Book Review: Eugenics and Other Evils

9781504022545-medium“Eugenics and Other Evils” by G.K. Chesterton

2017 Reading Challenge — Book 8: A Book About a Current Issue

Why, you might ask, would you read a book nearly 100 years old to satisfy the requirement of a book about a “current issue”? The answer, in this as well as many other cases, is that to truly understand an issue, we often need to distance ourselves from the myopic view of the current news cycle, and look instead at the historical sources where ideas and philosophies were first developed and critiqued.

But the news cycle certainly did help me to determine a topic for study. I chose a “current issue” which lies at the intersection of the topics which most interest me: theology, politics, education, history, and philosophy. Understanding the eugenics movement of the early 20th century provides context for current discussions about abortion, Socialism vs. Capitalism, creation vs. evolution, and even presidential politics.

Eugenics, though not a word often encountered, has been in the news once again in recent days. During the election season, one of the Left’s frequent accusations against Donald Trump was that he is an advocate of eugenics (see this piece from The Huffington Post as an example), and I’ve seen that same video making the rounds on social media again just in the last week. I’ve written before of the connection between eugenics and Planned Parenthood (whose founder, Margaret Sanger, was a member of the American Eugenics Society). The evolutionary connection is even clearer, as the very word “eugenics” and the first ideas about its implementation were proposed by Francis Galton, who wrote in 1863 that “if talented people only married other talented people, the result would be measurably better offspring,” his proposal based largely upon the theories his cousin Charles Darwin had published in his book  The Descent of Man.

G.K. Chesterton, perhaps alone among the scholars and authors around the turn of the last century, stood firmly against the onrushing tide of the eugenics movement. While the movement had its origins and strongest support in Prussia/Germany (where Nietzsche had proposed the idea of creating a race of supermen), by the first decade of the 20th century it was quickly gaining popularity throughout the West, particularly in Academia. It’s prominent proponents in Britain and America ranged from popular writers such as H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, to influential businessmen like Alexander Graham Bell and John D. Rockefeller, to political leaders including Winston Churchill, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1924, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld (in an 8-1 ruling with Oliver Wendell Holmes penning the majority opinion) a law allowing states to implement forced sterilization for eugenic purposes.

This background is important because—though it is generally looked upon with revulsion today, across the political spectrum—during Chesterton’s day eugenics seemed almost inevitable. It took great courage to speak out when he did.

He began his research for this book in 1910, but then, as he states in the book’s introduction, “the hour came when I felt, not without relief, that I might well fling all my notes into the fire.” Why? Because Prussia, that great paragon of “the scientifically organised State” upon which England and America had gazed with such admiration, was at war with the rest of the West. And as the State which had most fully adopted eugenic ideals began to collapse upon itself and implemented more and more barbaric methods of warfare, Chesterton took solace in the comfort that “no Englishmen would ever again go nosing round the stinks of that low laboratory. So I thought all I had written irrelevant, and put it out of my mind.

Alas, it was not to be. “I am greatly grieved to say that it is not irrelevant. It has gradually grown apparent, to my astounded gaze, that the ruling classes in England are still proceeding on the assumption that Prussia is a pattern for the whole world.” And so this book came to be published in 1922.

It would finally take the work of another German acolyte of Nietzsche and Darwin—whose eugenic experiments and ethnic cleansing awakened the world to the horror of this philosophy put into practice—to finally take eugenics out of the realm of mainstream thought. And though Chesterton did not live to see the start of the second World War, he was one of the few outspoken critics of Adolf Hitler in the early 1930’s, again announcing prophetic warnings about the Nazi leader’s dangerous eugenic fervor. If only the world had listened to him then!

But I do hope we’re listening now, and so I’ll allow Chesterton’s words to speak for themselves for the remainder of this review. Here are a few excerpts that stuck out to me as I read:

He knew his was a needed prophetic voice

The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt. It is no good to cry out after you are hurt; especially after you are mortally hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often essential to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air.

