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.