One Hundred Years Ago, “Following the Science” Meant Supporting Eugenics
The eugenics movement, as Chesterton predicted, became a wretched story of the negation of democratic ideals to serve a utopian vision. “Hence the tyranny has taken but a single stride to reach the secret and sacred places of personal freedom,” he wrote, “where no sane man ever dreamed of seeing it.” Wittingly or not, the eugenic dream unleashed a cataract of deeply rooted fears and hatreds — sanctified this time by a secular priesthood, the scientific community.
In the 1920s, when he was still an agnostic, C. S. Lewis noted in his diary his latest reading: “Began G. K. Chesterton’s Eugenics and Other Evils.”
A controversial English Catholic writer, Chesterton published his book in 1922, when the popularity of eugenics was at flood tide. Respectable opinion on both sides of the Atlantic embraced the concept: a scientific approach to selective breeding to reduce, and eventually eliminate, the category of people considered mentally and morally deficient. From U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger, eugenics policies — including involuntary sterilization — were hailed as a “progressive” and “compassionate” solution to mounting social problems.
A hundred years ago, Chesterton discerned something altogether different: “terrorism by tenth-rate professors.” For a time, he stood nearly alone in his prophetic assault on the eugenics movement and the pseudo-scientific theory by which it was defended.
“People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late,” Chesterton warned. “I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its dupes.”
Chesterton declared his aim openly, without qualification or compromise: The ideology of eugenics must be destroyed if human freedom is to be preserved. The eugenic idea, he wrote, “is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.” In the end, it would require the discoveries at the death camps at Auschwitz and Dachau for most of the world to finally reject the horrific logic of eugenics. Yet Chesterton was one of the first to see it coming: when the machinery of the state would invoke the authority of science to deprive individuals — both the “unfit” and the unborn — of their fundamental human rights.
It is hard to overstate the degree to which eugenics captured the imagination of the medical and scientific communities in the early 20th century. Anthropologist Francis Galton, who coined the term — from the Greek for “good birth” — argued that scientific techniques for breeding healthier animals should be applied to human beings. Those considered to be “degenerates,” “imbeciles,” or “feebleminded” would be targeted. Anticipating public opposition, Galton told scientific gatherings that eugenics “must be introduced into the national conscience like a new religion.” Premier scientific organizations, such as the American Museum of Natural History, and institutions such as Harvard and Princeton, preached the eugenics gospel: They held conferences, published papers, provided research funding, and advocated for sterilization laws.
To many thinkers in the West, the catastrophe of the First World War, in addition to the problems of poverty, crime, and social breakdown, suggested a sickness in the racial stock. Book titles help tell the story: Social Decay and Degeneration; The Need for Eugenic Reform; Racial Decay; Sterilization of the Unfit; and The Twilight of the White Races. The American Eugenics Society, founded in 1922 — the same year Chesterton published Eugenics and Other Evils — was supported by Nobel Prize–winning scientists whose stated objective was to sterilize a tenth of the U.S. population.