What Phil Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin image

What Phil Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin

The all-time most viewed post on Think is Phil Moore’s What Your Biology Teacher Didn’t Tell You About Charles Darwin.

Phil describes Darwin as a British villain rather than a British hero, as he provided a system of thought that gave the intellectual justification for the most egregious examples of racism and genocide. It wasn’t only against Africans or Australian Aborigines that the effects of this thought system were felt, though. In The Spectator (2 April 2016) Fraser Nelson describes how the eugenic cause was taken up in Britain too – it’s worth quoting at length,

The word ‘eugenics’ was coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, a polymath who invented fingerprinting and many of the techniques of modern statistical research. He started with a hunch: that so many great men come from the same families because genius is hereditary. Fascinated by the evolutionary arguments of his cousin Charles Darwin, he wondered whether advances in health care and welfare had sullied the national gene pool because they allowed more of the sick and disabled not just to survive but to lead normal family lives. He went off to collect data, and came back with his theory of eugenics.

This was hailed not as a theory but as a discovery – a new science of human life, with laws as immutable as Newton’s. A race of gifted men could be created, he said, ‘as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins’. His interest was in encouraging the strong, not in hurting anyone. But once you invent a new science, there’s no telling who will use it. By 1908, a Royal Commission conveyed the grave news that there were 150,000 ‘feeble-minded’ people in Britain. As one reformer put it: let’s look after them, but insist upon ‘a complete and permanent loss of all civil rights, including civil freedom and fatherhood’. That was William Beveridge, founder of the welfare state.

Eugenics came to stand for modernity: to believe in it was to declare one’s belief in science and rationalism, to be liberated from religious qualms. Some of the most revered names in English history lapped all of this up. As Home Secretary, Churchill wrote to the Prime Minister urging him to do more to stop the ‘multiplication of the unfit’. The Bishop of Birmingham called for sterilisation. Bertrand Russell looked forward to a eugenic era driven by science, not religion. ‘We may perhaps assume that, if people grow less superstitious, government will acquire the right to sterilise those who are not considered desirable as parents,’ he argued in 1924.

When a Sterilisation Bill was brought before Parliament in 1931 it had the backing of social workers, dozens of local authorities and the medical and scientific establishment. It was defeated, but the agenda continued. The Nuremberg Trials established that the Nazis (latecomers to all this) carried out some 400,000 compulsory sterilisations – a figure so horrific it has eclipsed the 60,000 in Sweden and a similar number in the United States. The idea of a biological divide between the fit and the unfit was no Nazi invention. It was the conventional wisdom of the developed world.

And this is the problem. Because we forget how badly Britain fell for eugenics, we fail to recognise the basic arguments of eugenics when they reappear – which they are doing with remarkable regularity.

It might surprise us that the likes of Churchill and Beveridge were eugenicists, and that the British Parliament was considering the kind of eugenic policies that we might associate with Nazism, at the time the Nazis were coming to power. But really it shouldn’t: after all, we’ve got the HFEA licensing embryo research, and the editor of the Journal of Medical Ethics has argued that parents should select their children. The great and the good have long been up for the selective breeding of humans – it’s what Charles taught them.

← Prev article
Next article →