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Fri 3 April 2020
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Stephen Unwin explores how some of the most civilised and intelligent thinkers have supported one of the most dark and barbaric philosophies in modern history.

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It has been quite a weekend for eugenics.

First there was news of Andrew Sabinsky, one of Dominic Cummings’ new intake of “weirdos and misfits”, with his claim that eugenics was about “selecting ‘for’ good things” and that “intelligence is largely inherited”. Then, Richard Dawkins popped up on Twitter claiming that since eugenics “works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs and roses”, there’s no reason to think it wouldn’t “work for humans”. He conceded that there might be grounds for rejecting the practice before claiming, absurdly, that “facts ignore ideology”.

Why do the apparently intelligent and well-educated so often hold the unintelligent or the disabled in such contempt? As the father of a young man with severe learning disabilities, it is a question I confront regularly. 

It was the distinguished English scientist Francis Galton who, fascinated by his uncle Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species, asked: “Could not the race of men be similarly improved? Could not the undesirables be got rid of and the desirables multiplied?” In 1883, he coined the term “eugenics” and set out to improve the human race by “better breeding”. His supporters soon linked such “undesirables” to a range of social problems and called for government action to improve “biological quality”.

In 1907, Galton co-founded the Eugenics Society and a senior doctor soon recommended the compulsory sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”, describing them as “social rubbish” who should be “swept up and garnered and utilised as far as possible”. Darwin’s own son presided over the first eugenics conference in 1912 and lobbied the government to establish squads of scientists, with the power of arrest, who would travel around the country identifying the “unfit” and segregate those so classified in special colonies or have them sterilised.

Political supporters included the socialist firebrand Will Crooks, who described “mentally defective children” as “absolutely useless”, comparing them to “human vermin” who do “absolutely nothing, except polluting and corrupting everything they touch”. Meanwhile, Julian Huxley asked plaintively: “What are we going to do? Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe but produces little or nothing in return.”

A bill for the compulsory sterilisation of certain categories of “mental patient” was proposed, with the Labour MP Archibald Church wanting to stop the reproduction of those “who are in every way a burden to their parents, a misery to themselves and in my opinion a menace to the social life of the community”. Soon, a government committee recommended legislation to ensure the “voluntary” sterilisation of “mentally defective women” – a move welcomed by the Manchester Guardian but, thankfully, never passed into law.

Confronted by a “long line of imbecile”, Virginia Woolf insisted that they should “certainly be killed” and the birth control champions, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, were both confirmed eugenicists – championing not just contraception but, as Sanger put it, sterilisation for “that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring”.

Some of British socialism’s most celebrated names agreed, including the founders of the Fabian Society, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, along with Harold Laski, later Chairman of the Labour Party, who predicted that the time was coming “when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself”.

These views were echoed by John Maynard Keynes and, in 1931, the New Statesman asserted that “the legitimate claims of eugenics are not inherently incompatible with the outlook of the collectivist movement”. Bertrand Russell proposed colour-coded “procreation tickets” to prevent the elite’s gene pool being diluted by inferior stock, while Bernard Shaw insisted that “the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man”, suggesting that defectives could be dealt with in a “lethal chamber”.

Using the same haunting phrase, DH Lawrence declared: “If I had my way, I would build a lethal chamber as big as the Crystal Palace, with a military band playing softly, and a Cinematograph working brightly; then I’d go out into the back streets and the main streets and bring them all in, the sick, the halt and the maimed: I would lead them gently, and they would smile me a weary thanks; and the brass band would softly bubble out the Hallelujah Chorus.”

He could have been describing a suburban English Treblinka. 

It took Nazi Germany, and the murder of 250,000 people deemed to be living “lives unworthy of life”, to put these fantasies into action. But, the unhappy truth is that, even after the Second World War, the eugenics agenda in Britain was still current.

On the day in 1943 when his famous report was being debated, William Beveridge, the creator of the welfare state, slipped out of the gallery of the House of Commons to reassure a meeting of the Eugenics Society of his continued support. In 1952, the eminent British neurologist AF Tredgold concluded that: “Many of the defectives are utterly helpless, repulsive in appearance and revolting in their manners. Their existence is a perpetual source of sorrow and unhappiness to their parents, in my opinion it would be an economical and humane procedure were their very existence to be painlessly terminated.”

The Nazis had been defeated but, for a moment, it seemed possible that one of their most repulsive policies might survive.

Such views are rare today (though perhaps not in Downing Street), but a double standard is still in evidence in the way that abusive language is used, with racist and sexist terms being strictly taboo, but their learning disabled equivalents – “idiot”, “cretin”, “imbecile”, “retarded” – are all too common, even in supposedly progressive circles.

Representations in drama and art are infrequent and often misguided, emphasising individual tragedy not the broader social experience. And scholarship is hardly exempt, with the moral philosopher, Peter Singer, dismissing our protection of the profoundly disabled on the grounds of “speciesism” – declaring that their intellectual capacity is less than many animals. One of his followers even wrote an article entitled Do the Mentally Retarded Have a Right to be Eaten? which he insisted was a philosophical exploration, intended to “raise the issue of rights for the retarded in its hardest context”, adding sternly that “too much well-meaning sentimentality is allowed to pass for thought in the discussion of the retarded, and I want to shock my way through this”.

And Dawkins, in response to an enquiry from a woman about what to do if she discovered that she was pregnant with a foetus with Down’s Syndrome, replied “abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice”. He denied that he is a “eugenicist”, but it is hard to understand what he means by the word “immoral” in such a context. What, of course, Dawkins forgets is that eugenics has been tried and failed abysmally: despite the Nazi programme of murder and sterilisation, Germany’s population of disabled people is entirely in line with other countries. It takes an intellectual to come up with such poisonous guff. 

Protecting the rights and opportunities of the learning disabled is hard enough; what’s striking is the way that so many otherwise clever people fail to get it. 


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