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National Review: One Hundred Years Ago, ‘Following the Science’ Meant Supporting Eugenics


This article was originally posted at National Review.

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. From U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, eugenics policies — including involuntary sterilization — were hailed as a “progressive” and “compassionate” solution to mounting social problems.

A hundred years ago, Chesterton discerned something altogether different: “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.” For a time, he stood nearly alone in his prophetic assault on the eugenics movement and the pseudo-scientific theory by which it was defended.

“People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late,” Chesterton warned. “I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its dupes.”

Chesterton declared his aim openly, without qualification or compromise: The ideology of eugenics must be destroyed if human freedom is to be preserved. The eugenic idea, he wrote, “is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.” In the end, it would require the discoveries at the death camps at Auschwitz and Dachau for most of the world to finally reject the horrific logic of eugenics. Yet Chesterton was one of the first to see it coming: when the machinery of the state would invoke the authority of science to deprive individuals — both the “unfit” and the unborn — of their fundamental human rights.

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.

To many thinkers in the West, the catastrophe of the First World War, in addition to the problems of poverty, crime, and social breakdown, suggested a sickness in the racial stock. Book titles help tell the story: Social Decay and Degeneration; The Need for Eugenic Reform; Racial Decay; Sterilization of the Unfit; and The Twilight of the White Races. The American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922 — the same year Chesterton published Eugenics and Other Evils — was supported by Nobel Prize–winning scientists whose stated objective was to sterilize a tenth of the U.S. population.

The Supreme Court paved the way. Justice Holmes, a political progressive and eugenics advocate, wrote the 1927 Court opinion in Buck v. Bell, an 8–1 ruling upholding Virginia’s sterilization laws. He summed up the court’s philosophy thus: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” Within a decade, laws mandating sterilization of those considered a threat to the gene pool — alcoholics, criminals, undesirable immigrants, African Americans — were passed in 32 states. Eventually, at least 70,000 people were forcibly sterilized, from California to New York.

As a Christian philosopher, 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.”

These facts are worth recalling in light of the debate set off by the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Margaret Sanger trumpeted the eugenic features of birth control and found support from the nation’s leading eugenicists. As she put it in a speech at the 1921 International Eugenics Congress in New York: “The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the overfertility of the mentally and physically defective.”

At the heart of the eugenics movement, Chesterton believed, was an utterly materialistic view of the human person: man as laboratory rat. “Materialism is really our established Church,” he wrote, “for the Government will really help it to persecute its heretics.”

The sobering truth is that the scientific community played the decisive role in the political and social acceptance of eugenics. Members across the medical and scientific professions used their immense cultural authority to persuade educators, lawmakers, jurists, journalists, and clergy that eugenics offered the best hope of rescuing the human race from decay and even extinction. Henry Osborn, a paleontologist and co-founder of the American Eugenics Society, summed up their outlook thus: “As science has enlightened government in the prevention and spread of disease, it must also enlighten government in the prevention of the spread and multiplication of worthless members of society . . .”

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. “Hence the tyranny has taken but a single stride to reach the secret and sacred places of personal freedom,” he wrote, “where no sane man ever dreamed of seeing it.” Wittingly or not, the eugenic dream unleashed a cataract of deeply rooted fears and hatreds — sanctified this time by a secular priesthood, the scientific community.

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.”

Joseph Loconte is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Grove City College and Senior Fellow at the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He’s also the author of A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War. The trailer for the forthcoming documentary film series based on the book can be found at hobbitwardrobe.com.

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