Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chesterton And the Eugenic Nightmare

by Lord Alton of Liverpool

“The multiplication of the feeble-minded cannot go on unchecked.” -Sir Winston Churchill



I have always been attracted to Chesterton, partly by his politics, partly by his faith, and partly by his ability to use methods of mass communication to alert his audience to hugely important questions. I will argue this evening1 that he was also a great prophet who foresaw the evil of eugenics which has manifested itself in various forms during the 90 years since he first wrote about it. […] The last book Chesterton published before converting to Catholicism was Eugenics and Other Evils (1923). Here he states that “Materialism is really our established Church”, and he exposes the inevitable consequences of Darwinianism and the survival of the fittest: “the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.”

Chesterton’s vigorous opposition to eugenics is often overlooked as we are intrigued by Distributism, engaged by his apologetics, or entertained by Father Brown.

Mental Deficiency Bill

In 1912 the then Liberal Government brought forward its Mental Deficiency Bill. [...] The Committee to further [it] was headed by the two Anglican primates, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. In the supporting cast was Chesterton’s bête noire, the Dean of St Paul’s, Dr William Inge. In an essay entitled Eugenics (1917), Inge contrasted the Eton and Oxbridge educated males of his family with the “birth-rate of the feeble-minded which is quite 50% higher than that of normal persons.”

The view of many [Anglican] bishops was summed up in the Galton Lecture2 by another of Chesterton’s adversaries, Bishop Barnes of Birmingham: [...]

“Christianity seeks to create the Kingdom of God, the community of the elect. It tries to make what we may call a spiritually eugenic society.” He added that by “preventing the survival of the socially unfit”, Christians “are working in accordance with the plan by which God has brought humanity so far on its road.” Chesterton saw where this evil would lead:

“It is not only openly said, it is eagerly urged, that the main aim of the measure (the Mental Deficiency Bill) is to prevent any person whom these propagandists do not happen to think intelligent from having any wife or children. Every tramp who is sulky, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs. That is the situation; that is the point.”3


Eugenics was never a science of great precision. Galton simply identified two main categories: “the feeble-minded” and “degenerates” who would be incarcerated in asylums for life or forcibly sterilised. Eugenics, said Galton “is the science of improving stock [...] to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable.”

Eliminating the ‘Unfit’

“If we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and encourage the superior sorts to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race”. -H.G.Wells


In an essay, The Fallacy of Eugenics4, Chesterton said that “we betray our own feeble-mindedness by calling them ‘Unfit’. For the very word ‘Unfit’ reveals the weakness of the whole of this pseudo-scientific position. We should say that a cow is fit to provide us with milk; or that a pig is unfit to provide us with anything but pork. But nobody would call a cow fit without naturally adding what she was fit for. Nobody would call up the insanely isolated vision of the Unfit Pig in the abstract. But when we talk about human beings, we are bound to break of the sentence in the middle; we are bound to call them ‘Unfit’ in the abstract. For we know how varied, how complex, and how controversial are the questions that arise about the functions for which they should be fitted.”

Chesterton identified the landless poor, incapable of sustaining themselves, as the logical next targets for the eugenicists. In mobilising public and political opinion against eugenics he stood against a rising tide.

The first issue of the Eugenics Review (April 1909) emphasised that the social legislation of the day was “penalising the fit for the sake of the unfit.” Six years earlier H.G.Wells argued that “If we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and encourage the superior sorts to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race”5.

In 1912 over 750 delegates attended the first International Eugenics Conference, staged in London. Balfour, the former Conservative Prime Minister was there, so was the Liberal Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. Five years earlier those scions of the radical Left, the Webbs, published a Fabian tract warning that “children are being born freely to Irish Roman Catholics and the Polish, Russian and German Jews, the thriftless and irresponsible [...] This can hardly result in anything but national deterioration [...] or this country falling to the Irish and the Jews.”

This was nothing new. 100 years earlier, Malthus, in a widely quoted comment to Ricardo, had urged the depopulation of Ireland: “The land of Ireland is infinitely more peopled than in England; and to give full effect to the natural resources of the country, a great part of the population should be swept from the soil.” During the Irish famine which followed, the British Government had a calculated policy of non-intervention. Eight million people were reduced to four million. Three million emigrated and one million died.

Ever since Malthus predicted demographic disaster two centuries ago the hand wringers have been proved consistently wrong. Today, on average, people are better fed, with a higher life expectancy than ever before. Tackling poverty and cultivating prosperity has proved a more effective means of curbing exponential population growth than any Malthusian remedy. In 1803 Malthus had argued for coercive legislation targeted at poor families who reproduced. 110 years later Churchill told Asquith that “the multiplication of the feeble-minded” could not go on unchecked and he argued for compulsory sterilisation rather than the more expensive option of incarceration.

Fortunately, Churchill was moved on to the Admiralty and after Chesterton’s campaign and through the efforts of Josiah Wedgewood, the Independent MP, Parliament, in 1913, abandoned coercion. Chesterton rejoiced in his triumph but warned that despite “the stench” of the defeated Bill, men’s memories were short: “these dazed dupes will gather again together and attempt to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes.”

