I’ve been slowly reading the Illiberal Reformers by Thomas C. Leonard over the Christmas holiday, and came across this passage (p. 112) about Francis Galton:
Karl Pearson, Galton’s biographer and scientific heir, said that Galton envisioned eugenics as a national creed amounting to a religious faith. What, after all, could be more worthy of devotion than the cause that seemed to aim so squarely at human betterment?
Galton was an effective preacher. Nearing the end of his life, he envisioned the moment when public opinion had ripened sufficiently for scientists to declare “a Jehad or Holy War” on all “customs and prejudices that impair the physical and moral qualities of our race.”
I couldn’t help but think that Islamic Daesh/ISIL’s war on smoking was exactly the sort of jihad that Galton envisioned. It also meant that Galton was himself a jihadi, like all the public health jihadis today. Underneath all the “science” there lurked a tyrannical little bully who would declare war on any custom which he had convinced himself was “impairing the physical and moral qualities of the race”.
Galton was a cousin of Charles Darwin. But it has always seemed to me that his eugenics turns the theory of evolution entirely on its head. As is pointed out (p.119):
Darwin regarded fitness as the outcome of a selective process. Darwinian fitness is determined only retrospectively. Eugenics, however, is premised on the survival of the unfit, so eugenics requires that the fittest be determined before the selective process.
Or, to put it another way, the “fittest” in the Darwinian scheme of evolution are the survivors of a struggle for existence in the natural world. But in Galton’s absurd inverted eugenic scheme, the “fittest” are those that are chosen from the outset to be the survivors, in the same way that plant or animal breeders select only those plants and animals with the traits they desire, and discard the rest. In an evolutionary process, the right answer only pops out at the end. But in a eugenic process, you start with the answer you want, and make sure you keep that answer.
It need not apply to plants or animals or humans. It might apply to numbers. One might imagine an evolutionary mathematical engine which will sort through several million different numbers to find the single right answer, which is unknown at the outset. And one might also imagine an equivalent eugenic mathematical engine in which the “right answer” is entered at the outset, and all the other millions of “wrong answers” are subsequently discarded. Both engines appear to be doing the same thing, but they are actually behaving in completely different ways.
The problem may have arisen because in The Origin of Species, Darwin started by comparing the evolutionary process of “natural selection” with the artificial process of selection employed by plant and animal breeders, and thereby managed to conflate two entirely different processes together.
Smokers and drinkers and fat people may well be “unfit” in evolutionary terms. But we will only find out over the course of time, as they either prosper or become extinct. But modern public health jihadis, in true eugenic fashion, have decided in advance that such people are unfit, and need to be removed. They already know the “right answer”. But how do they know? But how do they decide who is, and who isn’t, unfit? How do they decide what’s “better”?
This seems to have been a problem that has afflicted eugenics throughout its history. Different eugenicists identified different cases of unfitness. For some people the “unfit” were black people, Chinese coolies, and criminals. For others the “unfit” were the poor, or the insane, or the blind. And in some cases the “unfit” were even the rich (p. 123).
With fitness conceptually untethered from survival, it was also possible to bemoan the “idiots and cretins” among the rich. Thorsten Veblen mercilessly lampooned the conspicuous consumption of America’s Gilded Age leisure class. Veblen’s view was that capitalists produced nothing of value and then spent fortunes on equally worthless goods to parade their wealth. How had such useless people prospered? Veblen found his answer in heredity: the capitalist was able to exploit everyone else because he had inherited an atavistic, predatory race instinct.
If fitness is arbitrarily decided in advance, absolutely anyone may be deemed to be “unfit”. And the pointed finger of accusation is always moving from one group of people to another. In the past it was blacks and Jews and homosexuals. Now it’s smokers and drinkers and fat people. Next it’ll be rappers, teenagers, and merchant bankers. And so on, indefinitely into the future.
But none of the eugenicists ever identify themselves as examples of “unfitness”. Their fingers are always pointed at somebody else. Thorsten Veblen wasn’t a member of the American leisure class. And Francis Galton wasn’t either a pauper or a black man. Might it be that eugenics is a game of Pass The Parcel, with the aim of not being left holding it? Might it be that all the Deborah Arnotts and Stanton Glantzes fear that they will themselves be identified as “unfit”, and “useless” (which of course they are), and so keep attention focused on smokers and drinkers and fat people, and thus away from themselves? And is Public Health just an exercise in loud name-calling?