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G.K. Chesterton’s War on the Early 20th Century Eugenics Movement

Alex Constantine - May 22, 2010

From: The Thing Works Out (Until It Doesn’t): GKC and Evolution

by Larry Gilman


chesterton - G.K. Chesterton’s War on the Early 20th Century Eugenics MovementG. K. Chesterton hated people-breeding.  He called eugenics “a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning,” and it was perhaps the only heresy that he wrote an entire book, Eugenics and Other Evils (1922), to destroy.1

 The mentally better stock in the nation is not reproducing itself at the same rate as it did of old; the less able, and the less energetic, are more fertile than the better stocks.  No scheme of wider or more thorough education will bring up in the scale of intelligence hereditary weakness to the level of hereditary strength.  The only remedy, if one be possible at all, is to alter the relative fertility of the good and the bad stocks in the community.7

It’s easy to forget how mainstream eugenics was in the early twentieth century, how fervently pressed by scientists, state legislators, European governments, and do-gooders of all stripes.  Thirty-three US states passed laws for the involuntary sterilization of the unfit, many of which remained on the books for half a century or more: North Carolina only repealed its eugenics law in 2003.2  Nor were these statutes mere toothless formalities.  In North Carolina alone, 7,600 people were sterilized against their will.  In the 1920s, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden all instituted compulsory sterilization of the allegedly unfit.

For a space of 30 or 40 years it seemed that all reasonable, progressive, intelligent people were flocking to the banner of eugenics.  Many of the flockers were reasonable, progressive, and intelligent: Planned Parenthood, which I admire, began as a eugenic enterprise.  In 1932 its founder, Margaret Sanger, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.”3  Winston Churchill, H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw,4 and Bertrand Russell8 all supported eugenics at one time or another.

So did many Christians. In 2008, the general assembly of the Methodist Church USA voted to apologize formally for the church’s support of eugenics in the early twentieth century, which included promotion of “Fitter Family Contests” dreamed up by the American Eugenics Society and held at state fairs. Which families, one wonders, lost those contests, and how did they feel?  Many Presbyterians and Episcopalians also supported eugenics.5

Prominent evolutionary biologists preached eugenics, claiming for it the authority of science.  Charles Darwin never did, but his sons Horace and Leonard were devout eugenicists and his half-cousin Francis Galton (1822–1911) was for years the movement’s most prominent British advocate.  Indeed, it was Galton — a brilliant polymath and inventor of the concept of statistical correlation — who in 1883 coined the word “eugenics.”4 Leonard Darwin was a mentor of the scientist Ronald Fisher, whose 1930 classic The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection is often cited as the founding text of modern, genetics-based evolutionary theory.  Fisher also helped found the Cambridge Eugenics Society in 1911 with the help of John Maynard Keynes.

This roll of dishonor could go on for pages, but I will stop at British mathematician Karl Pearson, whom Chesterton names eight times in Eugenics and Other Evils.  Pearson was authentically brilliant and authentically nuts.  On the brilliant side, he invented the chi-square distribution and other mathematical tools used constantly throughout the sciences today.  He was prominent in early attempts to work out the mathematics of evolution: in 1898, the Royal Society gave him a prestigious Darwin Medal, awarded biennially “for work of acknowledged distinction in the broad area of biology in which Charles Darwin worked . . .”6   On the nuts side, in 1903 — the same year that Chesterton published his sunny affirmation of “the Darwinian doctrine” in The Daily News (see last week’s post) — Pearson expressed his nascent views on eugenics:

In 1905, he published a pamphlet explicitly identifying eugenics with “the standpoint of science.”7  Eugenics had begun an explosive growth in popularity: in 1907, Pearson set up the Francis Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics.  The Eugenics Education Society was founded in 1907 and the International Eugenics Conferences were held from 1912 onward.   Laws began to be passed.   Surgeons began to mutilate reproductive organs.

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 really is 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. (Eugenics and Other Evils, Ch. VII).

I speculate that G. K. Chesterton’s esteem for “the Darwinian doctrine” sank in direct proportion as eugenics’s popularity rose — in fact, largely because it rose.  He took Pearson and his prestigious colleagues at their word: evolution meant eugenics.  And with eugenics he would have no truck or truce.  Here is how he saw it by 1922:

Furthermore, just as the eugenics movement was going from strength to strength cloaked in claims of Darwinian authority, real evolutionary theory was undergoing its most intense period of confusion and debate, producing a widespread public impression that Darwin was about to be chucked in the dustbin (see last week’s post).  Chesterton therefore had, as the mystery writers say, both motive and opportunity: his abhorrence of eugenics, which claimed its basis in Darwinian theory, and the apparent crumbling of the theory itself.

