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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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An Act for Human Betterment by Voluntary Sterilization: the effect of culture on biology in turn-of-the-century Vermont

Ariel Singer

Most people today have a rudimentary understanding of the fundamentals of biological evolution (whether they believe in the biology, or not, is another question altogether). The basic principle is that nature identifies certain traits in an organism as more useful than others for survival. This individual unit therefore thrives and is able to pass on its genes to its offspring. Over a significant period of time the population to which that organism belongs will change and will develop traits different from its ancestors. Evolution, however, bears more fruit than just the biological variety. There is also cultural evolution, the idea that aspects of human society evolve, or mutate, over time. Everything from the more integral components of culture (such as language) to the more frivolous (such as fashion) change, depending on what is selected for by a population.(1). But is there a connection between the biological and the cultural? Indeed there is. Cultural pressure can affect the genetic make-up of a population, thereby affecting the biological evolution of that population. This is exemplified by the eugenics movement in Vermont in the 1920s and 1930s.

eu yenus when translated literally reads as, good type, or kind. Eugenics (the Latinized version of the Greek) posits the idea that some individuals are "better" than others. The theory follows that these "better" individuals should be encouraged to reproduce, while "lesser" individuals should be discouraged, even sterilized, eliminating their "bad genes" from the gene pool. Eugenics may seem to be a far-fetched concept, but in fact it was respected scientist (and Darwin's own cousin) Sir Francis Galton who introduced the idea. Galton explains eugenics as "the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally."(2) Sadly this was later taken to excessive and inhumane extremes during the time of the Nazis in Germany. However before this development Eugenics had an already ugly past.

The theory of eugenics developed into a widespread movement throughout the United States, finding particularly fertile ground in Vermont in the 1920s and 1930s.(3) The leader was a man by the name of Harry Perkins, a native Vermonter, born in 1877. He was from a well-to-do Protestant family(4) and taught zoology at the University of Vermont.(5) Perkins eventually came under the influence of Charles Davenport, a leader in the human genetics field and a supporter of eugenics. Shortly after WWI Perkins learned of a study conducted by the US Army for the draft. The results from this study showed that men from Vermont had an inordinately high rate of "defects" (such as diabetes, epilepsy, "deformities" and "mental deficiency"). Perkins saw this as a problem that needed to be fixed.(6) He went about trying to "fix" this through investigation and social reform.

Eugenics was part of a greater progressive, and well-intended, social and cultural reform movement in Vermont. At the end of the 19th Century leaders in the state had begun to see an increased rate of what they considered "the 3 Ds": delinquency, dependency and mental defect. In response to this trend, surveys were conducted to gather information on the management and effectiveness of state programs implemented to help people thought to suffer from "the 3 Ds".(7) The Children's Aid Society, with the help of a social worker named Harriett Abbott (trained at the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Spring Harbor, New York), gathered significant amounts of data on "undesirable families". A pattern began to emerge. Many of the children who had been removed from their homes due to abuse, neglect, etc. came from large extended families that were related to one another. At this the point Harry Perkins became involved in the project.

Perkins planned to use the compiled information to create "pedigrees of degeneracy that would help support a campaign for legalized sterilization".(7) To make this plan a reality Perkins had to convince Vermont citizens and their legislators that he had a viable and necessary system. He went about doing this by embedding sterilization into a greater, more encompassing project. This plan focused on collecting information from those with "mental defects", especially members of large, poor and inbred families.(9) Other groups were also considered to be eugenically unsuitable, such as the Abenaki Indian population, the "Gypsy" population (families of French Canadians and Abenakis who still traveled in wagons during the summer(10)0) and the so-called Pirates of Lake Champlain (an extended family of people who lived in houseboats traversing the lake(11)). The Vermont eugenics movement would take many forms and be viewed in a variety of ways for the following 12 years that it existed, culminating in the passage of a "voluntary sterilization law" in 1931.(12)

To understand why this sterilization program had an effect on biological evolution it is necessary to understand the basics of population genetics and the effects of gene-pool reduction on a given population (defined as a group of individuals of the same species living in a certain area). Evolution is "a generation-to-generation change in a population's frequency of alleles or genotypes - a change in a population's genetic structure."(13) (An allele is one form of a certain gene. For example, when considering the gene for eye color, brown would be one allele, and blue another. A genotype is all of the genes that constitute a certain organism.)

