In the 1920 decade, when he was still an agnostic, CS Lewis noted in his diary his most recent reading: “I started reading Chesterton’s ‘Eugenics and Other Woes’.”
Controversial English Catholic writer, Chesterton published his book in
, when eugenics was so popular. Respectable views on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the concept: a scientific approach to selective breeding to reduce and eventually eliminate the category of people considered mentally and morally deficient. From US Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, eugenics policies – including involuntary sterilization – have been hailed as a “progressive” and “compassionate” solution to growing social problems.
A hundred years ago, Chesterton discerned something entirely different: “terrorism by fifth-rate teachers.” For a time, he was almost alone in his prophetic attack on the eugenics movement and the pseudoscientific theory for which he was defended.
“People speak of the impatience of the population; but good historians know that most tyrannies were possible because men reacted too late,” warned Chesterton. “I know there are many whose intentions are entirely innocent and human; and who would be sincerely surprised by the way I describe eugenics. But that’s only because evil always wins by the strength of cheaters.”
Chesterton openly stated his goal: The ideology of eugenics must be destroyed if human freedom is to be preserved. The eugenics idea, he wrote, “is something that cannot be negotiated.” In the end, it would take the discoveries at the Auschwitz and Dachau death camps for most of the world to finally reject the terrible logic of eugenics. However, Chesterton was one of the first to see this happen: when the state machine would invoke the authority of science to deprive individuals — both the “unfit” and the unborn — of their fundamental human rights.
It is difficult to overstate the degree to which eugenics captured the imagination of the medical and scientific communities at the beginning of the century . Anthropologist Francis Galton, who coined the term – from the Greek for “good birth” – has argued that scientific techniques for creating healthier animals must be applied to humans. Those considered “degenerates”, “imbeciles” or “feeble-minded” would be targets. Anticipating public opposition, Galton told scientific meetings that eugenics “must be introduced into the national consciousness as a new religion.” First-rate scientific organizations such as the American Museum of Natural History and institutions such as Harvard and Princeton universities preached the gospel of eugenics: they held conferences, published papers, provided research funding, and advocated sterilization laws.
To many Western thinkers, the catastrophe of the First World War, added to the problems of poverty, crime and social breakdown, suggested a disease in the racial lineage. The book titles help tell the story: ‘Decadence and Social Degeneration’; ‘The Need for Eugenics Reform’; ‘Racial Decay’; ‘Sterilization of the Unfit’; and ‘The Twilight of the White Races’. The American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922 — the same year that Chesterton published ‘Eugenics and Other Misfortunes’ — was supported by winning scientists Nobel Prize winner whose stated goal was to sterilize one-tenth of the US population.
The Supreme Court led the way. Justice Holmes, a progressive and eugenics advocate, wrote the Court’s opinion of 1927 in
Buck v. Bell, an 8-1 decision defending Virginia’s sterilization laws. He summed up the court’s philosophy thus: “Three generations of imbeciles is enough.” In a decade, laws that oblige the sterilization of those considered a threat to the genetic pool — alcoholics, criminals, unwanted immigrants, African Americans — have been approved in states. At least 70 a thousand people were forcibly sterilized, from California to New York.
As a philosopher As a Christian, Chesterton recognized the historic problem of churches using the secular state to enforce religious doctrine. But he turned the question around by accusing the scientific elites of repeating the mistakes of the Inquisition:
Science is really trying to tyrannize through government. Who really uses the secular arm is Science. And the creed which is really tithing and seizing schools, the creed which is really enforced by fines and imprisonment, the creed which is really proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen – that creed is the great but disputed system of thought that started with evolution and ended with eugenics.
Under eugenics’ view, the most vulnerable from society they would not find compassion and help; they would find the surgeon’s scalpel. As Chesterton joked, there would be no sympathy for the character of Tiny Tim, the crippled boy of the Cratchit family in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. “The eugenicist, as far as I know, would regard the mere existence of Tiny Tim as sufficient reason to massacre the entire Cratchit family.”
These facts deserve to be remembered in light of the debate that has taken place. by the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade. Margaret Sanger trumpeted the eugenic features of birth control and found support from the country’s leading eugenicists. As she stated in a speech at the International Eugenics Congress 70 in New York: “The most pressing problem today is how to limit and discourage superfertility in the disabled. mental and physical.”
At the heart of the eugenics movement, Chesterton believed, was a thoroughly materialistic view of the human person: man as a laboratory rat. “Materialism is really our established Church,” he wrote, “for the government will really help it persecute its heretics.”
The troubling truth is that the scientific community has played a role. decisive in the political and social acceptance of eugenics. Members of all medical and scientific professions used their immense cultural authority to persuade educators, legislators, jurists, journalists, and clergy that eugenics offered the best hope of rescuing the human race from decay and even extinction. Henry Osborn, paleontologist and co-founder of the American Eugenics Society, summed up his view thus: “Just as science has enlightened government in preventing and spreading disease, so it must enlighten government in preventing the spread and multiplication of useless members of society. .”
The ultimate political triumph of this idea, of course, came with the Nazis and their attack on the disabled, homosexuals, Gypsies, Jews, and anyone considered an enemy of the state. In fact, Nazi doctors corresponded with American eugenicists as they designed their own sterilization programs.
The eugenics movement, as Chesterton predicted, became a miserable history of denial of ideals. democratic institutions to serve a utopian vision. “Thus tyranny has taken but one step to reach the secret and sacred places of personal liberty,” he wrote, “where no sane man ever dreamed of seeing it.” Unwittingly or not, the eugenics dream unleashed a cataract of deeply rooted fears and hatreds—sanctified this time by a secular priesthood, the scientific community.
CS Lewis, the Oxford professor whose conversion to Christianity was aided by Chesterton’s theological writings, he also watched these developments with horror. Like Chesterton, he warned of the scientist unbound by the constraints of morality or traditional religion.
“The man-shapers of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible science,” wrote Lewis in ‘The Abolition of Man’. At such a time, he predicted, man’s supposed conquest of nature would not lead to his liberation—quite the contrary. “For the power of man to do to himself what he will means, as we have seen, the power of some men to do to others what they will.”
Joseph Loconte is Distinguished Visiting Professor at Grove City College and author of ‘A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War’ [Um Hobbit, Um Guarda-Roupa e uma Guerra Mundial]. The trailer for the upcoming movie based on the book can be found at hobbitwardrobe.com