man, it isn’t always the odds on favourite which wins.

My own feeling is that if eugenics is to make progress in the foreseeable future, we will not only have to drop the idea of assigning genetic superiorities to social or racial groups, but we will even have to stop trying to designate individuals as superior or inferior.  To many eugenists this would seem a radical step, almost the abandonment of eugenics.  But a little consideration will show that there are means of selection which do not require that we humiliate one half of the individuals who comprise the human race by telling them that they are not as fit as the other half to procreate the next generation.

Practical Eugenics Programme

In the latter part of his life Galton urged the study of “forces under social control” which would influence the distribution of births.  He himself analyzed the effect on survival of differences in age at marriage; he pointed out the effect of the celibacy required of scholars by the colleges.  To Galton these were examples of social forces which brought about a voluntary and quite unconscsious though adverse form of selection.


Differences in size of family as between individual couples appeared to vary in the past inversely with income.  … The largest study of this sort was the “Study of the Social and Psychological Factors Affecting Fertility” carried out in Indianapolis and reported in the Milbank Fund Quarterly.  Because of the size of the sample in this study, it was possible to make an analysis of births among several hundred couples all practicing family planning effectively.  In this family planning group, the rate of births was much below the rate required for replacement, but the number of children per couple was directly related to income.  Those couples with the lowest incomes had the fewest children, and size of family increased with each increment of a thousand dollars per year of income, the couples with the most children being the ones with the highest incomes.  I believe we can now assume that the ideal of planning family size, coupled with effective means of preventing conception, constitutes “a force under social control” which permits individual couples to respond to the varying pressures of the environment with a considerable variation in size of family; and that among such couples economic pressures tends to reduce the number of children.

We still have much to learn, but it seems fairly certain, subject to confirmation by further studies, that when family planning has spread to all elements of the population, and means of effective contraception are readily available to all, couples will tend to have children in some proportion to their ability to give them care.  The present evidence permits us to speak only of their economic care.  But there seems to be every reason to believe that other aspects of ability to care for children are also involved.


Such an assumption is subject to two important conditions:  means must be found to make early marriage and children economically possible to ambitious young people, and the influences of the early environment must be such as to provide the proper psychological conditioning for parenthood.  By this I mean that the parents of the future should be exposed from earliest childhood to influences which will tend to increase the desire for children, and will increase this desire most among individuals with the ability to give their children the kind of affectional and intelligent care we have indicated.  … We are assuming that we can find “forces under social control” which when incorporated into the environment, would have a selective effect on size of family.

Perhaps the greatest handicap to the effectiveness of a selective environment of this sort would be the tendency of people everywhere to conform to the current fashion, which seems to apply to size of family as well as of bustle, design of clothes, or other matters of taste.  … To maintain an effective selection of births it would be important to develop a public opinion which would not expect couples to have a particular number of children, but which would find it entirely natural for some couples to have large families and others small families or no children at all, depending solely on their own choice or taste in the matter.

Fortunately a process of selection, to be effective, does not have to be exact.  It is enough if the general trend is in the right direction.  That was certainly the case with natural selection, and we should be content if it is the case with the kind of man-made selection now being considered.

The most immediate and notable effect of this kind of selection would be environmental… [… ie., improving home environments… ] …when properly understood, [they would] have the enthusiastic support of the public, which everywhere wants to see children brought up in better home environments.  There is here no interference with individual choice as to size of family.  There is no question of assumed superiority or inferiority; indeed the eugenic question need not be raised, and it would probably be better not to raise it.  The results of this environmental selection would be apparent in the first generation brought up in the better environments, and should be cumulative thereafter.


The proposal we have been discussing develops out of common sense and would be put forward on the ground that more children would grow up in the best home environments, with not public argument made for eugenics.  I think that Galton, if he were here with us to-day, and had reviewed the history of the eugenic movement since his death, would endorse such a proposal.


This programme meets the requirement that a process of selection should sort out individuals throughout the whole population.  It makes a beginning, and it has the advantage that as our scientific knowledge increases and public opinion is increasingly informed, it can be more and more directed to a genetic as well as an environmental selection.  Already enough is known of medical genetics to make it almost obligatory that we should set up heredity clinics in connection with medical schools and marriage counselling services.  Galton would, I believe, have adopted the view now generally held, that heredity counselling should not go beyond advising on the degree of risk of defective heredity, leaving it to the parents themselves to decide whether or not it is to their interest and that of society to run this risk.  He would have hoped that by educating the public through such services, individual parents, backed by public opinion, would increasingly hesitate to run the risk of bringing defective children into the world.  The public education resulting from the use of heredity clinics should develop a eugenic awareness which would make the public more understanding of eugenic measures, and individual couples more anxious to play a eugenic part.

Galton clearly saw that eugenic policies would fail unless geared to “existing conditions of law and sentiment.”

I doubt whether, at the present time, he would have gone beyond these specific proposals.  I think they would have seemed to him sufficient for a start on which to build a eugenic form of society.  I have no doubt that he would have put the whole force of his position behind these proposals.


It is eighty-six years since Galton published his Hereditary Genius, eighty-six years since he gave us the hope that the average of human intelligence and character could be raised to the level of the upper five or ten per cent to-day; since he envisaged the eugenic movement as something that would sweep the world and make man at last the master of his own destiny on earth.  It has not happened.  The eugenic movement is nothing but a few small handfuls of men in various countries; here in England, in the United States, in India, in France.  They are not influencing public opinion. The very word eugenics is in disrepute in some quarters. Yet I still believe in Galton’s dream. Probably most of you do. We must ask ourselves, what have we done wrong?

His answer is telling, and speaks to the answer to the question I began my research with:

I think we have failed to take into account a trait which is almost universal and is very deep in human nature. People simply are not willing to accept the idea that the genetic base on which their character is formed is inferior and should not be repeated in the next generation. We have asked whole groups of people to accept this idea and we have asked individuals to accept it. They have constantly refused, and we have all but killed the eugenic movement.

People will accept the idea of a specific hereditary defect. They will go to a heredity clinic and ask what is the risk of our having a defective child. They balance that risk against the chance of their having a sound child, and they usually come up with a pretty sound decision. But they won’t accept the idea that they are in general second rate. We must rely on other motivation.

Given the right circumstances, people will have children in proportion to their ability to care for them. If they feel financially secure, if they enjoy accepting responsibility, if they have warm affectional responses, if they are physically strong and competent, they are likely to have large families, provided they have a reasonable psychological conditioning to this end. If they are unable to feed the children they have, if they are afraid of responsibility, if their affectional responses are weak, people don’t want many children. If they have effective means of family planning, they won’t have many. Our studies have shown this to be true all over the world. On such a base it is surely possible to build a system of voluntary unconscious selection. But the reasons advanced must be generally acceptable reasons. Let’s stop telling anyone that they have a generally inferior genetic quality, for they will never agree. Let’s base our proposals on the desirability of having children born in homes where they will get affectionate and responsible care, and perhaps our proposals will be accepted.

It seems to me that if it is to progress as it should, eugenics must follow new policies and state its case anew, and that from this rebirth we may, even in our own lifetime, see it moving at last towards the high goals which Galton set for it.

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  1. […] people to make eugenic decisions without knowing they were doing so.  He called this ‘voluntary unconscious selection.’  Later, he served as the president of the Population Council, succeeded by Bernard […]

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