From eugenics to scientific racism

Issue: 165

Roddy Slorach

In 2013, during his time as Mayor of London, Boris Johnson gave a lecture to city bankers in which he said:

Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 percent of our species have an IQ below 85 while about 2 percent have an IQ above 130…the harder you shake the pack the easier it will be for some cornflakes to get to the top. And for one reason or another—boardroom greed or, as I am assured, the natural and God-given talent of boardroom inhabitants—the income gap between the top cornflakes and the bottom cornflakes is getting wider than ever.1

On becoming prime minister, Johnson recruited an adviser with views at least as reactionary as his own. Also in 2013, the then education adviser Dominic Cummings argued in a government report that, due to genetic factors, “real talent is rare and mediocrity is ubiquitous”.2 These textbook examples of eugenic opinion were at the time largely ignored by the media, but similar views have been promoted more recently elsewhere.

The pivotal role of University College London (UCL) in the history of eugenics became public news when it announced an inquiry into the issue in December 2018. This had been demanded by students and staff after revelations that the university had hosted secret conferences on eugenics for three consecutive years. Attendees at the so-called London Conference on Intelligence included “scientific racists” such as “intelligence researcher” Noah Carl and psychologist Richard Lynn.3 Another demand by UCL students was to rename the Galton Institute. Originally founded as the National Laboratory for Eugenics, along with Britain’s first and only professorial chair in the subject, the Institute was the result of a bequest by Sir Francis Galton—best known as the father of eugenics.

As a subject of scientific inquiry, eugenics remains indelibly associated with Hitler’s Germany and its dreams of a master race. For several decades, however, it was widely supported as progressive, not only by liberals such as economist John Maynard Keynes, architect of the welfare state William Beveridge and the Manchester Guardian (the predecessor of today’s Guardian newspaper) but also by socialists such as leading biologist J B S Haldane, who regularly contributed to the Communist Party’s Daily Worker, and even Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Eugenic ideas first developed in Britain, the United States and Germany, and were taken up by a politically diverse range of governments. Women, people with learning difficulties and other disabled people were the principal victims. This article focuses on the rise of eugenics in the first 40 years of the 20th century and its role in legitimising “scientific racism”, then goes on to discuss the period since, particularly in relationship to the current growth of the far right. A further issue, more briefly addressed, is whether the contemporary practice of reproductive screening is eugenic in intention or effect. For ease of reading, the term “eugenics” is used throughout to refer to ideas, policy and practices.

Origins and development

The term eugenics, derived from the Greek word meaning “well born”, was introduced in 1883 by British scientist and pioneer of statistics Francis Galton. The masterpiece of his older cousin Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (1859), had by then become hugely influential. The theory of evolution by natural selection showed that organisms with variations best adapted to their particular environment were the ones most likely to survive, thereby shaping the future development of the species. Galton was particularly struck by a chapter in Darwin’s book about domestic animals which showed how selection could be artificially manipulated by breeding to produce specific characteristics. In Galton’s view, the same methods used on humans “might introduce prophets and high priests of civilisation into the world, as surely as we can propagate idiots by mating cretins”.4 He argued for financial incentives to promote marriage between healthy, mentally strong families, in line with his conviction that “superior” members of society ought to be encouraged to have more children—a belief that became known as “positive eugenics”.

By contrast, negative eugenics was less interested in “under-breeding” among the rich than in preventing “over-breeding” among the poor. The British Eugenics Education Society, founded in 1907 and led by Charles Darwin’s son Major Leonard Darwin, promoted this view in the years leading up to the First World War. A preference for negative eugenics would be shared by most eugenicists elsewhere.

Galton died in 1911, two years after his knighthood, leaving a large donation with University College in London in order to establish a eugenics professorship in his name. As Galton had requested, his protégé and biographer Karl Pearson was given the post and appointed head of the university’s new Department of Statistics, including the new Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics.

In July 1912, over 800 people attended the first International Eugenics Congress at the Imperial Institute in South Kensington in London.5 With Leonard Darwin presiding, Arthur Balfour, former Conservative Party prime minister (1902-5) gave the main address.6 A year later, the UK parliament passed the Mental Deficiency Act, which authorised taking the illegitimate children of “paupers” into care and the removal of “feeble-minded” schoolchildren (when identified by IQ tests) to special schools. This reactionary legislation proved to be the high water mark of British eugenics, which spent much of the subsequent decades attempting to overcome its elitist image.

By 1935, however, eugenics societies existed in more than 40 countries, and in many instances eugenics had become state policy.7 From the outset, the issue was intertwined with the development of genetics—“in courses, textbooks, institutional names, monographs and the concerns of its investigators”.8 Before looking further at the development of eugenics, therefore, it is necessary to clarify some of the key scientific concepts involved.

The mechanism of heredity

Due to their shared concern with heredity and its mechanisms, genetics and eugenics were for many years seen as different aspects of the same science. Darwin argued in The Origin of Species that children were the “average” of their ancestors, produced through the mixing of their parents’ blood. This “blood myth” was disproved by Galton himself when he transfused blood from a black rabbit to a white one and found that the latter’s offspring were also white. However, Galton was unable to explain the mechanism of inheritance.

