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Intelligence Testing and the Beginning of Eugenics

Natalie Frank has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and is Managing Editor for Novellas & Serials at LVP Publishers.


The History of Eugenics

The eugenics movement began with the advent of testing for individual characteristics in children. Although intelligence testing was created to determine school readiness, it became one of the unintended foundations of eugenics. This occurred when three influential psychometricians – Lewis Terman, Henry Goddard and Robert Yerkes – began advocating testing as a method for differentiating who should be permitted to reproduce based on intelligence. These scientists built momentum for the idea of selective breeding, and the call for using the process to strengthen the gene pool was taken up by some of the upper echelon of American and European society.

Alfred Binet: IQ Testing to Provide Services to Children in Need

There were people who pointed out that the initial work on testing intelligence was based on ideas quite opposite from those behind eugenics. Intelligence testing began in France with psychologist Alfred Binet. He had been commissioned to determine a way to differentiate students of normal intelligence from those who were considered of inferior intellectual functioning. The goal was to provide special services for those who scored below average to help raise them to the norm (Binet, 1916). So, Instead of attempting to prevent such children from being born, Binet’s focus was to identify those with learning problems, so early intervention could be provided to strengthen their skills.

Binet was aware that there were those who might use his test inappropriately. He repeatedly reinforced the idea that the purpose of the scale was to identify students who could benefit from additional attention and services in schools. However, he was concerned that his test could be misused. He believed a lower IQ indicated the need for special learning techniques, an increase in instruction and individualized attention. He emphasized low scores did not indicate an inability to learn but rather the need to be taught different strategies for learning.

Binet firmly declared that his test was never intended as "a general device for ranking all pupils according to mental worth" (Binet, 1916). A single score, he emphasized, could not quantify intelligence. He went on to state that it would be a serious mistake to use what had come to be referred to as an IQ score as a definitive indication of a child’s intelligence.

Binet feared that the IQ score would condemn children to a permanent assumption of stupidity, limiting their education and ability to support themselves. Overall, Binet stressed that intelligence progressed at variable rates, was malleable rather than fixed, could be altered by the environment, and was only able to be compared among children of the same background and education (Binet and Simon, 1916).

Unfortunately, it appears that on its way across the ocean, Binet’s intelligence theory and warnings regarding interpretation got lost somewhere in the translation. It became clear that his concerns were well placed as some did misuse his scale for purposes he had never intended. The services for those children struggling to learn that he hoped would be employed would not materialize for several generations.

Lewis Terman: The Beginning of Eugenics

In the US, Lewis Terman translated the Simon Binet Intelligence Scale into English and normed it on a large sample of American children. However, his goals in testing children were quite different from those intended by Binet as a means of advocating for the most appropriate education of all children. Instead, as stated in the manual, Terman defined the primary benefits of this test, now called the Stanford Binet, as "curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency" (White, 2000). Now that the concept of eugenics had been bestowed with scientific merit through the endorsement of a respected Stanford Professor, the movement began to grow exponentially.


Henry Goddard: Eugenics and Ellis Island

In 1913, Henry Goddard wanted to prove the effectiveness of the intelligence test in differentiating the feeble-minded from the normal population and went to Ellis Island to do so. Of course, the underlying assumption was that immigrants were more likely to be feeble-minded than citizens of the US. Believing he could identify feeble-minded individuals by sight, he chose immigrants from various countries and gave them the Standford Binet Intelligence Test.

Goddard's results suggested that, of the immigrants he tested, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians, 87% of the Russians, and 83% of the Jews were feeble-minded as indicated by intelligence testing. However, he ignored several crucial problems with his findings. Specifically, he dismissed the fact that most of these individuals didn't speak English, that they were exhausted from a long and arduous journey, and that the Americanized Standford Binet was culturally biased. Goddard stood by his results and published his findings (Gould, 1981). In an era when large numbers of immigrants were seeking asylum, these findings did not help the growing American prejudice against those who were foreign-born.

Robert Yerkes: Army Alpha, Army Beta and Eugenics

Not long after, during World War I, Robert Yerkes, with Terman and Goddard, developed the first group administered Intelligence Tests for use in screening recruits and draftees for the armed forces. These tests were believed to measure "Native Intellectual Ability" or IQ that was free of cultural or environmental influences. The Army Alpha test was developed for use with literate men, while the Army Beta test was developed for use with those who were illiterate.

Administered to 1.75 million army recruits, data from the Army Alpha and Beta tests were used as evidence that feeblemindedness was based in large part on differences between races. While the average White American scored 13, which was at the top of the range defining "moron", differences in intelligence could be defined in immigrants by their point of origin. The average score of immigrants from Northern and Western Europe was 11.34, while the average score for those from the Slavic nation of Eastern Europe was 11.01, and the immigrants from Southern Europe averaged 10.74. However, the lowest scores were for Black American men, who averaged 10.4. Yerkes pointed out this average was considerably lower than the average for White Americans and even for immigrants from other countries (Brigham, 1923). He conveniently ignored the fact that the average for White American men fell within the range, which was designated as "moron", a designation indicating lower-than-average intelligence. Instead, Yerkes used this finding as support for his premise that, as a race, Black people were significantly less intelligent than White people.

Yerkes was a strong believer that intelligence was entirely accounted for by genetics and that it was the strongest predictor of life success. His ideas formed a model whereby he foresaw a society in which the leaders were those with the highest intelligence and achievements, not those with the highest social status or environmental benefits and resources. He was therefore interested in the development of intelligence tests as the means of determining who were the most likely candidates to become the future leaders of society. However, he advocated the use of flawed intelligence testing which under-identified individuals from other countries, cultures and non-White races as potential leaders. These tests would all but rule out the possibility that Black Americans could be leaders in local, state and national arenas. Yerkes also believed that once testing could more fully identify other desirable personality traits, that selective breeding practices could produce a more perfect human race. He supported the use of sterilization and other methods of eradicating undesirable human traits.

Forced Sterilization in the US During the 20th Century


As leaders of the eugenics movement who provided the method for discerning who was “feebleminded” and who was not, Terman, Goddard and Yerkes ultimately helped shape the direction of the movement’s decisions and actions. Believing in the heritability of intelligence, they strongly advocated utilizing eugenics to improve the human gene pool. They further hoped to eliminate passing on the incurable handicap of feeblemindedness.

These men advocated selective breeding and other methods for controlling the human gene pool. They disseminated their beliefs and presented their flawed research finding to other believers in a variety of eugenics organizations, which they helped direct. These included the Human Betterment Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the human race by encouraging those who were considered to be intellectually superior to reproduce while mandating compulsory sterilization for those considered feebleminded.

This action did not take into account the fact that a large majority of those identified as feeble-minded were simply poor, uneducated minorities or immigrants. Terman’s IQ test and those developed later were highly dependent on education and heavily biased toward American middle-class White culture. Those who scored in the feebleminded range were often the subjects of racial and educational discrimination.

The view that White, middle-class, native-born Americans were more intelligent than others in the country and the prejudice this view engendered led to many discriminatory policies in the US. Immigration restrictions were enacted for those from Southern and Eastern Europe, and a ban was placed on Chinese immigration, with those already in the US not being allowed to become naturalized for ten years. Other Asians were also prevented from becoming citizens of the US, a practice which resulted in previously naturalized Asian Indians being stripped of their citizenship and their land being confiscated. Blacks, Asian Americans and Mexican Americans seen as inferior were subject to discriminatory practices regarding home ownership, foreclosures, employment and education. Members of these groups were also the victims of exploitation, fraud and deception as a "them vs. us" mentality was propagated through views of the genetic superiority of the ruling classes.

The belief in the genetically determined superiority of White Americans also contributed to the beginning of the White supremacy movement in the U.S. This ideology also was used to justify the internment of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. It wasn’t until the horrors of Nazism were discovered after World War II that the push towards a future that emphasized the use of eugenics to perfect the human race was largely, but not entirely, abandoned.

Further Reading and Personal Reaction

When writing this article, I read a book that helped me frame what I wanted to say, and which provided what I then thought to be background information. I think that the topic of eugenics when covered accurately will evoke extreme emotion in almost all of us, hopefully. The reading created such a strong visceral response in me, I felt that I should review it here. In doing so I hope the facts and the narrative will help enlighten others who may also lack a firm understanding of the eugenics movement in the U.S. and other countries we have long thought of as civilized. There are several other books I found that are much more gruesome and pertain specifically to the Nazi era which describe the heinous things they did to people in the name of eugenic. Being Jewish I wasn’t able to read those. The material in this book was enough to give me nightmares and anxiety for days to come.

The book I read is entitled War Against the Weak. It was written by an award-winning investigative journalist named Edwin Black whose mother lived in Nazi ruled Poland. Using an investigative style which lends the book authenticity, Black writes with the fervor of someone for whom the facts are personal. He convincingly makes the case through a careful construction of facts that the it was an ugly and secret dream that was initiated in the U.S. that led to the ethnic cleansing movement later imposed by the Nazi’s in their death camps.

Black connects the most horrific of the Nazi crimes to a pseudoscientific movement in the U.S. in the beginning of the twentieth century called eugenics. The book derails the theory that the eugenics movement outside of Nazi Germany was limited to animal experiments. Instead, he shows how experimentation on humans was initiated in labs on Long Island well before World War II began.

As I read this book I got the chills as I couldn’t help but think about how we are not just in an era where secrets are routinely kept from the public but one where the human genome has been mapped and genetics knowledge is growing by the day. I found myself worrying over whether eugenics could be our future without us being aware of it. I am fearful, especially considering the secret experiments carried out in the U.S. such as testing the limits of radiation on soldiers or observing the natural progression of syphilis, telling black men with the disease they were being treated when they weren’t.

Although it has been widely stated that the eugenics movement in this country was halted once the Nazi atrocities came to light, this book shows how over 60.000 people in the U.S. alone who were deemed “unfit,” were coercively or forcefully sterilized, more than a third of them after Nuremberg decreed these practices inhumane and harmful to the future of humanity.

