By the early 20th century doctors, psychiatrists, scientists, pundits and some of the more progressive protestant theologians had come to the belief that the modern, urban industrial society was undergoing a form of biological disintegration. Nations were being undermined by swarms of unfit individuals whose criminality, alcoholism, anti-social behaviour and mental deficiency were propagated and multiplied by inheritance and the counter productive effects of modern medicine and welfare. The answer was Eugenics.
Although it is tempting to find a direct link between Galton and the mass serialisations of the 20th century, positive eugenics was more concerned with encouraging the breeding of the fit rather than focusing on the overbreeding of the unfit. However, Galton did suggest that society should discourage weakly and incapable persons from breeding and that this could be done by compulsorily segregating them into single sex institutions. Having freed himself from the constraints of religious dogma he jocularly suggested that convents and nunneries would be ideal for this purpose. The need to discouraging reproduction by the unfit did not occur in the writings of positive eugenicist as readily, rather it was the danger of superior families diluting their gene pool and regressing through mating with ‘imbeciles’. Since it later became felt that ‘idiots’ and ‘cretins’ would, if anything, be much more likely to engage in, and hard to discourage from breeding, methods for its coercive application would later be developed, principally in the United States.
Nor was Galton an advocate of racial extermination, his eugenics were to take place within a race, not across racial groups. It was felt that the superior races represented by the northern Europeans would inevitably supplant the inferior ones through natural processes. As Galton explained:
‘There exists a sentiment, for the most part quite unreasonable, against the gradual extinction of an inferior race. It rests on some confusion between the race and the individual, as if the destruction of a race was equivalent to the destruction of a large number of men. It is nothing of the kind when the process of extinction works silently and slowly through the process of [natural selection].’
Like Darwin and the majority of intellectuals of the period Galton held to a strict hierarchy of racial types, although this hierarchy was different depending on who you talked to. Darwin and Galton tended to put the Britons in pole position whilst the later biologist Haeckel decided the Germans were more deserving of the top spot. This activity of sorting humanity into competing racial groups locked in a struggle for existence often bordered on farce. In a jovial letter to the Times in 1873, Galton wrote:
‘My proposal is to make the encouragement of the Chinese settlements at one or more suitable places on the East Coast of Africa a part of our national policy, in the belief that the Chinese immigrants would not only maintain their position, but that they would multiply and their descendants supplant the inferior Negro race. I should expect the large part of the African seaboard, now sparsely occupied by lazy, palavering savages….might in a few years be tenanted by industrious, order loving Chinese’.
At this point, Galton’s rather eccentric proposal degenerates into something akin to a commentary on an all-in wresting match.
‘We note how Arab, Tuarick, Fellatah, Negroes of uncounted varieties, Cadre, Hottentot surge and reel to and fro in the struggle for existence. It is into this free fight among all present that I wish to see a new competitor introduced-namely, the Chinaman!. The gain would be immense to the whole civilized world if we were to out-breed and finally displace the negro, as completely as the latter has displaced the aborigines of the West Indies. The magnitude of the gain may be partly estimated by making the converse supposition –namely, the loss that would ensue if China were somehow to be depopulated and restocked by negroes’.
In reply a letter of protest was sent to the Times by a Matthew Sprout, claiming the idea was ridiculous, not because the scheme was morally reprehensible but because the Chinaman as a citizen was ‘next to useless’ and ‘likely to have quite enough in their own country without taking Africa in hand’.
In the 20th century in a clear perversion of Darwinism the follows of Haeckel would carry the logic and the vocabulary of Eugenics much further than its founders intended; all the way to the death camps and mass graves of Eastern Europe.
Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum
Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.