The rules of what became genetics were established by Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel. His studies on pea plants, published in 1866 but unnoticed until 1901, were found to apply widely to animals as well as plants. He had worked out that separate physical units had to be involved in the distinctive formation of different traits such as size and shape. We now know these physical units as genes.

Modern biology distinguishes between genotype, the genes an organism ­carries, and phenotype. The latter refers to an organism’s observable characteristics such as appearance, development or behaviour. These can come about due to the organism’s genes, its environment or due to an interaction of both. Colour, for example, is not encoded into the genotype of flamingos: it is the food they eat that makes their feathers white or pink. Over time, the genetic make-up of a population can change as genes that produce a phenotype most suited to the environment become more common in the population.

The first study of a human family tree (or pedigree), published in 1903, ­concerned the inheritance of shortened hands and fingers. The trait affected every generation in the family. Anyone with short fingers also had parents and ancestors with short fingers. If an affected person married someone unaffected (as most did), around one in every two of their children would be affected. If an unaffected child married someone else lacking short fingers, the trait ­disappeared from that branch of the family. This is the pattern we expect from a dominant gene. An unaffected couple won’t have a child with the abnormality because neither parent carries the flawed instruction that makes it.

Other inherited traits are recessive and don’t behave in such a simple way. They need two copies of the inherited factor, one from each parent. An easily observable phenotype related to a recessive gene is blue eyes in humans. Often both parents will have brown eyes, but because each has a single copy of the recessive gene for blue eyes, their child may inherit both of these and have blue eyes. They may look more like a relative such as a grandparent than either parent. Because the genes from either parent are separate physical units they do not “mix” as Darwin supposed, so if a child inherits one brown eye gene and one for blue eyes they will have brown eyes because this is the dominant gene, rather than some intermediate colour. Mendel noted similar examples in pea plants; before his work, nobody could explain this pattern.9

However, the history of genetics since Mendel is mainly about exceptions to his laws of inheritance. Many variants are neither dominant nor recessive. Mendel worked out the laws of genetics without knowing where or what the inherited units might be. His rules work well, but only up to a point. As Steve Jones remarks, molecular biology since Mendel has “turned a beautiful story based on peas into a much murkier tale which looks more like pea soup”.10 The complexity of inheritance made the prospect of selecting for a particular genetic trait in humans an unlikely prospect.

Mendelian genetics was opposed by an older alternative, the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which was popular among scientists until the late 1930s. This became known as Lamarckism, although it was not central to French biologist Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of evolution. Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that the essential difference with Darwinian natural selection is that Lamarckism is a theory of directed variation: “If hairy coats are better, animals perceive the need, grow them, and pass the potential to offspring.”11

Trajectories of eugenics

In his influential book on the history of eugenics, Daniel Kevles makes a key distinction between “reform” and “mainline” eugenics. Adherents of the latter saw attempts to raise the living conditions of the poor as superficial, irrelevant or even positively harmful. Leonard Darwin’s 1913 presidential address, for example, emphasised that large sums of money were being wasted on “services which would be much less needed if the unfit were eliminated”.12 Such concerns were already being turned into policies in the US, and would later be implemented on an even larger scale in Hitler’s Germany.

US big business, specifically the fortunes of the Carnegie, Rockefeller and Harriman dynasties, sponsored eugenics research, despite increasing criticism that it was biased, unscientific and fraudulent. In 1935, the Carnegie Institution, the principle sponsor of research into genetics, carried out an inspection of the Eugenics Record Office. Almost a million records were found “unsatisfactory for the human science of genetics” and the remaining data “relatively worthless for genetic study”.13 Despite these damning findings, the funding continued until December 1939—two months after the Nazi invasion of Poland.

In the US, through much of the 20th century, compulsory sterilisation was seen as the best way to dispose of undesirables—newly emancipated blacks, Jews and other “races”, as well as the poor, infirm and disabled. A total of 27 US states passed compulsory sterilisation laws, mainly affecting “criminals, idiots, rapists and imbeciles”.14 Up to 1963, over 64,000 people were forcibly sterilised, most of them women. In California, figures show that disproportionately large numbers were of Mexican descent. The diagnoses included being “oversexed”, “sexually wayward” or having an abnormally large clitoris or labia.15 Other laws enforced segregation or marriage restrictions.

Nazi eugenics transformed all subsequent discussion of the issue. Beginning six months after Hitler took power in 1933, a new programme authorised the compulsory sterilisation of around 350,000 people with a range of supposedly heritable conditions. Hitler later extended the powers of doctors so that those deemed “unworthy of life” could be granted a “mercy death.” The T4 programme involved the murder of at least 275,000 disabled people, many of them the first victims of gas chambers later used in the concentration camps. The careers of doctors who participated in the killing operation were in many cases unaffected, and no compensation was ever paid to relatives.

Not all eugenicists were racists or Nazis. Others promoted social reforms in health care, housing and education, rejecting any identification of innate ability with race or class.16 However, although some “reform” eugenicists blamed social causes instead of inferior genes, most shared with their mainline peers a concern over the poor biological qualities of individuals.

The Scandinavian countries are seen as progressive mainly due to the welfare states they set up in the 1930s. But the same social democratic parties (similar to Britain’s Labour Party) responsible for these reforms also introduced laws authorising the compulsory sterilisation of thousands of people classed as feebleminded or mentally retarded. From 1935 to 1975, Sweden sterilised more of its population, both in absolute and relative terms, than any other country except Nazi Germany.