Road to the Death Camps

Beyond our English shores the eugenic forces quickly regrouped and, without a Chesterton to oppose them, they were far more successful. In what Chesterton called “the curious commonwealth of Mr Hitler”, eugenics laws were passed in 1933, and by 1939, 250 000 so-called “degenerates” had been sterilised, over half of whom were categorised as “feeble-minded.” By 1939 euthanasia had been introduced for all severely disabled or mentally ill people, and the way paved to Dachau, Auschwitz and Belsen. Where else could such a monstrous ideology lead to?

Under the influence of Hegel, Nietzsche had dreamed of a higher sort of man. He claimed that Christianity, with its upholding of the weak - and erroneous belief in meekness, forgiveness or mercy - had constantly sought to undermine the creation of this perfect humanity. Hitler echoed this belief in his remark that Christianity, “taken to its logical extreme, would mean the systematic cultivation of human failure.” As for conscience, Hitler dismissed it as “a Jewish invention, a blemish like circumcision.” Chesterton saw this ideology for what it was. He knew that the idea of destroying a life which has lost its social usefulness springs from weakness, not from strength; that the right to life is entirely divorced from questions of social utility. Chesterton knew that what was truly feeble-minded was to base ethical decisions on something as vacuous as personal choice: “To admire mere choice, is to refuse to choose”, he wrote.6

He well understood that the defeat of a parliamentary Bill by no means ended the argument. Chesterton foresaw that the dazed dupes would gather again and these questions would be argued over from one generation to the next. In Eugenics And Other Evils he reflected that evil always wins through the stupidity of those it has duped - and that many of its adherents’ “intentions are entirely innocent and humane.”

The Fight for Life continues

Now, 80 years later, domestic eugenics is packaged with all the decorum which modern public relations can muster. Baroness Warnock in her An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Ethics (1998) wrote that “Unless it is held that all life is sacred in one of the senses considered already, one must conclude that life itself is not intrinsically valuable. Its value depends on what it is like, its quality.” Marie Stopes, one of the great luminaries of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (whose offices housed the Eugenics Society rent-free), put it more directly still: “No society should allow the diseased, the racially negligent, the careless, the feeble-minded, the very lowest and worst members of the community to produce innumerable tens of thousands of warped and inferior infants.”

This agenda has led to 40 million abortions world wide annually; in China it has led to the one-child policy and in one year to 21 million sterilisations, the insertion of 18 million IUDs and 14 million abortions. In Britain it has led to 6 million abortions, the ending of one in five pregnancies; to between 300 000 and half a million human embryos being destroyed or experimented upon; to abortion up to birth on a disabled baby; to new laws permitting the creation and then destruction of human embryos for the purpose of human cloning; and attempts to introduce Dutch-style euthanasia laws.

Academics at prestigious institutions like the Nuffield Council go unchallenged when they announce that “species boundaries are not inviolable” and pave the way for scientists to dabble in the grotesque. The nightmare kingdoms of 20th century eugenics give the state planners undreamed of and unparalleled power. Genetic tests claiming to reveal instability, illness, homosexuality or a low IQ all pave the way for eugenic abortions. Quality controls and perfection tests will see the emergence of a genetic underclass of the uninsurable, the unbreedable, the unwanted and the unmanned. In the caste system to come, suitors, partners and predators will be encouraged to eye your genes with envy or contempt. We will become prisoners of heredity and slaves of a manipulated reproductive system. British birthright will be replaced by the right birth.

Eugenics leads to the suppression of variation and difference. From laws which create a genetic database for the whole population, it is only a small step to laws requiring the data to be lodged with the State, and to compulsion and the elimination of undesirables.

As the recent House of Lords debate on human cloning revealed, modern eugenics and the philosophy which undergirds it is entrenched in the thinking of the political, and medical establishment. Official committees require just one qualification: that those appointed are “all of one mind”.

Baroness Warnock illustrated the dangers of liberal totalitarianism when she explained the composition of her embryology Committee. She said: “There was one particular person who was supposed to be the Catholic and I said I would not have him. I just knew that I couldn’t work with him.” We might have an inkling of what Chesterton would have made of Lady Warnock and her committee from something he said in The Man Who Was Thursday : “The dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them.” […] In an age of compromise, culbability and consensus; in an age befuddled by the language of political correctness; in an era which holds that truth is what you want it to be and authority something to be despised, here is a prophetic voice penetrating the insanity of our times. Chesterton said of his hero, William Cobbett, that “he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there.”


In so clearly describing the nature of eugenics and its consequences Chesterton was also aptly describing himself. †

1. Lecture to the Stonyhurst Essay Society, Chesterton - Eugenics and other Evils. Reproduced here by Lord Alton’s kind permission.

2. Named after Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin and principal advocate of selective breeding.

3. Eugenics & Other Evils (1923).

4. In Avowals and Denials (1934)

5. Mankind in The Making (1903).

6. Orthodoxy.

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