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.

Is It Fair to Compare Abortion to the Holocaust?

As I anticipated, there were some who weren’t happy with my comparison of abortion supporters to Hitler in Sunday’s post. It’s true that comparisons to Hitler are so common they are almost cliché; it’s become the go-to accusation when someone holds a position contrary to one’s own. So, is this abortion-Hitler connection an ad hominem attack, or is this a legitimate comparison?

My claim was that Hitler’s Darwinist beliefs provided the rationale for his killing of 9 million people (over half of whom were Jewish) and that this is the logical extension of the same type of thinking that justifies abortion by claiming that pre-born children are not persons. Let’s see if this turns out to be true.

In Descent of Man, Darwin began to apply his theory of natural selection to human beings. He believed it was possible for the human race to “degenerate”. With domesticated animals, people control which traits continue through selective breeding; could this be done with humans? “Excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” What are the implications of this line of reasoning?

If various checks do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has occurred too often in the history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule.”

To be fair to Darwin, he never advocated killing anyone. He did, however, believe that some humans were “inferior” while others were “better”, and introduced the idea of Man being able to control his own “evolution” through selective breeding; if lesser men were allowed to reproduce, it would lead to the retrograde of human development, rather than progress.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche took this a step further. If Darwin’s theory was true, then it followed that men (little more than “barbarians” and “beasts” to Nietzsche) had thrived and risen to the top of the food chain the same way that other beasts thrive: by the strong willing themselves to power and destroying the weak. In Beyond Good and Evil, while outlining his philosophy for the elevation of a “noble caste” over the “barbarian caste”, Nietzsche writes:

The essential characteristic of a good and healthy aristocracy… is that it accepts with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings who, for its sake, must be reduced and lowered to incomplete human beings, to slaves, to instruments. Their fundamental faith simply has to be that society must not exist for society’s sake but only as the foundation and scaffolding on which a choice type of being is able to raise itself to its higher task and to a higher state of being.” (emphasis mine)

This led to Nietzsche’s concept of the “übermensch”, the “over-man”, introduced in his book Also Sprach Zarathustra (which, incidentally, inspired Richard Strauss’ tone poem of the same name, a dramatic musical picture of the rise of a super-man; it was made famous in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey). Reflecting upon what this meant for humanity, Nietzsche famously pronounced that “God is dead”, and therefore correctly predicted that the 20th century would become the bloodiest century in history. After all, the only thing preventing the strong from exterminating the weak was a lingering sense of morality based on the (to him) foolish notion of a transcendent Creator. Now that men had realized the “truth” about their origin, the ascent of the übermensch was sure to come, leaving the blood of the weak in its wake… which, according to Nietzsche, must be accepted with a good conscience.

Nietzsche prophesied that in order to revive Europe to prosperity, the continent must “acquire one will by means of a new caste that would rule Europe“. Enter Hitler.

Frustrated with Germany’s impoverished condition following the Great War, Hitler and members of his National Socialist (Nazi) Party were motivated by the concept of the übermensch to see this ruling caste (or in their terms, “Master Race”) return Germany, Europe, and the world to the path of progress. Their political philosophy flowed naturally from their understanding of Darwin, Nietzsche, and others. In the words of Hitler’s Deputy in the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess: “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology.”

Once they came to power, the Nazis simply carried out their biological duty as the strongest members of the human race. They began to systematically eliminate the weak and undesirable: the elderly, the physically and mentally handicapped, homosexuals, gypsies, Jews, and anyone else they deemed to be “untermensch” (sub-human). This was not cruel bloodlust or simple anti-Semitism; it was, according to the philosophical worldview that grew out of the work of Darwin and Nietzsche, the morally virtuous act of those who sought the greatest benefit for the human race.

For in a world which would be composed of mongrels and negroids all ideals of human beauty and nobility and all hopes of an idealized future for our humanity would be lost for ever.” ~ From Hitler’s Mein Kampf

Evolutionary/modernist thought allowed Hitler and others to classify — in good conscience — some members of the human race as inferior and disposable. This is not conjecture; it is history. The question, then, is whether it follows that abortion advocates do the same.

Today, it is politically incorrect to label someone as “sub-human” or “inferior”. Instead, scientists and philosophers (so often the same thing) have developed something called “personhood theory”. This theory posits that there are members of Homo sapiens who, while biologically human, are not “persons”. Notice that almost no one says anymore that a fetus is not human or not alive; the lingo is almost always that a fetus is not a person. It is an indisputable scientific FACT that pre-born children are 100% human and 100% alive.

For a recent example of how this lingo is used, check out this article published Tuesday. Notice two things. First, the author’s use of the term “anti-choice”, a term I addressed in the blog post that prompted this one. Second, and more importantly, his claim that “science clearly shows that personhood does not [begin at conception].” Really? Does science “clearly” show this? Is it an empirical FACT that some forms of human life are not persons? No. Science cannot show this because demonstrating “personhood” does not fall under the realm of science but of philosophy.