Another strand, “Latin” eugenics, criticised notions of Nordic or ­Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, and opposed state-sponsored sterilisation as intrusive and coercive. Less offensive to Catholic sensibilities, Latin eugenics instead favoured “programmes of preventative medicine, public health and social hygiene” that promoted population growth.17

Even Russia’s revolutionary government sponsored eugenics from 1920 onwards. In the face of a social and economic crisis including famine and epidemics, it declared its aim of creating “a health system that would not just heal the sick, but which would prevent illness from happening”.18 Against a pre-­revolutionary background of widespread antisemitism, studies of ­heredity in the period after the revolution stressed “positive” rather than “negative” eugenics and placed very little emphasis on race and racial mixing, especially when compared with the West. Studies at the time highlighted the “lack of any significant behavioural difference between Jews and non-Jews”,19 and stated that “there is no such thing as an ‘inborn criminal’”.20 The term “racial hygiene” ­carried no prejudicial implication, referring only to the study of “the relationship between disease and ethnicity”.21 As late as 1934, even Trotsky was still expressing support for eugenics in a letter to US Communists.22

Like its Western counterparts, however, Russian eugenics was a largely middle class movement that set its sail according to the prevailing political winds. So although the extent of the population crisis (a consequence of famines and extremely low birth rates) meant sterilisation was never seriously discussed, the rise of “socialism in one country” led in the late 1920s to the publication of at least one study that presented Jews as inferior to other ethnic groups.23 But the subsequent consolidation of Stalin’s rule meant a turn away from eugenics as genetics and eugenics alike were equated with fascism, and greater scientific investment coincided with “the sacking, imprisonment and murder of individual scientists” who had carried out research on genetics.24 Trofim Lysenko’s brand of Lamarckism, and his rejection of genetics, became the state ideology, until his own fall from favour long after Stalin’s death.

Heredity and intelligence

The belief that intelligence is hereditary is central to eugenics. Psychologists at Harvard University in the US transformed French educator Alfred Binet’s diagnostic tool into the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test. This conceived of ­“intelligence” as a measureable, ranked and innate biological reality, with the term “moron” coined to describe those with the lowest scores. Of 1.75 million US army war draftees assessed under the new test in 1916, around 30 percent were classified as morons. Despite criticism of their class, race and cultural bias, IQ tests quickly became a multi-million dollar industry, widely used in education and business to assess students and workers. In 1921, British psychologist and eugenicist Cyril Burt claimed to have transformed the test “from a discredited dodge of the charlatan into a recognised instrument of scientific precision”.25 His claims that IQ differences were largely hereditary, and that British national intelligence was declining, were used to restructure the educational system. Burt’s creation of the eleven-plus examination “guaranteed the segregation of working class children into inferior schools from which there was virtually no access to universities”.26

It was not until 1974 that Leon Kamin exposed Burt’s now notorious research and findings on IQ as fraudulent. As Gould so aptly put it, Burt’s dogmatic conviction that intelligence was innate “won his fame and eventually sealed his fate”.27 Binet himself once protested against the “brutal pessimism” that regards a child’s IQ score as a fixed measure of his or her ability, rightly seeing that to regard the child as thus fixed was to help ensure that he or she remained so.28

The hugely influential “Colchester Survey” by British biologist Lionel Penrose (published in 1938) confirmed the hereditary nature of some conditions and that some of these were associated with recessive genes.29 His other findings, showing that environmental influences extended to the embryo itself, and that definitions of mental illness and crime were used interchangeably, were hugely damaging to eugenics. “Crime and mental disorder were very often regarded in popular culture as one and the same, especially among the poor, but Penrose was the first to point out that the overlapping of the two criteria was a result of class prejudice…rather than a clinical definition”.30

In a 1933 lecture, Penrose had noted how concepts of degeneracy were also class-based: “In the upper classes, poverty is sometimes regarded as evidence of degeneracy. Similarly, the poor can complain of the degenerate, idle and dissolute behaviour of the rich.” Rejecting out of hand “legal grades of mental deficiency…as scientifically worthless”, Penrose was convinced that “liability to certification as mentally deficient hinged on social class”.31

Kevles highlights that the “widening disjunction between the chief scientific claims of eugenics and the results of modern genetic science” in the 1920s and 1930s was one factor which led individual scientists to become increasingly critical of eugenics.32 As Penrose carried out his research, the notion that separate races of humans can be distinguished by their genetic attributes was starting to be challenged. Modern biology and genetics has proved that these ideas are based, not on science, but on prejudice. As Jones explains:

Around eight-tenths of total diversity, worldwide, comes from the differences between the people of the same country…the overall genetic differences between “races” (Africans and Europeans, for example) is not much greater than between different countries within Europe or within Africa. DNA bears a simple message; that individuals are the repository of most variation…the difference between the races is less than a fiftieth than between man and chimpanzee.33

Jones points out that we “would have a different view of race if we diagnosed it from blood groups, with an unlikely alliance between the Armenians and the Nigerians, who could despise the B-free people of Australia and Peru”.34 Blood groups do provide useful information about population geography. The genetic blood disease Thalassaemia, for example, is mainly found among people of Mediterranean origin, while the fatal genetic condition Tay Sachs occurs almost exclusively among Ashkenazi Jews. Sickle cell anaemia, originating in West Africa, is common among black people in the US, where a screening programme in the 1970s—made compulsory in some US states—led to job discrimination.35

In 1945, Penrose was appointed as Galton eugenics professor and head of the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics at UCL. By 1954, he had persuaded the university to remove the term “eugenics” from both his post and the laboratory. He also changed the title of the laboratory’s main publication from The Annals of Eugenics to The Annals of Human Genetics.36 It was a belated confirmation that eugenics was no longer publicly respectable as a subject of scientific study.

