Sunday, July 17, 2022

Nothing new under the sun

Joseph Loconte on Chesterton, CS Lewis, and ‘Following the Science’:
In the 1920s, when he was still an agnostic, C.S. Lewis noted in his diary his latest reading: “Began G.K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils.”

A controversial English Catholic writer, Chesterton published his book in 1922, when the popularity of eugenics was at flood tide. Respectable opinion on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the concept: a scientific approach to selective breeding to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the category of people considered mentally and morally deficient. ....

It is hard to overstate the degree to which eugenics captured the imagination of the medical and scientific communities in the early 20th century. Anthropologist Francis Galton, who coined the term — from the Greek for “good birth” — argued that scientific techniques for breeding healthier animals should be applied to human beings. Those considered to be “degenerates,” “imbeciles,” or “feebleminded” would be targeted. Anticipating public opposition, Galton told scientific gatherings that eugenics “must be introduced into the national conscience like a new religion.” Premier scientific organizations, such as the American Museum of Natural History, and institutions such as Harvard and Princeton, preached the eugenics gospel: They held conferences, published papers, provided research funding, and advocated for sterilization laws. ....

...Chesterton acknowledged the historic problem of churches’ enlisting the secular state to enforce religious doctrine. But he turned the issue around by accusing scientific elites of repeating the errors of the Inquisition:
The thing that really is trying to tyrannize 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 is really 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.
Under the eugenics vision, society’s most vulnerable would not find compassion and aid; they would find the surgeon’s knife. As Chesterton quipped, there would be no sympathy for the character of Tiny Tim, the crippled boy of the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. “The Eugenicist, for all I know, would regard the mere existence of Tiny Tim as a sufficient reason for massacring the whole family of Cratchit.” ....

The ultimate political triumph of this idea, of course, arrived with the Nazis and their assault on the handicapped, homosexuals, gypsies, Jews, and anyone considered an enemy of the state. Indeed, Nazi doctors corresponded with American eugenicists as they designed their own sterilization programs.

The eugenics movement, as Chesterton predicted, became a wretched story of the negation of democratic ideals to serve a utopian vision. ....

C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don whose conversion to Christianity was aided by Chesterton’s theological writings, also watched these developments with horror. Like Chesterton, he warned of the scientist untethered from the restraints of traditional morality or religion.

“The man-molders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique,” Lewis wrote in The Abolition of Man. In such an age, he predicted, man’s supposed conquest over nature would not lead to his liberation — quite the opposite. “For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.” (more)
Joseph Loconte, "One Hundred Years Ago, ‘Following the Science’ Meant Supporting Eugenics," National Review, July 17, 2022.

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