The Resurgence Of Eugenics Into Mainstream Politics


In February 2020, 10 Downing Street became embroiled in scandal as shocking comments made by ministerial aid, Andrew Sabinsky, resurfaced. Sabinsky had previously espoused ‘very real racial differences in intelligence,’ and promoted enforced sterilisation ‘to get around the problems of unplanned pregnancies creating a permanent underclass.’ While Andrew Sabinsky resigned amid the controversy, his appointment to the position calls into question wider concerns about the influence of neo-eugenic views in mainstream thought. Andrew Sabinsky was evidently not ‘mainstream;’ indeed, he was categorically a ‘misfit’ and ‘weirdo’ under Cumming’s controversial recruitment policy. Sabinsky’s statements, quite rightly, provoked public outrage and stimulated fears that the government could be platforming those with eugenic views. However, the reaction to Sabinsky highlights a disjuncture between fact and reality in the narrative of eugenics, which requires closer scrutiny. It’s often taught that eugenics, as part of popular culture, died along with extreme forms of fascism in the aftermath of WWII, and when it bubbles back to the surface through cases such as Sabinsky’s, we are rightly shocked at how such ideas have come to play in today’s society. Yet both moderate and extreme eugenic ideas were prevalent throughout the 20th century, and continue to hold court in academia and politics. Part of the difficulty in recognising neo-eugenic thought comes from the fact that after the 1940’s, academics and politicians fiercely sought to disassociate themselves with the term ‘eugenics.’ However, if we reframe it as the notion of engineering individuals, groups or societies through inheritance, it’s possible to unpick the role which eugenic ideas unwittingly play today, which may help shed light onto how a man with such disturbing views was welcomed into Downing Street. 

Eugenics itself was invented and popularised by the Victorian polymath Francis Galton, who coined the term, defined as “the science of improving stock,” in 1883. Galton was obsessed with statistics, and believed it possible to apply mathematical analysis to almost everything. In 1908, he created a ‘Beauty Map’ of Britain by visiting the nation’s towns with a homemade clicker in his pocket and recording every time he saw a beautiful or unattractive woman. By his scientific reasoning, Aberdeen was the ‘ugliest’ town, while London was the most attractive. Galton was also the first to argue that inheritance was governed by statistics, and was particularly focused on the heritability of  ‘talent’ or intelligence. By studying the ancestry of men of ‘genius,’ Galton observed that the majority came from a select group of ‘noteworthy families,’ and thus concluded that intelligence was inherited. It’s worth noting that Galton’s definition of ‘genius’ revolved around ‘distinguished men’ (such as musicians, novelists, scientists, and artists) who Galton deemed worthy of such a title – the desirability of their traits was a reflection of Galton’s own upper-middle class, intellectual background. Galton’s proto-eugenic thought centered around methods for encouraging those from ‘noteworthy families’ to breed, proposing to “raise the present miserably low standard of the human race” by “breeding the best with the best.” As Darwinian ideas about natural selection began to grip the Victorian imagination, Galton also began to fear that human interference prevented ‘survival of the fittest’ from applying to human societies,  and promote the idea that inheritance could be controlled by human action instead.

While Galton’s eugenic thought was somewhat moderate in comparison with later mutations of his theories, his legacy was far-reaching and multifaceted. He advocated the idea that human traits were measurable; and through quantifying heritability and making it the subject of ‘scientific’ study, he endorsed the idea that societies could control their destinies through manipulating inheritance. His ideas were attractive due to their ability to promote and protect existing social hierarchies among class and race lines, effectively giving people power over nature – it was thought that eugenics could cure all society’s ills, from criminality to alcoholism to ‘feeble mindedness,’ and to birth a better, wealthier, more intelligent population. 

Galton was not overtly political himself – indeed, his main aim was for eugenics to gain academic credibility, and he founded the Eugenics Education Society with this in mind. However, by the turn of the 20th century, the EES had gained momentum and transformed into a political lobbying group. By the 1920’s, eugenic policies had been adopted by groups across the political spectrum – a fact conveniently forgotten by British history. The Fabian Society and the socialist Left advocated eugenic policies: George Bernard Shaw, for example, said that “the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man,” and William Beveridge, renowned architect of the Welfare State, argued that those with “general defects” should be denied “civil freedom and fatherhood.”  