Race and racism

Galton complained about “unreasonable” sentiment “against the gradual extinction of an inferior race”.37 His quasi-biological belief in the superiority of Britain’s rulers was widely shared among the middle class, as was his desire to halt the reproduction of the genetically unfit.

Anti-Jewish racism led to Britain’s first anti-immigrant legislation, the Aliens Act of 1905. Immigration figures would remain low, particularly compared with those of the US, for more than four decades. This factor, combined with the success of empire, may explain why British eugenics concerned itself more with the biology of social class than its US and German peers.

The notion of “scientific racism”, classifying races and judging their value on the basis of biology, began with French anatomists such as Paul Broca and the aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau in the mid-19th century.38 However, it is with eugenics—in Germany and the US in particular—that it is most strongly associated.

During the 1920s, a debate began in the Weimar Republic over which of the most widely used terms for eugenics—Rassehygiene or Rassenhygiene (race-hygiene or races-hygiene)—was the most appropriate or accurate.39 Some preferred the “n” omitted on the grounds that this indicated reference to one human species. Another group insisted “that the ‘n’ was indeed a plural form and that a differentiation [of races] on the basis of ‘genetic’ worth was an entirely scientific goal.” The rival terms became “a kind of political flag” signifying support for either left or right eugenics, with the latter position becoming a foundation of Nazi “race biology”.40

At the turn of the 20th century, the term “race” was used in much of ­colonial Europe and the US “to refer to any geographical, religious, class-based or colour-based grouping”, with “its scientific usage…multiple, ambiguous and at times self-contradictory”. Race was widely accepted as a biological category, and “theories which constructed a hierarchy of races with the Nordic at the top were considered factual, free of prejudice and generally pertinent to social and political analysis”.41 As a consequence, the racist assumptions often implicit in eugenics were rarely challenged at this time.

American eugenics, led by the biologist Charles Davenport and his protégé Harry Laughlin, was from the outset explicitly racist. Davenport and Laughlin used the new national institutions, the Eugenic Record Office and the Eugenic Research Association, to wield a virtually hegemonic influence over human biology and its public face. Data from IQ tests were used to convince US legislators “that Slavs, Jews, Italians and others were mentally dull and that their dullness was racial, or at least constitutional”, providing apparent scientific legitimacy to the infamous 1924 Immigration Act (and its bias against Eastern and Southern Europeans).42 The extent to which this and other US laws influenced the foundation of a Nazi state based on “applied biology” is clear from numerous Nazi documents.43 In the early years of the Third Reich, several US eugenicists—Laughlin in particular—welcomed Hitler’s plans as a logical ­fulfilment of their own efforts.

Eugenics and racism have become almost interchangeable terms, but the “association”, as Alison Bashford and Philippa Levine put it, is “perhaps too simplistic”.44 Even in Hitler’s Germany, the majority of those forcibly sterilised or murdered on eugenic grounds were German citizens classed as “feeble-minded” or “useless eaters”.45 Elsewhere too, the victims of state-sponsored sterilisation were women living in asylums or others among the poorest and most marginalised sections of society.

Women and reproductive rights

Mass sterilisation was also practiced widely across newly industrialising ­countries in the decades after the Second World War, particularly in China and India (although the rich were often able to gain exemptions). These policies were aimed explicitly at restricting population growth. Governments in Japan and Eastern Europe also used female sterilisation.46

Given its focus on reproductive sex, eugenics attracted feminists as well as conservatives. The best-known pioneers of birth control in the US and Britain respectively, Margaret Sanger and Marie Stopes, were also firm eugenicists. Although “birth-control clinics brought freedom from fear of unwanted births to many poor and working class as well as middle class women”,47 both Sanger and Stopes saw the priority being to restrict the breeding of “inferior stock”. Writing in 1919, Sanger put it bluntly: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit—that is the chief issue of birth control”.48 Another US socialist, deaf and blind campaigner Helen Keller, even advocated euthanasia for severely mentally impaired children.49

Whatever the motivation behind the practice, women made up the vast majority of those subjected to sterilisation—despite the operation being far more difficult and dangerous than for men. The distinction between voluntary and compulsory sterilisation may have been a point of principle for many “reform” eugenicists, but in practice many women, particularly those initially seeking only an abortion, were heavily pressurised to accept sterilisation.50

US geneticist Herbert Jennings worked out in the early 1930s that sterilising large numbers of people to stop supposedly hereditary conditions could not work in many cases, because “the defect was not dominant but recessive, and a large group of asymptomatic carriers would always continue to carry on the gene to the next generation.” He also suggested that “negative eugenic measures would be made more effective by a method of detecting normal carriers of defective genes: but this cannot now be done”.51 What was science fiction to Jennings later became fact: prenatal and pre-implantation genetic screening techniques now provide women with a choice as to whether or not to abort a potentially impaired foetus.