He pointed out the folly of academic double-speak which tends to hide terrible ideas behind technical language

Most Eugenists are Euphemists. I mean merely that short words startle them, while long words soothe them. And they are utterly incapable of translating the one into the other, however obviously they mean the same thing. Say to them “The persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generation does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to the females”; say this to them and they will sway slightly to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them “Murder your mother,” and they sit up quite suddenly. Yet the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same. Say to them “It is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also even in regard to the important question of the extension of human diet”; say this to them, and beauty born of murmuring sound will pass into their face. But say to them, in a simple, manly, hearty way “Let’s eat a man!” and their surprise is quite surprising. Yet the sentences say just the same thing.

As today, churches were seen by the scientific and academic communities as standing in the way of “progress” through the use of political power

All I assert here is that the Churches are not now leaning heavily on their political establishment; they are not using heavily the secular arm… They are not specially using that special tyranny which consists in using the government.

The thing that really is trying to tyrannise 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. Materialism is really our established Church; for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics. Vaccination, in its hundred years of experiment, has been disputed almost as much as baptism in its approximate two thousand. But it seems quite natural to our politicians to enforce vaccination; and it would seem to them madness to enforce baptism.

In an era when corrupt Capitalists used the power of the State to prey on the poor and weak, he lamented the growing inequality and loss of freedom

Industrialism and Capitalism and the rage for physical science were English experiments in the sense that the English lent themselves to their encouragement; but there was something else behind them and within them that was not they—its name was liberty, and it was our life. It may be that this delicate and tenacious spirit has at last evaporated. If so, it matters little what becomes of the external experiments of our nation in later time. That at which we look will be a dead thing alive with its own parasites. The English will have destroyed England.

Yet he knew that Socialism was not the solution to inequality; Left and Right both lead to tyranny when ideas are spread through coercion rather than persuasion

It may be said of Socialism, therefore, very briefly, that its friends recommended it as increasing equality, while its foes resisted it as decreasing liberty. On the one hand it was said that the State could provide homes and meals for all; on the other it was answered that this could only be done by State officials who would inspect houses and regulate meals. The compromise eventually made was one of the most interesting and even curious cases in history. It was decided to do everything that had ever been denounced in Socialism, and nothing that had ever been desired in it. Since it was supposed to gain equality at the sacrifice of liberty, we proceeded to prove that it was possible to sacrifice liberty without gaining equality. Indeed, there was not the faintest attempt to gain equality, least of all economic equality. But there was a very spirited and vigorous effort to eliminate liberty, by means of an entirely new crop of crude regulations and interferences. But it was not the Socialist State regulating those whom it fed, like children or even like convicts. It was the Capitalist State raiding those whom it had trampled and deserted in every sort of den, like outlaws or broken men.

In short, people decided that it was impossible to achieve any of the good of Socialism, but they comforted themselves by achieving all the bad. All that official discipline, about which the Socialists themselves were in doubt or at least on the defensive, was taken over bodily by the Capitalists. They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State. For the vital point is that it did not in the smallest degree diminish the inequalities of a Capitalist State. It simply destroyed such individual liberties as remained among its victims.

Closing Thoughts

In Chesterton’s day, the idea of eugenics took off so quickly because it appealed to those on both the political Left and Right. Those on the Right, whom Chesterton often referred to as “plutocrats” (rule of the wealthy), were drawn to eugenics because its implementation favored the powerful at the expense of the weak. Those on the Left were allured by its necessity of central planning.

Since Hitler’s defeat, the eugenics movement has evolved significantly. While abortion is mentioned only once in Chesterton’s book, the author is clearly concerned about what eugenic philosophy could mean for the unborn (“they seek his life to take it away”). Prior to the 1940’s, eugenics was focused more on selective breeding and forced sterilization rather than abortion; in the years that followed, dedicated eugenicists like Margaret Sanger turned their attention to different methods.

Eugenic philosophy is alive and well today, though it masquerades by many other names. I strongly encourage you to study more on this issue, and Chesterton’s book is a great place to start. You can check out the audiobook for free, as I did, from Librivox, read it via pdf at Project Gutenberg, or pick up a print edition here.

