Eugenics: utopian obscenity to culture war

Updated: Feb 23

Rowan Fortune explores the recent Twitter controversy around eugenics, Richard Dawkins, the Tory Party, and Malthusianism, asking, why does this bad idea keep haunting capitalism?

18 February 2020.

The ephemera of social media are often best ignored. Throwaway trends can become all consuming (and even time wasting) for online left activists, soon vanishing from public memory a week after taking off. This short attention cycle makes it often hard to grasp the relative importance of a topic.

Indeed, in this heady atmosphere of to and fro attacks and counterattacks, of algorithms that favour sensationalism and low-stakes trolling, the Right’s poisonous culture war has flourished, giving rise to the Alt-Right and a new generation of networked, alienated fascists from the (often young, often male) middle strata of society.

Nonetheless, it would be an equal mistake to ignore every controversy that such new media give rise to. A pertinent and recent example that deserves examination is a tweet from the popular science author and polemical atheist Richard Dawkins on the subject of eugenics, published on 16 February 2020:

It’s one thing to deplore eugenics on ideological, political, moral grounds. It’s quite another to conclude that it wouldn’t work in practice. Of course it would. It works for cows, horses, pigs, dogs, and roses. Why on earth wouldn’t it work for humans? Facts ignore ideology.

This tweet was met with enough outrage to make ‘eugenics’ quickly trend on Twitter; a disturbing word to see prominently displayed on the side menu of a website that boasts over 300 million monthly active users.

Why the fuss?

On the surface, one might ask if the response was an overreaction. Dawkins was not himself advocating eugenics, it might be argued, merely insisting that it be opposed morally. Indeed, he soon clarified that this was in fact his position.

It might be said that it was an overreaction, even though the tweet was mistaken: selectively bred animals are often beset by all kinds of genetic diseases, what precisely did he mean by ‘work’, and can one, as the positivists would argue, so neatly separate facts from ideology? It is certainly not a position much in vogue in the humanities, if even in the sciences.

Beneath all of this, however, is something more sinister and pertinent: the broader context of Dawkins’ tweet beyond the fractured, atomised medium of social media. Eugenics is not being raised in a vacuum.

Over the past few years, we have seen articles from the likes of Sarah Knapton, Science Editor of the Telegraph, entitled ‘British industrial regions suffer “gene drain” with the healthier and more academically gifted moving away’. Meanwhile, in direct response to Dawkins (albeit quickly deleted tweet), Fraser Nelson of the Spectator wrote:

When Richard Dawkins says that eugenics would work for humans, he is simply saying what a lot of like-minded people are thinking. Eugenics is back.

Even more serious are the series of people associated with the Tory Party who have attempted to normalise this pseudoscience, such as Toby Young, Ben Bradley, and, most recently, Andrew Sabisky and Dominic Cummings. Then there are more liminal cases of the idea entering the mainstream.

Malthusianism rebooted

It is impossible to decouple eugenics from Malthusianism; that is, the idea, discredited by Marx, that population control is necessary for resource management, which has been given new life by vacuous responses to climate change. This position falsely treats a problem of economic distribution and resource extraction as a problem of humanity per se. It distracts from an inhuman system with an anti-human philosophy.

Malthusian organisations such as the charity Population Matters (which include the likes of David Attenborough and Chris Packham amongst its patrons) would doubtless deny any direct association with eugenics, but their ideas are inextricably tied to the history and practice of eugenics. Any attempt to ‘control’ a population raises questions of who, precisely, is being controlled.

Therefore, it is good that Labour MP Alex Sobel quickly apologised when he mistakenly met such a group, and should be congratulated for his quick response. We should nonetheless be worried about the prominence of these ideas, especially as 'greens' (the inverted commas now essential in such cases) and fascists align with one another in Denmark and Austria.

A robust humanist environmentalism is increasingly necessary to expose and counter the dangerous confluence of liberal environmentalism with eugenics – the green-brown coalition presaged by certain currents within the Nazi Party. And while such a confluence exists, any additional legitimisation given to eugenics by prominent public intellectuals such as Dawkins is troubling.

A utopia of horrors

Fascism does not emerge fully formed from nowhere. Eugenics is rightly condemned nowadays for its associations with fascist regimes in general, and Nazism in particular. However, as a student of the literature of utopia, I can attest to past utopias (left, feminist, and liberal) that gave serious consideration to eugenics and its Malthusian justifications.

Books as varied as Herland, New Amazonia, A Modern Utopia, and Island all suggest that eugenics at the very least ‘works’, or even that it is an entirely justified instrument of the state to perfect and improve its population. As with all the great output of modernity, what is good and bad about utopia is not easily decoupled.

Nor was this idea confined to the world of fiction before the Nazis took it over. Eugenics emerged from the work of Francis Galton in Victorian Britain and was advocated everywhere from Belgium to Japan. Its complicated history mean that some of its early critics were in other ways reactionaries, such as G K Chesterton, while it was championed by self-styled progressives in the Fabian Society.

The architect of the modern welfare state, William Beveridge, gave a speech at Mansion House in 1942 entitled ‘Eugenic Aspects of Children’s Allowances’. The Swedish government engaged in compulsory sterilisation of people with physical and mental health conditions until the mid-70s, and continued to make sterilisation a condition for gender reassignment surgery until 2012.

Amid the horrors, the Enlightenment contained emancipatory possibilities; Thomas More’s Utopia, which was not simply a plan advocated by its author but a more complex engagement with the politics of his day, contains economic radicalism (communism) as well as colonialism and slavery.

So-called ‘left’ utopian eugenics always anticipated what Neil Faulkner et al dub the battering-ram fascism of the 20th century. Likewise, latter-day liberal eugenics is inevitably bound to the creeping fascism we face in the guise of Johnson’s Brexit, the culture war, and Donald Trump’s border camps.

The return of eugenics

We socialists need to be clear about the materialist reason eugenics emerged in the first place and why, like the Freudian 'return of the repressed', it continues to re-emerge today despite being so thoroughly discredited. This idea cannot be addressed by contrasting ideology with facts; it is rooted in how a class-based society evades its contradictions and antagonisms.

Crucially, this type of argument need not be purely moralistic. Eugenics does not ‘work’ on its own terms, nor can it be separated from the political and economic reasons that motivate its existence. My friend, fellow-activist, and researcher of population genetics at Sussex University, Vivak Soni, made this point well in response to the Twitter controversy:

What ‘works’ in this context seems to be completely wedded to a capitalist mode of production. Cows that produce more milk, pigs that produce more meat, horses that run faster. Commodity fetishism is most sinister when applied to living things.

Finally, ethical concerns cannot be omitted when talking of a pseudoscience associated with the barbarism of genocide, slavery, and colonialism. The Left should not get dragged too far into a debate over whether it ‘works’ – indeed, that is why it is so important to question the very notion being assumed.

A serious debate on the selective breeding of human beings is an obscenity. It is not possible to untether such a debate from racism, ableism, and homophobia, and therefore should be treated in the same manner as advocacy for any of those prejudices.

The Left should not shy from advocating a bold humanism, one that has no place for the misanthropy of fascist or proto-fascist barbarism. Sometimes that means explicitly stating what is beyond the bounds of acceptable debate, whether torture, racism or, indeed, eugenics.

Rowan Fortune is a West London activist and student of utopia; his anthology of utopic fiction, Citizens of Nowhere, demonstrates the genre's enduring relevance.

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