The Enemy of Eugenics
Russell Sparkes


There is increasing recognition that G. K. Chesterton was one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century. He was probably exceeded in this regard only by C. S. Lewis who was, of course, greatly influenced by the older man. Nevertheless, Chesterton, unlike Lewis, was busily engaged in political debate and public action for most of his life. It is here that his contribution has been almost forgotten, and yet – a typical paradox – it was in this area that his achievements were of the greatest public importance. This is true of Chesterton's writings and campaigning for a sane economics under the banner of "Distributism," but it is perhaps most true of his fight against eugenics. Whilst re-reading the main Chesterton biographies over the last couple of years, I was struck by the fact that all of them seem to skate over his battle against eugenics in a few lines, and this essay aims to redress the balance somewhat.

Eugenics was the belief that the human race needed to be protected from "degenerates," the "unfit" or the "feebleminded." Of course, this policy was most enthusiastically adopted by Nazi Germany. One of the first acts of the new Reich in 1933 was to pass a Eugenic Sterilisation Law, ordering doctors to sterilise any one suspected of suffering from hereditary diseases. "We want to prevent the poisoning of the entire bloodstream of the race" to quote Goering's legal assistant. By 1939 some 250,000 "degenerates" had been forcibly sterilised, over half of whom were diagnosed as "feebleminded." The Nazi regime took what it regarded as the logical next step in 1939, when it decreed euthanasia for all severely disabled or mentally ill people in German asylums. Any Jew in these asylums automatically qualified, irrespective of degree of handicap, and about 70,000 people were murdered. It can thus be said, without exaggeration, that eugenics was one policy which paved the way for the "Final Solution" of European Jewry, which itself did not start until the Wansee Conference of December, 1941.

Of course, it is easy to argue that Nazi Germany was a pariah state, to feel that such things could not "have happened here." The whole idea of eugenics became discredited following the defeat of the Third Reich in 1945. Yet, in fact, eugenics was widely practised in the free world, and more and more evidence is coming to light which shows how prevalent it was. In August 1997, the Swedish government shamefacedly admitted the widespread eugenic sterilisation of "feeble-minded or racially inferior women." It seems that 60,000 Swedes who were either mentally defective, or who merely regarded as lacking "Nordic" racial features, such as gypsies, were compulsorily sterilised in the period 1935-1970. Many others were locked up for years. Evidence is also appearing that this practice also occurred in many other European countries, including 15,000 mentally handicapped women forcibly sterilised in France. Most states in the United States had extensive eugenics laws, some still on the statute books as late as the 1970s.

The United Kingdom was one of the few major countries where eugenics was not effectively put into law. Yet people should not feel smug that it did not happen in Britain – because it nearly did. The United Kingdom escaped eugenics laws by the skin of its teeth, as they were backed by some of the most powerful people in the land. As far as can be seen, only one public figure waged a vigorous, and ultimately successful, campaign against the proposed Mental Deficiency Bill in 1912. That man was G. K. Chesterton. The battle against eugenics is Chesterton's great, unknown victory. To explore it properly, I have given a brief introduction to the subject, followed by an account of Chesterton's battle against what he called the "feeble minded Bill." An account of draconian eugenics laws in the United States, including forced sterilisation, shows what might have happened in Britain without his fight against it. Lastly, I have included some pieces from Chesterton's 1922 book, Eugenics and Other Evils, which show, once again, what great prophetic insight he possessed.

The word "eugenics" (from the Greek for "of noble birth") was in fact a British invention, the term being first used in 1883 by Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin. Born in 1822, Galton was one of those rich dilettante scientists who were quite common in the Victorian period. A highly neurotic individual, he dropped out of Cambridge University in 1842, but fortunately the inheritance in 1844 of a large fortune from his father prevented him from needing to work. From the 1850s onward he was dabbling in the nascent science of genetics, and in particular on the family trees of illustrious men. Thus he published a book in 1869 under the title of Hereditary Genius, which contained his eugenic ideas even if they had not yet found a name. From the beginning, they were based upon fears that lower races or social classes would outbreed the noble Anglo-Saxon upper classes who practised "restraint," and it was therefore necessary: "to give the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing speedily over the less suitable."

