Euthenics is a branch of art and science that deals with the improvement of human functioning, efficiency, and well-being by modifying controllable environmental factors such as living conditions and education. The word euthenics is derived from the Greek word euthenein, which means, “to thrive or flourish.”
One of the first known authors to make use of the word euthenics was Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) in her book The Cost of Shelter (1905). She used the word euthenics to mean “the science of better living.” In 1926, the Daily Colonist summarized euthenics as “efficient living.” In 1967, Technology Week went on to define euthenics as “man’s environmental opportunity,” “his education.” In all of these nascent definitions, the idea of improving humankind and human functioning by the concept of modifying controllable conditions, such as better shelter, efficient living, and education, is present.
In 1869, an English scientist, Sir Francis Galton (also cousin of Charles Darwin) coined the phrase eugenics, which is now defined as the study of human genetics and of particular methods to improve mental and physical characteristics that are inherited. In his book Hereditary Genius (1869), he upheld his hypothesis that human mental abilities and personality traits were essentially inherited, in the same manner that hair color, height, and so forth are inherited. This hypothesis was supported by his collection of data and also by analyzing the obituaries in the newspaper, where he traced the lineage of eminent men in Europe and ascribed their success to superior genetics that were inherited. These findings provided the formative years of the eugenics movement.
A modern adaptation of Galton’s view of eugenics is directed toward the discouragement (usually forceful) of the propagation among the “unfit,” for example, individuals with traits such as dwarfism or Down syndrome. This is defined as “negative eugenics.” Conversely, the encouragement of the procreation of those individuals who are healthy and intelligent would be defined as “positive eugenics.”
The encouragement of positive eugenics was seen in societies as early as ancient Sparta. In this culture, the strongest and best warriors were arranged to breed with women who were also strong and skillful warriors, or with the daughter of another powerful warrior. In this way, Sparta’s people gave birth to some of the toughest and fiercest armies in the ancient world. It was also no coincidence that Sparta was the only city that did not have a wall around it, because they did not need one.
More modern examples of positive eugenics were applications of such principles that included enforced sterilization of the insane in the United States. Even more recently, in 1994, the Republic of China enacted restrictions on marriages involving persons with disabilities and diseases.
Darwin’s theory of “natural selection” is also implicitly a form of natural positive eugenics, in that the dominant males will have more opportunity to breed with the females and thus propagate their more favorable genetics. In addition to this, the females of a species are naturally more attracted to the more dominant male or the “alpha male.” Both of these natural methods work to ensure the survival and improvement of the species.
The idea of eugenics differs from euthenics in that eugenics makes a direct attempt to ensure a favorable inheritance of good or desirable genetics. This is demonstrated by the act of selective breeding that is seen in dog or horse breeding, and in plant breeding as well. In selective breeding, the breeder will take top-quality stock that contains the favorable genetics desired in that particular species and breed those animals or plants together. This will directly increase the chances of offspring inheriting favorable genetics.
More recently, with the completion of the Human Genome Project and new advances in biogenetic engineering, attempts can be made to manipulate and potentially improve a species’ genetics on a molecular level. Technology can be developed to delete or modify (or turn on/off) genes that are associated with undesirable genetic diseases. The major ethical concern is that the technology can be taken too far in an attempt to create a “super human.” Additional concerns deal with the uncertainty of the consequences involved in “playing God.”
Euthenics differs from eugenics in that euthenics strives to make improvements in human functioning by altering the controllable environment around the individual. There is no attempt to improve or influence the genetic makeup; rather, the improvement is made after birth. However, both euthenics and eugenics share one theme in common: the amelioration of the species by altering controllable factors, whether genetic or environmental.
It is also worth pointing out another difference in approach between euthenics and eugenics. Euthenics uses education to allow an individual to make a choice about whether to reproduce or not. Eugenics on the other hand, makes the decision and eliminates any choice, for example, through legislation or selective breeding.
The attempt to improve humankind, either via euthenics or eugenics, gives rise to serious philosophical questions, such as: “What do societies value in an individual, or what physical inheritable traits are deemed as an advantage or disadvantage in the human species?” In addition, other perplexing questions will need to be evaluated, such as: “What are the moral guidelines (if any) for improving the species, or how much is too much improvement?” and “Who will make these types of decisions, the government, scientific/ medical specialists, ethicists, or religious leaders?” Answers to these questions will only give rise to further questions.
All of these ethical questions will also (and already have) meet with religious conflicts of interest. For example, some people believe that what you are born with is sacred, and therefore alterations of any type are an offense to God. Of course, with the many diverse types of religions worldwide, euthenics and eugenics will be approached differently.
Legal questions will also arise. For example: “What is the legality of inducing sterilization in individuals with undesirable genetics?” and “What are the legal rights of an individual in regard to prenatal and postnatal alterations?” In addition, the cost to society as a whole has to be considered, such as “Who will be able to afford this type of improvement, and who will ultimately benefit from this?”
The future of euthenics will have a direct impact on modern health care. Improvement of human functioning can be attainable by providing education about genetic diseases. Therefore, if the population is made aware of inheritable traits that are undesirable and detrimental to health and quality of life, then perhaps those people may be convinced not to reproduce if they possess those traits, thereby preventing them from being passed on. For example, if two individuals both have a moderate or severe form of epilepsy, those two individuals may decide to not reproduce, to prevent passing on this medical condition to their offspring. This would in effect reduce the prevalence of inherited genetic diseases in the population. In addition, society can be given greater scientific education as to what technologic interventions exist and how they can be beneficial, for example, the existence of reliable prenatal screening and other forms of genetic testing.
Besides improving the environment and increasing education, medical interventions after birth will also play a significant part in euthenics. For example, pharmacological advances in new medications, antibiotic therapy, and nutrition can better improve a person’s well-being by directly improving physical health in general and without intentional modification of the genetic makeup.
- Bennett, J. H. (1983). Natural selection, heredity, and eugenics. New York: Clarendon Press.
- Carlson, E. (2001). The unfit: A history of a bad idea. New York: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press.
- Galton, F. (1990). Hereditary genius: An inquiry into its laws and consequences. New York: Peter Smith.
- Richards, E. (2004). The cost of shelter. New York: IndyPublish.com.