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Breeding humans without genetic engineering

Concepts from the Enlightenment era

by Julia Weiler  

March 29, 2016


The idea to improve humans and to optimise procreation emerged long before genetic engineering. As far back as the 18th century, concepts did exist that appear unthinkable from the modern perspective.

Utopias of human breeding existed long before genetic engineering has revolutionised biomedicine. Concepts of “Improving Mankind” were discussed as far back as the Early Modern Period.

A world without violence and without real emotions, where children are no longer born but manufactured in a lab for the purpose of fulfilling their duties as members of one of the five casts of society: in 1932, Aldous Huxley conjured up a bleak vision of the future in his famous science fiction novel “Brave New World”. However, utopias about breeding humans had existed long before, even before genetic engineering first emerged, and not just in form of science fiction novels, but as an element of the medical, economic and societal discourses in the 18th century.

Prof Dr Maren Lorenz who holds the Chair of Early Modern History and Gender History researches into those utopias. Studies to date have focused on the late 19th century and subsequent years. Many of the earlier sources dealing with this subject matter had never been viewed by any historians before – especially German texts. Despite the fact that numerous concepts for the “improvement of mankind” emerged in the wake of the Enlightenment.

“We seek to breed cattle in many ways, we set up stud farms, dairy farms, sheep farms and suchlike. Why should we not also set up human farms, the value of which is so much greater, and why should we not attempt to bring order to the debaucheries of lust, in order to advance the procreation of humans?” as Johann Heinrich Gottlob von Justi, a renowned political and economic thinker, wrote in 1769.

In the wake of the Enlightenment, medical sciences rose to power, and economists and administrative scientists recognised the population to be an economic resource, which they wished to multiply. “Every government wanted to get its hands on the largest possible slice from the pie of economic power,” explains Professor Lorenz. “The idea of growth did not exist yet, the pie appeared to be limited. Therefore, you had to be stronger than the others.”

At the end of the 18th century, German doctors published articles in Enlightenment magazines and in bulky treatises on “Medical Police”, postulating that it was quality, not quantity that would result in a better population. How can intelligent people be produced? How can marriage be optimised? The authors took not only hygiene and better infant care into consideration, but also a specific procreation policy, in order to create a strong and healthy population, for example for efficient agricultural production and powerful armies.

In the German-French discourse, for example, doctors advised their territorial governments to introduce probationary marriage and compulsory divorce if a couple didn’t produce any offspring – even if they wanted to stay together out of love. Taxation of unmarried people, which had been to some extent known in the Middle Ages, was being discussed again.

“In ethical terms, they were fairly revolutionary thinkers – in an era of severe censorship, at that,” points out Maren Lorenz. Some even demanded an abolition of celibacy, because traditionally only physically and mentally fit men were permitted to join the Catholic Church – a waste of procreative resources.

“It was a purely economical and pragmatic discussion, which was to some extent at odds with the religious idea of man,” says Lorenz. “In fact, it should have caused an outcry in the Christian church.” The historian from Bochum intends to find out if that was indeed the case by including theological sources into her research.

Many ideas that caught on in Germany since the mid-18th century had originated in France. There, doctors and surgeons had been publishing strategically – as Lorenz found out – in new economic journals. As the hype surrounding the breeding of humans was dying down in Europe, it began to gather pace in America. Breeding concepts merged with phrenology, which attempted to identify links between an individual’s character and the shape of their skull. Around 1850, those ideas were featured in new editions of bestselling marriage manuals. By the end of the 19th century, the USA were issuing more and more immigration laws based on those breeding ideas, which initially denied access to Chinese nationals, and later also to people from Italy, Poland and Ireland.

Fig. 1© Public domain

Doctors tried to find out how man and woman had to be built to ensure optimal procreation. The copper engraving shows the different ways hermaphroditism manifests, which were considered unsuitable. From “De l’homme et de la femme considérés physiquement dans l’état du marriage”, 1774 (engraver: Brichet)

“The opinion prevailed that those nationalities were workshy, that the Poles and the Irish were drunkards, that Italians always got into fights, and that the Irish and Poles did the same,” quotes Lorenz. Americans attempted to explain this kind of behaviour based on factors that the three nationalities had in common, and there was only one answer: the Catholic religion. “At the end of the 19th century, such theories were discussed in magazines such as New York Times,” says the historian. Socio-economic theories, on the other hand, were sidelined.

Maren Lorenz is interested in the paths that the discourses took. In the course of her research, she found out, for example, that the idea underlying the Lebensborn homes during the National Socialist regime already existed during the era of Enlightenment. In those homes, members of the SS were supposed to procreate with blonde “Aryan women” to produce “purebred children”. “In the middle of the 18th century, French doctors developed specific concepts for such ‘human farms’ – which German economists such as the above-quoted Justi took up enthusiastically and which were even discussed in literary magazines,” elaborates Maren Lorenz. Those farms were supposed to be public city houses where unmarried women above the age of 25 would be committed. Married and unmarried healthy men should visit them for the purpose of procreation – against payment of a fee to the city treasury. The children would belong to the state. “The offspring were supposed to settle in regions that were inhabited by ‘low-quality human material’ or which were underpopulated,” as Lorenz describes the concept. Due to the failure of the Revolution, those plans were never realised in France, either. “It was economists who found them immensely interesting, though” explains the professor.

Fig. 2© Public domain

The beauty standard in the 18th century was based on an ancient ideal and described in geometric and mathematical terms. Doctors also attempted to express the optimal conditions for procreation in numbers, for example by specifying matching penis lengths and vagina sizes. The drawings are taken from Diderot’s “Encyclopédie”, first published in 1745 and frequently reprinted since then.

Education, typically a crucial element of Enlightenment ideas, was entirely irrelevant in these discourses. They revolved solely around the physical aspects (fig. 1 and 2). How can quality be identified? Which men and women have to be brought together in order to generate optimal, intelligent offspring? But also: how can the procreation of people who are deemed “useless” be prevented?

Writers and economists joined the medical debates; at the end of the 18th century, they involved the poor, whom they considered a useless drain on society. “We see the icons of Enlightenment talking about idle boarders and crippled fruits of wedlock, of whom society has to rid itself,” says Lorenz. Therefore, not everyone approved of smallpox vaccination, which was being developed at the end of the 18th century. The poor especially would often contract smallpox, and those were the people whose fate should be in God’s hand. In the French “Journal Économique”, some authors demanded the creation of “cripple units”, to use them as cannon fodder during military conflicts.

What sounds like creepy ideas from the past, is more than just collated history, according to Maren Lorenz. The researcher often spots links between modern society and the utopias of the Early Modern Period, for example in the field of prenatal diagnosis (see “We are in the middle of a discussion about human breeding”). Research focuses solely on feasibility much too often, as she says. There aren’t enough scientists who assess the consequences of technology and take its social and ethical implications into consideration.

Contact faculty

Prof Dr Maren Lorenz
Early Modern History and Gender History
Faculty of History
Ruhr-Universität Bochum, Germany
Phone: +49 234 32 22542

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