It would be wrong to saddle Charles Darwin with responsibility for the eugenics movement, which was to blacken the 20th century leading up to its culmination at the Nuremberg Trials. Nevertheless, the concept of natural selection provided an intellectual underpinning which the godless commandeered to justify the movement. The idea that society would benefit by the eradication of the inferior and the imbecile had already been put into the air by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who held that the population must eventually outstrip resources. Even Darwin predicted that the civilised races would eventually eradicate the savage. This was soon to be fulfilled through the death of the last Tasmanian aboriginal in 1876.
Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, although Darwin was to use it in his 1869 edition. The fittest did not mean the strongest but fittest for the prevailing conditions. And Spencer was anxious for action, calling for the theory to be turned into a political manifesto. Francis Galton, half-cousin to Darwin, and a brilliant scientist, was first to use the word “eugenic” following his detailed studies into the characteristics of inherited intelligence. He was to observe in his book, Heredity Genius (1869), the inferiority of the “lower races” compared with the European. Noting that the working classes had large families, he advocated a higher level of breeding among the intelligent.
While a casual and cruel attitude to-wards the “lower races” was endemic in British imperialism it was not until the turn of the 20th century that eugenics came to be considered a respectable and practical issue. Winston Churchill was strongly in favour, regarding the “multiplication of the feeble minded” as “a terrible danger to the human race”. He saw eugenics as a crusade for the future of civilisation. He was not alone: luminaries such as William Beveridge, H G Wells and G B Shaw were with him. Fortunately Parliament was not, and the call for the sterilisation of the “inferior” was rejected. Much of the rhetoric, presented as the rights of women and the remedy for illegal abortion, which resulted in the 1967 Abortion Act, found its origin in the eugenics movement.
The United States took up the banner with a will, and scientist Charles Davenport wrote his influential Heredity in Relation to Eugenics in 1911. He applied his expertise in animal biometrics to humans, studied racial characteristics in great detail, and, on the basis of statistics recorded by the Eugenic Records Office – which he had founded – became an ardent supporter of the movement. Its promotion was widespread and the Supreme Court’s favourable ruling in 1927 (Buck vs Bell) declared forcible sterilisation constitutional. Between 1907 and 1970 over 60,000 people in America had been victims. The last such sterilisation was reported from Oregon in 1981. Davenport contributed to German periodicals and institutions well into the Nazi era.
But the Germans hardly needed encouragement. Eugenics had been scientifically respectable since Fischer, Bauer and Lenz first published Foundations of Human Hereditary Teaching and Racial Hygiene in 1921. As Rector of Berlin University Eugen Fischer proclaimed in 1935 that “What Darwin was not able to do genetics has achieved. It has destroyed the theory of the equality of man.” By 1942 the German high command had decided on the Final Solution: that all Jews must be exterminated. Even to omit pockets of racial inferiority carried the danger of future revival. Of course many others who were ruled as inferior by Nazi standards went the same way.
Eugenics has become a dirty word, but the spirit lives on. The right to abort a disabled baby up to the time of birth is eugenics writ large. The procedure of permitting multiple embryos, so that only those without apparent defect will be permitted to survive, continues. It was not until 1976 that Sweden abolished laws promoting the sterilisation of women for openly eugenic reasons. I suspect that approval of eugenics remains deep within our society. It may not use the term, but eugenics by any other name will smell as foul.
Fundamentalist science leads logically from the survival of the fittest to the ultimate extermination of those who do not qualify. If man is no more than a highly evolved animal, with no special characteristics beyond an extended evolution of brain capacity, there is no reason, at least in principle, to hold back. Would not the world be a better place if we rid it of the mentally inferior, the severely disabled, the aged and incompetent and the underclass?
Julian Huxley, in his Galton Lecture of 1962, certainly agreed. Darwinian theory led him directly to advocating compulsory sterilisation for the underclass which, he claimed, had low IQ, little willpower and other genetic abnormalities – combined with an inveterate tendency to over-breed.
Why do we continue to support and preserve Aids victims in sub-Saharan Africa when to leave them to die would eventually eradicate the disease? Every action which enables some population to survive is a fist in the face of Nature. We became homo sapiens only through the survival of the fittest; surely we should not use our ingenuity to defeat the very principle which brought us into existence.
Before we pat ourselves on the back for rejecting these views we must be honest enough to ask ourselves whether we retain any traces of eugenic thinking. And we must be prepared to remember that there was a time when we believed that the persecution of the unfit – those who rejected Catholic Christianity – was virtuous. There is blood on our hands too, and some of it is Jewish.
Do you think that eugenics inevitably arise from Darwinism? Is it fair to judge Darwinism by its abuse? Do we not all have a duty to improve human stock? There is good scientific evidence that, albeit at an unconscious level, we tend to pick partners, either through physical features or the recognition of different but complementary immune systems, in order to have healthy children. So eugenics are natural. Tell us what you think.