The war on smokers is part of an essentially eugenic programme of social improvement. The theory of eugenics was conceived by Francis Galton, half-cousin of Charles Darwin.
After reading Darwin’s Origin of Species, Galton built upon Darwin’s ideas whereby the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. He reasoned that, since many human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, those societies were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest; and only by changing these social policies could society be saved from a “reversion towards mediocrity”, a phrase he first coined in statistics and which later changed to the now common “regression towards the mean”.
Now that natural selection was deemed to be no longer working, it needed to be replaced by artificial selection. The ‘weakest’ members of society needed to be prevented from breeding, or if necessary actively exterminated. Only in this way could the quality of the racial stock be maintained, and favoured traits fostered.
Today it is widely regarded as a brutal movement which inflicted massive human rights violations on millions of people. The “interventions” advocated and practiced by eugenicists involved prominently the identification and classification of individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals and entire racial groups — such as the Roma and Jews — as “degenerate” or “unfit”; the segregation or institutionalisation of such individuals and groups, their sterilization, euthanasia, and in the extreme case of Nazi Germany, their mass extermination.
Even if it fell into disrepute for a while after the Second World War, it’s clear that eugenics has been enjoying something of a revival in recent decades, even if it is no longer known as ‘eugenics’. The new “degenerate” or “unfit” are smokers, drinkers, and fat people. They are deemed not to have “desirable traits”. It is felt that if human society can be rid of these traits, there will be a great improvement in “fitness” and “public health”.
There are several problems with this sort of thinking. The first is that it is not clear which traits are “desirable” and which are not. For example, while being very fat may not be helpful when attempting to run away from a pursuing predator, it might be a highly desirable trait during a period of famine, when fat people might reasonably be expected to outlive thin people.
Equally, domesticated plants and animals, which have been deliberately bred by careful selection to produce a greater mass of food, might be regarded as equally “degenerate” or “unfit”, because many of them would be unable to survive in the natural world – where natural selection operates – without human assistance. Are we therefore to let natural selection once again take its toll upon them?
And can natural selection be said to “favour” any one type or trait above any other, in the way that a human cultivator might do? The process of natural selection is one which throws up a random variety of different types and traits, and then puts them to the test. The same variant squirrel may prosper in one environment, and be extinguished in another. The process of natural selection does not really “favour” anything at all. There is no way of telling, in advance of the test, which will survive, and which will not. It is instead humans who try to foresee which will survive, very often based on superficial appearances. It is simply not possible for eugenicists to step into nature’s shoes, and take over the task of natural selection. If they attempt to do so, all they will be expressing will be their own preferences, as they actively favour one type or trait over another, in ways that nature does not.
Furthermore, since “human societies seek to protect the underprivileged and weak”, and in fact this might be said to be the principal hallmark of human civilisation – caring for the sick, the young, and the old – the eugenic programme might very well be said to subvert all prior human morality.
And once any particular human type or trait comes to be “favoured”, whether it be a slim or athletic build, or non-smoking or non-drinking, or anything else, it automatically follows that those who lack these traits must be dis-favoured. The glorification of “health” and “fitness” must always go hand in hand with the vilification and exclusion of the “unhealthy” and the “unfit”.
The eugenic programme is inherently socially divisive. It inherently and invariably works to set people against one another, favoured against disfavoured. It would be equally divisive if, instead of smokers and drinkers being disfavoured, non-smokers and non-drinkers were disfavoured and excluded. There can be no possibility of any social harmony once eugenic programmes of “improvement” are undertaken.
Quite why eugenics should have enjoyed a semi-overt revival isn’t clear. Perhaps in part it is because over the past 50 years great progress has been made in understanding genetics, and this has allowed eugenic ideas to persist. The answer is probably that it never really ever went away. Its particularly horrifying Nazi manifestation was blamed on Hitler and the Nazis, when they were perhaps simply its most assiduous practitioners. Hitler became the convenient scapegoat onto which all its evils were laid. The Second World War may have seen the demise of the Hitler state, but it did not see the demise of eugenics and eugenic thinking. It continued to prosper. And in time, it gradually regained its strength and confidence, and has renewed its predations, creating new social divisions where none existed before.
It ought now to be a matter of the greatest urgency to complete what was left incomplete in 1945, and extirpate all eugenic thinking and its associated eugenic programmes from the face of the earth. Eugenics and eugenic thinking ought itself be subjected to the same kind of exterminatory disfavour that it has inflicted upon so many human lives. The eugenic programme should be applied to eugenics itself. A start might be made by simply closing down all “public health” programmes which advocate discriminatory political measures against any social group, be they smokers, drinkers, fat people, or anyone else. A further step might be made by expelling from their professions all doctors and researchers who show any sign of being tainted with eugenic ideas.
This anti-eugenic programme will be as much an intellectual task as it will be a political task. It will not be easy. And it will take a long time.