The “science” of eugenics seemed to have died in Dr. Mengele’s unholy Nazi laboratories in World War II, but history has taught us never to count a potent idea out. Behold:
The only way of cutting off the constant stream of idiots and imbeciles and feeble-minded persons who help to fill our prisons and workhouses, reformatories, and asylums is to prevent those who are known to be mentally defective from producing offspring. Undoubtedly the best way of doing this is to place these defectives under control. Even if this were a hardship to the individual it would be necessary for the sake of protecting the race.
— The Spectator, 25 May 1912
It’s comforting now to think of eugenics as an evil that sprang from the blackness of Nazi hearts. We’re familiar with the argument: some men are born great, some as weaklings, and both pass the traits on to their children. So to improve society, the logic goes, we must encourage the best to breed and do what we can to stop the stupid, sick and malign from passing on their defective genes. This was taken to a genocidal extreme by Hitler, but the intellectual foundations were laid in England. And the idea is now making a startling comeback.
A hundred years ago the eugenic mission involved a handful of crude tools: bribing the ‘right’ people to have larger families, sterilising the weakest. Now stunning advances in science are creating options early eugenicists could only dream about. Today’s IVF technology already allows us to screen embryos for inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis. But soon parents will be able to check for all manner of traits, from hair colour to character, and choose their ‘perfect’ child.
The era of designer babies, long portrayed by dystopian novelists and screenwriters, is fast arriving. According to Hank Greely, a Stanford professor in law and biosciences, the next couple of generations may be the last to accept pot luck with procreation. Doing so, he adds, may soon be seen as downright irresponsible. In his forthcoming book The End of Sex, he explains a brave new world in which mothers will be given a menu with various biological options. But even he shies away from the word that sums all this up. For Professor Greely, and almost all of those in the new bioscience, eugenics is never mentioned, as if to avoid admitting that history has swung full circle.
It’s a long and fascinating piece in the Spectator, raising the question of whether eugenics itself is evil (lots of good, famous folks believed in it) or whether it has been ruined by the Nazi taint. But it’s always wise to approach tampering with Mother Nature with extreme caution, as H.G. Wells — an anti-eugenicist — warned us back in 1896 in The Island of Doctor Moreau…