32. Early Eugenics 1903-1911

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In 1903 the Daily Chronicle carried a brief article under the headlines: “Our National Physique – Prospects of the British Race – Are We Degenerating?” It was written by Galton, just after The Royal Society awarded him the Darwin Medal, and urged that “a material improvement in our British breed is not so Utopian an object as it may seem”. The next year he wrote that “the aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens; that done, to leave them to work out their own civilisation in their own way.”

If it had been written specially to niggle HG Wells (1866-1946) and his new friend Lankester then the trick had certainly worked. Their fury was just about balanced by the view that Galton had always so many balls in the air at once that none of them ever really hit their target with much force. In this case, for example, he had mixed up two different meanings of ‘degeneration’ and compared them to even more confused meanings of the word ‘race’, much more difficult to define socially and genetically. Wells responded immediately and publicly: ‘I believe … it is in the sterilisation of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies.” He had hinted at these ideas a decade earlier in The Time Machine with its degenerate man-creatures.

Francis Galton was not to be silenced and when he addressed the new Sociological Society he made clear which characteristics he favoured: energy, ability, manliness, health and courteous disposition. He concluded that “what nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly. Galton was still analysing the data he had collected over the years about health and family backgrounds.

Karl Pearson was appointed as the first Galton Professor of Eugenics at University College. Statistical in 1911, some saying it was proof that racial degeneration was a threat to the Empire: improved health allowed genetically inferior people to survive; it stopped natural selection by “propagating unfitness. The right to live does not connote the right of each man to reproduce his kind. As we lessen the stringency of natural selection, and more and more of the weaklings and unfit survive, we must increase the standard, mental and physical, of parentage.” Pearson expected life to be a struggle and welcomed was as part of that struggle to survive by fitness. “National progress depends on racial fitness, and the supreme test of this fitness was war. When wars cease mankind will no longer progress for there will be nothing to check the fertility of inferior stock.”

Support came from a respectable source when Bertrand Russell first published on eugenics, applying Pearson’s statistical reasoning and the principles of Galton’s law of ancestral heredity. In conclusion, Russell advocated direct payments from the state to “desirable” parents, a plan he mooted again in the form of scholarships paid to qualifying parents while “undesirable” parents were to be discouraged from procreating and to receive no financial aid for their children from the State. He accepted the “dangers” of the so-called “differential birth rate” – the Edwardian concern that the poor sections of society reproduced much faster than the wealthy – that conditioned Russell’s understanding of parental desirability.

Only a few senior biologists rose up in protest at the even more threatening programme of legislation that was underway to restrict the breeding of the feebleminded. One who did protest was Ray Lankester who demanded that more should be known about the origin of the characteristics being controlled, whether they were inherited or learnt. He challenged what some of the terms meant, words such as “racial quality” and “improvement” meant different things to different people, and he called for a serious study of human races and their origin, before parliament intervened. Lankester made several appeals for these further considerations in his weekly Daily Telegraph column and they seemed to have a considerable effect on the public perception of the “intellectual eugenicists”. Like the spiritualists and magicians, they came across as people who could not be entirely trusted.

Galton also started to write a novel that he provisionally titled Kantsaywhere, about a eugenic utopia and its Eugenics College founded by Mr Neverwas. The college awarded diplomas for heritable gifts, physical and mental and encouraged graduates to marry one another by offering “appropriate social and material rewards” to “relieve the cost of nurturing the children.”. The professor of Vital Statistics arrived in the colony and met Miss Augusta Allfancy. Failures went to labour colonies “under conditions that were not onerous” but they had to work hard and remain celibate. Others received a certificate and could mate only “with reservations”. The plot told of what happened when the fragmentary pedigrees of immigrants caused trouble with the loves and desires of some of the new graduates of the college.

Galton was seen by his contemporaries as the founder of their “science” of eugenics in contrast to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote about the “religion of eugenics. He wrote that: “Society should in many cases actually prevent the act of procreating and may without any regard for rank and under certain circumstances have recourse to castration.”

It fell to another young new Cambridge biologist to bring the London biometricians and Cambridge Mendelians together and to examine eugenic methods more seriously. Even before he graduated Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) got involved establishing a Cambridge University Eugenics Society with the advice of Maynard Keynes and Horace Darwin. It was intended that the group should be addressed by the leaders of mainstream eugenics organisations such as the Eugenics Education Society, but the eager young Fisher beat them to it and talked himself.

From the start Ronald Fisher was set for an unusual life at an extraordinary time. His family were partners in a firm of London art auctioneers and owned a big house in Hampstead. This intellectual background introduced him to the fashionable side of London society, but his happiness was rudely broken by his mother’s death and his father’s financial ruin. Fisher was still at Harrow School and buried himself in work. He won a scholarship for mathematics at Cambridge and from school, a prize of Darwin’s complete works.

In his short address to the small group at the Eugenics Education Society the very young Fisher had something good to say for both sides of the biometrics-Mendelian struggle, as well as something cautionary. Mendel had published unusually accurate results, conforming almost too much to the expected ratios, more like demonstrations than real results. Biometricians could be ambiguous, too, and they “could squeeze the truth out of the most inferior data”. As we shall see, Fisher did succeed in uniting these two factions of evolutionary biology but the specialists who recognised and described new species were still left out and the new specialists who looked at the environment were not even considered.

Later, Fisher reflected on his role as arbiter: “Each generation, perhaps, found in Mendel’s paper only what it expected to find; in the first period a repetition of the hybridization results commonly reported, in the second a discovery in inheritance supposedly difficult to reconcile with continuous evolution. Each generation, therefore, ignored what did not confirm its own expectations.” His generation of young men were more hard-minded than most, expecting that mathematics would be involved in any scientific problem. Physics and chemistry were going to be heavily involved in the forthcoming war and there was no time for soft bits of evolutionary biology.

Most of these Edwardians were intrigued by all the talk of eugenics, seeing that it joined three strands of late-Victorian science: a hereditary theory of population, the study of population statistics, and a theory of population regulation derived from population genetics. The popular belief behind the foundation of eugenics was the conviction that it was possible to scientifically intervene in the reproduction of human populations with the specific goal of biologically improving future generations.

The new century had got off to an eventful start. The new king, Edward VII, not only removed from sight Queen Victoria’s most symbolic belongings but happily strolled around Buckingham Palace with a huge cigar in his mouth. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud shocked middle class society with suggestions of unconscious sexual feelings during childhood. And in his new job as Director of the Natural History Museum, Ray Lankester felt attacked from all sides, academic and administrative, as though he could do nothing right. On one occasion he ordered a room to be repainted without consulting the Trustees. At their next meeting they severely censured him for going outside his powers: “We don’t like the new paint”, said the chairman, “and we must ask you to arrange to have it taken off.” “I thought you’d say that,” growled Lankester, “but it won’t come off.”

In his academic life there was no resolution to the struggles between nature and nurture, the endless debates between quality and quantity and the continuing confusion about whether units of inheritance had been found or not. In their different world the politicians were also unaware of similar forces acting at their more diplomatic level of the art of what was possible. But then, so little was under the direct control of both life scientists and politicians that they were all blindly walking headlong into the same great catastrophic event. 

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