Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Eugenics and Other Evils (1922) delineates the scientific and ethical fallacies of “eugenics,” the science of human breeding to improve the race, which was called by its proponents “the self-direction of human evolution.” The first English proponent of these ideas was Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin, who coined the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883. Chesterton is today known as one of the earliest and most vocal opponents of this pseudo-science.
Here it’s necessary to give some background on what eugenics is, before I can break down Chesterton’s objections to it, and what it means for us today.
The History of Eugenics
Many reviewers have started out by saying that eugenics is now defunct, but this is not exactly true. During a period extending until 1952, as many as 20,000 mentally ill patients were sterilized in the United States. This happened after the post-WWII Nuremberg Trials had declared such acts “crimes against humanity.” In the Arabian Peninsula, where cousin marriage is considered ideal among many families, screenings are frequently given that determine the likelihood of birth defects; so, in that sense, a soft form of genetic planning is being practiced in some of the world’s richest societies, and it is not without controversy.
Eugenics was also a key motivator in the promotion of the birth control movement. Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood, “increasingly rationalized birth control as a means of reducing genetically transmitted mental or physical defects, and at times supported sterilization for the mentally incompetent.” The biographer adds, “While she did not advocate efforts to limit population growth solely on the basis of class, ethnicity or race, and refused to encourage positive race-based eugenics, Sanger’s reputation was permanently tainted by her association with the reactionary wing of the eugenics movement.”  This last sentence is very controversial; others have written elsewhere that Sanger did promote race-based eugenics, but here I am getting too far afield.
Chesterton’s Objections to Eugenics
Chesterton’s arguments against eugenics are somewhat scattered in his book, but they may be grouped into ethical, economic, practical, and political objections.
The ethical objections are the most obvious. In Chesterton’s time, eugenics was being pegged as the end of “feeble-mindedness”; the thought was, mentally ill parents have mentally ill children, so all we need to do is prevent the mentally ill from copulating. In contemporary terminology, this leaves little or no room for those who are “disabled” or “differently abled.” It was unashamed ableism, and it was being promoted by great minds like H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Theodore Roosevelt, and Bertrand Russell. Eugenists believed that the disabled were merely a burden on the rest of society; in capitalist thought, they provided no value inasmuch as they could not contribute to industry.
The economic objections are just as damaging. Here it may be pointed out that abortion, in common with eugenics, is touted as a way of aiding the poor by decreasing their family responsibilities. In fact, Chesterton points out, In America, black women have almost triple the abortion rate that white women have (27.1 / 1000 among blacks; 10 / 1000 among whites). Classism can easily masquerade as either eugenics or abortion, and it can be a way of keeping minorities minorities. Both are destructive for diversity.
As a practical objection, Chesterton points out that eugenics was on shaky ground scientifically, and almost carried the absurdity of the famous statement, “we have to pass the bill to find out what’s in it.” In Chesterton’s day, there simply was not sufficient knowledge of the genome to even attempt such widespread changes as some were promoting.
There cannot be such a thing as the health adviser of the community, because there cannot be such a thing as one who specialises in the universe. (p. 26)
Again, a policy of eugenics would require a vast quantity of knowledge that, even in 2020, evades us. Even with modern genome mapping, there is still much that we do not know and cannot predict:
I simply cannot conceive any responsible person proposing to legislate on our broken knowledge and bottomless ignorance of heredity. (p. 31)
Eugenics also operates under the assumption that we know what the results will be.
Marry two handsome people whose noses tend to the aquiline, and their baby (for all you know) may be a goblin with a nose like an enormous parrot’s. (p. 32)
Chesterton’s political objections mainly refer to the limitation of state power. Chesterton considered himself a democrat in the most literal, non-partisan sense of the word; that is, he believed in “the common people.” As such, he could not support a politicized pseudo-scientific movement, like eugenics, that would lead to a rapid expansion of state power. He did advocate the expansion of power in special circumstances—such as the 2019-2020 coronavirus pandemic—provided that these were regarded as special circumstances. For more on this, read what follows.
