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Eugenics: The Critical Race Theory of a Century Ago?
Imagine a time when the elites of Europe and of the entire Anglophone world were profoundly concerned about the genetic future of the European peoples.
Written and read by Edward Dutton.
Imagine a time when the elites of Europe and of the entire Anglophone world were profoundly concerned about the genetic future of the European peoples. Young women did not dye their hair blue and campaign for the rights of Narcissists with gender dysphoria. They joined their local Eugenics Society, with a view to reversing the perceived decline of intelligence, moral character and genetic health. British Prime Ministers, US Presidents and leading writers and politicians of all stripes avidly supported this crusade. It was the subtext to or even plot of many a popular film, such 1917’s The Black Stork. It was taught in schools, with some parents angrily objecting due to its sexual nature, leading to parents withdrawing their children from an English Midlands school in summer 1914. As I explore in my new book Breeding the Human Herd: Eugenics, Dysgenics and the Future of the Species, a mere century ago, eugenics was all encompassing. Eugenics was the Critical Race Theory, the Woke, of the 1920s. How could such a bizarre situation, to modern sensibilities at least, have come about?
As the book avers, a key balance of factors had been reached by the mid-nineteenth century. Firstly, we had been under strong selection for intelligence since at least 1300, due to the increasingly cold and harsh world in which we were living. Thus, there was a growing caste of extremely intelligent people, such as Francis Galton (1822-1911) and his cousin Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Highly intelligent people think abstractly, question the nature of things and keenly observe their surroundings, in pursuit of making sense of them. This includes, of course, questioning religious dogmas and, so, pursuing science with brilliance and zeal.
Secondly, the Industrial Revolution had massively weakened harsh Darwinian selection pressures through medical innovations and increased living standards. The wealthier, whom everyone understood were, on average, higher in intelligence, had generally had more surviving children than the poorer, most of whose children were removed by childhood diseases. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was becoming clear that this was decreasingly the case. The consequences, for genetic health and personality, were obvious. The growth of the “lower classes” meant the growth of genetic physical and mental sickness. Charles Darwin summarised the problem in his 1871 book The Descent of Man: “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.”
Thirdly, by the early nineteenth century, society was sufficiently urban, crowded and densely populated that numerous killer diseases suddenly became endemic. There was a dramatic rise in frightening illnesses that killed people very suddenly, most obviously cholera. This leads to vomiting, diarrhoea, dehydration, and death within hours of the onset of symptoms. There were also dramatic rises in typhoid, tuberculosis and syphilis. Mortality salience makes people religious (with group-orientation being a big part of this), it makes them want to have children and name those children after themselves (it makes them concerned about eternity, in other words), and parasite stress makes people high in disgust.
What was the result? An increasing desire to “improve the breed,” an increasing concern about what might happen to it if nothing was done, an increasing desire to excise the disgust-inducing carriers of incurable hereditary illnesses or the disgust-inducing immoral or congenitally weak types who picked up endemic illnesses. The other result was an increasingly sexually conservative, snobbish and even “racist” society – you avoid disease by keeping away from people who are different from you and perceiving them as fundamentally “other.” This tipped over into a kind of runaway conservatism as people competitively socially signalled in order to attain status; a runaway concern with the group-oriented moral foundations of authority, group-loyalty and sanctity/disgust and a decreasing interest in “equality.”
It was in this context that the polymath Francis Galton coined the term “eugenics” and began to preach it with evangelical zeal. Eugenics must become a “national religion,” observed Galton, and governments must institute policies to ensure that the intelligent and congenitally healthy breed and the unintelligent and congenitally unhealthy do not. As Galton observed in his 1869 book Hereditary Genius, “There is a steady check in an old civilisation upon the fertility of the abler classes: the improvident and unambitious are those who chiefly keep up the breed. So the race gradually deteriorates, becoming in each successive generation less fit for a high civilisation.”
