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Eugenics and the Eugenic Movement

Eugenics : 'Nature's Secrets Revealed'

The eugenics movement was founded by Sir Francis Galton, though its tenets were foreshadowed in Plato's Republic. In the perennial Nature versus Nurture debate, eugenicists lay greatest stress on our genetic make-up. Behaviorists, on the other hand, attach overriding importance to the role of the environment. In common with all sophisticated treatments, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World allows the destiny of its characters to be shaped by the interplay of genes and environment. But in BNW, this interplay is systematic and pre-planned rather than haphazard.

        The eugenics movement gained momentum after the rediscovery, in 1900, of Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel's theory that the biological make-up of organisms is determined by certain factors, later identified with genes. Mendel fiddled his experimental results to fit his theory, inaugurating a tradition that persists to this day; Mondel is forgiven and his memory honoured because his theory was basically sound. In the early twentieth century, eugenicist ideas were popular on both the political "right" and "left". Organizations such as The Galton Society and The Race Betterment Foundation commanded broad scientific and social support across the political spectrum. The more sinister potential of eugenics and its nostrums for "the betterment of the race" were barely glimpsed. In 1912, delegates from around the world met for the First International Eugenics Congress. The second world eugenics congress met in 1921, and the third in 1932. Nations with eugenics activists included India, Australia, Canada, the United States, Germany, France, Japan, Mauritius, Kenya, South Africa.

        A distinction is sometimes drawn between "positive" and "negative" eugenics. Positive eugenics entails encouraging people with "desirable" traits, abundant in white upper-middle class Westerners, to produce more offspring. Negative eugenics, by contrast, aims to eliminate or reduce "undesirable", "unhealthy" and "inferior" traits. In a stunning musunderstanding of Darwinism, right-wing ideologues suppose "unfit" blacks, Asians and other lesser breeds are fecklessly outbreeding white intellectual bourgeois with their "fitter" superior bloodline, thus leading to an inexorable decline in the human stock. However, if such a heritable propensity were the really in operation, then such traits would be fitness-enhancing. Muddles over the technical and popular meaning of "fitness", like confusion over the popular, metaphorical and technical meaning of "selfish", are common.

        Even stripped of its murky racist and class-bound orgins, the distinction between positive and negative eugenics is problematic. If the code of Darwinian life is fundamentally corrupt, and we are all aging and sickness-ridden vehicles for selfish DNA, then the distinction may ultimately be spurious.

        A classic example of "negative eugenics", however, would be the sterilisation laws enacted in two dozen American states in the early twentieth century. In 1927, in a notorious judgment upholding the forced sterilisation of a woman with mental disabilities, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the US Supreme Court declared

"It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. ..... Three generations of imbeciles is enough" (Buck v. Bell, 1927).

        Eugenics was supported by Henry Ford. Ford, an antisemite and author of The Internional Jew (1927), was an ardent admirer of Hitler and the racial policies of the Third Reich. Under the Nazis, the Law for Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring (1933) led to the sterilisation of some 300,000 people in Germany before 1939. This sterilisation of "defective" German citizens was only a prelude to the state-sponsored Euthanasia programme. After 1941, the technicians of the Enthanasia program were drafted to apply their technical experise to the extermination of the Jews.

        1922, a German lawyer named Karl Binding and a German psychiatrist named Alfred Hoche published a slim book with a clumsy title: Permission to Destroy Life Not Worth Living (Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens). They argued in favor of euthanasia, or mercy killing. The cost of maintaining useless people was too high, and the government could spend the money on better things. Religious barriers should be pushed aside, so that the government could get on with the job of killing the physically and mentally defective (painlessly). Destroying useless lives was necessary for the survival of society as a whole, they wrote. Popular disquiet, articulated in a 1941 sermon by Cardinal Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878-1946) of Munster, forced Hitler formally to suspend its implementation. But the technicians behind the program were then employed to streamline the industrial mass-murder of the Holocaust, the systematic slaughter of the Jewish race in Nazi-controlled Europe.

        Nazi philosophy was Adolf Hitler's Mein Kamf. Hitler detested Bolshevism, Marxism, finance capitalism, Freemasonry, liberalism, egalitarianism, Freudianism, and much else besides. But Hitler's most obsessive loathing was towards the Jews. Drawing on such fabrications as the Tsarist secret police forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion", Hitler believed the Jews were engaged in a 4,000-year struggle to dominate the world. Jewish guilt was biological. It was therefore ineradicable except by physical extermination of the entire Jewish race.

        Huxley wrote Brave New World in 1931. Huxley was writing at a time of great enthusiasm to improve human stock. Huxley's novel was published in a period before the advent of the Nazi totalitarian state and the more extreme developments of the Stalinist Society Union during the 1930s and the Second World War. Huxley's totalitarianism, implemented under the auspices of the Controllers of the World State, is comparatively benign, certainly compared to George Orwell's bleak totalitarian nightmare 1984. In BNW, unpleasantness has not been altogether abolished, but after John the Savage destroys the soma of the proles after they fail to respect his dying mother, the rioters are gassed by the police with soma. The angry proles end up hugging each other, a curious anticipation of the hugdrug MDMA, though this fickleness of sentiment contributes to the impression that the happiness of Brave New worlders is false or shallow. We echo this judgement today. "It was just the E talking".

         Huxley's warning about the dangers of "scientific" eugenics, and the threat to human freedom posed by ideological indoctrination and behaviourist-style conditioning, was in some ways uncannily prescient. The horrors of the Third Reich suggest Huxley, like Galton and the early eugenicists, may have actually underplayed the risks. World Controllers Mustapha Mond is a far more benevolent dictator than Hitler - or Big Brother in 1984. But so long as we retain the present human genome, nastiness, cruelty and suffering are inevitable. Only rewriting the genome can rescue its victims from pain, and save us from again perpetrating on each other the kinds of misapplied science of the twentieth century.

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Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

David Pearce