Galton's marriage was childless, and it has been noted that the more this fact became obvious, the more he aggressively lectured the Victorian middle classes on the need to propagate. Eugenics was first taken up by radicals in the United States. In 1869, John Humphrey Noyes, prompted by Galton, founded the first experimental programme of selective human breeding at his "free-love" Oneida community in upstate New York. In Britain, it was given widespread publicity by the magazine Biometrika, edited by the statistician Karl Pearson, a friend of Galton's. Although employed as a mathematician by London University, from 1895 Pearson started giving lectures in eugenics there. In 1911, when Galton died he left his fortune to London University to endow a Professorial Chair in eugenics on condition that Pearson got the job.

There were a number of intertwined ideas in eugenic belief. Part of it was social Darwinism, the idea that Darwin's idea of the survival of the fittest had to be applied to the human race, else false compassion would lead to the human race drowning in a sea of degenerates. Of course, for eugenists, who were overwhelmingly White, Protestant, and middle class, the fittest meant the rich, and the unfit meant the poor. Secondly, it was avowedly racist, particularly in the United States. The worry was that lesser, feckless, races, generally agreed to include Blacks, Jews, and other immigrants such as Irish Catholics, were breeding much faster than those of "Nordic" origin. Lastly, it was founded upon fears of a vast army of mentally handicapped people being born who would be a burden on the State. Much eugenics literature expanded on the alleged sexual licence of the poor, the mentally ill, and the lower races. At that time, sexual matters among the middle classes were regarded as too private to mention in public, and it may well be that sexual frustration lay behind part of the frequent tirades about the sex lives of the delinquent, and possibly even the fervent clamour for forced sterilisation.

Eugenics, like Galton's own writings, was never a subject of great scientific precision. Its two main descriptive terms were often "feeble-minded," referring to hereditary mental incapacity (not just mental illness, but anyone believed to be of low IQ), and "degenerate," referring not just to physical disability, but also to alleged moral lapses such as alcoholism, crime, or sexual promiscuity. Indeed, in many cases the arguments were circular, as alcoholism or crime were argued to be evidence of "degeneracy" or "incapacity." Yet on this flimsy intellectual basis two main policies were strenuously argued for: that the "feebleminded" should be compulsorily segregated away in asylums for life, in order to prevent them reproducing, and also that "degenerates," should be forcibly sterilised for the same reason. As Chesterton pointed out in a late essay ("The Fallacy of Eugenics," published in Avowals and Denials (London, 1934):

It is necessary to point out the essential fact which the eugenists seem to have forgotten all over again. We breed cows for milk; and not for a moral balance of particular virtues in the cow. We breed pigs for pork. . . . Therefore we cannot, and do not, criticise them in the way in which we criticise our fellow creatures when we call them feeble-minded; or when we betray our own feeble-mindedness by calling them Unfit. For the very word Unfit reveals the weakness of the whole of this pseudo-scientific position. We should say that a cow is fit to provide us with milk; or that a pig is unfit to provide us with pork. But nobody would call a cow fit without naturally adding what she was fit for. Nobody would call up the insanely isolated vision of the Unfit Pig in the abstract. But when we talk about human beings, we are bound to break off the sentence in the middle; we are bound to call them Unfit in the abstract. For we know how varied, how complex, and how controversial are the questions that arise about the functions for which they should be fitted.

Eugenic ideas gained ground at the time of the Boer War (1899-1903), when it was found that many young men from slum backgrounds were unfit for military service. It was also noticed that healthy men from richer backgrounds also came from smaller families. The same fact was also observed in 1939 when it was discovered that the cause had nothing to do with hereditary factors – but was simply the result of poor diet leading to the bone-deforming disease, rickets. In 1904, the Conservative government of Arthur Balfour established a Royal Commission "On the Care and Control of the Feebleminded," which reported in 1908 to the new Liberal government. It recommended compulsory detention of the mentally inadequate, as well as sterilisation of the unfit. Up to this point mental asylums were used only for the criminally insane, judged to be a danger to themselves and others.

Eugenics became a widespread progressive cause promoted by the Fabian Society, and was closely allied with similar arguments for birth control. In 1903, H. G. Wells wrote: "the conclusion is that if we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and if we could stimulate and encourage the superior sort to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race." Dr. Saleeby, one of the most distinguished doctors of his day, advocated that people intending to marry should have "health books" proving that they had no congenital deformity. Other enthusiastic eugenists were Shaw, who put forward eugenic arguments in his play, Man and Superman, and the sex investigator Havelock Ellis. Ellis was a weird pervert worthy of his successor, Kinsey. Impotent himself, it never seems to have occurred to him whether he was a "degenerate" or "unfit." The leaders of the radical Socialist Fabians were the husband and wife team of Beatrice and Sydney Webb. Fabian Tract No. 131, written by Sydney in 1907, states:

In Great Britain at this moment, when half, or perhaps two-thirds of all the married people are regulating their families, children are being freely born to the Irish Roman Catholics and the Polish, Russian and German Jews, the thriftless and irresponsible. . . . This can hardly result in anything but national deterioration . . . or this country falling to the Irish and the Jews.

Yet it was not just the radical Left which promoted eugenics. One of its most vocal advocates in Britain was the Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral from 1911-1934, Dr. William Inge. Ex Officio one of the most senior members of the Church of England, he was known as the "Gloomy Dean" for his warnings about overpopulation. In an essay published in 1917 called simply Eugenics, he pointed out that all the males in his family had won scholarships at Eton, Oxford and Cambridge, but that: "Unfortunately the birth-rate of the feeble-minded is quite 50% higher than that of normal persons." The answer was eugenics, beginning with "the compulsory segregation of mental defectives."

Any regular reader of Chesterton's essays will have come across the name of Dean Inge, so it may be appropriate here to explain who he was, and what he represented. Chesterton never had any enemies, but if he ever had a regular opponent, that man was Dean Inge. Inge seemed to have little interest in the traditional doctrines of Christianity, calling himself "a modern churchman." He was however a convinced Erastian, that is, dedicated to maintaining the "established" position of the Church of England as a pillar of the British State. In a late essay called The Erastian on the Establishment (1934), Chesterton wrote: "A bitter and cynical man said, 'The Church of England is our last bulwark against Christianity.' This is quite unjust as a description of the Church of England. But it is not altogether unjust as a description of Dean Inge." Inge was known as the "Gloomy Dean" for his Malthusian worries about the poor overbreeding. He also proclaimed, in thoroughly modern terms, that global competition meant that the British workers simply had to accept lower wages and poor working conditions, although somehow this never applied to the members of the Establishment itself. In "The New Theologian" (published in A Miscellany of Men, 1912) Chesterton takes him apart with wit and precision: "When next you hear the "liberal" Christian say we should take what is best in Oriental faiths, make quite sure what are the things that people like Dr. Inge call best. . . . You will find the levelling of creeds quite unexpectedly close to the lowering of wages."

Eugenics fervour reached its peak in the United Kingdom in 1912, when the first International Eugenics Conference, with over 750 delegates, was held in London. It was addressed by the former Prime Minister Balfour, and attended by an enthusiast who had the power to make law in Great Britain – the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill. He called for a "simple surgical operation (sterilisation) so the inferior could be permitted freely in the world without causing much inconvenience to others." In 1910, on becoming Home Secretary, he had asked the civil service to investigate putting into practice the Indiana law (see below): "I am drawn to it in spite of many Party misgivings. . . . Of course it is bound to come some day." Churchill was put off by the chief Medical Advisor of Prisons, Dr. Horatio Donkin, who wrote of the Indiana arguments for eugenics: "the outcome of an arrogation of scientific knowledge by those who had no claim to it. . . . It is a monument of ignorance and hopeless mental confusion."

