'The followers of Calvin and John Knox should all be Eugenists', James Barr once declared, 'because the teaching of those great men on preordination and predestination fits in exactly with modern views on inheritance from the germ plasm'.1 In their anxiety to present eugenics as a respectable creed, of which no one need be afraid, eugenists were apt to go in for such claims. A bewildering variety of famous religious leaders, politicians and artists from the past were presented as eugenists who had had the misfortune to be born before their time. Even Christ's words about men being content to become 'eunuchs for the kingdom of Heaven's sake' could be construed as advice to the 'unfit' to refrain from parenthood.2 If all this seems a little silly, it remains nevertheless true that, although the word was not used until 1883, with the publication of Galton's Inheritance of Human Faculties, the cluster of ideas involved in 'eugenics' goes back as far as the surviving record of human society. From the moment that man first began to reflect about his destiny, he must have toyed with the idea of improving the human race by arranging that the 'best' types should marry among themselves and produce large families. A hostile critic, G. K. Chesterton, called eugenics 'one of the most ancient follies of the earth'; 'one after another all men with active minds, from the old Greek philosophers to Mr Shaw and Mr Wells, have thought of the notion, looked at the notion, and, in consequence chucked the notion'.3
In fact, not all of them had chucked the notion. Utopian speculators have always been interested in schemes for controlling sexual reproduction. The philosopher and eugenist, F. C. S. Schiller, reflected
1 Intellectual Origins
in 1926: 'I cannot quite remember whether I was a eugenist before I read Plato's Republic, ever so many years ago; but I have been a convinced eugenist ever since . . .'4 A reading of Campanella's City of the Sun, or More's Utopia, must also have set off in many people's minds a train of speculation which later prepared them for acceptance of the eugenics creed.
This makes the vexed question of 'influence' even harder than usual to determine. A writer who was active in the eugenics movement in the 1920s, C. W. Armstrong, recalls how, when only nineteen years of age, he had written a novel, The Yorl of the Northmen, describing what was, in effect, a eugenic community, yet at that time he 'had never heard of Sir Francis Galton or eugenics'.5 Armstrong was probably not alone in this respect. That most interesting piece of journalistic sensationalism, Arnold White's The Problems of a Great City (1886), contains, in crude form, a great deal of what later became known as 'negative eugenics'; but had White yet read Galton at first hand, had he picked up his ideas indirectly, or had he reached his own conclusions by means of personal experience and the utilisation of biological concepts with which any literate person would have been familiar in the 1880s?
In a sense, eugenics in its modern form originates with Charles Darwin.6 The notion that man is part of the world of organic life and subject to the same natural processes of evolution and decay was essential to the development of the new subject. The hypothesis of natural selection was also bound to raise in many people's minds the possibility that, as rational beings, men might learn to control their own evolution; in place of the blind processes of natural selection a deliberate effort might be made to improve the species by attending in a scientific way to the production of offspring. Darwin himself, when presented with this possibility by his cousin, Galton, commented that the object proposed was a 'grand one', but he doubted whether people could ever be persuaded to co-operate intelligently in the matter.7 However, in Chapter V of that profoundly ambiguous book, The Descent of Man (1871), he looked sympathetically at many of the ideas already promulgated by Galton, though he stopped short of positively endorsing them. It is a matter of conjecture whether, had he lived for another generation, Charles Darwin would have come out as a sup-
1 Intellectual Origins
porter of eugenics, as many of his children did.8
In the early 1870s, Galton shared a good deal of Darwin's scepticism about the feasibility of devising an actual scheme of race-improvement. He did not wish to run too far ahead of public opinion, or to shock too violently the accepted social prejudices of his day. Moreover, until much more was known about the mechanism of inheritance in man, it would have been premature to conduct, or even suggest, any social experiments. A warning of what should be avoided was provided by the American, John Humphrey Noyes and his Oneida Community. Starting life as a free church minister, Noyes was led by his theories of 'perfectionism' to break with the orthodox Christian world and set up his own communistic society, whose members were not to be bound by the conventions of the monogamic marriage. 'By a rather harsh discipline Noyes enforced on his followers birth control and stirpiculture (i.e. selective breeding). The number of children to be born each year was predetermined and then-parents were selected so as to produce the best possible offspring'.9 By the time the Oneida Community was dissolved in 1879, fifty-eight children had been born in this way, at least nine of them fathered by Noyes himself.10 Significantly, the start of this little experiment goes back to the 'Battleaxe Letter' of 1837, in which Noyes's views on sex and procreation were first made public—that is to say, well before the appearance of the work of Darwin and Galton—and the original impulse was a religious-millenarian one. But Noyes later borrowed from Galton in his attempt to make his breeding regulations scientific, as in his book, Scientific Propagation (1873).11 Galton himself, of course, did nothing to countenance the Oneida Community.12
Another embarrassment to sober men like Galton was the American, Victoria Woodhull-Martin, an engaging charlatan, whose bizarre career took her through three marriages, numerous liaisons, several well-publicized scandals, an attempt to stand as President of the United States, and advocacy of spiritualism, elixirs of life, communism, sex equality, free love—and stirpiculture. But, despite her invocations of 'science', Mrs Woodhull-Martin had no authority to pontificate on matters of human inheritance, and many of her observations on this subject were ill-informed and nonsensical.13 It was the backing of responsible and established scientific men which was es-
1 Intellectual Origins
sential to the progress of eugenics. And this had to wait until such time as biologists had acquired an understanding of heredity that would enable them to explain how parents transmitted certain of the physical and intellectual qualities to their offspring. Not until the Edwardian period had the scientific groundwork been sufficiently well laid for eugenics to become a plausible political creed. Three scientific theories were to prove of especial importance.