While extreme eugenic policy promptly left the British political mainstream in the aftermath of WWII, the same cannot be said of other countries worldwide. The Canadian province of Alberta, for instance, practiced legal eugenic sterilisation up until 1972, relying on a four-person Eugenics Board to approve the sterilisation of those living in state institutions. North Carolina, Oregon and Georgia over the border also practiced enforced sterilisation until well into the 20th century. In the U.S. and Canada, sterilisation policies were historically directed at the ‘mentally defected,’ a flimsy and unscientific category which left sterilisation down to the whims of doctors or members of the Eugenics Board, in the case of Alberta. Elsewhere, eugenic policy fell down racial lines. In Australia, Aboriginal peoples were the target of child-removal practices in order to control the ethnicity of future generations under the White Australia policy. Back in the U.S., a 2013 report revealed that between 2006 and 2010 up to 150 Latina and African-American women in state prisons had been sterilised without consent. Across time and space, eugenic policies have been used by those in power as a weapon and tool to reinforce the existing social hierarchy. 

In Britain, too, eugenic ideas continued to preside throughout the previous century, although more in the scientific than political sphere. Advances in IVF technology, allowing parents and doctors to screen for diseases, select sex and check characteristics, must be regarded as an extension of eugenic thought: indeed, certain sperm-banks already allow parents to select based on physical traits. The U.K. government recently helped fund the Francis Crick Institute, which was recently given the go-ahead to run with the new, controversial gene-editing technique CRISPR-Cas9. While the ethics of gene-editing have been hotly debated by the scientific community (in 2016, 150 scientists and academics released a letter to Washington calling for the end of gene-editing), the fact remains that influential researchers still support neo-eugenic ideas through their work. Professor Julian Savulescu, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Medical Ethics, recently said that “when it comes to screening out personality flaws such as potential alcoholism, psychopathy and disposition to violence, you could argue that people have a moral obligation to select ethically better children.” Just as we see that Galton’s  definitions of ‘beauty’ and ‘genius’ are, in hindsight, deeply skewed, we must recognise that the definition of personality flaws is subjective and cannot be a foundation for social or scientific policy.

Intelligence testing must also be viewed as a eugenic legacy which continues to hold scientific and political prominence today. IQ testing was developed alongside the eugenics movement in the early 1900’s by Binet. Ironically, Binet thought that IQ tests were inadequate measures for intelligence, and astutely pointed to the test’s inability to properly measure creativity or emotional intelligence. Nevertheless, the test was adopted as a scientific and ‘objective’ measure of intelligence by eugenicists, which could be used to justify policies such as segregation and sterilisation. Crucially, those who fell ‘below the mark’ were often of lower socio-economic status, or from ethnic minorities. This correlation itself has continually been used to advocate a link between race and intelligence. In 1994, Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published their controversial book The Bell Curve, which argued that certain races are more intelligent than others, and in 2002 Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen released IQ and the Wealth of Nations, which pinned the global socio-economic hierarchy on ‘ethnic differences in cognitive abilities.’

It seems that these ideas are only a few steps back from mainstream politics. Dominic Cummings recently made comments about genes impacting IQ. Even more worryingly, his comments were backed by Timothy Bates, Professor at Edinburgh University, who said that this “reflects mainstream science.” Moreover, the U.K. government’s initial ‘herd immunity’ response to the coronavirus pandemic, advocated by the Chief Scientific Officer and again endorsed by Cummings, was widely criticised on ethical grounds: many argued it echoed eugenic ‘survival of the fittest’ notions and would lead to the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands of society’s most vulnerable. In the U.S., inheritance has long been used as racial political rhetoric, which has formally transcended into the White House through the Trump administration. Trump is well-known to be obsessed with having the “right genes” and with the criminality of immigrants. His key adviser, Michael Anton, wrote in 2016 that “‘diversity’ is not ‘our strength;’ it’s a source of weakness, tension, and disunion.”

Eugenic undercurrents have clearly continued to ripple through Western thought throughout the 20th and 21st centuries; and while it is shocking to see them surface in mainstream politics, we should not be surprised. Instead, we must remain alert and recognise neo-eugenic thought – whether disguised as scientific progress, immigration policy, or intelligence streaming in schools – for what it is. Political policy is driven by science, and too often we take science as fact without questioning internal biases or methodologies. Moreover, we rely on our scientific community not only to inform politics, but to be informed about the history of their discipline. As the history of eugenics shows, politics and science are interdependent. 

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