Eugenics for Dummies
- February 19, 2020
There’s been a lot of talk about eugenics in the UK this last week, thanks to Dominic Cummings’s ‘superforecaster’ Andrew Sabisky. Sabisky’s rapid rise and fall is entirely due to the ‘controversial comments’, as the media likes to call them, that he made on various internet forums, including Cummings’s own blog. These pronouncements include the recommendation that compulsory contraception could be introduced to prevent the perpetuation of a ‘permanent underclass’; that black Americans have a lower average IQ than white Americans, and that ‘the very real racial differences in intelligence are significantly – even mostly – genetic in origin, though the degree is of course a very serious subject of scholarly debate.’
Sabisky also told Schools Week in 2016 that: ‘Eugenics are about selecting “for” good things,’ since ‘Intelligence is largely inherited and it correlates with better outcomes: physical health, income, lower mental illness.’
Elsewhere, though this has received less media attention, Sabisky could be found writing as an ‘agony uncle’ on Reddit seven years ago, where he advised a man whose Mormon wife was refusing to have sex with him that he should to try to ‘rewire’ her brain ‘to the point where she no longer, consciously or subconsciously sees a conflict between a good Christian woman and serving you up 39 flavours of slut on command’.
There is more where this came from, none of which bothered Cummings – or Boris Johnson, who has yet to condemn him.
It’s doubtful whether many people will remember Sabisky’s name in a few months time, but they will remember Cummings. And many people will now have become aware of an ongoing debate about eugenics that had previously been restricted to fringe alt-right forums and marginal scientific research. Sabisky’s defenders include Toby Young, who has also taken up eugenics as an intellectual hobby, and has railed against the ‘offence archaeologists’ who supposedly forced Sabisky’s resignation.
And over on Twitter, the mighty Richard Dawkins has popped up with the following observation:
There is a lot that you can say about this remarkably silly tweet. We could start with the observation that human beings are not cows, horses, pigs, dogs & roses. Or ask how Dawkins defines what ‘works’ and to what extent such definitions can ever ‘ignore ideology.’ Because the decision over which virtues should be preserved and enhanced, and which should vices should be restricted and eliminated is always ideological and political, and always involves moral choices.
Many critics of Sabisky – and Dawkins – have drawn attention to the Nazi eugenics programs, such as the Aktion T-4 n which tens of thousands of disabled people, mentally-ill were killed and another 400,000 Germans considered to be ‘worthless mouths’ forcibly sterilised. But the historical reminders about Hitler’s eugenics programs and the Holocaust – while important to make – are not the most useful prism through which to view the reemergence of the eugenics ‘debate’ in the 21st century.
To understand why so many deeply obnoxious white men are showing such an interest in eugenics, we need to look a little further back. Eugenics first emerged in the late nineteenth century, when the term was coined by Darwin’s cousin, the polymath Sir Francis Galton, in his book Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development (1883). Galton later defined eugenics as ‘the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations, either physically or mentally.’
This suggestion that ‘racial qualities’ could be improved or impaired was crucial to the popularity and the intellectual credibility that eugenics acquired both in the decades leading up to World War 1 and also in the years that followed. Eugenics took root at a time when governments and a host of writers, from the English antisemite journalist Arnold White to the American journalist Madison Grant were concerned that the white race was being ‘out-bred’ by inferior racial stocks both inside their countries and globally.
Eugenics – in addition to immigration restrictions based on perceived racial characteristics associated with people of colour – was seen as an instrument for preventing racial decline. These fears of racial degeneration were not only directed at outsiders, however. In the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth, many governments believed that the national ‘stock’ was deteriorating as a result of poverty, crime and the unrestricted breeding of the ‘unfit’, to the point when some countries worried that they might not be able to wage war effectively.
In England these fears of national/imperial decline were confirmed by the near-disaster of the Boer War. At the end of the Second Boer War in 1902, the British government established the Inter-Departmental Committee on Physical Deterioration in order to ‘make a preliminary enquiry into the allegations concerning the deterioration of certain classes of the population as shown by the large percentage of rejections for physical causes of recruits for the Army.’
These fears of degeneration encompassed a wide range of ‘unfit’ people, including unwanted foreigners, Jews, the physically disabled and the ‘feebleminded’, criminals, alcoholics, paupers, and recipients of charity. In effect eugenics came to be seen as a ‘scientific’ solution for cultural and political anxieties rooted in empire, racism, the social deformations of unregulated capitalism, militarism and nationalist paranoia, to the point when it was seen as entirely legitimate for the state to limit the ability of designated undesirable people to procreate, so that those elements of the population considered to be superior could continue to thrive.
Women – and the rise of womens rights movements – were also seen as a potential source of national degeneration through excessive ‘feminisation’ of the national stock. Then, as now, the men who made these judgements tended to be white men, who took their own superiority for granted and decided which undesirable qualities should be preserved or eliminated, and whose lives were valuable and whose were not, as they weighed up the moral consequences of ‘positive eugenics’ (increasing desirable traits) and ‘negative eugenics’ (eliminating undesirable traits)
As the world well knows, Nazi Germany became the most barbaric proponent of the latter, but coercive eugenics were also practiced in a number of other countries, including the United States, the UK and in Scandinavia.
Today’s ‘Return of Eugenics’, as the Spectator‘s Fraser Nelson described it in a 2016 article that he recycled last week, is primarily concerned with positive eugenics, and the propagation and enhancement of supposedly genetically inherited characteristics. But it is no coincidence that this re-emergence has taken place at a time when far-right phobias about racial ‘replacement’ are moving ever closer towards the political mainstream; when immigration restrictions and exclusion are seen as instruments for preserving ‘national identities’ against an influx of undesirable foreigners; when liberal democracies are being roiled by populist politics rooted in nationalism, nativism, and racism; when inequality has reached record levels, and the rich and powerful display the most brazen contempt for even the most elementary notions of the common good.
Today’s eugencists do not consider the possibility that overpaid CEOs, hedgefund managers, political charlatans, demagogues or privileged sociopaths who see politics as an exercise in narcissism and ego-gratification may not be as beneficial to society as they assume them to be.
Instead, it’s far more convenient to focus on the poor and the underclass, on welfare dependents who have ‘too many’ children, and other people who cost the state more money than it is willing to provide, and have therefore contributed to deteriorating quality of the 21st century ‘human stock.’
We are a long way from the Nazi euthanasia and forced sterilisation programs, and today’s eugenicists are not advocating such methods – yet.
But that isn’t as reassuring as it might sound. The ‘debate’ about eugenics is a debate we don’t need, and shouldn’t be having, and the fact that it is now creeping back into the mainstream is another symptom of our reactionary drift. Today, as in the past, clever white men who are used to looking down on the world from a great height are once again turning to ‘science’ for solutions to social problems rooted in the distribution of wealth, the prioritisation of resources, misgovernance, and the inability of democratic governments to hold the powerful to account.
And the fact that such men have found their way into one of the most rightwing governments in British history may not mean that we are about to descend into Nazism, but it does not indicate that we are headed anywhere good.