Steven and Hilary Rose point out that screening tests indicate only the likelihood of a condition being present, not its degree of severity, and that the proliferation of screening techniques has been accompanied by inadequate counselling services.52 They go on to ask how far choices are freely made. To describe such services as an example of “consumer eugenics”, as they do, however, stretches the meaning of the term eugenics too far. As Kevles puts it, “people have children to satisfy themselves, not to fuel some brave new world”.53 A woman’s right to choose whether or not to have a disabled child needs to involve a genuine freedom from well-founded concerns that the child would face a life of discrimination and disadvantage.

The rapid development of screening technologies has led to more complex ethical debates. Millions of people, for example, carry the gene for cystic fibrosis (CF), although the disease only appears among a tiny minority. Screening for CF is widely supported by the public, but better treatments may soon allow more people with the illness to live longer and more active lives. On the other hand, a growing number of US court cases have involved “wrongful birth” lawsuits by parents whose children’s inborn conditions were not diagnosed.54 The key issue here, however, remains the notion that some human lives are more valuable than others. Furthermore, with the current rise of the far-right and fascist movements, there is a real prospect that eugenic ideas will once again be taken up by those who seek to defend the “white race” from a supposed threat.

Racism and the new right

Shortly after his ejection from the White House, Steve Bannon issued a rallying cry to the far right: “Let them call you racist… Wear it as a badge of honour.” The term “alt-right” was invented by its best-known figure, US millionaire Richard Spencer, who defined its unifying principles with the statement: “Race is real. Race matters. Race is the foundation of identity”.55 Figures on the new alt-right include self-styled philosopher Stefan Molyneux, whose YouTube channel has almost a million subscribers. In Europe, Generation Identity shares with its US peers a concern to “rhetorically and stylistically distance itself from older far-right movements, though its ultimate goals are similar”.56

George Hawley sees the “white genocide” and “race realism” of today’s far right as a reheated version of the scientific racism of the 1930s, which divided Europeans into categories such as “Alpines” and “Mediterraneans”, with “Nordics” (or “Aryans”) seen as the superior white race. Where the US right of a century ago saw Eastern Europeans as of “inferior stock” and as undesirable immigrants, today’s alt-right “seeks to foster a pan-European racial identity”.57

In her timely new book on the history of scientific racism, Angela Saini details the secret networks and associations formed after the defeat of the Nazi regime, with journals such as Northlander and Mankind Quarterly helping to keep fascist ideas alive. The latter was established in 1960 with the backing of US textile multi-millionaire Wickliffe Draper. Its founders aimed “to challenge what they saw as a politically correct left-wing conspiracy around race and bring back some scientific objectivity”.58

Over a century ago, president Theodore Roosevelt argued that immigration to the US posed a threat of “race suicide”59 and Winston Churchill claimed that “the growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes…constitutes a national and race danger”.60 Right wing governments today seem similarly determined to invoke a danger to the race and nation. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbàn recently cited fears that immigrants would “replace the population of Europeans with others”.61 This invoking of “white replacement” theory was used to justify his far right government’s policy exempting Hungarian women with four children or more from paying income tax.62 This provides legitimacy for the far right and fascist forces. The Greek Golden Dawn party, until recently Europe’s most successful openly fascist organisation, declared on one of its websites in 2012: “For us nationalists, racial mixing…almost always leads to anomalous results and mental illnesses due to the destructive combination of inherited mental characteristics”.63

Much of the new right, however, is keen to avoid so openly articulating its prejudices. Academics and public figures such as Molyneux describe their ideas in terms carrying a veneer of scientific objectivity, such as “race realism”, “hereditarianism” or “human biodiversity”. Noah Carl was given a research fellowship at the University of Cambridge in December 2018. Remarkably, the appointment was made after he was revealed to have attended the secret conferences on eugenics at UCL. Another attendee was Richard Lynn, longstanding figurehead of the far right and until recently an emeritus professor at the University of Ulster. His two books on eugenics restate the theme that “humans are deteriorating…because modern medicine allows people with major health problems to survive and reproduce”.64

Figures such as Carl and Lynn argue that people from different ethnic, religious or cultural backgrounds are likely to share traits such as criminality or lower intelligence. A key reference is Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s 1994 book The Bell Curve, which argued that social inequalities are due to differences in inherited characteristics. Like their mainline eugenicist predecessors, the authors assert that welfare or affirmative action schemes are pointless because groups such as blacks or Latinos are programmed to fail, so the only solution is to stop them from breeding. A year after the publication of The Bell Curve, Chris Brand, a self-confessed scientific racist lecturer at Edinburgh University, tried to publish another book arguing that IQ differences between black and white Americans are due to genetic differences. A hugely successful anti-racist campaign by Edinburgh students led to the publishers withdrawing his book. Brand was dismissed as a crank, but his central belief—that our genes determine human characteristics and ­behaviour—remains widespread.