On its most basic level, this book is a statement of the value of human life. This is a topic where American Catholics have been, I believe, more consistent in contemporary thought than American Protestants. Wherever else our philosophy turns, it must begin with the axiom of the great value, not of people or personhood, but of a person.
In the matter of fundamental human rights, nothing can be above Man, except God. (p. 27)
There were two other sections of the book that I thought any modern reader would find very interesting.
The first was Chesterton’s thoughts on the limitation of state power. Libertarians will be licking their lips when the read chapter titles like “The Eclipse of Liberty” and “The Transformation of Socialism”; however, what Chesterton espouses here is not libertarianism, or socialism, or capitalism. He does point out eugenic policies could lead to the bloating of state power, and would also be oppressive to the poor. What he says is happening instead, is that we are losing our liberties to the state, and we are oppressing the poor, and therefore are getting the worst of both socialism and capitalism, without getting the benefits of either.
The compromise eventually made was one of the most interesting and even curious cases in history. It was decided to do everything that had ever been denounced in Socialism, and nothing that had ever been desired in it. Since it was supposed to gain equality at the sacrifice of liberty, we proceeded to prove that it was possible to sacrifice liberty without gaining equality. (p. 71)
The second section of the book that intrigued me was in the very last chapter. There, the author tells the strange and true anecdote of “Eugenette,” a poster-child of eugenics in its heyday:
Round about the year 1913 Eugenics was turned from a fad to a fashion. Then, if I may so summarise the situation, the joke began in earnest. The organising mind which we have seen considering the problem of slum population, the popular material and the possibility of protests, felt that the time had come to open the campaign. Eugenics began to appear in big headlines in the daily Press, and big pictures in the illustrated papers. A foreign gentleman named Bolce, living at Hampstead, was advertised on a huge scale as having every intention of being the father of the Superman. It turned out to be a Superwoman, and was called Eugenette. The parents were described as devoting themselves to the production of perfect pre-natal conditions. They “eliminated everything from their lives which did not tend towards complete happiness.” Many might indeed be ready to do this; but in the voluminous contemporary journalism on the subject I can find no detailed notes about how it is done. Communications were opened with Mr. H.G. Wells, with Dr. Saleeby, and apparently with Dr. Karl Pearson. Every quality desired in the ideal baby was carefully cultivated in the parents. (p. 78)
This was not by any means a favorite among Chesterton’s many wonderful writings. It was mainly worth reading simply because Chesterton wrote it. I recommend beginning with his other books of non-fiction.
Chesterton associates eugenics with several German authors, and it is today associated with the evils of Nazi Germany. Ironically, modern sources associate the twentieth-century popularization of eugenics with the United Kingdom. (On this point, you can compare my reviews of The Crimes of England and The Appetite of Tyranny.)
Some of Chesterton’s objections to eugenics have weaknesses that would not have been apparent in 1922. For instance, although our knowledge is very limited, we do have a much more certain knowledge of the causes of certain birth defects than we did in 1922, and we are capable of avoiding some of them.
On expansion of state power in exceptional circumstances, such as war or plague:
“Now it is perfectly plain that government ought to have, and must have, the same sort of right to use exceptional methods occasionally that the private householder has to have a picnic or to sit up all night on New Year’s Eve. The State, like the householder, is sane if it can treat such exceptions as exceptions. Such desperate remedies may not even be right; but such remedies are endurable as long as they are admittedly desperate. Such cases, of course, are the communism of food in a besieged city; the official disavowal of an arrested spy; the subjection of a patch of civil life to martial law; the cutting of communication in a plague; or that deepest degradation of the commonwealth, the use of national soldiers not against foreign soldiers, but against their own brethren in revolt. Of these exceptions some are right and some wrong; but all are right in so far as they are taken as exceptions. The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.” (p. 12)