When evolution occurs on a small scale, affecting only single alleles, it is called microevolution. There are five conditions that all need to exist for there to be no evolution within a population. If even one of these conditions does not exist, that population is changing, evolving. The five conditions are: large population size, lack of contact with other populations, no genetic mutations taking place that effect the gene pool, only random mating occurring, and a dearth of natural selection.(14) Of these five, the one that relates to sterilization is the contact, or lack there of, with other populations, this is also known as gene flow.

Gene flow is found when alleles are transferred from one population of a species to another. This can effect a population either because it gains alleles or because it loses them.(15) In the case of sterilization a population is losing alleles, but not just random alleles. Although Perkins and his fellows were not aware of it (the discovery of DNA was not published until 1956, the year that Perkins died), they were attempting to alter gene flow. In this they succeeded; their cultural movement had an effect on the microevolution within the population of Vermont. By causing the non-random reduction of certain alleles, the application of eugenics created one of the conditions required for microevolution. The total number of reported "voluntary" sterilizations was around 200, cited from a report by Perkins in 1946. This included approximately 66 males and 146 females.(16) However John Moody, an ethnohistorian in Vermont, maintains that his research leads him to believe the numbers were actually in the thousands,(17) a significant portion of a state that only had 352,428 people.(18) This meant that the targeted populations - Abenaki, "Gypsy" and "Pirate" - were all but eliminated from the Vermont gene pool. It seems obvious that the genotypes of current native Vermonters would probably contain a significantly higher portion of genes originally from these marginalized populations if the number of people who could reproduce and pass on their genes had not been severely limited due to eugenics. Although this is on a relatively small scale, a cultural movement can been seen to have affected biological evolution.

The history of eugenics is a sad one, strewn with ruined lives and broken families. And the idea is not yet dead - it has simply evolved. Consider genetic engineering the next, and far more dangerous, step in eugenics. While it is most likely true that no one will be sterilized, they will just never be allowed to live. If certain genes are selected for, or against, before a child is even conceived, this is simply a more extreme version of Perkins' work. Our culture will continue to evolve, as will our biology, but perhaps the impact of the former on the later, while real, is not desirable. Perhaps we should select against it.

"1996, State of Vermont, Vermont sterilization statistics." The University of Vermont,

"Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990." The US Census Bureau,

"Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History." The University of Vermont,

Barry, Ellen, "Eugenics Victims Are Heard at Last, Outrage Voiced Over State Sterilization." The Boston Globe, August 15, 1999, page B1.

Barry, Ellen. "Pages from Past Breed Uneasiness, Historian Chronicles Vermont's Project to Cleanse Bloodlines." The Boston Globe, August 7, 1999, page A1.

Campbell, Neil A., Jane B. Reese, and Lawrence G. Mitchell. Biology. 5th ed. Menlo Park, California: Benjamin/Cummings, 1999.

Gallagher, Nancy L. Breeding Better Vermonters: the Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1999.

Zimmer, Carl. Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001.


1) Carl Zimmer, Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea, (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2001), 308.

2)Vermont Eugenics: A Documentary History

3) Ellen Barry, "Pages from Past Breed Uneasiness, Historian Chronicles Vermont's Project to Cleanse Bloodlines," The Boston Globe, August 7, 1999, page A1.

4) Nancy L. Gallagher, Breeding Better Vermonters: the Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State, (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1999), 10.

5) Gallagher, 22.

6) Gallagher, 38-39.

7) Gallagher, 50.

8) Gallagher, 71.

9) Gallagher, 74.

10) Gallagher, 81.

11) Gallagher, 82.

12) Gallagher, 122.

13) Neil A. Campbell, Jane B. Reese, and Lawrence G. Mitchell, Biology, 5th ed. (Menlo Park, California: Benjamin/Cummings, 1999), 432.

14) Campbell, Reese, and Mitchell, 432.

15) Campbell, Reese, and Mitchell, 432.

16)1996, State of Vermont, Vermont sterilization statistics

17) Ellen Barry, "Eugenics Victims Are Heard at Last, Outrage Voiced Over State Sterilization," The Boston Globe, August 15, 1999, page B1.

18)Population of Counties by Decennial Census: 1900 to 1990

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