The International Conference on Eugenics led to great public pressure for Britain to adopt eugenics laws, something Churchill was only too pleased to see. As he wrote to Prime Minister Asquith: "I am convinced that the multiplication of the Feeble-Minded, which is proceeding now at an artificial rate, unchecked by any of the old restraints of nature, and actually fostered by civilised conditions, is a terrible danger to the race." He was wary of the cost of forced segregation, preferring compulsory sterilisation instead. In 1912, the government introduced a draft proposal, the Mental Deficiency Bill, for the compulsory detention of the feeble-minded. Hundreds of petitions arrived in Parliament urging the government on.

Opposition seemed minimal. The Catholic Social Guild commissioned a pamphlet by Father Thomas Gerrard, which roundly condemned eugenics, but the influence of the Catholic Church was small in Britain in 1912. Indeed, Dean Inge complained that eugenics was so logical it was only opposed by "irrationalist prophets like Mr. Chesterton." Chesterton's response was a series of lectures, public talks and essays ridiculing what he called "the Feeble-Minded Bill." Chesterton later compiled his arguments against eugenics into a book published in 1922 Eugenics and Other Evils. It begins:

There exists today a scheme of action, a school of thought . . . a thing that can still be destroyed, and that ought to be destroyed. . . . I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane . . . but that is only because evil always wins through the strength its stupid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin.

In his book, Chesterton showed that eugenics was an unholy mixture of social Darwinism, coupled with mad Nietzsche's dream of breeding the Superman. (It is one of ironies of history that Nietzsche, his brain destroyed by the wormholes of syphilis, should have been one of the inspirations of eugenics. He would have not lasted long when Germany really began to breed the Superman.) Chesterton also argued that the real target was not the mad, for which the Lunacy Laws were quite sufficient, but the poor, and he put his finger on the key weakness of eugenics – its essential vagueness:

[A] solemn official said the other day that he could not understand the clamour against the Feeble-Minded Bill as it only extended the "principles" of the old Lunacy Laws. To which one can only answer "Quite so." It only extends the principles of the Lunacy Laws to persons without a trace of lunacy. . . . Indeed, the first definition of "feeble-minded" in the Bill was much looser than the phrase "feeble-minded" itself. It is a piece of yawning idiocy about "persons who though capable of earning their living under favourable circumstances" are nevertheless "incapable of managing their affairs with proper prudence"; which is exactly what all the world and his wife are saying about their neighbours all over the planet.

According to Chesterton, the real target was the poor, as the clause highlighted above rather gives the game away. He marshals compelling arguments that eugenics was one more logical progression in the tools used by the State to suppress the landless poor, initially needed in the factories, and now surplus to requirements. One more step in the road of the Exclusion Acts and Game Laws which had forced the poor from the common lands which had once belonged to them, one more step in the Poor Laws and the workhouse with its treadmills and flogging.

At this time, around 1910-1914, Chesterton wrote much about how the new Liberal Government, far from making things better for the poor, was actually making them worse. The Industrial Revolution and enclosure of the common lands had reduced the ordinary people to destitution; now these new Liberal reformers punished them for their destitution. Chesterton's great work of social criticism, What's Wrong with the World (1910), ends with the story of urchin children whose hair was cut off at school for fear of lice – a treatment which was never handed out to children of the rich, only the poor:

Those great scissors of science that would snip off the curls of the poor little school children are ceaselessly snapping closer and closer to cut off all the corners and fringes of the arts and honours of the poor. Soon they will be twisting necks to suit clean collars, and hacking feet to fit new boots.

