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Eugenics, to quote the definition of the man who coined the word, Francis Galton, is 'the study of agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations either physically or mentally'.1 Eugenists believe that the knowledge so acquired can be applied to the practical task of raising the level of fitness in the human race. Man, Prometheus-like, is at last acquiring the power to control his own genetic future.
To carry on the eugenical work pioneered by Galton, a Eugenics Society is in existence at the present day. Its members, predominantly academics and scientists, hope collectively to influence government policies through normal pressure-group activities. But, however seriously they take eugenics, probably few of them see themselves as having a mission to save civilization from imminent collapse, or seriously expect that eugenics will shortly replace the programmes and ideologies of the existing political parties; nor would they present eugenics as a science of man that was making redundant all previous speculations in philosophy, history, and sociology. These, however, were precisely the aims and ambitions of those who formed the original 'Eugenics Education Society' in the winter of 1907-8.
'The present writer believes that eugenics is going to save the world', wrote a leading spokesman, Caleb Williams Saleeby, in 1909,2 and these words capture the mood of exuberant optimism within a movement which seemed about to sweep aside all the obstacles in its path. A similar state of affairs existed in America; one historian has calculated that on the eve of the First World War the general journals were carrying 'more articles on eugenics than on the three questions of slums, tenements and living standards, combined'.3 Yet, whereas the American eugenics movement has been described and analysed in an excellent book by Mark Haller,4 its British counterpart has
received astonishingly little attention. Indeed, it requires something of an imaginative effort to realize that earlier in the century eugenics was by no means a peripheral concern, appealing to a small coterie of enthusiasts and cranks, but an important challenge to politicians and academic theorists alike.
The reasons for the rapid development of a eugenics movement and the forms which it assumed constitute the subject matter of this monograph. The topic has a two-fold interest and importance. On one level, it can be seen as a rather unusual instance of interaction between scientific investigation and political speculation. There have, of course, been many attempts to remove the accidental and the random from political life and to convert government into a science, whose recognized and objectively valid truths could be enforced by the appropriately trained experts. Yet most attempts to construct a science of politics do little more than assert that politics should be made analogous to the operations of the physical sciences. Eugenics, however, purports to be nothing less than the direct application of the laws of physical science. The plausibility of this claim has been enhanced by distinguished biologists placing their professional reputations and achievements at its disposal; this personal involvement by a group of scientists in a proselytizing campaign is also sufficiently unusual in itself to merit further examination.
Eugenics must also be understood in the light of the problems being experienced by the various industrialized societies in which it took root. These problems varied, but in Britain the eugenics movement undoubtedly owed its initial impetus to the growing realization of the contraction of national power; operating outside the parameters of party politics, eugenists secured a hearing by providing a startling analysis of this relative loss of power, while at the same time holding out the promise of national regeneration to those who heeded their message. Like other responses to this situation—the tariff reform campaign, the National Service League, and the search for greater National Efficiency, for example—eugenics can also be seen as symptomatic of the emergence of a new 'Radical Right' in British politics. Here is a large field of investigation to which historians are only slowly turning their attention, but a better understanding of the place of eugenics in British politics before 1914 may assist its elucidation.
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