Howard Flight & the survival of eugenics

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Howard Flight & the survival of eugenics


Does Howard Flight's talk of the poor 'breeding' betray the continued influence of eugenicist ideas?

The chorus of disapproval that greeted Howard Flight’s remark about how cuts in child benefits will encourage “breeding” among the lower social classes has left the impression that such comments are now to be judged in a historical vacuum, purely on the basis of whether or not they accord with what some would sneeringly call political correctness. This solipsistic reaction is dangerously shallow.

Whether through squeamishness or ignorance, the media coverage has largely ignored the connection between Flight’s comment and the argument for eugenics originally advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century. Galton voiced explicitly what Flight only implied: given the chance, the inferior stock among the lower classes will breed like rabbits.

Galton worried about the “yearly output by unfit parents of weakly children who are constitutionally incapable of growing

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  1. November 30, 2010

    jim evans

    The underlying problem is that humans are tribal creatures subject to the laws of group dynamics and constantly competing with each there for some form of dominance or superiority over each other.

    We love to pretend that we have risen above this primal outlook …but we would be better off maturely accepting that we haven`t ….and looking at ourselves squarely in the face….warts and all!

    This tribalism seems to be hardwired and everpresent wherever and whenever any group of us gathers together….even in a childrens playgroup!
    The potential form that this endless struggle takes has been limited by civilisation and by the cultivation of irrational collective myths like religions and multiculturalism or the fantasy that “we are all in this together” …which humans find appealing because they tend to simplify our thinking and give us social structures that allow us to enjoy hating “others” while feeling a bond with “our” group.

    A classic example of this is the fascistic enjoyment so-called liberal humanitarians derive from bullying those who challenge their core beliefs.

    Thus the BBC are only too happy to drop all pretence of balance in their quest to obliterate the BNP and EDF….but are much less inclined to criticise the behaviour of the Anti-Nazi League or the American-backed IRA Irish nationalists.

  2. November 30, 2010

    jim evans

    I suspect concepts like comparative IQ and “intelligence” are being used as weapons to legitimate ideas of cultural or racial or national superiority/inferiority.

    Why not develop a neutral belief that all human beings have different aptitudes and abilities without loading the issue with ideas of superiority and inferiority?

    But let`s also accept that there`s a lot of scientific investigation to be done into average variations between those groups.

    Why are the Roma averaging an IQ of 70 when others whose origins are also in Northern India average much higher?

    What is it about aboriginal societies that seems to “cause” relatively low IQ?

  3. December 3, 2010

    Rob Slack

    Re. Jim Evans:
    “Why not develop a neutral belief that all human beings have different aptitudes and abilities without loading the issue with ideas of superiority and inferiority?”

    I suspect the ideas arise through a form of tribalism. It is a major problem in the UK. wE.G. We have modified the education system to try to make people think GNVQ’s are the same as A levels because to try to avoid associate attitudes. Hasn’t worked..I doubt it will.


    “there is no good reason to think that complex traits such as intelligence and sociability have isolable genetic origins that can be refined by selective breeding.”

    “Why are the Roma averaging an IQ of 70 when others whose origins are also in Northern India average much higher?

    What is it about aboriginal societies that seems to “cause” relatively low IQ?”


    (There could be cuasation in the opposite direction).

    Your points contradict the articles assertion. Isn’t there any clear, honest (apolitical) research evidence?

    It always seems to me if we can breed characteristics in greyhounds and racehorses we could do it in humans (not saying we should, just I think it should be possible). If it is possible then it is likely to happen through partner selection (when it comes to having kids!).

    Given a massive change has occurred in our economic structure it seems inevitable there will be a mismatch between it and our demographic structure. That can only result in massive problems. We may have to take Flight seriously, whether we like it or not.
    Even if there are no genetic effects on IQ, there are socialisation factors we cannot deal with through (e.g) more schooling…home life is too big an influence.

  4. December 3, 2010

    jim evans

    Rob…thanks for that response…and I too wonder whether we should take some lessons from the selective breeding of animals …but perhaps also beware of the idea that IQ can be increased in the way physical characteristics can be emphasised or erradicated.
    I do wonder,however,whether inbreeding in small communities with a limited gene pool could partly explain some cases of very low IQ?
    Here`s a thought.Someone adopted a Romanian orphan into my English community because he was born without hands and no use as a pickpocket to the criminal gangs who might otherwise have employed him from the orphanage.
    It`s quite possible that an objective assessment of his IQ at maturity in Romania would have been 70…(because he would not have had the opportunity to develop the conceptual framework necessary to score any better?).
    As it is I believe he is finishing a degree course at Oxbridge!

  5. December 3, 2010

    jim evans

    The trouble is that Britain is now a society in post-imperial denial.We would have tostart to tackle the many social and damilial problems among the indigenous community before they could cope with helping to socialise culturally remote folk like the Roma.
    But the USA has decreed that Britain must be multicultural …..and prepared to absorb ever more immigrants from ever more remote cultures…so one has to assume that they have an unconscious need to set up the conditions for another Great Depression and Holocaust and War….possibly so that we can depopulate sufficiently to carry on as before ….without facing up to the difficult issue of voluntary or enforced population control?

  6. December 3, 2010

    Anne Mansfield

    Eugenics was the product of “progressive” thinking, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Marie Stopes, etc. It was not an idea espoused by conservatives.

  7. December 23, 2010


    “for the prejudices about breeding that the aristocracy had espoused since Plato’s time”

    I doubt this. Eugenics and associated ideas seem peculiarly protestant, not catholic, in origin. Protestantism, with its ideas of a saved elect (whether predestined or not) seems more fertile ground for talk about stopping the lesser orders breeding, than Roman Catholicism, with its long emphasis on universal salvation, and salvation through the-people-as-the-church (not personal salvation). Were there any prominent Catholic eugenicists?

  8. April 12, 2012

    Paul Widdecombe

    What a pile of abject drivel.

    This article starts with its premise exactly 180 degrees away from the reality of the situation, which is exactly that offering incentives to one group of people over another (poor over middle/rich) is the very definition of eugenics: Positive eugenics in favour of less economically successful families.

    The non-eugenic solutions implied by Howard Flight’s position are that either ALL should be entitled, or NONE.

    I know that this is an old article & so this may never be read, but certain types of bs should not go unanswered…

    The fact that he was forced to apologise for speaking the truth on this matter, by so called Conservative Cameron is a depressing prospect for the future of right-wing philosophy in the UK.

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Philip Ball

Philip Ball
Philip Ball is a science writer 

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