In Eugenics and Other Evils, he mentions the case of a farm labourer's wife sent to prison for not having running water in her rural cottage, although her children were recognised as healthy and well-looked after. The full story is given in detail in the essay The Mad Official, 1912. The book also has the bizarre story of two tramps sent to prison for sleeping in a field, who would have committed no crime if they had done so with money in their pocket. Chesterton argues that eugenics was just one more logical step in this policy of:

making the very poor work for the capitalist, for any wages or none. . . . The game laws have taken from him his human control of Nature. The mendicancy laws have taken from him his human demand on Man. There is one human thing left which it is much harder to take from him. . . . He can create in his own image. . . . as the Christ Child could be hidden from Herod – so the child unborn is still hidden from the omniscient oppressor. He who lives not yet, he and he alone is left; and they seek his life to take it away.

Chesterton's campaign was a success, as a normally supine Parliament began to question the new law. The Independent Member of Parliament, Josiah Wedgewood stressed the threat to civil liberties. Churchill had moved on to the Admiralty, so the measure had less support in the Home Office. After much criticism, the Mental Deficiency Act was passed in July, 1913 in a severely watered-down form. The attempt to prevent the pro-creation of the unfit was abandoned. Sterilisation was not even mentioned, nor was there compulsory segregation of the mentally deficient. The only real new power was to take the illegitimate children of paupers into care. In the 1930s, new eugenics bills were submitted to Parliament, but sentiment had so turned against the idea that they did not even make the first stage of becoming law. Chesterton always kept an eye on eugenics, and was one of the first to note their introduction in Germany once Hitler had come to power. As he wrote in 1934 in "The Fallacy of Eugenics": "It is as well to repeat our unanswered answer to the creed behind such barbarous tricks; for they are not confined to the curious commonwealth of Mr. Hitler."

The American experience shows how rapidly the enthusiasm for eugenics could sweep a civilised country and be turned into punitive law. The United Kingdom was rare and lucky to avoid what happened in most of Europe. Eugenic sterilisation laws were passed in Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Switzerland, as well as being practised in France. Chesterton's victory was great indeed. Eugenics became fashionable in the United States about the same time as in Britain. In 1904, the biologist, Charles Davenport, persuaded the Carnegie Foundation to give him a huge grant to establish a eugenics research facility on Long Island. Eugenics in America was always racially based, probably because immigration was running at such a high level, whereas it was almost negligible in Britain at that time. Davenport exclaimed: "New blood will make the American population darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial . . . more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape, and sex-immorality." This from a supposedly objective scientist! In 1896 Connecticut was the first State to pass explicitly eugenic marriage laws, and by 1917, twenty States had such laws on the statute book. The 1905, Indiana law was typical: marriage was generally forbidden to the mentally deficient, to those with transmittable diseases, or to habitual drunkards. Both parties to a marriage had to present a certificate of medical soundness before the marriage could take place. Indiana then went further in 1907 with the first compulsory sterilisation law. By 1917, sterilisation laws had been approved by sixteen States, most of which prescribed such treatment for habitual criminals, rapists, epileptics, and idiots. Eugenics was a "progressive" cause, and was mostly taken up by States which believed themselves to be "advanced." California was the lead of eugenic treatments being carried out, while eugenic laws were slow to pass in the "backward" Deep South. In the 1920s a number of legal challenges were made questioning whether such punishment was not "cruel and unusual," and hence prohibited by the United States Constitution. From 1924-1927 a legal test case, Buck vs. Bell, was fought all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Despite the presence on the bench of such humane jurists as William Howard Taft and Louis Brandeis, the court voted 8:1 in favour of forced sterilisation of a young Virginia girl, Carrie Buck, whose only crime had been to have an illegitimate child. Only one judge, a Roman Catholic, voted against. Buck vs Bell opened the floodgates. By 1929, twenty-four States had eugenics laws. 9,000 forced sterilisations were carried out from 1909-1927, but the pace accelerated from Buck vs Bell, so that by 1939 the total had reached 30,000, 10,000 of them in California alone. Eugenics won another victory in 1924 when the Immigration Act severely restricted new immigration into the United States. President Calvin Coolidge stated: "America must be kept American. Biological laws show . . . that Nordics deteriorate when mixed with other races."

Eugenics was also fashionable in Canada, being aggressively pushed by Helen MacMurchy, Head of the Division of Maternal and Child Welfare in the federal Department of Health from 1920-1934. In 1912, a Dr. Godrey presented a bill to the Ontario state legislature, a bill based on that of Indiana to segregate the unfit and compulsorily sterilise these, although the bill was not passed. Again there were strong racist overtones, with concern that the dominant Anglo-Saxon Canadian type was being outbred by French Canadians and immigrants.

Eugenics and Other Evils also illustrates Chesterton's almost uncanny ability to foresee the distant future. Perhaps I may be permitted the luxury of quoting myself:

As GKC wrote of Cobbett describing the latter's denunciation of the horrors of the Industrial Revolution when they were just beginning: "he saw what we see, but he saw it when it was not there." Reading and re-reading Chesterton I have been struck by at least three elements of Chesterton's genius as a writer. Firstly, there is his almost supernatural insight, the ability to see through a mass of detail to get to the heart of the matter. This occurs not only in fields such as literature where he was an acknowledged expert, but in areas like economics or medical ethics where he certainly was not. Before the First World War, leaders of popular opinion like Wells and Shaw prophesied universal progress, the triumph of peace and universal democracy (From Prophet of Orthodoxy).

It is becoming increasingly accepted that the relativism of the late Twentieth Century has resulted in a collapse of moral discourse; Alasdair McIntyre's After Virtue explores this in detail. Secondly that into this void has entered a strange doctrine known as political correctness, coupled with an extension of the powers of the State into areas that were formerly felt to be none of its business. Chesterton saw this coming in 1912. As he wrote in Eugenics and Other Evils:

The State has suddenly and quietly gone mad. It is talking nonsense; and it can't stop. . . . The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal. We see this in the vague extension of punishments like imprisonment; often the very reformers who admit that prison is bad for people propose to reform them by a little more of it. We see it in the panic legislation like that after the White Slave scare, when the torture of flogging was revived for all sorts of ill-defined and vague and variegated types of men. . . . Now the name of all this is Anarchy. It not only does not know what it wants, but it does not even know what it hates.

White Slavery was the fear that English girls were being kidnapped in order to sell them into prostitution in the East. If we move forward to the late 1990s, and substitute "child abuse" or "wife battering" for "White Slavery", we see how emotional slogans can engender draconian laws.

In his book, Chesterton also presciently identified eugenics with the German cult of the Superman. It had fallen out of fashion after 1914 because it was identified with Germany: "England went to war with the Superman in his native home. She went to war with that very land of scientific culture from which the very ideal of a Superman had come." The German attempt to build a Nietzschean warrior-state had fallen in 1918, and with its fall eugenics in England became somewhat discredited. However Chesterton did fear that this project might revive in its German homeland:

The thing died at last, and the stench of it stank to the sky. It might be thought that so terrible a savour would never altogether leave the memories of men, but men's memories are unstable things. It may be that gradually these dazed dupes will gather again together, and attempt to believe their dreams and disbelieve their eyes.

In 1922 Hitler was an unknown agitator in the beer-halls of Munich, with no chance yet of putting the eugenic manifesto fully into practice.

RUSSELL SPARKES is the Editor of Prophet of Orthodoxy, a compilation of Chesterton's religious writings, with a critical introduction, published by Harper Collins, and Chief Consultant on the Sane Economy Project of the Chesterton Institute. The present article was published in The Chesterton Review for February-May 1999.