L0073441 Only healthy seed must be sown

This essay, on the political legacy of the eugenics movement, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 6 October 2019, under the headline ‘The spirit of eugenics is still with us, as immigrants know to their cost’.

Birth control. Intelligence tests. Town planning. Immigration controls. It’s striking how much of contemporary life has been shaped, at least in part, by the eugenics movement, as Eugenics: Science’s Greatest Scandal, a two-part BBC documentary by science writer Angela Saini and disability campaigner Adam Pearson, which began last week, usefully reminds us.

Eugenics is the belief that societies can be improved by selective breeding and that the state should encourage the ‘enlightened’ to have more children and discourage the lower orders, whether the poor, the disabled or the immigrant, from breeding.

Today, eugenics brings to mind the Nazis and the death camps but the Nazis were late on the scene. It was in Britain and America that modern eugenics developed, initially through the work of English polymath Francis Galton, who coined the term ‘eugenics’, and subsequently through a host of eminent scientists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eugenic ideas were enthusiastically welcomed by the great and the good, from both left and right, including Beatrice Webb and Marie Stopes, William Beveridge and Julian Huxley, Virginia Woolf and TS Eliot, John Maynard Keynes and Winston Churchill.

At the heart of eugenics lay two fundamental social beliefs. The first was the embrace of a top-down rational scientific organisation of society, the second the acceptance that certain groups were by nature unsuitable for society and should be restricted, kept out or eliminated.

Both beliefs were linked to worries about democracy, nourished by the coming of universal suffrage. ‘No scientifically ordered state’, Aldous Huxley wrote, ‘could be democratic; it would be aristocratic: the most intelligent would be the rulers.’ Unfortunately, he added, ‘we have universal suffrage: the vote of the half-wit is as good as that of the one-and-a-half wit’.

Eugenics fused a desire for social reform with reactionary ideas about democracy, immigrants, the disabled and the poor. It led to hundreds of thousands of people being incarcerated and forcibly sterilised as ‘unfit’. Even after the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps had discredited the racial science on which eugenics was built, eugenic ideas – and policies – remained ingrained. In Sweden, for instance, sterilisation programmes continued into the 1970s.

The persistence of eugenic ideas can been seen in debates about poverty. From the 1960s concept of the ‘culture of poverty’ to David Cameron’s ‘troubled families’ programme, postwar social policy has remained shackled to ideas incubated within the eugenic movement.

It can be seen, too, in the population control movement – the belief that social problems in Africa or Asia are the products of overbreeding. Forced sterilisation may no longer be policy in the west, but western governments and NGOs have pressured countries such as India to sterilise tens of millions of its citizens. In 2013, the saintly David Attenborough suggested that it was ‘barmy’ to send food to famine-stricken parts of the world because it encouraged population growth.

Few people today talk about “imbeciles” or the “unfit”, nor show much enthusiasm for state-sponsored selective breeding programmes. But the two key themes of eugenics have returned to dominate public debate.

On the one hand, many worry that the uneducated masses are undermining the possibilities of rational social policy. ‘Was it desirable, was it even safe’, Beatrice Webb asked in 1923, to ‘entrust the poor and uneducated… through the ballot box with making and controlling the government of Great Britain with its enormous wealth and its far-flung dominions?’ A century later, many agree with Richard Dawkins, who argued after the Brexit referendum that ‘it is unfair to thrust on to unqualified simpletons the responsibility to take historic decisions of great complexity and sophistication’.

Then there is the fear of the ‘Other’. Immigration was always an obsession for eugenicists, and has become one again today. Immigrants, we are told, weaken social and racial bonds, are freeloaders and criminals, and lack the values necessary for healthy societies. Demographic arguments have re-emerged. Fears that Muslims are breeding too fast, or that whites are becoming a minority group, are not just promoted by the far right but given legitimacy by mainstream thinkers.

Contemporary fears about eugenics usually focus on genetic advances and the possibility of ‘designer babies’, an issue that Saini and Pearson tackle in the second part of their documentary. Far less attention is given to the ways in which attitudes to democracy, the working class and immigrants echo those of the past. But it is perhaps in those attitudes, even more than in genetic ideas, that the ghosts of eugenics continue to haunt the contemporary world.


