16 June 2019

Being A Progressive, Yesterday: Embracing Eugenics

(We are offline due to a much-needed research period this winter/spring, so we've decided to re-publish some earlier pieces you might have missed the first time.)

[Re-post, original post here.]

It is one of our vanities to imagine that if we'd been born in centuries past, we alone would have stood up against the rampant injustices of the age (slavery, colonialism, religious persecution, etc.) instead of going with the flow like most people did.  Unlike others, we're in no way molded by our era--our righteousness is ageless. (The host's tut-tutting in this otherwise fascinating podcast on slavery is but one example.)

Another point of view is that those of a progressive bent in 2012, had they magically existed in 1912, would have likely followed the leftist causes du jour.  Ditto conservatives.  So what was the progressive doctrine in 1912 that today's liberal can be fairly sure he'd have fervently believed and agitated for?


Darwin's 1859 work landed in the Western conscience like a rock heaved into a pond.  Nothing would ever be the same.  The idea that such social ills as insanity, mental retardation, and psychopathy were heritable began to seep into the popular mind.  One reason was Francis Galton (cousin of Darwin), who coined the term 'eugenics' and wrote tirelessly about it for decades.

Many in the late 19th century had an almost childlike faith that science could solve humanity's woes.  And it was thought then that some of humanity's woes were:

  • The retarded and insane, a burden on the private and public purse, were having retarded and insane children.
  • The stupid and dysfunctional poor were having many more children than the intelligent and functional rich.
  • (In the U.S:) South and East European immigrants, less intelligent and functional, were hurting the racial stock of the country.

The word 'dysgenics' was coined in 1915 by British physician Caleb Saleeby.  Biologist Julian Huxley, founding member of World Wildlife Fund and first director of UNESCO, described the threat thusly:

In the first of these [addresses to the British Eugenics Society] he reaffirmed that natural selection had become greatly relaxed in contemporary civilizations, noting that “the elimination of natural selection is largely, though of course by no means wholly, rendered inoperative by medicine, charity, and the social services” and that dysgenic fertility was leading to “the tendency to degradation of the germ plasm, ” the result of which will be that “humanity will gradually destroy itself from within, will decay in its very core and essence, if this slow but insidious relentless process is not checked.  (1)