Tag Archives: eugenics

Review of “Control – The Dark History and Troubling Present of Eugenics”

When Charles Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” in 1859; while the finches of the Galapagos Islands formed an example of natural selection, he also referenced selective breeding in animal husbandry as an example of how desired characteristics in breeds could come about. It did not take a genius to realise that selective breeding could also be applied to humans, although it was one, Francis Galton (Darwin’s half-cousin) the Victorian polymath, who did so and founded eugenics. At a distance of over a century it is difficult to see why they found eugenics so attractive as opposed to other interventions, but late Victorian Britain was a country in the grip of an early version of the Great Replacement theory, in this case the replacement of the educated middle and upper classes with the, then uneducated, working classes simply because the latter were having many more children. Galton’s “Hereditary Genius” set out the case for eugenics: that the ‘better’ classes should be encouraged to breed more and the ‘worse’ classes less.  This idea was attractive to many: Winston Churchill, Arthur Balfour, William Beveridge, George Bernard Shaw, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Marie Stopes, and D H Lawrence amongst others. It even gained the support of the Manchester Guardian. In 1913 the Liberal Government, including Churchill, passed the Mental Deficiency Act (only 3 MPs voting against) which locked up those of low intelligence in institutions, effectively preventing them from breeding, although it did not require sterilisation. That Act was not repealed until 1959.

By 1913, Galton’s ideas had spread far beyond the UK with the United States, in particular, taking them up vigorously; the Eugenics Records Office at Cold Springs Harbour on Long Island being funded mainly by the Carnegie Institute, Rockefeller Foundation, and the philanthropist Mary Harriman. This should be a warning about letting those with money fund research; their interests may not accord with those of society as a whole. Unlike the British, the Americans had no qualms about sterilising those whom they thought should not be allowed to breed, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes writing in a 1927 judgement “Three generations of imbeciles is enough”.

Not surprisingly, these American ideas soon crossed back across the Atlantic, this time to Germany, where Alfred Ploetz built on them and the earlier scientific racism of Ernst Haeckel, who had brought Darwin’s ideas to Germany. In time this led to the Holocaust as we all know, but it is important to appreciate that the first victims were those they considered inadequate, either physically or mentally. That experience inoculated most of the world for a couple of generations, but with the success of the Human Genome project and the development of CRISPR gene editing it became possible not only to repair faulty body cells (somatic cells) to cure some rare diseases, but also change the germ cells that create the sperm and ova and so eliminate the disease in future generations. Eugenics was back!

The second part of the book brings the story up to the present and covers what gene editing can, and more importantly, cannot do. It is an important corrective to the idea that genetics at its root is simple: we all learned at school about the heritability of eye colour, controlled by the OCA2 gene. Yet only 62% of those with two copies of the blue-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes; while 7.5% of those with two copies of the brown-eyed version of the gene have blue eyes as well (p. 217). Genetics is nowhere near as simple as people think, and Rutherford offers several other examples.

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Assessing the Johnson Government’s new reform narrative

Over the last week the Johnson government’s narrative approach to reforms in the UK  has become more clear.

Johnson’s personal views on eugenics and poverty are a matter of record. ‘The poor being poor due to low IQ’ brings psychological comfort to those born into the luxuries of inherited wealth and private education. So blaming everything on Cummings might be unwise.

Policy more than personal views are however, our subject of concern. At last, the government’s underlying propositions can be clearly stated, as follows:

1. The UK’s low productivity problem is caused by a surfeit of unskilled migrant workers from Eastern Europe, enabling firms to avoid investment in new technology and avoid employee training.

2. UK poverty is the result of low IQ among sections of the population and of a self-perpetuating underclass, aided by single mums and teenage pregnancies.

3. Whilst UK unemployment is low, there are 8million ‘economically inactive’ citizens who, via further welfare reforms and eugenics, can be reduced in number and induced to take up the low paid jobs formerly taken by EU migrants, receiving training by employers who can no longer access low-skilled EU labour.

4. The core aim of a new immigration points system is thus to raise productivity and raise wage levels, and in the process reduce the cost of in-work benefits.

5. Increased national capital spending by the state will stimulate growth from construction contracts and compensate for the negative effects of EU tariffs and other barriers, creating demand for indigenous low skilled labour, (at least until such time as new global trade deals are in place)

Posted in Op-eds | Also tagged | 30 Comments

20th century support for eugenics by Churchill, Beveridge, Keynes etc – what to make of it?

This week, a couple of LDV commenters mentioned the support of eugenics by Beveridge and Keynes in the 1930s and early 1940s. Such support was widely shared by members of the Fabian society and notables such as George Bernard Shaw, Marie Stopes, Harold Laski – even Winston Churchill (earlier in the 20th century).

Debate of this point was not possible on unrelated threads this week, so this article is posted to allow discussion of this interesting, and somewhat disturbing, historic phenomenon.

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