The image is a 1920s Eugenic Society poster.


  1. damon

    “Demographic arguments have re-emerged. Fears that Muslims are breeding too fast, or that whites are becoming a minority group, are not just promoted by the far right but given legitimacy by mainstream thinkers.”

    It’s true, and these arguments have re-emerged. The thing is though, is it good that a wider ranging conversation is now being had? Personally, I think that Eric Kaufmann and David Goodhart bring some interesting perspectives and are useful for comparing to voices like Kenan’s here and in the Guardian more widely.
    Because it’s by comparing the arguments side by side that you can get a better perspective I think.
    It’s a pity that these different camps don’t often engage each other to any significant degree though.
    When you do see them communicating, it’s more likely to be just a strong criticism of the other’s work.

    There was a link there to an article about how: “46% of whites worry becoming a majority-minority nation will ‘weaken American culture’ ”. Is any such “worry” ever justified?
    Does it make any difference what kind of racial and cultural demographic mix a country has?
    An immediate answer might be “No” – but then if you ask this question about South Africa, a simple yes or no answer is no longer sufficient. It gets complicated.
    Would it have mattered if a different racial and cultural group had founded the United States?
    If the Spanish or Portuguese had colonised it for example? The answer has to be that yes, it would have changed the history of the country completely and that the US might be more like Mexico or Argentina than what America became. Or if the western US states and Texas had remained as part of Mexico – they’d be like Mexico, not like they are now. And if the first thirteen colonies had been settled by Ottoman Turks instead of White Anglo Saxon Protestants, you can just imagine the difference that would have made to history.

    Then you could ask, if it doesn’t matter what percentage any given majority or minority in a country is, does the same thing apply at a city and county level? People may laugh about whites becoming a minority in the US, but then become anxious if white people start leaving a city, suburb or county. The “white flight” phenomenon.
    In Southern California, some of the inland counties have seen big changes in racial demographics over the last couple of decades, and some have gotten poorer and have had falling standards in schools and local government.
    In fact, I think it was one of Kenan’s previous posts, which had a link to an article about school districts in San Francisco – and how school administrators were very concerned about whether the number of white students in any particular school was either too low or too high. Because either way, it was leading to imbalances in how some schools were seen as failing and others were overly privileged.

    So it might not matter so much today what cultural makeup a country has once it’s been developed through history, but it was probably quite important in the past. The “WASP” people and the north European Protestants and Lutherans, were a particularly driven and industrious cultural group/race.
    My people, (the Irish Catholics) did pretty well when they went to those countries and worked under those existing rules of law and government etc. As did a lot of the following immigrants. They all piled in and thrived, or got on one way or another, but they might not have developed the country in the same way if it hadn’t been for the WASPs in the first place.

    I’m in Finland right now, and it seems to be a similar case here. The place is so developed and “civilised”.
    It has to be something to do with their culture. They seem so calm and orderly. It can be a very harsh environment, so they needed to be very organised to survive here.

  2. damon

    “Then there is the fear of the ‘Other’. Immigration was always an obsession for eugenicists, and has become one again today.”

    I always struggle with this idea a bit. If the country is so rattled about immigration and the number of children that minority communities produce, then it seems strange that the U.K. would still have such a relatively high number of immigrants coming into the country every year. If you subtract the people leaving, from the net migration figure calculation, then arrivals have been as high as 600,000 in some recent years. We know that people are going to have families when they start lives here, so why be concerned about that factor? And it’s not something you can do much about anyway. The 2021 census is going to have a lot of media coverage.