As Gould noted, “resurgences of biological determinism correlate with episodes of political retrenchment, particularly with campaigns for reduced government spending on social programmes, or at times of fear among ruling elites”.65 The last decade of austerity, with its Islamophobia and anti-migrant racism, has provided increasingly favourable conditions for the growth of the far right. Defending their ideas under the banner of freedom of speech, they attack the “liberal establishment” for its unwillingness to engage with the “facts”.

While refuting these reactionary arguments on scientific grounds is vital, the key is political action. Brand, Lynn and Carl were all forced out of their prestigious academic posts by campaigns that refused to accept their right to teach racism. In the case of Carl, over 1,400 people including staff and students signed an open letter entitled “No to Racist Pseudoscience at Cambridge”. This prompted an investigation from the college which found that his work “demonstrated poor scholarship, promoted extreme right-wing views and incited racial and religious hatred”.66 Murray’s guest lectures at colleges across the US have also been met by protests. The fortunes of the fascists and far right elsewhere also depend on mass action to expose their ideas and splinter their forces.

What, then, was behind the rise of eugenics? Why did figures on the left see it as progressive? And why is it making a comeback among the far right today?

Eugenics in context

Maurizio Meloni identifies four threads common to eugenics: first, a belief that human physical and mental characteristics are both inherited; second, that social engineering is needed to control the evolution of humanity; third, that “the eugenic gospel” must be disseminated by neutral, disinterested professional scientific authorities; and finally, that national or “racial” interests must take primacy over those of the individual.67

Several factors were central to the development of eugenics movements in the early 20th century. The first was the enormous prestige of science at the turn of the century, thanks to a series of inventions that transformed millions of people’s lives; electric light, the phonograph, cinema and radio, chemical fertiliser, petroleum, X-rays and a host of new medicines. This view of science as synonymous with modernity and progress was widely shared—not least in revolutionary Russia, whose ambitions were summarised by Lenin as “soviets and electrification”. The widespread identification of eugenics with the new science of genetics boosted its appeal across the political spectrum.

A second factor was a new intelligentsia’s concern with issues of criminality and madness—particularly within the burgeoning and impoverished proletariat. “Moral hygiene” campaigns in the rapidly expanding cities promoted improvements in health, welfare and working conditions, while religious notions about humanity’s “fall from grace” were increasingly supplanted by the view “that vices such as crime, prostitution and pauperism were evils held to be hereditary in origin”.68 Sections of the middle class, particularly professionals linked to the expanding institutions of the state, believed that their respective countries were endangered by “degeneracy” in the indigenous population. At least one writer has also argued that eugenics was a response to the exponential rise in asylum populations in the second half of the 19th century, and a growing belief that reducing insanity required a shift towards public health measures.69

Charles Dickens’s archetypal 19th century capitalist Thomas Gradgrind carried “a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket…ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic”.70 By the turn of the century, psychiatrists and scientists alike were using statistical data to argue that hereditary defects and “degeneration” stood in the way of progress. As Theodore Porter puts it, a “brave new world of rationalised armies, factories and imperial colonies seemed to demand strong, efficient citizens, to be guided now by science”.71

The high tide of eugenics was linked to a global shift towards greater state intervention in response to the Great Depression of the early 1930s. Some form of eugenic policy often accompanied greater investment in education, health and welfare states in Europe and elsewhere. After the Nazi Holocaust, eugenics largely disappeared from Europe, only to be embraced by the Chinese and Indian governments from the 1970s onwards. The return to free market policies has elsewhere marginalised eugenics, but states retain considerable control over areas such as reproduction, health and childcare.

Contrary to popular myth, state investment in welfare was not in and of itself progressive, and the idea of the welfare state was not exclusive to the left:

Historians of the welfare state have concentrated upon proposals for old-age pensions, free education, free school meals, subsidised housing and national insurance. They have virtually ignored parallel proposals to segregate the casual poor, to establish detention centres for “loafers”, to separate pauper children from “degenerate” parents or to ship the “residuum” overseas. Yet, for contemporaries, both sorts of proposals composed parts of a single debate.72

In similar vein, compulsory mass education was not “simply a means to ­facilitate economic development,” but also “an opportunity to indoctrinate [children] with nationalistic sentiments”.73

A final factor in the growth of eugenics was the way in which the growth of powerful working class movements inspired a fear of “the mob”. This in turn sharpened concerns to separate “respectable” workers from a “casual residuum” —in today’s parlance “chavs” or the “underclass”.74

Writing in the 1930s, US biologist and Nobel prize winner Hermann Müller called mainstream eugenics “a hopelessly perverted movement…lending a false appearance of scientific basis to advocates of race and class prejudice, defenders of church and state, fascists and Hitlerites generally”.75 Müller and other left-wing eugenicists nevertheless believed that some people were genetically inferior—even if they did not attribute that inferiority to race. British left-wing biologist Julian Huxley argued that the “upper economic classes” needed to breed more because they are “slightly better endowed with ability”, while the “lowest strata, allegedly less well-endowed genetically, are reproducing relatively too fast”.76 Trotsky shared the view of Marxists such as Müller and Haldane that implementing a revolutionary and internationalist version of eugenics would lead to a genetically superior population.77

Critics and supporters of eugenics existed across the political spectrum, but the rise of fascism polarised opinion between left and right. In Britain, Lancelot Hogben joined Huxley’s and Haldane’s increasingly strident attacks on US and Nazi eugenics. In the mid-1930s, the Labour Party and Trades Union Congress successfully opposed new eugenic laws, as did a small minority of socialists in the Swedish and Finnish parliaments (although with less success). In the US, anthropologist Franz Boas led growing opposition to the scientific racism of Davenport, Laughlin and their allies.