And so, although I affirm evolution as a thoroughly confirmed reality and regret and decry all religious attacks on evolutionary biology, whether by old-timey creationists or PhD-wielding Intelligent Design advocates, I can’t help but admire Chesterton’s Darwinophobia.  At a time when the people-breeders seemed unstoppable, when top biologists and other prominent thinkers were calling for arranged marriage and forced sterilization, Chesterton put up his dukes and fought: Chesterton contra mundum.  He threw out the Darwin with the bathwater, true, but it was poisonous bathwater and we got the Darwin back anyway.  For Chesterton’s error we should blame those proud, brilliant scientists like Pearson who were assuring everyone, falsely, that eugenics was evolutionary common sense.

Very few groups in those decades before the Nazis made biological politics “a desolation, an astonishment, an hissing, and a curse” (Jeremiah 25:9, KJV) had the guts, wits, and class to oppose eugenics. The opposition included just one group with large membership and international reach: the Catholic Church, Chesterton’s home team. Those of us who disagree, in whole or part, with that Church’s doctrines on abortion, stem-cell research, and birth control should take care to remember that those doctrines arise not from stupidity, superstition, or misogyny but from a mystical theory of human dignity.  Once upon a time, that theory supported the Catholics in nearly solitary opposition to a philosophy that, since Hitler, most of us have seen as abominable.  But precious few Brights saw it that way that back in the day.

There are still eugenic murmurs about, and some of them are even voiced by biologists, but for many years eugenics has been, by and large, a love that dare not speak its name.  (At least, outside professional bioethics circles: see http://www.social-ecology.org/2005/01/peter-singer-and-eugenics/comment-page-1/.)  Eugenics’s stock fell definitively off the board when the Nazis put it into spectacular practice.  The following image gives a taste of what eugenics propaganda looked like in Hitler mode.  Note that it is merely a crude restatement of Pearson’s claims of 1905:

nazi%20eugenics%20poster - G.K. Chesterton’s War on the Early 20th Century Eugenics Movement

Eugenics propaganda, Nazi style. Partial translation of text: “Qualitative decline in the population . . . It will come to this if individuals with lesser value have four children and those of higher value have two.” [Graphic and translation from The Lancet, 20044.]

A final and personal note.  In 1995, many years before I heard of Pearson’s eugenic views, I quoted him in my doctoral dissertation.  I  was gnawing at a scientific problem, the “random walk,” whose study had been founded by Pearson in 1905.  I devoted a whole section to Pearson and quoted him in support of my own mathematical approach:

[In] dealing with any natural phenomenon,—especially one of a vital nature, with all the complexity of living organisms . . . the mathematician has to simplify the conditions until they reach the attenuated character which lies within the power of his analysis.

In hindsight, I see that these perfectly fine words cast a chilling shadow.  Their plain and true meaning, as I take it, is that we never think or speak without simplifying.  All our thoughts and utterances are, compared to the world itself, of an “attenuated character.”  The dark side is revealed by Chesterton when he speaks of that “creepy simplicity of mind with which the Eugenists chill the blood.”1  It is terribly easy to simplify a question of “a vital nature” to a point where it seems to lie “within the power of [our] analysis,” and then to reach perfectly logical conclusions that are utterly, horribly wrong — because we have simplified too much.


1.   G. K. Chesterton, Eugenics and Other Evils, 1922. Text in the public domain, available as a free download at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/25308.

2.    International Disability Rights News Service, http://www.inclusiondaily.com/news/institutions/nc/eugenics.htm

3.   Sanger, “A Plan For Peace,” Birth Control Review, April 1932, p. 106.  Quoted at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Margaret_Sanger#cite_note-18.

4.  Richard Barnette, “Key Words in the History of Medicine: Eugenics,” The Lancet, May 22, 2004, p. 1742.

5.   United Methodist Church, “An Apology for Support of Eugenics (81175-C2-R9999).”  See “Submitted Text” link at http://calms.umc.org/2008/Menu.aspx?type=Petition&mode=Single&number=1175.

6.    http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=1758

7.   E. S. Pearson, “Karl Pearson: An Appreciation of Some Aspects of His Life and Work,” Biometrika, Vol. 28, No. 3/4 (Dec., 1936), pp. 193-257.

8.   Russell wrote in 1906: “I have read Mr. Galton’s papers in abstract with  much interest, and agree entirely with the view that marriage customs might be modified in a eugenic direction.” The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, Vol. 12, Contemplation and Action: 1902–1914, Richard A. Rempel, Andrew Brink and Margaret Moran, eds. London, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1985.  Quoted text viewable at http://books.google.com/books?id=yqolyQXrB5UC&pg=PA413&lpg=PA413&dq=bertrand+russell+eugenics&source=bl&ots=QWhV-x_z_p&sig=xkMd1zC9r75WOAyFZJaRsDqGpb0&hl=en&ei=Uj-1Sej7J8PH-Abm-uD8Ag&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=10&ct=result#PPA414,M1

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