    After reading the link about white people in the US having trouble with the idea of becoming a minority, I googled the words “Do we need white people?” It was just an instinctive quick search, but it throws up a whole load of articles and opinion pieces which might explain why some whites might fear their future minority status.
    Looking at those search results, and just seeing treads for how race and racism is publicly discussed in Western countries, you can see there is already a certain amount of “picking on” white people and even the idea of whiteness.
    “Dear White People” was a TV show and it’s also been the title of a song and some mocking memes and spoof internet fun, like with lists of “Stuff White People Like”.
    This can start off quite lightheartedly, but it can also take more mean spirited tones too – and the thing is, that it doesn’t necessarily stop when the supposedly dominant culture group loses some of its hegemony.
    Because even when whites become a numerical minority, the narrative of “white privilege” will still probably be being argued. In South Africa it is. It’s true that whites there generally live much more privileged lives.
    But they are a vulnerable minority at the same time.

    Just looking around for information on Finland and its racial diversity, I found this very interesting piece on east European Roma people coming to live in Finland. And what the perception of them was here and a bit about how they have been getting on.
    It does fit very well with the subject of eugenics. All Roma EU citizens have the right to move to Finland if they wanted to, and I would guess that manny Finns, including people in the government, would rather the numbers remained smaller rather than larger. Which is a “eugenics type” way of thinking.
    Because they might be seen as potentially problematic people.

    The anti-eugenics argument has to insist that’s a really bad way of seeing other human beings, and that there should be no difference between Roma people and Polish plumbers or Estonian labourers coming to Finland.
    The problem though is that there is a bit of difference. The Roma aren’t just other EU workers here looking to get jobs and earn money. They have a number of social problems which they bring with them.
    I’ve seen it myself in the week that I’ve been here. The only people begging on the streets, or selling the homeless newspaper, have been Roma people.

    From the article:

    “Those that come to Finland can either be found begging, selling flowers, playing music instruments or collecting cans and bottles, with very few actually searching for a long-term job. Complaining that the Finnish language is one of the barriers they can’t cross when it comes to work opportunities, this has led to increased instances of pickpocketing, shoplifting and burglary.

    Certain areas around Helsinki have been strictly designated for different cultural groups. In the Kamppi area, most of the Roma that populate the square are Bulgarian or Finnish, with the Central Railway Station marked for Romanians. Indeed, in the centre of Helsinki, anyone can spot at a glance the men playing music or the women selling lilies of the valley on the street corners, forming an disorganised Romanian community.”

  3. damon

    I think this is a great example of why a big percentage of whites have “fears” of becoming an ethnic minority in the USA. It’s an exchange between Fox News host Tucker Carlson and Monique Pressley – (who was Bill Cosby’s lawyer).
    He’s a privileged white guy who went to one of the Liberal Art Colleges in Connecticut and he’s doing his usual “I just don’t understand it – identity politics is racism” routines.
    It’s something he’s well know for, but it probably chimes with the views of a lot of his audience.
    Monique Pressley, then goes about “schooling him” in why he’s not looking at things the right way.

    He starts off by saying that he’s 48 and grew up in an environment where racism was seen as completely wrong.
    He says that was certainly the case in his school – and I believe him. It was mostly the same in my school too in the 1970s. It was majority white, but had a fair bit of diversity and I don’t remember any times when there was overt racism. But as she quickly corrects him, that that’s not the point. The country was still deeply racist.

    This is the Youtube as it appears on the Fox News channel, and the comments underneath read like what you see on the Daily Mail website comments ….. whereas if you look up the same video she uploaded to her own YouTube channel, the comments underneath are all most entirely supporting her side of the exchange she and Carlson had.
    The Fox audience being largely white and Republican and hers being quite different.
    There’s a big cultural divide between them.

    She also appears on another video where she’s in conversation with three other black people talking about the racist history of Mississippi. One of the men is a conservative, and so he gets shouted down a bit too.
    But it just shows how contentious and how timeless these kinds of arguments are going to be.
    And they don’t stop when it looks like the worst of the prejudices and abuses of the past are over. It’s forever.
    So the kind of white people who watch Fox News, are probably a bit apprehensive about the future, and what it will be like when they are the minority. Particularly at a local level, but also nationally.

  4. damon

    “The persistence of eugenic ideas can been seen in debates about poverty.”

