The Thing Works Out Until It Doesn’t: GKC and Evolution, Part II

This continues my previous post.

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G. K. Chesterton hated people-breeding.  Eugenics, which he called “a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning,” was perhaps the only idea that he wrote an entire book to destroy (Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922).1

It’s easy to forget how mainstream eugenics was in the early twentieth century, how fervently pressed by scientists, state legislators, European governments, and do-gooders of all stripes.  Thirty-three US states passed laws for the involuntary sterilization of the unfit, some of which remained on the books for half a century or more: North Carolina only repealed its eugenics law in 2003.2 In the 1920s, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden all instituted compulsory sterilization of the allegedly unfit.  Nor were these statutes toothless.  In North Carolina alone, 7,600 people were sterilized without their consent.

For a space of perhaps 30 or 40 years it seemed that all reasonable, progressive, intelligent people were flocking to the banner of eugenics.  Many of the flockers were reasonable, progressive, and intelligent people: Planned Parenthood, which I admire, began as a eugenic enterprise.  In 1932 its founder, Margaret Sanger, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.”3 Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw,4 and Bertrand Russell8 all supported eugenics at one time or another.

So did many progressive Christians, including Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists.5 In 2008, the general assembly of the Methodist Church USA voted to apologize formally for the church’s support of eugenics in the early twentieth century, which included promotion of “Fitter Family Contests” dreamed up by the American Eugenics Society and held at state fairs. Which families, one wonders, lost those contests, and how did they feel?

Prominent evolutionary biologists preached eugenics, claiming for it the authority of science.  Charles Darwin never did so, but his sons Horace and Leonard were devout eugenicists and his half-cousin Francis Galton (1822–1911), brilliant polymath and inventor of the concept of statistical correlation, was for years the movement’s most prominent British advocate.  Indeed, it was Galton who coined the word “eugenics” in 1883.4 Leonard Darwin was a mentor of the scientist Ronald Fisher, whose 1930 classic The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is often cited as the founding text of modern, genetics-based evolutionary theory—one of the works that ended the era of confusion over evolutionary mechanisms I described in last week’s post.  Fisher also helped found the Cambridge Eugenics Society in 1911 with the help of John Maynard Keynes, father of macroeconomics.

The roll of dishonor could go on for pages, but I will stop at British mathematician Karl Pearson, whom Chesterton names eight times in Eugenics and Other Evils.  Pearson was authentically brilliant and deeply nuts.  On the brilliant side, he invented the chi-square distribution and other mathematical tools used constantly throughout the sciences today.  He was prominent in early attempts to work out the mathematics of evolution, and in 1898, the Royal Society gave him a prestigious Darwin Medal, awarded biennially “for work of acknowledged distinction in the broad area of biology in which Charles Darwin worked . . .”6 On the nuts side, Pearson expressed his nascent views on eugenics in 1903 — the same year that Chesterton published his sunny affirmation of “the Darwinian doctrine” in The Daily News (see last week’s post):

The mentally better stock in the nation is not reproducing itself at the same rate as it did of old; the less able, and the less energetic, are more fertile than the better stocks.  No scheme of wider or more thorough education will bring up in the scale of intelligence hereditary weakness to the level of hereditary strength.  The only remedy, if one be possible at all, is to alter the relative fertility of the good and the bad stocks in the community.7

In 1905, Pearson published a pamphlet equating eugenics with “the standpoint of science.”7 Eugenics began an explosive growth in popularity at about this time.  In 1907, Pearson founded the Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics, housed in London with ample space and gracious appointments.  (In 1963 it became the Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry at University College, London.)  The Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 and a series of International Eugenics Conferences held from 1912 onward.   Laws were passed.  Unfit individuals began to be identified.  Surgeons began to mutilate reproductive organs.

Karl Pearson, mathematician and eugenicist.


