Sunday, 27 September 2015

Why on Earth Would You Want to Write about Eugenics?

“So what is your next book about?”


“Eugenics, what’s that?”

“Put simply the idea that if you breed good with good you get better.”

“Why on earth would you want to write about that?”

“Good question!”

Eugenics Congress Logo
That is a brief account of a conversation that I had very recently. The person I was talking to repeated a question that several others have already asked me so I thought I might expand upon my reasoning a little. It might be a topic that is going to keep on coming up.

I came across Eugenics as a subject at a young age, I don’t remember exactly when or where but I do remember it being on my mind while I was still at school. Those who follow my blog will know that I was born disabled, that is, I have two congenital conditions. For a eugenicists this situation would be abhorrent, proof that the human species was slipping into an abyss of deformed, weak and deplorable life forms. The great white race of the western world was being brought low by racial impurity and the intercession of compassion that allowed the unfit to survive.

Curiously that is not how Sir Francis Galton, the man who established Eugenics as a ‘science’ in the early 20th Century saw it. He believed that humanity could be raised to higher level of perfection by a system of controlled human breeding. The logic was very simple, take a man and woman who are both physically fit and intelligent, let them make a baby and the resultant offspring would, in all probability, be superior to the parents.

In support of this principle Galton could turn to Charles Darwin’s new theory of evolution and how nature operated to ensure only the survival of the fittest. Gardeners and stock breeders had also known for a long time that there was an irrefutable logic to this principle of ‘good + good = better’, they had been enacting it for millennia to produce better crops and better cattle.

Although the logic of the eugenic principle seemed self-evident the science behind the transmission of human traits from one generation to the next was not. DNA would was confirmed 1956 by Watson and Crick although its existence was first promulgated in 1869. This presented a problem to the ardent eugenicist, they simply did not know how to proceed with their vision of creating a superior human race.

One of the themes of my new book Eugenica is the corruption of a simple idea into something more reprehensible. As Eugenics began to grow as an academic subject, spreading from Britain to America, Germany, and Scandinavia amongst other places, it did so against a social backdrop of a growing awareness of the population of existing disabled people. During World War One it was revealed that 2/5ths of the population that were eligible for conscription were found to be unfit for military service. It was estimated that there were some 16 million citizens of the United Kingdom who could be classes as disabled.

A Royal Commission into condition of the feeble minded reported in 1910 in an alarmist fashion suggesting a growing population such people that was in danger of swamping the healthier people of Britain. The commission’s report was taken seriously by politicians like Winston Churchill and Parliament enacted the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913 that put into British Law the terms idiots and imbeciles.

Facing an impasse with the practical problem of implementing a eugenics based breeding plan for the human race, a problem identified by the playwright George Bernard Shaw and the author H. G. Wells as stemming from the social convention of marriage, eugenicists looked instead at what was seen as the menace of those feeble in mind and body.

Eugenics began to advocate for segregation and enforced sterilisation of the disabled. In the state of Indiana in America, and also in Sweden, they got their way. Very quickly the question of breeding a superior human race became one of dealing with the several million inferiors that already existed. This branch of Eugenics is termed ‘Dysgenics’. It is the version that most people today are familiar with because it is the one enacted by the Third Reich in Germany.

It is known but not always mentioned that the early Nazi government actively pursued dysgenic policies against the disabled in Germany. Adolf Hitler himself signed an order for a program called ‘Action T4’ that saw enforced euthanasia used to kill over 100,000 disabled German citizens. Many of the techniques used later at places like Auschwitz were originated and refined in the Action T4 program.

I doubt very much that Sir Francis Galton would have approved of dysgenics. He was not at heart an evil man, although some social commentators have since presented him as such. In fact Galton was a polymath, a genius, who made significant contributions in the fields of statistics, sociology, psychology, anthropology, geography, meteorology; he even devised a method of classifying finger-pints. Galton was a Victorian visionary who wanted to improve the world and his early theories on Eugenics were very much in that mould. The science of the time, however, fell very much short of that required to either support or refute his theory of Eugenics.

There is something appealing in the notion of a man and woman combining to produce a child who would be both physically and mentally superior to their parents. The notion that such a child would be free of illness of any kind is one that a parent can readily identify but we know now that genetics does not work that way. The capacity for genetic mutation is at the heart of evolution and adaptability. Every generation contains within it a countless number of mutations of the inherited DNA code. The vast majority of these mutations prove ineffective; they do not do anything. Some prove detrimental, giving rise to physical deformity and mental impairment. A few more prove very useful giving us singers, artists, geniuses. This is what early eugenicists did not know and lacking this information they could not defend their simple principle against the rise of the dysgenic interpretation.

Eugenics began with the best intentions but, as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and so it was proved.

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