    This is a criticism I have of the approach to this subject Kenan’s made here.
    I hope it’s seen as constructively critical.
    I can’t really accept the way that the concept of eugenics is linked to reluctance to accept all kinds of demographic change and new diversity. And also with authorities trying to overcome failures within some families or even social sub-groups. I remember how the term “underclass” was resisted by those who thought it was a convenient way of masking racist viewpoints.
    Yet we expect schools to be able to take over from where some families are obviously failing and struggling – and to bring order and a good education to the children in their care for part of the day.

    It’s hard countering narratives like the one made above, as I feel you need to start introducing lots of examples and asking the reader to follow the case you are attempting to make.
    So I’ll just jump straight into one and see if it works well or not. I don’t expect much feedback (but I did try).

    I heard about a school in Green Bay Wisconsin …. which is one of the worst in the state ….and it came to public attention when one of the teachers publicly resigned in 2017 and the video went a bit viral.
    She said the behaviour of the students was out of control and even teachers were facing violence and assault.

    The school district made a big deal about hiring some new people to oversee a turnaround – but from what I’ve seen, the new head teacher resigned after a year seeming to have failed to bring about the desired results.
    Too many of the students had a poor attitude to school, and the teacher who resigned had complained about some of them turning up not fit to start a school day. Not having had breakfast and issues to do with poor parenting and dysfunctional families.
    Green Bay is a small city of 105,000. The state was settled by a lot of north European and Nordic people and it had a very white population overall. In the 1950s and 60s, discipline in school wasn’t probably a big issue.
    But time and culture changes – and American kids (as well as British) can be very challenging compared to other parts of the world (like in Finland or Estonia for example maybe).

    One thing that has changed at the Washington Middle School in Green Bay, is the demography of the students.
    This web page shows up some very poor performance graphs.

    And if you click the button on there that says “Students” it shows how the ethnic makeup of the school has changed since 1988.
    In 1988, the numbers of students at the school were this:
    White 659 – Black 4 – Hispanic 5.
    And by 2017 that had changed to
    White 246 – Black 151 – Hispanic 384.

    So that’s quite a cultural change in the school over those years.
    This article (about a nearby elementary school) explains what has drawn quite a big new Hispanic community (80% Mexican) to the city. It’s mainly jobs, and the city being seen as a nicer place to raise a family than some of the region’s bigger cities. People are avoiding the likes of Chicago and Milwaukee because of their crime and ghetto issues.

    “Green Bay at crossroads of segregation, diversity”

    It also says this: “The number of Hispanics in Brown County will quadruple over the next half century, growing at a rate of about 32 percent every 10 years“. (Green Bay is in Brown County).
    The demographics for that elementary school are even more advanced than the High School.
    There it’s 65% Hispanic, 12% white and 11.5% black.

    So what does any of this matter? It obviously makes a difference to a city like Green Bay when some wards of the city change to being majority Hispanic and Spanish speaking. The elementary school even says it needs to hire more Spanish speaking teachers. The class ratios of the city may also be changed. Although it’s always been a blue collar town I think. Heavy industry and a port city. But many of the Mexican migrants are going for particularly tough jobs like at the meat processing plant. Also coming to work on the nearby dairy farms, which I thought was an interesting development. These will be low paid jobs and the community is going to struggle to become very integrated into American society – at least on a cultural level. They will make a new culture though.
    And the immigrants themselves can probably live in a Spanish speaking or bilingual world, but are their children going to be willing to work in slaughterhouses and as farm labour?

    I think all of this has something to the way the eugenics issue was argued here.
    Eugenics obviously sounds terribly sinister, with its Nazi history etc.
    And then there’s people being concerned about a perceived loss of culture.
    They’re not really that strongly connected. Although they are a bit too.

    If you were going to buy a new house in American city, it would surely matter what the neighbourhood was like. Some places are obviously blighted (or too boringly suburban) and you wouldn’t just buy a house without having done your research and chosen the kind of area that suits you. But the very act of looking at different areas of a city and dismissing some because you didn’t like the mix of people living there, is also a form of “eugenic thinking” (isn’t it?).

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: