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Perfecting people: selective breeding at the Oneida Community (1869-1879) and the Eugenics Movement

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The paper describes the selective breeding experiment which took place in the Bible Communist Oneida Community in New York State. The Community was founded in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes and grew to some three hundred members. It disbanded in 1880 and became a joint stock company, Oneida Ltd., which today is a multinational cutlery manufacturer. Between 1869 and 1880 there was a selective breeding programme ("stirpiculture") with parents chosen for intellectual, physical and spiritual characteristics. Fifty-eight children were born. The programme was inspired by Noyes' theology of Perfectionism, Plato's Republic, agricultural selective breeding and concerns about human heredity. It was later justified by Noyes with the writings of Darwin and Galton. The children were followed up and deemed to be superior in physique, intellect, health and other characteristics.

Though it attracted attention in its day, the experiment had little influence on the later eugenic movements in the USA and the UK. It is argued that this was because the Community's system of "complex marriage" and the arranged matings were an unacceptably radical challenge to the conventional notions of love and marriage which dominated these later eugenics movements. The first generation of descendants' attempts to bury aspects of the history of the Community also contributed a lack of knowledge of the experiment and its outcome.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre for Family Research University of Cambridge Free School Lane Cambridge CB2 3RF UK

Publication date: April 1, 2004

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