Given the current political atmosphere of almost unilateral governmental control with a lack of transparency this shocking presentation of how far the eugenics movement went in the U.S. alone should call us all to action to ensure our reproductive rights aren’t taken away again in order to create “better humans.” The impression I come away with after reading this book is it is those who are attempting to employ eugenics to breed a better person that need to focus on their own level of humanity or lack thereof.


Binet, A. (1916). New methods for the diagnosis of the intellectual level of subnormals. In E. S. Kite (Trans.), The development of intelligence in children. Vineland, NJ: Publications of the Training School at Vineland. (Originally published 1905 in L'Année Psychologique, 12, 191-244.)

Binet. A., & Simon, T. (1916). The development of intelligence in children. Baltimore, Williams & Wilkins. (Reprinted 1973, New York: Arno Press; 1983, Salem, NH: Ayer Company). The 1973 volume includes reprints of many of Binet's articles on testing.

Brigham, Carl C. (1923). A Study of American Intelligence. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton, University Press.

Gould, S. J., (1981). The Mismeasure of Man. W.W. Norton & Company, New York.

Helms, J. E. (2012). A Legacy of Eugenics Underlies Racial‐Group Comparisons in Intelligence Testing. Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 5(2), 176-179.

Stephens, E., & Cryle, P. (2017). Eugenics and the normal body: the role of visual images and intelligence testing in framing the treatment of people with disabilities in the early twentieth century. Continuum, 31(3), 365-376.

Stern, A. M. (2015). Eugenic nation: Faults and frontiers of better breeding in modern America (Vol. 17). Univ of California Press.

White, S. (2000). Conceptual foundations of IQ testing. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 6(1), 33-43.

© 2018 Natalie Frank


RB on February 23, 2020:

Well done and easy to understand for the lay person.

JD on June 10, 2018:

Why not include Margaret Sanger?

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on February 01, 2018:

All good points, Kari. It is frightening that our own government could allow such actions to occur, especially without the person's knowledge. Had it been allowed to continue, how close might we have come to what the Nazis did? Thanks for the comment.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 28, 2018:

Hi Ellen. Yes, sometimes although we know it's important to be informed, we'd just as soon not be told everything. Thanks for the comment and for stopping by.

Ellen on January 25, 2018:

I had no idea this went on in the States so recently! And if I'm understanding right the conditions are perfect for it to start up again? If it hasn't already? How scary! Thanks for the education though I can't say I'm that thrilled I know this now! Seriously though, I know it's best to be aware of things even when they aren't pleasant to think about. Great article.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 20, 2018:

You're right Kari. Unfortunately, there are still eugenics out there today including a variety of white supremacists. The best thing we can do is remain alert and aware of what is happening so we can work to cut it off if we see the it beginning to grow in popularity again. Thanks for the comment.

Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 19, 2018:

I have heard about these programs. They make me cringe. I feel that the victims deserve some compensation because without children, they lack the support of others. This is a very sad part of American history. I agree we must make sure it never happens again!

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on January 19, 2018:

It is indeed chilling, Linda. Coming from Georgia the Yerkes Primate Center was always a fun fieldtrip. I took some classes at Georgia State and got to see LANA up close and personal - she actually escaped from where they had her in the lab and came wondering into the break room where some of us were hanging out. She literally came right up to me and held up her arms. Not knowing what to, I picked her up and put her on my hip (she's fairly small for a full grown female chimp). Looking back I realize it wasn't the smartest thing since chimps can be vicious and though I figured out who she had to be - we didn't normally have chimps wandering the halls- still I knew nothing about how to properly interact with one. She was amazingly sweet and seemed content to hold onto me much as a small child would. Then the researchers came around the corner - needless to say she was an expensive part of their language program - and they told her she had been a naughty girl and to come with them back to her "room". She climbed down and took one of their hands and went, just like that. I remember it striking me just how intelligent she seemed, as if she understood what was being said around her and when we spoke to her she focused on one of us then the other. My friends started speaking baby talk to her as we'd heard she had the mentality of about a 4 or 5 year old and she definitely didn't like being talked down to! The point of all this rambling is that these chimps and the other primates that Yerkes worked with were initially intended to be used for the eugenics program. So they intended to perform selective breeding projects with them, sterilizing the ones that they thought were too "stupid" to reproduce etc. I know that one of the others lost two babies and mourned them then when the researcher was pregnant and miscarried, the chimp cried with her and told her through sign lang about her losses. We seem to assume that as long as animals are what we experiment on it's all humane. Depriving them of having babies so that there is enough research to base our own eugenics future on seems like such a heinous thing from start to finish. Every generation or so the characteristics that were selected for would likely have changed until we were turn into something monstrous. It's an interesting topic but scary as well. I'm thinking of doing an article on the chimps and bonobos at Yerkes. Do you think it would be interesting to others? Thanks for the comment.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on January 18, 2018:

This is chilling information, Natalie. Thank you very much for creating the article. It's important that people know about the information that you've shared. I hope that the beliefs and activities of eugenics that you've described disappear from society.