By the time Galton died, in 1911, a department of Eugenics existed at University College London and eugenics societies were avidly promoting their ideas to the general public. The list of elite eugenicists is essentially a list of the period’s elite. Leftist writers such as H.G. Wells (1866-1946) and George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) (to signal about preventing suffering), conservative Prime Ministers such as Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), Neville Chamberlain (1869-1940) and Winston Churchill (1874-1965), leading churchmen such as the Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London or the Dean of Chicago Episcopal Cathedral, socialist politicians such as Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), Welfare State founder and Liberal politician William Beveridge (1879-1963), family-planning pioneer Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), social work pioneer Mary Richmond (1861-1928) and those on the radical right, such as Anthony Ludovici (1882-1971) were all enthusiastic about eugenics. Theodore Roosevelt, Howard Taft, David Lloyd George . . . the list goes on and on.
Britain never introduced eugenic laws but many US states did. In 1907, the state of Indiana passed a law to “prevent the procreating of confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists.” By 1913, twelve other states had passed similar laws. In a test case in 1924, a superintendent of the “Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and the Feeble-Minded” filed a petition to sterilize one Carrie Buck (1906–1983). Carrie had a mental age of 9 and her 52-year-old mother had a mental age of 8. Carrie’s mother also had a record of prostitution, and three illegitimate children of whose paternity she was not sure. Carrie herself had an illegitimate child. In 1927, when the case was taken to the Supreme Court, the justices ruled that Carrie should be sterilized to protect the people of Virginia. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935) asserted, in his ruling: “It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.”
In a number of US states, until 1956, epileptics could be sterilised by court order and were banned from marrying, there being no effective treatment for epilepsy. Until the 1970s, epileptics could be legally excluded from restaurants, theatres, and cinemas. Between 1890 and 1929, 29 states banned the seriously mentally ill or the retarded from marrying and 19 states required couples to prove they were free of sexually transmitted diseases – no antibiotics yet, remember - before they could marry. By 1931, 30 US states had compulsory sterilization laws and, up until 1970, 60,000 Americans were sterilized under these laws, half of them being mentally retarded.
The eugenics campaign even led to passive euthanasia. In 1915, Harry J. Haiselden (1870–1919), a Chicago surgeon, stunned the nation by revealing that he had allowed the deaths, with parental consent, of “at least six infants” he diagnosed as “defectives” by refusing to perform surgery on them. Haiselden “displayed the dying infants to journalists, wrote about them for the [...] newspapers, and starred in a feature film about his crusade.” This was Black Stork, referred to above. Prominent Americans including lawyer Clarence Darrow (1857–1938), defence counsel at the Scopes Monkey Trial, and blind-deaf disability-rights campaigner Helen Keller (1880–1968) “rallied to his support” [The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures Since 1915, By Martin Pernick, 1999, Blurb].
As I note in my book, the tide began to turn against eugenics in the wake of the Wall Street Crash, not World War II as Woke popular scientist Adam Rutherford averred in his 2022 book Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics. People who had lost everything were not prepared to accept that it might relate to personal, heritable, deficiencies of character. This led to an attempt to revive it in the 1950s. But it was the move towards individualism, from about 1963 onwards, that really did for it.
Nevertheless, the movement holds a lesson for researchers who find themselves labelled “dissident” or “controversial.” The “Current Thing” – in which all right-thinking people believe – can suddenly unravel and do so at breakneck speed. The essayist and novelist D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930) wrote to a friend in 1908:
“If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out in the back streets and main streets and bring them all in, all the sick, the halt and the maimed; I would lead them gently and they would smile me a weary thanks, and the band would softly bubble out the “Hallelujah Chorus.”” [Letter to Blanche Jennings, Letters of D.H. Lawrence, 1979].
This would only have been slightly extreme for the cultural elites of 1908, a bit like insisting that biological men should be allowed in female sports if they identify as female. Yet, as little as 60 years after Lawrence wrote these words, they couldn’t have been more unacceptable to the new cultural regime.
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