What, then, of eugenics today? First, its assumptions—albeit rarely acknowledged—continue to shape current social policy. In April 2017, the UK’s Conservative government applied a two child limit to the new state benefit universal credit, justified on the grounds that the current benefits structure is “unsustainable and not fair to the taxpayer and [working] families”.78 On the other hand, there has been little evidence of eugenics regaining acceptance among contemporary scientists—although one Chinese scientist was recently widely condemned by his peers for using “gene editing” to make direct changes to human embryos. Most countries ban the procedure because the technology is still experimental and risks unforeseen side effects being passed on to future generations.79

Scientists’ ability to understand, let alone manipulate human intelligence is as yet very limited. Neuroscience, the multidisciplinary branch of biology centred on the study of the brain and nervous system, has been applied to disciplines ranging from economics and aesthetics through to organisational behaviour and even theology. As a field of study, it can provide valuable insights, such as neuroscientist Gina Rippon’s new book demolishing the myth of different male and female brains.80 In general, however, the knowledge base of neuroscience remains modest. Despite important advances, Andrew Scull notes, “we are very far indeed from being able to connect even very simple human actions to the underlying structure and function of human brains. We are decades away, after all, from successfully mapping the brain of a fruit fly”.81

Furthermore, recent thinking within biology has challenged the notion of animals and humans as what Richard Dawkins has called “lumbering robots”, whose sole function is to survive long enough to transmit the genes they carry to the next generation. It has even raised the idea that organisms themselves might play a role in evolution through their actions. As Steven Rose explains:

Organisms do not merely accept the environment into which they are born, but work to seek out a more favourable one (the term for this is “niche construction”) and, having found it, they transform it, just as the beaver does by building a dam. [That] processes other than natural selection contribute to evolutionary change…would have been no surprise to Darwin, who repeatedly emphasised that he saw natural selection as the major, but by no means the only evolutionary mechanism.82

Individual human abilities and perceptions equip us with a range of potential responses to a complex and changing environment. As Koch puts it: “making a rare orchid does not improve orchids at large, just the hothouse species that will require perpetual care and selective breeding to maintain. Were the eugenicists able to select traits, the result would be, at very best, hothouse humans.”83 Koch adds that “innate traits only become actualised abilities with repetitive study and practice…one cannot breed human attributes (affection, artistry, intelligence) in the same way that an orchid is bred to a bizarre coloration”.84

Throughout its 50,000-year history, our cultural evolution has been incomparably more rapid than that of our biology. Contrary to the claims of eugenics, it is the former that distinguishes human beings from other animals. While biology limits what we can do as individuals, it also provides the capacity to transcend those limits. Although we cannot fly as individuals, our brains and hands can create a society that produces aeroplanes.


The fluidity and heterogeneity of eugenics movements in the first four decades of the 20th century makes identifying politically distinct “mainline” and “reform” varieties a complex affair. Eugenic notions of human self-improvement were entangled with class bias and antagonisms on the one hand and the embryonic form of a new genetic science on the other. Although implicit or even explicitly opposed in other cases, mainstream eugenics legitimised or (in the US and German cases in particular) actively promoted racism and provided it with a badge of scientific respectability and objectivity.

Eugenics is a reactionary pseudo-science, based on the idea of breeding out innate biological characteristics deemed to be inferior. It articulated the views of reformists (and even some revolutionaries), who believed that hereditary improvement was part of social progress, and conservatives who believed that the economic burden of the “unfit” should be reduced. Most eugenicists also believed that social diseases such as crime, alcoholism and immorality were inherited, and must be controlled or disposed of by an enlightened elite. Judging part of society as “unfit” effectively designates it as labour that cannot or should not be bought due to its lack of value. The underlying assumption of “mainline” eugenics—dubbed by Jones “the survival of the richest”—is that the capitalist class are fit to rule and there is no alternative to the status quo.85

Marxists, on the contrary, see capitalist rule as the principal cause of all social ills, and its termination as a precondition to saving humanity’s future. Transforming this world will require social engineering on an unprecedented scale. In sharp contrast to any eugenic scheme for “human betterment”, this would not be the act of an elite, but a collective process of self-emancipation.

Having lost its allure of scientific objectivity, eugenics rarely features in modern genetics or science. Largely taboo in Western countries, overt eugenic policies could yet reappear with a growth in state coercion. Despite overwhelming evidence proving it to be a myth, the most immediate threat is the revival of scientific racism. Its principal supporters share the pedigree, and aspire to continue the work, of their predecessors. Demonstrating this, of course, requires not only scientific rebuttals but also building and mobilising a broad-based resistance—based on an incomparably richer account of humanity and its potential.

Roddy Slorach is a socialist working in higher education and active in the University and Colleges Union. He is also author of A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability (Bookmarks, 2016).


