Monday, September 5, 2016

"Weeding out the runts"

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian on "one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite" and, it should be noted, not only in Britain.
.... It is eugenics, the belief that society's fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and "moral worth" to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.

...[I]n the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day. Thus George Bernard Shaw could insist that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man", even suggesting, in a phrase that chills the blood, that defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber".

Such thinking was not alien to the great Liberal titan and mastermind of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood". Indeed, a desire to limit the numbers of the inferior was written into modern notions of birth control from the start. That great pioneer of contraception, Marie Stopes – honoured with a postage stamp in 2008 – was a hardline eugenicist, determined that the "hordes of defectives" be reduced in number, thereby placing less of a burden on "the fit". Stopes later disinherited her son because he had married a short-sighted woman, thereby risking a less-than-perfect grandchild. ....

.... Harold Laski, stellar LSE professor, co-founder of the Left Book Club and one-time chairman of the Labour party, cautioned that: "The time is surely coming…when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself." Meanwhile, JBS Haldane, admired scientist and socialist, warned that: "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." That's Untermenschen in German. ....

...[T]he eugenics movement's definition of "unfit" was not limited to the physically or mentally impaired. It held, he writes, "that most of the behavioural traits that led to poverty were inherited. In short, that the poor were genetically inferior to the educated middle class." It was not poverty that had to be reduced or even eliminated: it was the poor.

Hence the enthusiasm of John Maynard Keynes, director of the Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944, for contraception, essential because the working class was too "drunken and ignorant" to keep its numbers down. ....

They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning, the Fabian faith that the gentlemen in Whitehall really did know best? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak. .... [more]
Not unrelated: