Eugenics Yesterday and Today (6): The Origins of Modern Eugenics

July 18, 2020

Post-Christian eugenics has many similarities to pre-Christian eugenics. This is not surprising: fallen human nature, left to its own convictions or refusing the healing offered by Revelation, will always be attracted by the same errors and carried to the same exactions: “Where Thou art not, man hath nought, Nothing good in deed or thought, Nothing free from taint of ill” (Sequence of the Pentecost Mass).

But the new eugenics also presents dissimilarities with the old one, which are not due only to an improvement of techniques, but which reflect the difference between a non-Christian society, and an apostate society. Apostasy descends more abjectly than paganism, because the negation of Christian values ​​leads to the negation of natural values ​​accessible to reason, which the ancient world had more or less discovered. Take away the supernatural, it will not even remain natural.

First Events

The first traces of a new eugenics can be found during the Renaissance with authors such as the skeptic Montaigne (1533-1592), the humanist Rabelais (1494-1553) or even the Dominican Campanella (1568-1639) - who passed a good part of his life in the prisons of the Holy Office. All three show a concern for the selection of the best. Fr. François-Joseph Thonnard wrote that the humanists of this period were indeed captivated by “the assimilation of the past in the order of beauty more than truth, and also a return to nature exalted by pagan Hellenism… Just as artists renewed ancient forms, philosophers revived most of the ancient systems.”

As for Francis Bacon (1561-1626), one of the thinkers who opened the modern period, in his book New Atlantis, he depicts a society organized according to a policy guided by science and reason, where “the constitution of couples must be a State affair… aimed at the procreation of a strong and intelligent race.” For this philosopher, it is no longer on God that moral life must be regulated, but on social and human utility. The goal of a moral life is therefore the good of humanity: “is good, that which is useful to humanity.” This morality therefore inevitably tends toward utilitarianism. This formula, repeated, amplified, and distorted, will have many consequences a few centuries later.

What comes into being is a positive eugenics attached to the idea of ​​human “quality.”

First Legal Measures

The first legislative intervention took place in Sweden, a Protestant country which prohibited the marriage of epileptics in 1757. And it was in Germany, where Protestantism was also widespread, that Dr. Johann Peter Frank in 1779 published his Complete System of Medical Policy in which he states: “I firmly believe that there is no more powerful means to stimulate the vigor and the health of the human species, than a severe selection among those who, nowadays, spread exclusively the bad seed on the field of collective life, and to make it impossible for all the degenerates and the miserable to continue to sacrifice half of humanity, according to their unreasonable impulses” (G. Banu).

For Protestantism, material prosperity is a mark of divine blessing; the Protestant therefore naturally goes towards the things of the earth and cares about it almost exclusively. And since his morality is constantly evolving, he is not repelled by these new ideas.

Introduction of the Statistical Method in Population Studies

The concern for positive eugenics underpins the work of the revolutionary Condorcet (1743-1794): “Can we have any other goal than to multiply well-formed beings, capable of being useful to others and making their own happiness?” Influenced by Lamarck (1744-1829), he believed in the inheritance of acquired personality and turned towards social action. He was among the first to apply statistical methods to the study of social phenomena and populations, founding what he called “social mathematics.”

And so the quantitative notion appeared for the first time, oriented however towards the measure of quality. This work will be continued by Adolphe Quételet (1796-1872), the founder of biometrics, which he called “social physics.” But he too is more interested in environment.

It was in 1798 that the Protestant cleric Thomas Robert Malthus (1766-1834) published his famous An Essay on the Principle of Population. This book marks the true birth of modern concerns about population regulation. Beginning at that point there will exist a current called Malthusianism and then Neo-Malthusianism, which seeks above all to decrease or stabilize populations, and which can be called quantitative eugenics. For Malthus, it is “in the nature of things that the rich cannot help the poor indefinitely”; that they have “no right to be maintained at the expense of society.”

This is the refusal to accept the word of Our Lord: “For the poor you have always with you” (Jn. 12:8). Selfishness, the fruit of materialism, is the origin. It takes on the appearance of a false goodness: helping the poor to become less poor by limiting their offspring. This current, distinct from “qualitative” eugenics, comes from the same background. They will eventually meet.

Developments During the 19th Century

In 1803, in France, Robert le Jeune published his Megalanthropogenesis which describes the practice of marrying eminent men to distinguished women in order to give birth to intelligent children. It is the return of an old Greek idea: “While nothing is spared in Europe to enhance the beauty of horses, improve the beasts of wool, and perpetuate the race of good bloodhounds, is it not a shame that man is abandoned by man?” In other words, the progress of qualitative eugenics.

Quantitative eugenics also continued to grow. As early as 1821, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), the utilitarian philosopher, adhering to the theses of Malthus, wrote in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “The great problem of the hour is to find the means of limiting the number of births.” In 1848, he specified that “one can hardly hope that morality will make progress, as long as one does not consider large families with the same contempt as intoxication or any other bodily excess.” If he himself does not propose immoral means, he leaves the door open for them. As early as 1822, the Englishman Francis Place launched “neo-Malthusianism” by publishing his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principles of Population which marks the beginning of birth-control (BC). He anonymously distributed his Diabolicals handbills where he recommended the use of all the contraceptive methods known at the time.

The development of Malthusian theses continued in the Anglo-Saxon countries, because the Latin countries, which remained Catholic, strongly opposed these methods. The United States saw the publication in 1833 of Dr. Charles Knowlton’s book, The Fruits of Philosophy: or The Private Companion of Young Married People, which likewise describes all contraceptive methods in the wake of Francis Place. In 1854 in England, Dr. Charles V. Drysdale published his “Elements of social science, a treatise on contraception considered from the economic, philosophical and medical point of view.” He saw in the institution of indissoluble marriage a degradation of women, and he added that “poverty is a sexual question and not a question of politics and charity.”

A degree is crossed when feminism joins the eugenic struggle. In 1877, the English Malthusian League was founded by Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant: neo-Malthusianism entered social life. The following year the world’s first birth control clinic opened in Amsterdam, Holland, a Protestant country, at the same time as a Malthusian league started up there. In 1896, Paul Robin founded the League for Human Regeneration in Paris, which in 1900 organized the first International Neo-Malthusian Conference in which the union of the two currents took shape.

Racist Consequences

Certain currents follow the logic of the same starting principles. In 1851 Gobineau (1816-1882) published his Essay on the Inequality of Human Races which founded racist theory. This would be received with enthusiasm in Germany, in particular by Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), for whom “all the rules of aesthetics, morals, and politics can be summed up in one: ‘Preserve and promote the purity of Aryan blood.’”

These theories are contained in potential in eugenics. An improvement implies a standard, which necessarily establishes a position in relation to itself. From there to contempt for those who are below this standard, is only one step which soon leads to elimination. The standard itself can be variable depending on the criteria set by the selector. So the racist element fits into any eugenics.

The work of Charles Darwin (1809-1882) marks a turning point in qualitative eugenics, because it offers, in his book On the Origin of Species, published in 1860, the first scientific support. Darwin sees in inheritance and in the struggle for life the means for the fittest to perpetuate themselves at the expense of the unfit. This conception bears the seeds on the one hand for the extension of positive eugenics to the whole of society, selection being a factor of evolution, and on the other hand for the elimination of the unfit. It was during the same time period time that Gregor Mendel published his Essay on Plant Hybrids (1865) which laid the foundations for genetics, a science which experienced rapid development from the start of the 20th century, and which provided the means long awaited by eugenics.

It is to the Englishman Francis Galton (1822-1991), cousin of Charles Darwin, that we owe the creation of the term Eugenics or the well-born. As early as 1869 he published Hereditary Genius, whose title shows that he intended to bring eugenics to the field of heredity, in order to improve human intelligence which would follow its laws. Here is what he said in his memoirs: “When I understood that the inheritance of mental qualities, on which I had done my research, was real, and that heredity was a means of developing human qualities much more powerful than the environment, I wanted to explore the scale of qualities in different directions, in order to establish to what extent childbirth, at least theoretically, could modify the human race. A new race could be created, possessing on average a degree of quality equal to that encountered so far only in exceptional cases.”

And he adds: “Far be it from me to say anything that could underestimate the value of the environment in itself, since it includes, for example, all kinds of health improvements. I wish to proclaim that all these improvements are powerful auxiliaries of my cause; nevertheless I consider the Race as more important than the Medium. Race has a double effect: it creates smarter and better individuals.”

Here we find a new fundamental error which will have repercussions indefinitely in the eugenic system in all its forms: the confusion between science and morals. Eugenics imagine that morality automatically follows “intelligence,” but that conflates two areas, which, if they have close and necessary interdependencies, are none the less different. The more intelligent an evil being, the more harm he can do. This vice is ineradicable, because the eugenicist thinks of improving man by actions which make abstractions of good and evil, and which only targets measurable qualities, even if it is a question of intelligence.

Recognition of Eugenics

Galton offers two definitions of Eugenics. The first, in 1883, in his Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development: “Science of the improvement of the race, which is not limited to questions of judicious unions, but which, particularly in the case of man, occupies all the influences likely to give the best endowed races a greater number of chances to prevail over the less good races.” This definition integrates the medium and the inheritance, because Galton realized the insufficiency of the criteria treating positive eugenics—genetics is barely justified. The second, in 1904, erases the “racist” aspect: “Study of the socially controllable factors which can raise or lower the racial qualities of future generations, both physically and mentally.”

His action is then recognized. Foundations were multiplying: National Chair of Eugenics, Office of Eugenic Registration, Society of Eugenic Education (1908), Eugenics Review (1909), etc. His ideas spread everywhere, which Galton wanted. He wanted to “make it a branch of academic studies; thus, to introduce it into the national consciousness like a religion.” He even speaks of a “holy war”!

From that point eugenics was launched. It even obtained the much desired political consecration. However, Dr. Jean Sutter, one of the founders of the National Institute of Demographic Studies, drew up this assessment in 1950: “Genetics could not find its own technique and, so to speak, its scientific personality, so much so that at present it seems to disappear as a science to make way for eugenics, which is only a state of mind; it is to be expected that it will meet, more and more, within the various disciplines used by all of the sciences.”

This judicious reflection sounds like a true prophecy.