Modern Tendencies in Eugenics

Health Education Journal, Vol. III, No.4, October 1945

THE word 'eugenics' was coined by Sir Francis Galton; he was also the pioneer of the science of human genetics, with his studies of the similarities of twins, and of the way in which talent and genius tend to run in families. Galton was himself a kinsman and friend of Charles Darwin, and one of the first to see the great implications of Darwin's theories for the human race. Darwin's theories met with a great deal of hostility on theological grounds. It was believed that they were incompatible with the dignity of humanity or with man's sonship to God. Most of us now think that these objections were mistaken; but many still believe that qualities such as altruism, which seem to belong to the soul, cannot possibly be determined by heredity. It seems likely that this view too will pass, and that we shall come to accept the idea that heredity lays down potentialities, which can be developed well or ill by our upbringing and education, and by the life we lead.

'Eugenics' means etymologically 'breeding well'; and what is under­stood under eugenics at any time will depend on the extent of scientific know­ledge of the nature and mode of inheritance of human qualities, and by religious and philosophical ideas of what we should mean by 'well.' So eugenics combines an objective science on one side with conceptions of worth and value on the other. Our scientific knowledge has increased, and our notions of value have changed very considerably, since Galton first set the movement going. When it came to be recognised that many forms of blindness, of physical deformity and imbecility and idiocy depended on inborn tendencies which were inherited from parent to child, the demand was made that persons suffering from these defects should be discouraged from having children. The Eugenics Society sponsored a private bill for offering these people the chance of having themselves sterilised, if they so wished. The bill was never passed, but it now seems likely that if a man wished to be sterilised on these grounds, and was sterilised, neither he nor his surgeon would get into serious trouble.

The discouragement of breeding among people who cannot be expected to have the normal chance of healthy children is often called 'negative eugenics.' It is contrasted with 'positive eugenics,' by which parents who could be expected to have children superior to the average would receive especial encouragement. Negative eugenics was taken to its logical limit, and a good bit beyond, in Nazi Germany. There it was not left to the initiative of the individual to have himself sterilised, if he suffered from a trans­missible defect. It was enforced on him, if he had had an attack of one or other of the commoner forms of insanity, or if he suffered from chronic and severe alcoholism, from hereditary physical defect, or from more than a mild degree of mental deficiency. He could only escape this by remaining in hospital until after the end of the reproductive period of life. The Nazis also encouraged the healthy population, if not Jewish, to have a larger number of children. This was done by a very intensive propaganda, by giving state loans to the newly married which could be paid off by having children, and by special concessions to the prolific in salary scales, taxation allowances, rationing, and in other ways. They did indeed see quite a big rise in the birth rate, which continued until an advanced stage in the war.

However scientists, such as Haldane and Dahlberg, were not slow to point out that repressive measures against the breeding of the unhealthy would have only a small practical effect. The great majority of mentally defective children do not have defective parents, but parents that are only slightly on the subnormal side of average. Most of the insane have mentally normal parents, and most of the children of the insane have been born before the onset of the mental illness. The Nazis were in too much of a hurry. There isn't any millennium just round the corner, which we can reach by stock‑yard methods. We need to know a great deal more about human heredity than we yet do to lay down any absolute rules; and what we should try to do is to make sure that we are eugenically on more or less the right road, and try to keep along it. At the moment we are probably on the wrong road.

One of the things that the Nazis did not take into account is that it isn't even certain that it would be desirable to eliminate altogether all tendencies to defects of various kinds. In genetics a good deal of attention has been paid of late to the hereditary make‑up of various species of animals in the wild state. It has been found that they too are almost as subject as mankind to the sporadic appearance of abnormalities, slight and severe. And yet the popula­tion as a whole remains healthy. We believe now that these minor abnor­malities are often only unhealthy and dangerous in certain circumstances, and if the environment were to change they might become advantageous. The fair‑skinned man is at a disadvantage in the tropics, but seems better adapted than the negro to cold climates. A genetic factor is likely to have a number of effects, some of which may be disadvantageous; but if the en­vironment changes to one in which some of its effects are beneficial, then natural selection will favour its spread through the population, and will encourage the spread of other hereditary factors which enhance its good and diminish its ill effects. The variability of a species, which shows itself among other ways in the occasional appearance of abnormalities, is of great survival value; once a species becomes too stereotyped it is faced with extinction. On the other hand, of course, it is equally undesirable for these abnormalities to become too common. They should be discouraged from spreading, but not ruthlessly extinguished.

