Tag Archives: Race theory

Review: Eugenics and Other Evils

Rating: ★★★

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.”

Overview:

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.” [1] 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.

Meat:

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)

Bones:

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.

Quotes:

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)

Read: This book is available for free in multiple formats on Project Gutenberg, LibriVox, and the Kindle Store.

Review: The Crimes of England

Rating: ★½

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.”

Genre: Non-fiction, wartime essays.

Overview:

After the publications of The Barbarism of Berlin and its expanded edition, The Appetite of Tyranny, Chesterton wrote this longer work (published in January 1916) in defense of the same ideas. Ostensibly, the book is a confessional of England’s “crimes” in recent history, meaning the late nineteenth century:

I have thought it advisable to provide you with a catalogue of the real crimes of England. (p. 9)

In reality, though, the title is an ironic jab against England’s then-recent policy of having Germany as an ally. He means to recount how badly Germany has treated England and Europe, and England’s “crime” of being all too forbearing with Germany.

Long and weary as may be the records of our [England’s] wickedness, in one direction we have done nothing but good. Whoever we may have wronged, we have never wronged Germany. (p. 53)

Chesterton held to what some reviewers have called “Teutonophobia,” and his account of England’s so-called crimes amounts mainly to not throwing Prussia under the bus when they had a chance.

For all readers except those most keenly fascinated by European history and politics, this book will make undoubtedly dull reading, set as it is in a balance of power that is no longer relevant, and dealing with the emotions of a war that not even centegenarians would recall directly.

Meat:

This book has one minor advantage over Appetite of Tyranny in that his anger over the outbreak of World War I had had another year to mellow, and he tries to substantiate his position historically, rather than through cultural generalizations.

Modern reviewers may be interested in Chesterton’s occasional reference to German race theory, called by him “Teutonism”—as well as the related idea which he calls “pan-Germanism,” that every great genius must have been Prussian. Chesterton calls this Germany ideology “a religion”:

Not a race, but rather a religion, the thing [Teutonism] exists; and in 1870 its sun was at noon. (p. 49)

Here he was referring back to the Franco-Prussian War, in which Germany achieved its unification and changed the balance of power in Europe. Chesterton didn’t know, of course, that pro-Aryan ideology would lead to another world war and millions more deaths just 23 years later.

As an aside, Chesterton takes the pro-Irish side on “the Irish question” in this book, a stance solidified soon after in his 1919 book Irish Impressions and also mentioned in What I Saw in America (1922).

Bones:

The Crimes of England mainly suffers from the same defects as The Appetite of Tyranny, so I refer my readers to that review.

I add to those criticisms as well that it was a deplorably dull read. Chesterton handles most topics well, but neat chronological accounts were not his forte, and so his account of historical relations between England and Germany is barely readable to someone who is not deeply acquainted with the time period.

Quotes:

These below are given to exemplify the author’s opinions in this book, not those of the reviewer:

I have passed the great part of my life in criticising and condemning the existing rulers and institutions of my country: I think it is infinitely the most patriotic thing that a man can do. . . . I think our whole history in Ireland has been a vulgar and ignorant hatred of the crucifix, expressed by a crucifixion. I think the South African War was a dirty work which we did under the whips of moneylenders. I think Mitchelstown was a disgrace; I think Denshawi was a devilry. (p. 53)

The German superiority has been in a certain thing and of a certain kind. It is not unity; it is not, in the moral sense, discipline. Nothing can be more united in a moral sense than a French, British, or Russian regiment. Nothing, for that matter, could be more united than a Highland clan at Killiecrankie or a rush of religious fanatics in the Soudan. What such engines, in such size and multiplicity, really meant was this: they meant a type of life naturally intolerable to happier and more healthy-minded men, conducted on a larger scale and consuming larger populations than had ever been known before. (p. 61)

Review: The Appetite of Tyranny

Rating: ★★

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.”

Full Title:  The Appetite of Tyranny: Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian

Alternate Titles: The Appetite of Tyranny combines two previous books, both of which were very short: The Barbarism of Berlin (1914), which was a response to the July Crisis, and Letters to an Old Garibaldian (March 1915).

Genre: Non-fiction, journalism, wartime essays.

Overview:

The Appetite of Tyranny is a brief, thoughtful book, but not always measured in its tone. This little book addresses what Chesterton sees as the roots of German aggression that resulted in World War I. Although at the outset it is supposed to be reasoning against German ideology and policy, the book devolves into criticisms of the German people themselves.

The essay was published in 1914—directly in the wake of the July Crisis that led into World War I—so it is understandably polemic in tone. Chesterton sees the crisis as resulting from lack of faithfulness among German leadership on two points: keeping their word (they had promised not to invade Belgium), and maintaining reciprocity. Of course, the war itself would probably not be described so unilaterally in most history books.

Based on Project Gutenberg downloads, this appears to be the least popular of Chesterton’s fifty-odd books (the most popular being Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday).

This book is not really what we would call “classic” Chesterton, so I don’t recommend it for devotional or leisurely reading, unless you are highly interested in World War I. I consider World War I to be an understandably weak period in Chesterton’s writing.

Meat:

Chesterton is never concerned solely with the surface of the issue; he is always hunting for some principle behind the circumstances at play, so that he can better understand the motives and outcomes. For the most part, that is the case in The Appetite of Tyranny (though probably less so in The Crimes of England or Lord Kitchener).

He begins by seeking to demonstrate that “civilization,” in terms of technological advancement, has made the Germans no less “barbarous.” He argues that intellect and technology may only increase their evil:

If their cities soared higher than their flying ships, if their trains travelled faster than their bullets, we should still call them barbarians.

This is the kind of argument used, for instance, in his novel The Trees of Pride. But Chesterton’s argument weakens as he resorts to less logical attacks on the German people.

The most interesting points in this little book, I thought, were those that presaged the development of the Nazi movement. From the beginning of World War I, Chesterton openly mocked German “race theorists” and the superiority complex that he saw as fueling—or, at least, excusing—German aggression. He quotes a Professor Ostwald of Berlin University as saying:

Science combined with organisation makes us terrible to our opponents and ensures a German future for Europe. (p. 48)

Chesterton goes on to recount an argument by a German writer that Leonardo da Vinci was German! These examples are interesting in retrospect as exemplifying the kind of ideology that preceded Nazism. Chesterton was relatively consistent in this area as an outspoken critic of eugenics and related ideologies.

Bones:

As the essay continues, he slips into equating German politics with the German people as a whole, and commits several slurs which are difficult to excuse over a century later. Surely, when they were written, the English would not have thought twice about his generalizations, reeling as Europe was in the shock of the Great War. To my mind, he somewhat repeats the error of the Germans by insulting them as Germans.

I should add, even if he weren’t English, Chesterton’s sympathies would almost necessarily on the French side, the French being predominantly Catholic. He often speaks fondly of his travels in France; I am not sure if he ever visited Germany, and he had little regard for Luther.

This and several of his other books of the time period are mainly responses to the needs of the time, and haven’t aged nearly as well as most of his works. Although it contains a few interesting historical notes and aphorisms here and there (several given below), The Appetite of Tyranny definitely should not be the first (or even third) Chesterton book you pick up.

Related Works: Lord Kitchener, The Crimes of England.

Quotes:

“Others besides German soldiers have slain the defenceless, for loot or lust or private malice, like any other murderer. The point is that nowhere else but in Prussian Germany is any theory of honour mixed up with such things.”

“The collapse of German philosophy always occurs at the beginning, rather than the end of an argument.”

“The danger of the Pruss is that he is prepared to fight for old errors as if they were new truths.”

“The definition of the true savage is that he laughs when he hurts you; and howls when you hurt him.”

“The promise, like the wheel, is unknown in Nature: and is the first mark of man. Referring only to human civilisation, it may be said with seriousness that in the beginning was the Word. The vow is to the man what the song is to the bird, or the bark to the dog; his voice, whereby he is known.” (in an argument about German faithlessness)

“He cannot get outside the idea that he, because he is he and not you, is free to break the law; and also to appeal to the law.”