Review of Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-1914

by G. R. Searle. Science in History No. 3. Leyden, 1976. Noordhoff International Publishing

The Eugenics Society Bulletin, Vol. 9 Bo. 4, December 1977, pp. 128-131


   It is always salutary to examine one's origins. In the present dynasty of Eugenics Societies, the grandfather, separated from us by two world wars, was the Eugenics Education Society founded in the winter of 1907‑8. The mood then was one of exuberant optimism. "The present writer believes that eugenics is going to save the world" wrote Caleb Saleeby, a medical journalist, in 1909. There was some excuse for it. Mendel's famous paper (1865) had only been re­discovered ten years before in 1899, and the science of genetics was advancing very rapidly. Its applicability to man as well as to other species was obvious to all. It is not reasonable to cavil at the hopes expressed then that its application to human problems would bring benefits as immense as those already accruing in the biological sciences, and particularly in plant and animal breeding. If the fatuousness of those hopes now raises a wry smile, it is because we have learned more respect for the cussedness of human societies in taking a counter‑productive path when a sensible one is available. "No wonder, then," Dr. Searle remarks in his recent historical survey, "that genetics and eugenics rushed into each other's arms... Eugenics would then stand to genetics in rather the same relation­ship that engineering does to mathematics."

   Almost at once eugenics found the wide support or at least the sympathy of biologists and other scientists, medical men and academics of many kinds. Almost the entire biological establish­ment joined the EES (Eugenics Education Society). It was to prove a powerful political force for a number of years. The Society played an influential part in government enquiries into inebriates, divorce, syphilis, the care and control of the feebleminded. The Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, to a large extent blueprinted by the EES, represents the high point of the Society's political influence. Unfor­tunately the Society's influence was undermined by the intransigent utterances of many of its members, especially in taking politicians to task for their 'ignorance, stupidity, and immoral craving for electoral popularity'.

   In attempting to follow a moderate and consistent course, the Society hovered between opposing aims of doing what it could in the political arena, or 'the conversion of the thinking public to a new outlook on life which would make all existing political philosophies and organizations superfluous'. As is always the case, the piecemeal engineering called for by what some would think a petty pragmatism had its measure of success; while the millenarian vision led to disaster, in this case a pit in which the very name of 'eugenics' has, near as nothing, been turned into a malediction. These later develop­ments are beyond Dr. Searle's review, but they demand a few words. Before a misguided and doctrinaire eugenic idea seized the imagin­ation of German National Socialists, leading to compulsory measures amounting to tyranny, eugenic attitudes had prospered in a number of American States and Scandinavian countries. The sterilisation of mentally defective persons had been encouraged, especially those maintained in institutions who were capable of life and work in the community. Sterilisation of these patients before discharge to after­care and social rehabilitation freed them from the risk of repro­duction and the burden of rearing and supporting a child. Potential children were also protected from the burden of being cared for by a parent all too likely to prove incapable. The social problem of the unwanted child was lessened. The gain was, in fact, mainly social and humanitarian. Though the eugenic effect, the foremost aim for these early eugenists, was far from being as important as they hoped, it was still substantial. It is, indeed, a small proportion of mental defectives who are the children of mentally defective parents, and therefore preventible by the sterilisation of the certified patient, but their numbers in absolute terms are far from negligible. After the fall of Hitler and the disgrace of the Nazi regime, compulsory sterilisation of mentally defective persons became ethically unac­ceptable; and even the voluntary sterilisation of such patients took on a very dubious morality. Strangely enough, the voluntary sterilisation of mentally normal persons, on the grounds, say, of genetic risks, was proposed in vain by the Eugenics Society in the 1930s, a bill to legalize it being defeated in Parliament, but has drifted imperceptibly into being a standard medical practice, solely as a contraceptive measure.

   The bastion, so strongly contested by Roman Catholics in the 'thirties, has now fallen. Voluntary sterilisation, along with genetic counselling, prenatal testing of the genetic constitution of the foetus, and termination of pregnancy when foetal abnormality is discovered, which once might have been promoted as 'negative eugenics', have become standard practice on normal medical and humane consider­ations without any thought of eugenic consequencies. The eugenic effect in purifying the gene pool of 'bad' genes is, indeed, of almost insignificant magnitude. Moreover we now know, as the EES did not know, that hardy and vigorous wild races carry enormous numbers of lethal and sublethal genes without any effect on the survival of the stock.

    As one reads Dr Searle's history one becomes increasingly aware both how sensible and reasonable the early eugenists were, in the light of the biological, medical and psychiatric information available to them in their day, and how off balance they were in the light of the deeper and more comprehensive knowledge and understanding of today. They were much too concerned with phenotypes, whereas the geneticist of today, if he adopted their aims, would wish to embody them in terms of gene frequencies in the total gene pool. Modern biologists, such as Medawar, have contested the usefulness of reducing the genetic contribution to mental subnormality, because of the risk of reducing the genetic heterogeneity, which we see as the biological foundation of racial adaptability and the main insurance against racial accidents and disasters. One might object to such a view, that it would be well worth sacrificing some genetic heterogeneity if we could reduce the burden laid on us by the inadequacies of intelligence shown by mankind at all levels, and not least at the top among our decision‑makers. But would man­kind be any better off, or any less in danger from world‑wide catastrophe, if the average intelligence were raised, so that the generality of mankind had a better capacity for the rational under­standing of the complex issues with which it is faced, and its decision­makers were a more impressively able lot of men and women? Probably not. The real dangers come from emotional drives, aggressive or idealistic, the deliberate self‑imposed blindness to uncomfortable facts, and fanatical beliefs to which the intelligent are just as much subject as the unintelligent, and which they can pursue with far greater wrecking power.

   One of the more unbiological themes which seized on the imagin­ation of the early eugenists was 'positive eugenics', the starry‑eyed hope that "at some future time the human race might be largely composed of men and women possessing the illustrious qualities of Shakespeare and Darwin". R. A. Fisher, Dr Searle tells us, main­tained that "we can set no limit to human potentialities; all that is best in man can be bettered... quickening all the distinctively human features, all the different qualities, some obvious, some infinitely subtle, which we recognize as humanly excellent". What seem to us now fantastic projects were mooted. Galton proposed dowries for the poor but deserving, and the provision to young couples of healthy and convenient houses at low rentals, which might develop into settlements of a quasi‑religious character. All the early eugenists derived from the more prosperous levels of the professional and academic classes; and "all but a small minority of 'reform eugenists' held the unshakeable conviction that, broadly speaking, the upper classes were superior to the lower orders in all those attributes to which humans attached value: health, sturdy physique, and intelligence". The interventionist policies dreamed up by the EES are antipathetic to the modern mind as arising out of an extra­ordinary self‑complacency, and aimed to get to Utopia in far too much of a hurry.

   The eugenic ideal is too noble for us to abandon it as a delusion of a long past patristic, elitist, bigoted and inhumane generation. Indeed there are sublethal genes which could be eliminated without loss. There are gene‑determined errors of metabolism which are the cause of great misery and which in no imaginable environment would prosper their possessors. The world would be a significantly kinder place if the incidence of such conditions as Huntington's chorea was reduced to new mutations. But Aldous Huxley's Brave New World confronts us with the anti‑eugenist's nightmare and a warning. It is well to consider the interests of our children's children, or in abstract mathematical terms the genetic future of man, in the proposals for social change which we consider in the short term. It is, for instance, not good enough to be complacent about the risks involved in a civilization based on atomic power. But we are all on one Noah's Ark together. Mankind, indeed the entire biosphere, is a single ecological unity. Nothing but disaster can come from dividing man from man, or dividing man against the rest of life on the planet.