It seems probable that most of the qualities which are of the greatest interest to all of us, such as good health, intelligence and a happy disposition, have a basis in heredity. We can be lucky or unlucky in our parentage just as much as in our upbringing and our educational opportunities. The heredi­tary basis for these qualities does not lie in a single hereditary factor, but in very many. It is rather like being dealt a bridge hand of thirteen playing cards. Most people have very average hands, without an excessive propor­tion of either high or low cards, and fairly evenly distributed between the suits. If we are considering intelligence, we might say that the simpleton is dealt a 'Yarborough'; 'all‑rounders' get hands with high cards in a number of suits; geniuses get very unusual hands in which there is both length and strength in one of more suits. The hand that is dealt to a man is taken from the hands that have been dealt to his father and mother. If neither of them had more than a single honour, it will only be a rare chance that will give the child a game hand. So the hands that will be dealt out to the next generation depend on the cards already in circulation. If many people with a good share of aces and kings do not distribute them before they go, the next generation will be the poorer.

In a barbaric state of society this does not happen. The mentally defective, the unhealthy, the unhappy and ill‑adapted tend to produce fewer children than their more fortunate brethren, and to look after them less well, so that fewer survive. In a civilised society with social agencies to protect the least fortunate children, the mentally and bodily enfeebled may outbreed thd others. It is such an obviously sensible thing to limit the number of one's children, that the sensible and the prudent may cease to produce their fair share of children, while the imprudent produce as many as ever. Fraser Roberts has shown that this is probably happening at the present time. He found that in a very large group of school children, the unintelligent children came from larger families of brothers and sisters than the intelligent. This was as much true among the poorer families as among the better off. He tells me that the effect is so big that if it were allowed to continue, the average rank­ing in intelligence quotient would probably be three points lower in one generation than it had been in the previous one. If this is really happening, and other authorities are agreed that it is happening to some extent, it is disastrous. In the difficult years that lie ahead we shall need all the intelli­gence we can muster to deal with the problems raised by our increasingly complex civilisation. Good feeding and upbringing, good education, and making the very best of all our talented children from whatever class, could be great forces for good; but they could not compensate for a consistent deterioration of innate endowment.

To solve social problems we do not need only great leaders and statesmen; we also need an intelligent and informed public. If we could transform the three points downwards into three points upwards, it would become more likely that sensible solutions of complex problems would be generally understood and generally accepted. Galton himself pointed out the immense social importance of a high average of intelligence in the public. He argued also that a raised average intelligence would make geniuses more frequent. We can put this into rough numerical terms, and calculate that, human varia­tion in innate ability being what it is, the one‑in‑a‑million genius would be just ten times as common if the average intelligence of the population were another eight points higher on the Binet scale. This point would be reached in three generations, if we reversed the present trend. To make ten geniuses grow where one grew before would be an immense contribution to human health and happiness. Though few of us, geniuses included, can expect to have a genius among our children, we can buy as many shares as we like in the lottery. The majority of geniuses, like the majority of idiots, come from parents who are more nearly average. To assist in producing a new genera­tion of healthy and intelligent men and women is a task which lies in the path of duty of all of us, those of average ability as much as the rest. Early on in the history of eugenics too much importance was laid on the progeny of extreme variants. We now know, as we might in our democratic society be glad to know, that the eugenic welfare of the race is affected by the lives of every one of us.