Fri 28 January 2022

Even if we could make fitter, cleverer humans, would that make them more valuable people?  

The inventor of the term ‘eugenics’ combined two traits of character which keep coming back to haunt the English: fierce intelligence coupled with limited common sense. 

Sir Francis Galton was Charles Darwin’s cousin and father of the science of statistics. A child prodigy, he complained after his first day at school that no one had heard of, let alone read, The Iliad. In a long and productive life, he did many useful things – pioneering the use of fingerprints in criminology, producing the first working weather map – but it is eugenics that is his lasting legacy. 

Derived from the Greek meaning ‘well born’, it adapted (and fundamentally misunderstood) Darwinian ideas of natural selection to propose that selective breeding could be used to create a race of fitter, stronger and more intelligent humans.

It was adopted enthusiastically by the great and the good of the time from both left and right. Surely this was the proper application of science to make a better world?

But, as well as the bad science, at its heart there was an ugly flaw. In Hereditary Genius (1869) Galton wrote: “Let us do what we can to encourage the multiplication of the races best fitted to invent, and conform to, a high and generous civilisation, and not, out of mistaken instinct of giving support to the weak, prevent the incoming of strong and hearty individuals.”

Much of the explosion of racist political ideology in the early 20th Century found inspiration in Galton’s work. But some of the greatest liberal thinkers of the period were also enthusiastic eugenicists: John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Bertrand Russell, Helen Keller.

The idea of ‘weeding out’ people who were stupid or criminal seemed entirely rational. But the practical implementation of such ideas rapidly turned sinister.

Here’s George Bernard Shaw in 1910: “A part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber. A great many people would have to be put out of existence simply because it wastes other people’s time to look after them.”


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You might think that the Holocaust and the compulsory sterilisation of 64,000 ‘feeble minded’ Americans would have laid eugenics to rest forever. Not at all. The advances in modern genetics and our understanding of the human genome has revived many of the moral challenges. If we can screen embryos for sex and hereditary disease, why not intelligence? 

It was this chimera – that IQ is genetically determined – that landed the former special advisor to Michael Gove in hot water over his ‘private thesis’ on education and political priorities. Like Galton before him, Dominic Cummings ranks intelligence over all other human attributes and values. And this is the heart of the eugenic dilemma: being able to do something doesn’t mean we should. Even if we could make fitter, cleverer humans (and it’s still a very big ‘if’) does it make them better or more valuable people?  

And – most important of all – who gets to choose?

John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI.


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