I speculate that G. K. Chesterton’s esteem for “the Darwinian doctrine” sank in direct proportion as eugenics’s popularity rose — in fact, partly or largely because it rose.  If this hypothesis is correct, Chesterton essentially took Pearson and his prestigious colleagues at their word: evolution entails eugenics.  And with eugenics Chesterton would make no peace.  Here’s how he saw the slide from Evolution to Eugenics by 1922:

The thing that really is trying to tyrannize through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. (Eugenics and Other Evils, Ch. VII).

Furthermore, just as the eugenics movement was going from strength to strength cloaked in claims of Darwinian authority, real, scientific evolutionary theory was undergoing its most intense period of confusion and debate, producing a widespread public impression that Darwin was about to be chucked in the dustbin (see last week’s post).  Chesterton therefore had both motive and opportunity: his abhorrence of eugenics, which claimed its basis in Darwinian theory, and the apparent crumbling of the theory itself.

And so, although I affirm evolution as a thoroughly confirmed reality and regret and oppose all religious attacks on evolutionary biology, whether by old-timey creationists or PhD-wielding Intelligent Design advocates, I can’t help but admire, at least partly, Chesterton’s Darwinophobia.  At a time when the people-breeders seemed unstoppable, when top biologists and other prominent thinkers were calling for arranged marriages and forced surgical sterilization, Chesterton put up his dukes and fought: it was Chesterton contra mundum. He threw out the Darwin with the bathwater, true, but it was poisonous bathwater and we got the Darwin back anyway.  Responsibility for Chesterton’s errors is at least shared by those proud, brilliant scientists like Pearson who were assuring everyone that their own cruel, simplistic, pseudoscientific proclamations were the voice of Science itself.

Very few groups in those decades before the Nazis made biological politics “a desolation, an astonishment, an hissing, and a curse” (Jeremiah 25:9, KJV) had the guts, wits, and class to oppose eugenics.  The opposition included just one group with large membership and international reach: the Catholic Church, Chesterton’s home team. Those of us who disagree, in whole or part, with that Church’s doctrines on abortion, stem-cell research, and birth control should take care to remember that they arise not from stupidity, superstition, or misogyny but from a mystical theory of human dignity.  Once upon a time, that theory supported the Catholics, with Chesterton as their most memorable spokesman, in nearly solitary opposition to a philosophy that, since Hitler, most of us have seen as abominable.  But precious few Brights saw it that way, back then.

There are still eugenic murmurs about, some even voiced by biologists, but for many years eugenics has been, by and large, in hiding.  (At least, outside professional bioethics circles: see http://www.social-ecology.org/2005/01/peter-singer-and-eugenics/comment-page-1/.)  Eugenics’s stock fell definitively off the board when the Nazis put it into spectacular practice.  The following image gives a taste of what eugenics propaganda looked like in Hitler mode.  Note that it is merely a crude restatement of Pearson’s claims of 1905:

Pre-WWII eugenics propaganda, Nazi style.
“Qualitative Decline in the Population.  . . . It will come to this,
if the less-worthy have 4 children and the more-worthy have 2.”

[Graphic from The Lancet, 2004.]

A final and personal note.  In 1995, long before I heard of Pearson’s eugenic views, I quoted him in my doctoral dissertation in Engineering Sciences.  I  was gnawing at a scientific problem, the “random walk,” whose study had been founded by Pearson in 1905.  I devoted a whole section to Pearson’s probing work and quoted him in support of my own mathematical approach:

[In] dealing with any natural phenomenon,—especially one of a vital nature, with all the complexity of living organisms . . . —the mathematician has to simplify the conditions until they reach the attenuated character which lies within the power of his analysis.

In hindsight, these words cast a chilling shadow.  Their plain meaning, as I take it, is that we never think or speak about this complex world without simplifying.  Which is true: all our thoughts and utterances are, compared to the universe itself, of an “attenuated character.”  But not all attenuations are created equal.  Chesterton nailed it: that “creepy simplicity of mind with which the Eugenists chill the blood.”1 It is easy to simplify a question to the point where it seems to lie “within the power of [our] analysis,” and then to reach apparently irresistible conclusions that are utterly, horribly wrong.

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1.   G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922. Text in the public domain, available as a free download athttp://www.gutenberg.org/etext/25308.