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1 Quoted in Slorach, 2016, p93. Thanks to Esme Choonara, Lee Humber, Sheila McGregor, John Parrington and Sean Wallis for their comments on earlier drafts of this article. Its final content, of course, is entirely my responsibility.

2 Wintour, 2013.

3 Fazackerley, 2018.

4 Quoted in Ings, 2016, p143.

5 Pearl, p395. The Imperial Institute later became Imperial College London. The actual venue for the conference remains little known, and is incorrectly stated even in accounts such as Angela Saini’s recent bestselling book Superior. This cites a contemporary New York Times report, which wrongly stated that the venue for the conference (as opposed to the banquet) was the Cecil Hotel.

6 Kevles, 1995, p63.

7 Meloni, 2016, p174

8 Adams, 1990, p219.

9 Jones, 2000, pp43-44.

10 Jones, 2000, p52.

11 Gould, 1980, p79.

12 Searle, 1981, p234.

13 Black, 2003, p390.

14 Kerr and Shakespeare, 2003, p19.

15 Black, 2003a.

16 Kevles, 1995, p174.

17 Turda and Gilette, 2016, p165. Latin eugenics included France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Italy as well as the continent of Latin America.

18 Ings, 2016, p145.

19 Meloni, 2016, p121.

20 Krementsov in Bashford and Levine, 2010, p420.

21 Ings, 2016, p145.

22 Trotsky, 1935. Trotsky’s letter anticipates a future revolution in which “Americans, after taking a firm grip on your economic machinery and your culture, will apply genuine scientific methods to the problem of eugenics. Within a century, out of your melting pot of races there will come a new breed of men—the first worthy of the name of Man.”

23 Rundling 2014, p50.

24 Ings, 2016, pxv.

25 Quoted in Gould, 1981, p234.

26 Rose and others, 1984, p26.

27 Gould, 1981, p279.

28 Rose and others, 1984, p15.

29 Kevles, 1995, pp158-159.

30 Barkan, 1992, p264.

31 Kevles, 1995, p156.

32 Kevles, 1995, p122.

33 Jones, 2000, pp262-263.

34 Jones, 2000, p262.

35 Jones and Van Loon, 2011, p158, and Kevles, p278.

36 Kevles, 1995, p252. The chair at UCL was renamed the Galton Professorship of Human Genetics.

37 Quoted in Rose and others, 1984, p30.

38 Jones, 1997, p197.

39 These terms were used in preference to the German for eugenic, and derive from the English term “race hygiene” or “racial hygiene”, not commonly used in English at the time and which has no plural form.

40 Graham, 1977, p1139.

41 Barkan, 1992, p2.

42 Rose, and others, 1984, p27. The Act was designed to maintain the US’s existing ethnic composition, with each country allocated a quota of 2 percent of those of its citizens resident in the US in 1890 (a time when most of the population originated from Western Europe). The legislation was not repealed until 1966—Jones, 2000, p260.

43 The term was first coined by the key German eugenicist Fritz Lenz and popularised by Rudolf Hess.

44 Bashford and Levine, 2010, p6.

45 For more on the story of Nazi eugenics, see chapter 7 of Slorach, 2016.

46 See Reilly, 2015, p361.

47 Rose and Rose, 2012, p129.

48 Kevles, 1995, p90.

49 Kerr and Shakespeare, 2003, p14. For more on the grounds and context for Keller’s position, see New York University, 2009/2010.

50 Bashford and Levine, 2010, p18.

51 Bashford and Levine, 2010, p19.

52 Rose and Rose, 2012, p140.

53 Kevles, 2016.

54 Jones and Van Loon, 2011, pp132-153.

55 Hawley, 2019, p10.

56 Hawley, 2019, p81.

57 Hawley, 2019, p101.

58 Saini, 2019, p98.

59 Roosevelt, 1906, quoted in Davis, 1981, p209.

60 Churchill to Asquith, 1910, quoted in Iggulden, 2002.

61 Walker, 2019.

62 BBC News, 2019.

63 Quoted on Ατεχνως, 2019. Thanks to Despina Karayianni for the quote and translation.

64 Hawley, 2019, p102.

65 Gould, 1981, p28.

66 Parker, 2019.

67 Meloni, 2016, pp66-67.

68 Rimke and Hunt, 2002, p72.

69 Porter, 2018, pp5-6.

70 Rose and others, 1984, p44.

71 Porter, 2018, p218.

72 Stedman Jones, 2013, p314.

73 Turda, 2014, p5.

74 For a more detailed discussion of the “residuum” and fears of degeneration, see Stedman Jones, 2013.

75 Ball, 2011, p175.

76 Ball, 2011, p175.

77 In 1922, Trotsky had argued that, using artificial selection, the human being could “raise himself to a new level…create a higher socio-biological type, an Ubermensch, if you will”—Krementsov, 2011, p90.

78 Burns, 2017.

79 Guardian, 2018. Despite the controversy, a Russian biologist has since carried out similar research. This involves editing a gene associated with deafness in eggs donated by women who can hear, which he argues may allow deaf couples carrying the mutation to have children with typical hearing—see Makowski, 2019.

80 Fox, 2019.

81 Quoted in Wastell and White, 2017, p48.

82 Rose, 2016.

83 Koch, 2011, p196.

84 Koch, 2011, p197.

85 Jones, 2000, p7.