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9 February 2022updated 12 Oct 2023 10:41am

The sinister return of eugenics

Eugenicist thinking was rejected after the Holocaust, but in the era of Big Tech, the idea that humans can be “engineered” has resurfaced in a new guise.

By John Gray

In July 1912 800 delegates met at the Hotel Cecil on the Strand in London for the First International Eugenics Congress. Some of the foremost figures of the day – including the former and future British prime ministers Arthur Balfour and Winston Churchill – were there. The delegates represented a wide spectrum of opinion. Not only right-wing racists but also liberals and socialists believed eugenic policies should be used to raise what they regarded as the low quality of sections of the population.

The Liberal founder of the welfare state, William Beveridge, wrote in 1906 that men “who through general defects” are unemployable should suffer “complete and permanent loss of all citizen rights – including not only the franchise but civil freedom and fatherhood”. In Marriage and Morals (1929), Bertrand Russell, while criticising American states that had implemented involuntary sterilisation too broadly, defended enforcing it on people who were “mentally defective”. In 1931 an editorial in this magazine endorsed “the legitimate claims of eugenics”, stating they were opposed only by those “who cling to individualistic views of parenthood and family economics”.

The timing of the 1912 congress may be significant. In May 1912 a private members’ “Feeble-Minded Control Bill” was presented to the House of Commons. The bill aimed to implement the findings of a royal commission, published in the British Medical Journal in 1908, which recommended that “lunatics or persons of unsound mind, idiots, imbeciles, feeble-minded or otherwise should be afforded by the state such special protection as may be suited to their needs”. The recommended measures included segregating hundreds of thousands of people in asylums and making marrying any of them a criminal offence. Curiously, the commission specified the number of people requiring this “protection” as being exactly 271,607.

The bill failed, partly as a result of intensive lobbying by the writer and Catholic apologist GK Chesterton of the Liberal MP Josiah Wedgewood. Despite continuing agitation by eugenicists, no law enabling involuntary sterilisation was ever passed in Britain. In 1913, however, parliament passed the Mental Deficiency Act, which meant “a defective” could be isolated in an institution under the authority of a Board of Control. The act remained in force until 1959.

Adam Rutherford, who reports these facts, writes that “though wildly popular across political divides…plenty of people vocally and publicly opposed the principles and the enactment of eugenics policies in the UK and abroad”. This may be so, but very few of the active opponents of eugenics were progressive thinkers. During the high tide of eugenic ideas between the start of the 20th century and the 1930s, no leading secular intellectual produced anything comparable to Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils (1922), a powerful and witty polemic in which he argued for the worth of every human being.

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By no means all Christians shared Chesterton’s stance. As Rutherford points out, the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and professor of divinity at Cambridge, the Reverend WR Inge (1860-1954), wrote in favour of eugenic birth control, suggesting that “the urban proletariat may cripple our civilisation, as it destroyed that of ancient Rome”.

While Christians were divided on eugenics, progressive thinkers were at one in supporting it. The only prominent counter-example Rutherford cites is HG Wells, whom he calls “a long-standing opponent of eugenics”. Given the statements welcoming the extinction of non-white peoples in Wells’s 1901 book Anticipations, this seems an oversimplified description.

Awkwardly for today’s secular progressives, opposition to eugenics during its heyday in the West came almost exclusively from religious sources, particularly the Catholic Church. Eugenic ideas were disseminated everywhere, but few Catholic countries applied them. The only involuntary sterilisation legislation in Latin America was enacted in the state of Veracruz in Mexico in 1932. In Catholic Europe, Spain, Portugal and Italy passed no eugenic laws. By contrast, Norway and Sweden legalised eugenic sterilisation in 1934 and 1935, with Sweden requiring the consent of those sterilised only in 1976. In the US, more than 70,000 people were forcibly sterilised during the 20th century, with sterilisation without the inmates’ consent being reported in female prisons in California up to 2014.

For the secular intelligentsia in the first three decades of the last century, eugenics – “the deliberate crafting of a society… by biological design”, as Rutherford defines it – was a necessary part of any programme of human betterment. This was how eugenics was understood by the Victorian polymath Francis Galton (1822-1911), who invented the term, a conjunction of the Greek words for “good” and “offspring”. Controlled breeding, aimed at raising the quality of the human beings who were born, was the path to the human good.

This was not a new idea. Selective mating was an integral part of the ugly utopia envisioned by Plato in The Republic. Galton’s innovation was to link eugenics with the classification of human beings into racial categories, which developed in the 18th century as part of the Enlightenment. In his book Hereditary Genius (1869), he wrote: “The idea of investigating the subject of hereditary genius occurred to me during the course of a purely ethnological inquiry, into the mental peculiarities of different races.”

Since the Second World War, the idea of progress has been spelled out in terms of greater personal autonomy and social equality. The occasion of this shift was the revelation of what eugenics entailed in Nazi Germany and the countries it occupied.

The discovery that six million European Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, along with hundreds of thousands of people with physical disabilities, mental illnesses or other characteristics – such as simply being gay – that supposedly made their lives “unworthy of living”, was a rupture in history. Ideas and policies that had been regarded by an entire generation of thinkers as guides to improving the species were seen to be moral abominations. Eugenics had enabled an unparalleled crime. An earlier generation’s understanding of progress was not just revised. It was rejected, and something more like its opposite accepted.

This reversal should be unsettling for progressive thinkers today. How can they be sure that their current understanding will not also be found wanting? Rutherford, who shares much of the prevailing progressive consensus, seems untroubled by this possibility. As he notes on several occasions, he writes chiefly as a scientist. He has little background in moral philosophy, and at times this shows.

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The strength of Rutherford’s book is in his demonstration that eugenicists pursue an illusion of control. Edwardian and Nazi schemes for weeding out the human attributes they judged undesirable were unworkable. Even eye pigmentation is complex and not fully understood. A primitive model of monogenetic determinism lies behind the current revival in eugenic ideas. Advances in gene editing are welcomed by some and greeted with horror by others for making possible the manufacture of “designer babies”. There has been loose talk of increasing the IQ of future generations, but there is nothing in current knowledge that suggests such a policy to be practicable.

“Eugenics is a busted flush,” Rutherford writes, “a pseudoscience that cannot deliver on its promise.” His scientific demolition of the eugenic project is brilliantly illuminating and compelling. His book will be indispensable for anyone who wants to assess the wild claims and counter-claims surrounding new genetic technologies. It is less successful as a study of the profound ethical questions they open up.

The principal purpose of eugenics in the 19th and early-20th centuries was to legitimise European colonial power. Eugenic ideology always had other functions. As Rutherford observes, the evils of Western societies were depicted as resulting from the inferiority of those they oppressed. Poverty was a consequence of stupidity and fecklessness, not a lack of education and opportunity. But it is the most radical ambition of eugenics – to re-engineer the human species, or privileged sections of it – that is likely to be most dangerous in future. Rather than exploring this threatening prospect, which has the backing of powerful tech corporations that are researching anti ageing therapies and technological remedies for mortality, Rutherford focuses on soft targets – fringe figures and organisations attempting to revive discredited theories of “scientific racism”.

There is a direct line connecting early 20th-century eugenics with 21st-century transhumanism. The link is clearest in the eugenicist and “scientific humanist” Julian Huxley (1887-1975). In 1924 Huxley wrote a series of articles for the Spectator, in which he stated that “the negro mind is as different from the white mind as the negro from the white body”. By the mid-Thirties, Huxley had decided that racial theories were pseudoscience and was a committed anti-fascist.

He had not abandoned eugenics. In a lecture entitled “Eugenics in an Evolutionary Perspective”, delivered in 1962, Huxley reasserted the value of eugenic ideas and policies. Earlier, in 1951, in a lecture that appeared as a chapter in his book New Bottles for New Wine (1957), he had coined the term “transhumanism” to describe “the idea of humanity attempting to overcome its limitations and to arrive at fuller fruition”.

Huxley is a pivotal figure because he links eugenics with its successor ideology. Rutherford devotes only a sentence to him, noting that he advised his friend Wells on the 1932 film adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau. But Huxley merits more extensive and deeper examination, for he illustrates a fundamental difficulty in both eugenics and transhumanism. Who decides what counts as a better kind of human being, and on what basis is the evaluation made?

Rutherford says little on foundational issues in ethics, and what he does say is muddled. He cites the US Declaration of Independence for its affirmation of the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Authorised by God and enshrined in natural law, these rights are asserted to be self-evident. Rightly, Rutherford dismisses this assertion: “They are of course fictions, noble lies.” Yet Rutherford relies on something very like inalienable rights when he considers the moral dilemmas surrounding advances in genetics.

Discussing terminating a pregnancy in light of a pre-natal diagnosis, he writes that it is “an absolute personal choice and should be an unstigmatised right for women and parents”. Like Rutherford, I believe women’s choices should be paramount. But if rights are fictions, how can these choices be considered “absolute” entitlements? Different societies will configure these fictive rights in different ways. One that enforced a dominant conception of collective welfare might restrict abortion for some women and enforce it on others, as appears to be the case in China.

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Rutherford goes on to contend that utilitarian arguments preclude the crimes of eugenics, such as killing people with disabilities. But a utilitarian calculus cannot give disabled people a right to life. In his book Practical Ethics (1979), the Australian utilitarian Peter Singer maintained that selective infanticide of severely disabled infants need not be morally wrong. Using the utilitarian metric, happiness could be maximised in a world without these human beings. Against utilitarian arguments of this kind, Rutherford writes: “If we truly wanted to reduce the sum total of human suffering then we should eradicate the powerful, for wars are fought by people but started by leaders.”

This may be rhetorically appealing, but it is thoroughly confused. The suggestion that suffering could be minimised by eradicating the powerful is nonsense. As Rutherford must surely realise, “the powerful” are not a discrete human group that can be eliminated from society.

The fundamental ethical objection to eugenics is that it licenses some people to decide whether the lives of others are worth living. Part of an intellectual dynasty that included the Victorian uber-Darwinian TH Huxley and the novelist Aldous, Julian Huxley never doubted that an improved human species would match his own high-level brainpower. But not everyone thinks intellect is the most valuable human attribute. General de Gaulle’s daughter Anne had Down’s syndrome, and the famously undemonstrative soldier and Resistance leader referred to her as “my joy”, and when at the age of 20 she died he wept. The capacity to give and receive love may be more central to the good life than self-admiring cleverness.

This is where transhumanism comes in. It is not normally racist, and typically involves no collective coercion, only the voluntary actions of people seeking self enhancement. But like eugenicists, transhumanists understand human betterment to be the production of superior people like themselves. True, the scientific knowledge and technology required to create these people are not yet available; but as Rutherford acknowledges, someday they may be.

The likely upshot of transhumanism in practice – a world divided between a rich, smart, beautified few whose lifespans can be indefinitely extended, and a mass of unlovely, disposable, dying deplorables – seems to me a vision of hell. But it may well be what is in store for us, if the current progressive consensus turns out to be as transient as the one that preceded it.

John Gray’s most recent book is “Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life” (Penguin)

Control: The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics
Adam Rutherford
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 288pp, £12.99

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This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game