2.    International Disability Rights News Service,http://www.inclusiondaily.com/news/institutions/nc/eugenics.htm

3.   Sanger, “A Plan For Peace,” Birth Control Review, April 1932, p. 106.  Quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger#cite_note-18.

4.  Richard Barnette, “Key Words in the History of Medicine: Eugenics,”The Lancet, May 22, 2004, p. 1742.

5.   United Methodist Church, “An Apology for Support of Eugenics (81175-C2-R9999).”  See “Submitted Text” link athttp://calms.umc.org/2008/Menu.aspx?type=Petition&mode=Single&number=1175.

6.    http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=1758

7.   E. S. Pearson, “Karl Pearson: An Appreciation of Some Aspects of His Life and Work,” Biometrika, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1936), pp. 193-257.

8.   Russell wrote in 1906: “I have read Mr. Galton’s papers in abstract with  much interest, and agree entirely with the view that marriage customs might be modified in a eugenic direction.” The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 12, Contemplation and Action: 1902–1914, Richard A. Rempel, Andrew Brink and Margaret Moran, eds. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1985.  Quoted text viewable athttp://books.google.com/books?id=yqolyQXrB5UC&pg=PA413&lpg=PA413&dq=bertrand+russell+eugenics&source=bl&ots=QWhV-x_z_p&sig=xkMd1zC9r75WOAyFZJaRsDqGpb0&hl=en&ei=Uj-1Sej7J8PH-Abm-uD8Ag&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=10&ct=result#PPA414,M1.

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As always, I will share PDFs of referenced articles not available publicly on line with all persons who write to me at lgilman[at]myfairpoint.net.  For this post, this means the Lancet and Biometrika articles.  I believe that such person-to-person sharing for the sake of knowledge is fair use.
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  • Kara Slade

    Larry, thanks so much for this important piece. It is a message that Protestants in the US need to hear again and again. I would maybe suggest that eugenics isn’t so much in hiding these days as it is wearing much more attractive rhetorical clothes. PGD, genetic counseling, and the like carry out very similar eugenic functions, especially with disabilities that are currently genetically identifiable like Down Syndrome. The difficulty with the entire drive towards genetic identification of disease/disability traits is that it becomes far too tempting to want to identify them in utero, to think of some lives as potentially less than a gift because they may be visibly dependent lives.

    If you (or any readers) are interested, there is a new series in the Independent (NC local paper) on post-war eugenics here. It doesn’t make for comfortable reading. The link is:

    http://www.indyweek.com/indyweek/the-american-eugenics-movement-after-world-war-ii-part-1-of-3/Content?oid=2468789

    Again, thank you.

    • http://www.larrygilman.net larrygilman

      You’ve got very good points here. My thought is: eugenics as a _philosophy_, as a social goal advocated for by non-fringe figures, has been greatly diminished since WWII. The article you link to establishes that it did not totally disappear, but it’s still true that eugenics ceased to be broadly fashionable, prominent, widely advocated by many politicans, philosophers, churches, and progressives. There was a huge turn against it — though not a clean sweep of the board.

      The reproductive practices you mention are, I agree, eugenic in flavor but, I think, almost universally retail or selfish in _intent_. People abort a “defective” fetus because they dislike, say, the thought of having a child with Down syndrome (or, in some countries, the thought of having a girl); they rarely, I think, have any general intent to shape the character of their “race” or of the human race as a whole. It’s de facto “eugenics” in a highly local, individualistic sense only.

      If the word “eugenics” denotes an ideology of racial improvement, such practices are not “eugenics.” Yet they do seem to imply a general openness to eugenic thinking, because they rank the acceptability or desirability or value of individual persons on the basis of their health or normality. So there is a connection. They start from the same place.

      At least — this sounds to me like it gets in a lot of the picture. Additions, suggestions, alternatives?

      I haven’t spoken to the question of distinguishing medical attempts to cure or prevent genetic diseases from eugenic attempts to improve humanity. Where does one leave off, and the other begin?

      Thanks for reading, and for conversing —

      Larry