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.”

Saying Best What’s to Be Said

Growing up, I was a big fan of novels. I read them all the time. From the time I learned to read, I was fascinated with stories, and I consumed whatever I could get my hands on.

Somewhere along the line — either during or right after college — I lost my love for literature. I still read a lot, but tended more toward non-fiction. Last year this was seen in the extreme:  I set (and met) a goal of reading 100 books in 2010. Of those, only eight were novels, with one more being a non-fiction book about novels. (Part of this was due to the fact that of the nearly 40 books I received free at last year’s Together for the Gospel conference, exactly zero were works of fiction!)

Don’t get me wrong. I really do enjoy reading non-fiction, and think it has great benefit, but since the start of 2011 I have rediscovered my love of literature. I feel like I’ve been reunited with an old friend!

In addition to reading much more fiction this year, I have come to more fully appreciate the importance of Story for helping make sense of life. Ironically, I was aided in this understanding by reading several non-fiction pieces, most notably essays by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien (both available free online) called, respectively, Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to Be Said and On Fairy Stories. I’ve also benefited from articles like this one from the fine folks at the Rabbit Room, as well as recent books such as Culture Making by Andy Crouch, and Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey.

Over the last few days, I’ve stumbled upon four articles which, in different ways, help point out our society’s need for more (and better) stories. These articles cover a large cross-section of our culture, from politics to art to pop culture, and I hope that you will check them out (and leave your feedback as well)!

First was the report of Barack Obama’s summer reading list. This list has been widely reported, and — as has become the tradition for Presidential reading lists — critiqued. What disappointed me was the fact that many articles (such as this one from the Daily Beast) seemed to criticize our nation’s leader simply for choosing novels over presumably more presidential works of non-fiction. The implication is that novels are for relaxation alone, while non-fiction is for learning and self-improvement. I couldn’t disagree more! If one wanted to criticize which novels Obama has chosen, that’s one thing, but to say that someone as important as POTUS shouldn’t “stoop” to reading fiction shows just how low our view of literature has become.

One potential reason for this societal antipathy toward fiction? September 11.

A recent article from the Philadelphia Inquirer examined the effects of 9/11 on the arts. While there was increased interest in books and movies in the fantasy and apocalyptic genres (Twilight, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Cloverfield, etc), the vast majority of books written in the last decade of our terror-struck nation were nonfiction.

“But the 2000s were a time of nonfiction that put fiction to shame… Perhaps the trauma of 9/11 drove writers and readers to reexamine great lives and events, to reevaluate the truth.”

Did the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, leave us with the choice of running from reality or analyzing it documentary-style? I don’t know, but those events do roughly coincide with when I began heavily reading non-fiction to the exclusion of literature…

Russell Moore has written a great cover story about how we face the reality of horror. (If you only read one article linked to from this blog, make it this one!) He points to the story of Christ’s crucifixion, and how the biblical narrative forces readers to come to terms with “the unvarnished horror of ourselves — damned and cursed and exiled.” Scripture doesn’t shy away from unpleasant realities, but neither does it present the reality of sin, death, and Hell simply as cold, hard facts. Instead, God’s Word immerses us in a drama in which death is an enemy to be destroyed, and Christ is a conquering hero who sympathizes with our weaknesses even as he trandscends them and gives us the power to overcome them.

Moore points out that from our childhood we know intuitively that there is something “wild” out there, and that a Day of Judgment is coming. Stories help people (and especially children) “make sense of a chaotic world and of [our] often chaotic selves.” This is reminiscent of one of my favorite G.K. Chesterton quotes:

Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.

Unfortunately, I worry that as Christians, we have largely forgotten what makes a story great. We have lost the ability to discern the elements of truth, beauty, and goodness, which, thanks to God’s common grace, have been evident in great stories from every era, and have pointed to the Creator even in stories written by non-Christians (a topic Tony Reinke explores in his soon-to-be-released book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books). Instead, we tend to simply see things in black-and-white, or, more precisely, “Christian” and “non-Christian”.

This often leads us to call second- or third-rate books and movies “good” simply because they are produced by Christians, even if they have little or no artistic merit and terrible theology. Meanwhile, we reject truly good stories with themes of hope, forgiveness, and redemption if they have non-Christian origins.

Case-in-point: Last week Justin Taylor recommended two war movies with these themes. In the comments section, many were concerned because one of these movies, Saints and Soldiers, was produced by Mormons. This is a shame, because it really is a great movie! I’ve seen it a couple times, and while there are some specifically Mormon ideas implicit in the story, the overall theme is one which Christians ought to embrace.

We shouldn’t be surprised when non-Christians write good stories. After all, God has written Truth on their hearts and consciences. Paul encouraged the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy, regardless of its source. Anything that inspires us to worship God and serve others is worthy of our time and consideration. This is what great stories do!

May we all develop a better understanding of what is true, beautiful, and good through the stories we read and watch, even as we pray for a renaissance in Christian literature, music, art, and movies.

A Magical Evening with G.K. Chesterton

Saturday evening, my wife and I had a night out on the town! I took her to the Blackbird Theater in Nashville to see their production of “Magic”, the first play by G.K. Chesterton. Afterward, Andrew Peterson convened a discussion group with about 30 “Rabbit Roomers” to discuss Chesterton and the play. (A Rabbit Roomer is someone who follows The Rabbit Room, which is “a place for stories. For artists who believe in the power of old tales, tales as old as the earth itself, who find hope in them and beauty in the shadows and in the light and in the source of the light.“) It was truly a wonderful evening… and not just because it was the first time we were without the kids all night since Carrie was born!

I can’t recommend this production highly enough. The folks at the Blackbird Theater Company really put on a top-notch show. The acting, set, music (all original to this production), effects, and costumes were just right. (These pictures will give you a sense of the look of the show.) All the action takes place in a sitting room; the gallery was decorated to make the audience feel as if we were sitting right there in the room with the characters! If you go, try to get there early. Tickets are general admission, and you’re going to want to sit at one of the tables down front! For a more detailed review, check out Broadway World.

As for the play itself, it is just a lot of fun. Though it deals with some major philosophical ideas (it is Chesterton, after all), it is at times absolutely hysterical! It is amazing that a play which is almost 100 years old (Chesterton wrote it in 1913) contains humor that is just as funny today as it was then. It’s not all laughs, though. Chesterton covers the entire range of emotions in about 90 minutes, including a bit of sappy (if not-quite-believable) romance.

Whether you are able to see the play or not, you should take the time (no more than an hour, I’d think) to read it. You can get it for free for Kindle here. If, like me, you don’t have a Kindle, you can download Amazon’s Cloud Reader for free as well, which is a great way to read books and other materials on your computer without straining your eyes.

My one minor quabble with the Blackbird production of the play was the changing of the role of Hastings to a female character. One of the strengths of Chesterton’s play is the way that Patricia — the only female character in the original version — proves in the end to be perhaps the most mentally and emotionally secure person on the stage, despite the fact that the male characters have spent much of the early portion of the play belittling women as “weak-minded”. This loses a bit of its effect when Mrs. Hastings has a faint spell, seeming to play into the stereotype. Just imagine what an effect the strong female character would have had on a 1913 audience! The stereotypes in the play were representative of its time, after all.

“Magic” is playing in Nashville until August 27. If you are in the area, do your best to get tickets!

Here is the play’s trailer, to whet your appetite: