Eugenics and Other Evils

Berlin Naturkundemuseum DNA
By LoKiLeCh [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Of G. K. Chesterton's several thousand essays, the one I stumbled across most suddenly on Project Gutenberg was Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State.  I do not go out of my way to read essays, but the topic had been on my mind recently and, of course, Chesterton's nonfic is even more renowned than his novels.  I thought this would be a good place to start.

Eugenics, in short, is "the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp by selective breeding" (Collins English Dictionary).  The most well-known example of eugenics on a large scale took place in Nazi Germany; however, a more historically obscure example was the support for and practice of eugenics by doctors in the US and Great Britain, pre-WWI--and, in the case of the US, even up through the 70s.

Background is key in Chesterton's book.  I must admit I was hoping for an argument that would deal with eugenics on a broader scale, for all eras and conceivable counterarguments, but Chesterton--wisely, for his purposes--limited his audience to Britain in the 1920s.  He does not hide his contempt for eugenics, and some of the "other evils" he discusses are socialism and, even more so, capitalism. As with many ideologies, it is impossible to judge them in the past by what they are in the present.  Likewise, Chesterton's opinions need to be read in context--the British class system was still alive and well, ca. 1922, and Keynesianism, a more benevolent form of capitalism, would not gain popularity until years later.

I felt that Chesterton rambled a lot more in the second half of the book, hence 4 out of 5 stars.  The first part of the book was much more focused, interesting, and brilliantly written.  Two excellent arguments that particularly stood out to me were the idea that a government could become anarchic (sounds like an oxymoron, but actually makes sense) and also that two "perfectly healthy" people may not necessarily have "perfectly healthy" children.

This latter point was also a doubt of H. G. Wells, who nevertheless supported eugenics.  Chesterton pointed out that even eugenists could not answer this question, and he berated them for holding overall very vague ideas of what they wanted done.  He also questioned the notion that there could be anyone qualified to evaluate other people's so-called "feeble-mindedness".

In summary, I recommend this book, but more on a historical than universal basis.  There are definitely some arguments that can be applied today, but as a whole, Chesterton was writing to a more specific audience.

Favorite quotes:

"...evil always takes advantage of ambiguity."

"...there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin."

"They cannot believe that men in hats and coats like themselves can be preparing a revolution; all their Victorian philosophy has taught them that such transformations are always slow."

"The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal."

"But as a vision the thing is plausible and even rational.  It is rational, and it is wrong."

"The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government."

"We are everywhere urged by humanitarians to help lame dogs over stiles--though some humanitarians, it is true, seem to feel a colder interest in the case of lame men and women."

"Thus Midas fell into a fallacy about the currency; and soon had reason to become something more than a Bimetallist."

"They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State."

"We can no more analyse such peace in the soul than we can conceive in our heads the whole enormous and dizzy equilibrium by which, out of suns roaring like infernos and heavens toppling like precipices, He has hanged the world upon nothing."

Comments