Firstly, there was the theory of the German biologist, August Weismann, concerning the continuity of the germ plasm: a theory announced in the late 1880s and quickly accepted as the basis for future investigations. Put simply, Weismann argued that there was a clear distinction between the germ cells, which controlled reproduction, and the body or somatic cells. The germ cells or germ plasm were independent of the somatic cells, and so could not be affected by any modification of the bodily organs caused by use or disuse, by disease or injury. Acceptance of this theory logically entailed a rejection of Lamarck's belief that acquired characteristics could be inherited. This was important to eugenists, who drew from it the further conclusion that environmental reforms could only have a very limited effect on individual human beings, who were the kind of people that they were by virtue of their germ plasm, which the environment could neither change nor improve. One could admit that a bad environment might prevent a child from developing his full potential, just as a poor quality soil would stunt the growth of a plant and prevent it from reaching its normal height; but an environment could not bring out qualities, mental or physical, that were not innately present.
Moreover, however beneficial might be the effects over one generation, of education, public health measures, factory legislation and so on, their beneficial effects could not be transmitted to the next. The process would have to begin all over again. As many political writers and commentators protested at the time, this did not greatly weaken the arguments for social reform nor did it strike at the roots of social progress. But Herbert Spencer, for one, believed that his lifetime's work was being undermined. And, from their quite different perspective, eugenists drew the moral that true progress could only be achieved through racial progress; the level of intelligence, health, energy or beauty could only be raised by breeding from the best stocks
and controlling the fertility of the worst.
A theory in some ways similar to Weismann's had earlier been advanced by Galton himself. But Galton's main contribution to the scientific study of heredity came when, taking shelter in the grounds of Naworth Castle to escape a temporary shower, the idea flashed into his mind that 'the laws of Heredity were solely [sic] concerned with deviations expressed in statistical units'.14 Working out the full implications of this approach, Galton virtually created the new science of biometry: that is, the application to biological phenomena, including human beings, of precise and sophisticated statistical techniques. Galton was able in this way to tackle two problems which were still puzzling his contemporaries: firstly, of how to measure accurately the variations between close relatives, or, what amounts to the same thing, the intensity of resemblance between them; and, secondly, of how to decide whether two or more sets of data were causally related or independent variables. Out of these investigations came the co-efficient of correlation and the rapid development of biometry under the direction of Galton's pupil, friend, and future biographer, Karl Pearson. To Galton, eugenics always meant applied biometry. As late as 1907, he could give a public lecture, entitled 'Probability—the Foundation of Eugenics', in which, after discussing his eugenic ideals, he took his audience through a condensed course of statistics. But it was not to be.15 When eugenics made headway in Britain and America, it derived its main impetus less from biometry than from the exciting advances being made in Mendelian genetics, a subject whose importance Galton never really appreciated.
Thus, the third important scientific break-through which contributed to eugenics was the rediscovery, in 1899, of the Abb6 Mendel's famous paper which, although first read in 1865, had subsequently been lost to sight. This paper, however, supplied one of the keys for unlocking the genetic structure of human life, as was quickly appreciated by De Vries and by a group of biologists in Britain, whose acknowledged leader was William Bateson, appointed in 1908 as first Professor of Genetics at Cambridge University. Although Bateson and his fellow workers were largely concerned with breeding experiments on those plants and animals whose comparatively simple genetic structure made them suitable for these pioneering Mendelian
1 Intellectual Origins
investigations (varieties of sweet pea, wheat, and poultry, for example), it was recognized from the start that certain physical traits in human beings also observed the simple laws of gametic segregation which Mendel had analysed in sweet peas. Most human traits, it is true, are not analyzable in quite this way, since they are controlled by more than one pair of genes, but this does not invalidate the Mendelian hypothesis. Such complexities were soon acknowledged by geneticists, who nevertheless felt, and with good reason, that it was now only a matter of time before the mechanism of inheritance in human beings was almost as well understood as it was in the case of the Andalusian fowl. After all, the first ten years of Mendelian experiments had contributed more to an understanding of genetics than a previous century of biological research.
Moreover, the geneticists were not too immersed in their detailed investigations to speculate about the wider significance of their work. Might not the fuller understanding of heredity now being achieved enable men to eradicate scientifically evils and suffering that had baffled philanthropists and reformers for generations? Would it not soon be possible to 'breed out' certain grave hereditary ailments in the way that Mendelian geneticists had learned to breed 'rustiness' out of wheat, and perhaps also to develop mental or physical qualities in men that were generally regarded as desirable? No wonder, then, that genetics and eugenics rushed into each other's arms. Eugenics, it seemed, would advance by the practical application of the knowledge of heredity which genetics was making available. Eugenics would then stand to genetics in rather the same relationship that engineering does to mathematics.