Support for eugenics never really went away, but this is how it's becoming mainstream again

No matter what Toby Young proclaims, there never has and never will be anything ‘progressive’ about a belief system as ghastly and bigoted as eugenics. So why are we only just intercepting the conferences happening at UCL?

Louise Raw
Thursday 11 January 2018 19:07 GMT
News broke today that secret eugenics conferences had been held at UCL
News broke today that secret eugenics conferences had been held at UCL

I was both horrified and unsurprised to discover that Toby Young (who briefly, yet for too long, held influential office on the board of the Office for Students) wasn’t kidding when he said he supported “progressive eugenics”. Always, as the aphorism has it, listen when people tell you who they are.

Young, a media irritant for decades, has since protested that his noxious views on just about everything have been taken “out of context”, and asked for 50,000 tweets to be taken into consideration.

As far as eugenics go, however, he is bang to rights: an investigation by the London Student newspaper has highlighted his attendance last year at an invitation-only, pro-eugenics conference, which has been held under the noses of London’s academic community since 2015.

The roots of the London Conference on Intelligence (ironically named for a gathering so devoted to unscientific nonsense) are long, and ugly. Their history implicates both political right and left, and swathes of our “great and good”, from HG Wells to Churchill.

Theresa May refuses to sack Toby Young for misogynistic tweets

The idea of deliberately “improving” the human race is not new: Plato in 381BC considered the desirability of “selective breeding” for the ruling elite. The philosopher imagined a kind of royal key party, where the chosen few would be allocated “breeding partners” by ballot. The children judged the best specimens would then be communally reared, whilst the rest would be destroyed.

Plato was drawing on a precedent in his own native land; ancient Spartan babies judged too weak for a life in its army, or born with obvious disabilities, were simply abandoned outdoors with no food or shelter.

History shows us that the results of narrowing the gene pool are actually and provably disastrous – from incapacitating disabilities amongst the rulers of ancient Egypt to the “Habsburg jaw”, right through to Prince Waldemar of Prussia’s death from his wounds on a battlefield in 1945, having inherited haemophilia from Queen Victoria’s genetic line.

But mere facts were not enough to stop this deadly doctrine’s development throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, rising to new heights in Victorian England.

In 1798, English curate Thomas Malthus’s work contradicted the contemporary view that human societies were naturally improving. Instead, he argued that better living conditions lead inexorably to population growth and scarcity of resources. Malthus became extremely influential and was read by Charles Darwin.

Darwin’s own groundbreaking research on evolution and inherited traits would form the basis for the work of his cousin Frances Galton, who would coin the word “eugenics” in 1883. While Darwin praised Galton’s earlier work, at least to him, he was always dubious about crude attempts to apply his scientific findings to the real world. This, unfortunately, was precisely Galton’s aim.

While some of Darwin’s language is disturbing today (“savages” and “favoured races”), he opposed slavery, and used the concept of common descent from the same ancestors to advocate human unity. He was influenced by the brilliant John Edmonstone, an enslaved Guyanese man who was hugely important to Darwin’s career. After gaining his freedom, Edmonstone taught Darwin at Edinburgh University, inspiring his work in South America.

Galton, by contrast, was a thoroughgoing racist. He wrote that “negroes” were “lazy, palavering savages”, and “the Arab” was a “destroyer rather than a creator”. Galton felt natural selection would take care of unsuitable British people – by whom he only meant the working-classes – because “inadequate” working men (women don’t feature) would be unable to compete and conveniently starve to death, hopefully before they could reproduce. In addition, Galton felt that compelling “good specimens” to marry would help things along nicely.

But “savage” society, he lamented, was not so nicely arranged along capitalist lines – people of colour were, to him, innately “wild, untameable”.

Galton’s work leads to appalling and inevitable conclusions: that a more brutal solution is required to resolve the “problem” of non-white races, and that disabled or less physically strong working-class people are of no use to society, and deserve to starve.

Galton’s ideas spread. Soon, “respectable” academics were arguing that the Irish were a “negroed race” (the root of the anti-Irish prejudice here I discuss in my book Striking a Light, which was hugely prevalent in mainland Britain, and lingered to the 1980s) and therefore inferior. These white, male eugenicists reached the conclusion that the only truly superior humans were – surprise! – white, male and preferably British.

Galton’s ideas flourished, spreading to all schools of political thought, and not just the right – famous lefties like George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant and Sidney and Beatrice Webb were proponents.

Besant, leading the Fabian Society, and still a hero to those who have arguably not read enough about her, needs a sidebar here: she became the world leader of the new-age theosophy movement, whose founder, Madame Blavatsky, was an enthusiastic eugenicist who propounded a bizarre racial theory concerning master races like the (mythical) Aryans – this would be emphatically embraced by the German Nazi party.

Theosophy too became hugely popular and influential, and Besant its eventual international leader. Although some still celebrate her as a socialist, Besant came to believe poverty was a punishment for sins in past lives. Winston Churchill, too, had at least one thing in common with Hitler – he believed racial purity was at risk from the “feebleminded”, and that fertility-controlling “measures” should be taken to prevent this, as it was causing crime, poverty and degeneration of the race.

I don’t need to catalogue the horrific extremes to which the Nazis took eugenics – the millions of Jews, gay men and lesbians, Roma and Sinti, people of colour, intellectuals and the mentally and physically disabled who were tortured and killed.

This should have been an indelible stain on humanity, so deep and dark it prevented us from ever again treading this bloody road. This was epitomised by the slogan “Never Again” – but in fact, eugenics never went away.

In post-war Japan, some 84,000 people were sterilised under the country’s Eugenic Protection Law. In the US, John Kellogg’s cornflake money helped establish the Race Betterment Foundation in 1906. The next year, Indiana enacted enforced sterilisation laws; other states followed suit, and an estimated 64,000 people (of whom 61 per cent were female) were sterilised to 1963. In the 1970s, feminist activists exposed doctors who were still performing forced sterilisations of BME Americans. Two years later, a senate committee investigation concluded at least 2,000 of these by now-illegal operations had been performed on women of colour without consent. Native American and Indian women were also subject to this in their thousands.

The last year has, of course, seen white supremacy moving from a marginal fringe into the (very) White House.

In the UK, there have been persistent rumours of prominent eugenicists meeting secretly in London. We now know that the London Conference on Intelligence has indeed been held at University College London (which holds Galton’s archive) since 2015. Young himself talked to a Canadian pro-eugenics conference about the extreme measures of secrecy employed by organiser and UCL honorary senior lecturer, James Thompson.

Speakers at the conferences have included Dutch blogger Emil Kirkegaard, who once advocated the rape of sleeping children as a way paedophiles could relieve their “urges”, supposedly without emotional damage to their victims.

Professor Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster also attended two of the conferences. Lynn edits Mankind Quarterly, which critics have called a “white supremacist journal”, and of whose board Corrado Gini, Mussolini’s former “race advisor”, was once a member.

No matter what Young proclaims, there never has and never will be anything “progressive” about a belief system as ghastly and bigoted as eugenics.

Toby Young remains the director of the New Schools Network, a Government-funded charity which has received millions of pounds in taxpayers’ money.

I personally question whether, in 2018, men like him, Thompson or Lynn should be allowed anywhere near the education of young minds.

Dr Louise Raw is a historian, broadcaster, author of ‘Striking a Light’ (Bloomsbury) on the 1888 Matchwomen’s Strike, and organiser of the annual London Matchwomen’s Festival

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