Galton and Eugenics

“The word eugenics was coined in 1883 by the British writer and pioneer of statistics, Sir Francis Galton (1820-1911), and defined as the “improvement or repair of the qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally”. For Galton, the chief criterion of improvement was ‘civic worthiness’, or the value of a person to the community. Galton understood worthiness to include ‘physique’ (including good health), ‘ability’ and ‘character,’ and in his Hereditary Genius of 1869 argued that ’eminence’ in lawyers, statesmen, scientists, writers, musicians, scholars – and even wrestlers – was hereditary.” (Badcock, 2003)

Galton got his ideas about eugenics (which is Greek for ‘wellborn’ or ‘well-bred’) from the work of his cousin, Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species. Darwin cited the use of breeding in agriculture to produce better strains as an illustration of natural selection. Galton applied this hereditary logic to the human race, not as the passing on of physical traits, but of positive mental attributes (such as talent and virtue). It was apparently Galton who coined the term ‘nature versus nurture’, believing that excellent qualities were the result of biological rather than social factors. Since civilisation eliminates the effects of natural selection (which was mistakenly assumed to improve and perfect a species) by preserving the unfit, a process of selective breeding would therefore improve the human gene pool, much as it had served to breed dogs and race horses. As such, his work led him to the conclusion that to produce a better race of humankind, there should be more procreation among the superior strata of society – this is ‘positive eugenics’ (as opposed to ‘negative eugenics’, which calls for less breeding among inferior types). Since there was a tendency among the poorer classes to reproduce disproportionately, Galton saw the threat to his utopian society, and declared that: “stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously afflicted by lunacy, feeble- mindedness, habitual criminality, and pauperism” but rather than advocating sterilization, he posited “How to restrain ill-omened marriages is a question by itself, whether it should be effected by seclusion, or in other ways yet to be devised that are consistent with a humane and well-informed public opinion,” (Galton 1908, p 311). Although Galton has been accused of advocating sterilisation of the undesirable classes, I can find no mention of it in his writings. He seemed to merely desire that they were dissuaded from bearing children, and that the superior classes, on the contrary, were encouraged to produce more of them: in an analogy with the breeding of the best stock among horses and dogs, he asserted that “we should take pains to increase the multiplication of the best variants” (Galton 1904, p 25).

The Eugenics Movement, which Galton helped to found, seem to have come up with the idea of sterilisation for utilitarian reasons, as Sekula observed “by seeking to reduce the numbers of the “unfit” [the eugenicists] claimed to be reducing the numbers of those predestined to unhappiness” (1996, pp 42-44). Unfortunately for Galton, his vision of improving the racial stock of humanity was hampered by the natural tendency for regression back towards the mean, and as such his “fantasy of absolute racial betterment was haunted by what must have seemed a kind of biological entropy” meaning that the only option left to the eugenicists was to remove the undesirable strata of society by artificial means: “in the twentieth century, eugenics would only operate with brutal certainty in its negative mode, through the sterilization and extermination of the Other” (ibid, p 54).

H.G. Wells from an address to the Sociological Society at a meeting in the School of Economies (London University), on May 16, 1904: “It is in the sterilization of failures, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies” (from The American Journal Of Sociology Volume X; July, 1904; Number 1). And the year before, in 1903, Dr. Robert Reid Rentoul “agitated for sterilization of criminals and defectives in England, but the idea has not gripped in that country” (A. E. Hamilton, Eugenics 1914, p 49). Thankfully it never did, unlike in some countries.

In the twentieth century, the most notorious examples […] were the programs of compulsory sterilization seen in many countries such as the USA (60,000 sterilizations up to 1970: half mentally-retarded, half criminals and insane), Sweden (60,000 1934-76, or 1 per cent of the total population), Japan (16,500 women 1949-95) and Nazi Germany (300-400,000 sterilized up to 1939).” (Badcock 2003) Elsewhere, Munthe notes that in Sweden until the mid 1970’s when abortion laws were changed, ‘mentally retarded’ people were prohibited from marriage and subjected to obligatory sterilisation on eugenic grounds (1996, p 57).

The Nazis praised the policies and ideas of the US on immigration quotas and sterilisation laws, as this poster from 1936 shows – “We Do Not Stand Alone” reads the title, while the shield bears the name and date of the sterilisation law and protects the normal couple and their infant, the whole is surrounded by the flags of countries which had either enacted or were considering similar sterilisation laws. It was only following the Nazi experiments of Rassenhygiene, when around 400,000 people with putative hereditary conditions such as ‘feeblemindedness’, ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘alcoholism’ were forcibly sterilised that eugenics fell from popularity and was dismissed as a pseudoscience by the more recently founded science of genetics.

Fundamentally, eugenics highlighted the inevitable clash of interests which comes about when the community as a whole seeks to over-ride the rights of its individual members in the alleged best interests of all. From the point of view of biology and genetics, modern insights have revealed that no such best collective interests exist, and present-day attitudes to the individual’s rights make it controversial to enforce them even if they did.” (Badcock, 2003) Who is to determine what exactly constitute the ‘best interests of all’? Although Badcock praises the advances of more democratic states, the problem of sterilisation still exists in certain parts of the world, where authoritarian regimes make it easier to intervene in the reproductive lives of individual subjects. As recently as 2013, Israel admitted to sterilising Ethiopian Jews without their consent, while a 2010 campaign was launched in China to sterilize around 10,000 women, and the former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori was sentenced to 25 years in 2009 for crimes against humanity carried out under his presidency that included the forced sterilisation of 300,000 indigenous people. However, as Badcock points out, eugenics is practised in the form of termination of pregnancies where there are early-diagnosed abnormalities such as Down syndrome or spina bifida observed in the foetus. As Crow (1996, p 62) points out, foetal screening is expressly designed to offer parents the chance to abort when impairment is detected, and rarely for the purposes of planning for the child’s future.


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