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 up into serviceable citizens, and who are a serious encumbrance to the nation.” If the harshness of their circumstances were to be alleviated by welfare, said Galton, then natural selection would no longer constrain the proliferation of ‘bad genes’ throughout society. In a welfare state, the gene pool of humankind would therefore degenerate.
Some eugenicists felt that the answer was ‘positive eugenics’: encouraging the genetically superior echelons of society to breed more. Educated, middle-class women (who were beginning to appreciate that there might be more to life than endless child-rearing) had a national duty to produce offspring. This theory of ‘positive eugenics’—redressing the imbalance by propagating good genes—is one that Flight apparently endorses, in his concern that we should not discourage the middle classes from breeding by taking away their cash perks.
But the other option, also advocated by Galton, was negative eugenics: preventing breeding among the undesirables. In the many US states that introduced forced-sterilisation programmes in the early twentieth century (and which ultimately sterilised around 60,000 people), this meant the mentally unstable or impaired, as well as perhaps the ‘habitually’ unemployed, criminals and drunkards. In Nazi Germany it came also to mean those whose ‘inferiority’ was a matter of race. (Although there was no lack of racism in the US programmes either.)
Liberal eugenicists such as J.B.S. Haldane and Huxley were rather more nuanced than Flight. They argued that eugenic policies made sense only on…