The truth of the matter is that “personhood theory” is just the latest manifestation of the philosophical idea that some human beings have the “right” to decide which human lives are better and which are inferior. Without an objective understanding of human life’s value being based on God’s creation of it in His own image, the determination of the value of an individual life will always come from subjective human criteria. And, as Nietzsche knew, this will always take the form of natural selection: the strong being advantaged at the expense of the weak. Who is weaker than an unborn life?

Furthermore, what is to keep “personhood theory” from being extended from the debate over abortion into other avenues of determining the worth of a human life? Indeed, this is already happening. How else can one explain things like assisted suicide, or the Terri Schiavo case?

Abortion advocates have — whether consciously or not — bought into the exact same philosophical worldview that allowed Hitler to consider certain forms of human life as disposable. They have accepted with a good conscience the sacrifice of untold human beings. Nietzsche would be proud.

So, is it fair to compare abortion to the Holocaust? Based on the evidence, I believe that it is.

On second thought, though, maybe this comparison is a little weak. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, more than FIFTY MILLION abortions have been performed in the United States alone, and these account for only 3% of abortions worldwide (many of which are funded by our country). Hitler never dreamed of killing so many.

To Be Or Not To Be

With one short statement, Bill Clinton displayed perfectly the problem of the uncertainty of language. “Slick Willie” understood the power of language, and was a master at manipulating language for his own purposes. His rationalization of his use of such a simple, everyday word led to his acquittal on perjury charges, because, technically, he never lied.

A decade later, those in positions of power and influence are more manipulative than ever, and language continues to be the primary weapon with which they assert control over those who are content with a surface-level-only understanding of the world around them. Make no mistake: The purveyors of the postmodern approach to language are experts in the execution of mixed-message communicating. Those who wish to confuse the understanding of words in our culture are themselves very much aware of the importance of language, and of the power that can be gained through the ability to control the meaning of words.

Because of the undeniable connection between language and power, we see the effects of “evolving” language most vividly in the arena of politics. We’ve already seen a prime example in former president Clinton. George W. Bush was no less adept in the art of manipulation through language, though he took the “good ol’ boy” approach, as opposed to that of the “cultured academic”. (Don’t let the media fool you; Bush is no idiot, and he advanced a postmodern agenda every bit as much as anyone else). Barack Obama is perhaps the best wielder of words our nation has seen since Daniel Webster. How prescient do the words of George Orwell now appear?

“One ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidarity to pure wind.” ~ Politics and the English Language, 1946

We are a media-obsessed culture, and our activist media (news, magazines, movies, television, etc) is all too willing to play the role of political mouthpiece disguised as “journalism” or “entertainment”. Francis Schaeffer wrote in How Should We Then Live (1983), “Whoever controls the media controls the culture”, and he’s exactly right. We must always remain vigilant about guarding our hearts against the influence of the world so that we may discern the will of God (Romans 12:2).

As Clinton so eloquently showed us, it is often the smallest words that can cause the most confusion. We know we’re in trouble when words like “is” and “am” (respectively the 3rd and 1st person singular present indicative forms of the verb “be”) — some of the most foundational words in the English language — are dubiously defined. Elementary students are taught the “be verbs” (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, and been… this is all familiar, right?) early in their education precisely because they are so important to the very structure of our language. Without them we cannot even begin to communicate. Don’t believe me? I dare you to try to make any sort of declarative statement (i.e. – share an opinion or fact) without using a “be verb.” How’s that going for you?

If we are going to make an attempt to declare any Truth claims regarding Christian beliefs or anything else, we must first revisit grade school English class and deal with the word “be” and its various forms.

The word “be” denotes existence. It seems so simple, yet the answer to the question of existence has been the Holy Grail of philosophical thought for centuries. We see this everywhere from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to René Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”), to Nietzsche and Kirkegaard. Is it any wonder, then, that a word the world has so much difficulty understanding is a word that God uses to describe Himself?

In Exodus chapter 3, when Moses asks God how he should answer if the people of Israel asked for the name of God, the reply was “I AM WHO I AM.” The Gospel of John records several “I Am” statements made by Jesus Christ. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that “he who comes to God must believe that He is.”

I just think it’s amazing that God would use such a term to describe Himself! This puts in perspective the reason why it is so difficult to define “be”. Can words describe the essence of God? As hard as we always try to make them do so, words will always be woefully inadequate for such a task! If God is content to describe Himself as “I AM”, then it is foolish to attempt to add anything to that. There are, however, quite a few words to describe some things that God is not, so I leave you with just a sampling of this list. We could, of course, add to it; like God Himself, this list could go on forever until our entire vocabulary was exhausted.

God is not:

  • Liberal or conservative
  • Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or any other political affiliation
  • American
  • Baptist, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, or any other denomination
  • Mad at you
  • Red, yellow, black, white, or any other color, race, or ethnicity
  • Hiding
  • Dependent on anything that can be provided by human effort
  • Describable

Next time we’ll try to delve a little deeper into the nature of God and the postmodern debate.