For further reading:

  • Read more about the connection/progression from Darwin to Nietszche to Hitler to Planned Parenthood here.
  • Answering the claims that Chesterton was a fascist and/or anti-Semite (allegations which often prevent modern readers from taking his writing seriously), by a G.K. Chesterton fellow at Oxford: here.
  • Transcript of a lecture from the American Chesterton Society on the significance of this book, and on the link between eugenics and abortion: here.

The Atheistic Literary Style

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I’m currently about halfway through G.K. Chesterton’s book Eugenics and Other Evils, and as always, am quite enjoying his keen wit and wisdom. Earlier today I came across this passage I found particularly interesting, in which the author observes that atheists write in their own unique and characteristic style:

[T]here is such a thing as an atheistic literary style… materialism may appear in the mere diction of a man, though he be speaking of clocks or cats or anything quite remote from theology. The mark of the atheistic style is that it instinctively chooses the word which suggests that things are dead things; that things have no souls. Thus they will not speak of waging war, which means willing it; they speak of the “outbreak of war,” as if all the guns blew up without the men touching them. Thus those Socialists that are atheist will not call their international sympathy, sympathy; they will call it “solidarity,” as if the poor men of France and Germany were physically stuck together like dates in a grocer’s shop. The same Marxian Socialists are accused of cursing the Capitalists inordinately; but the truth is that they let the Capitalists off much too easily. For instead of saying that employers pay less wages, which might pin the employers to some moral responsibility, they insist on talking about the “rise and fall” of wages; as if a vast silver sea of sixpences and shillings was always going up and down automatically like the real sea at Margate. Thus they will not speak of reform, but of development; and they spoil their one honest and virile phrase, “the class war,” by talking of it as no one in his wits can talk of a war, predicting its finish and final result as one calculates the coming of Christmas Day or the taxes. Thus, lastly (as we shall see touching our special subject-matter here) the atheist style in letters always avoids talking of love or lust, which are things alive, and calls marriage or concubinage “the relations of the sexes”; as if a man and a woman were two wooden objects standing in a certain angle and attitude to each other, like a table and a chair.

Chesterton was writing half a century before Francis Schaeffer and others began writing about worldviews, but he’s talking about the same thing. Our presuppositions about how the world came into existence and how it continues to work really do affect the way we think–and write–about everything “from clocks to cats.”

What’s Growing in Margaret Sanger’s Garden?

"The greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world." ~ Margaret Sanger

With so much frenzy these days to expunge all vestiges of racism in our nation, perhaps the vigilantes of political correctness can find some rare common ground with social conservatives. Building a consensus on social issues is unquestionably difficult—some might even say impossible—but rather than bickering about cakes, flags, and dead generals, we ought to agree together that Margaret Sanger and the organization she founded have been far more effective at exterminating minorities than the most bloodthirsty Ku Klux Klan member ever dreamed of. Whatever you may think about Nathan Bedford Forrest, he is not the founder of the organization that continues to slaughter nearly 2,000 black and Hispanic children each and every week in the United States.

This despicable organization, founded with explicitly racist motivations, represents an insidious evil against which all who despise racism in any form can rally. And unlike exhuming the bodies of those long dead or tweeting trendy hashtags, there is one action which would make a real difference, preserving life and demonstrating powerfully that #BlackLivesMatter: DEFUNDING PLANNED PARENTHOOD.

Still need convincing? Allow me to introduce you to Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood.

In 1925, Sanger delivered a rousing speech promoting a vision in which we “would see this old world of ours converted into a beautiful garden of children.” Sounds good, right? But how to achieve this vision?

“Before you can cultivate a garden, you must know something about gardening. You have got to give your seeds a proper soil in which to grow. You have got to give them sunlight and fresh air. You have got to give them space and the opportunity (if they are to lift their flowers to the sun), to strike their roots deep into that soil. And always — do not forget this — you have got to fight weeds. You cannot have a garden, if you let weeds overrun it.” (Source)

Sanger wrote and spoke often of “human weeds” in her quest to promote eugenics (“good genes”), and while abortion supporters frequently deny that Sanger was referring to ethnic minorities and poor people when she described “reckless breeders… unceasingly spawning [a] class of human beings who never should have been born at all,” (Source) and attribute benign motives to her warning that “we do not want the word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population,” (Source) the intentions of some of her colleagues are more clear.

Lothrop Stoddard, appointed by Sanger to the board of directors for the Birth Control League (later renamed Planned Parenthood), wrote in his book, “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy,” that the “white race” which had “pressed to the front and proved in a myriad of ways their fitness for the hegemony of mankind” was in danger of being overrun by races less fit to breed. He wrote, “Unless man erects and maintains artificial barriers the various races will increasingly mingle, and the inevitable result will be the supplanting or absorption of the higher by the lower types.” The lowest “type” of man in Studdard’s book? “Negroids.” (Source)

This influence is seen in Planned Parenthood today, where nearly 80% of clinics are located in African American and Latino communities (Source), with such a disproportionate number of black babies being aborted it’s nearly impossible to NOT see them as being intentionally targeted. Sanger’s disdain for immigrants, the disabled, and large families also fueled her desire to achieve “a cleaner race” through Birth Control (Source). “Equality” is an incredibly ironic buzzword to be bandied by those who also vociferously defend the organization which has carried out Sanger’s vision for the last 99 years.

Defunding Planned Parenthood on a federal level wouldn’t necessarily shut the organization down (and even if it did, it would merely put a dent in the atrocious U.S. abortion rate), but removing all taxpayer dollars from the organization would be a tremendous first step in reducing the complicity of all American people in the wholesale murder of the unborn. I call on those who truly value life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for ALL people to urge your representatives to join the fight to defund Planned Parenthood immediately.

I welcome civil discourse in the comments. And because of the preponderance of falsely attributed “quotes” on the Internet, I encourage you to fact-check what I’ve written above by clicking through the provided “source” links.

Combing the Net – 6/12/2012

TTU’s Carillon Bells Ring Across Campus — Here’s a great little local story from the Herald-Citizen about the bells that chime on the TTU campus every single day. I got a chance to see the carillon room up close and personal during my time as a student when I took the “Acoustics of Music” class taught by Dr. Wells, who is interviewed in this piece. (HT: Noel Bohannon on Facebook)

Teacher-Student Interaction Using Texting and Social Media — For you teachers out there: How do you feel about communicating with your students outside of the classroom? Do you use social media? My dad asks that question and provides a few thoughts of his own on the website of his new business, VirtualMusicOffice.com. He started VMO to help provide service to “Music Teachers, Band, Choir, Orchestra Directors, who have more music office tasks than time”. If you’re a music teacher, you should check it out! You can learn more about it through Facebook and Twitter.

Are We Living in Sensory Overload or Sensory Poverty? — We’ve often heard that all the technology available today puts us at risk of sensory overload, but this editorial asks whether the opposite may be true. A very compelling read. (HT: Breakpoint)

As a species, we’ve somehow survived large and small ice ages, genetic bottlenecks, plagues, world wars and all manner of natural disasters, but I sometimes wonder if we’ll survive our own ingenuity. At first glance, it seems as if we may be living in sensory overload. The new technology, for all its boons, also bedevils us with alluring distractors, cyberbullies, thought-nabbers, calm-frayers, and a spiky wad of miscellaneous news. Some days it feels like we’re drowning in a twittering bog of information.

But, at exactly the same time, we’re living in sensory poverty, learning about the world without experiencing it up close, right here, right now, in all its messy, majestic, riotous detail. The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature.

Eugenics, Past and Future — I love Ross Douthat’s columns, and typically don’t miss one, but somehow this slipped by the other day. Thankfully I caught an interview with him on NPR yesterday as he was talking about it. His comparison between the near eradication (by abortion) of Down’s Syndrome with the early 20th Century American fascination with the concept of eugenics is both fascinating and frightening.

Are you a betting man? Here are “10 Bets You Will Never Lose” (HT: 22Words)