In the second decade of the twentieth century, an idea became all too fashionable among those who feel it is their right to set social trends. Wealthy families took it on as a pet cause, generously bankrolling its research. The New York Times praised it as a wonderful "new science." Scientists, such as the brilliant plant biologist, Luther Burbank, praised it unashamedly. Educators as prominent as Charles Elliot, President of Harvard University, promoted it as a solution to social ills. America's public schools did their part. In the 1920s, almost three-fourths of high school social science textbooks taught its principles. Not to be outdone, judges and physicians called for those principles to be enshrined into law. Congress agree, passing the 1924 immigration law to exclude from American shores the people of Eastern and Southern Europe that the idea branded as inferior. In 1927, the U. S. Supreme Court joined the chorus, ruling by a lopsided vote of 8 to 1 that the sterilization of unwilling men and women was constitutional.
That idea was eugenics and in the English-speaking world it had virtually no critics among the "chattering classes." When he wrote this book, Chesterton stood virtually alone against the intellectual world of his day. Yet to his eternal credit, he showed no sign of being intimidated by the prestige of his foes. On the contrary, he thunders against eugenics, ranking it one of the great evils of modern society. And, in perhaps one of the most chillingly accurate prophecies of the century, he warns that the ideas that eugenics had unleashed were likely to bear bitter fruit in another nation. That nation was Germany, the "very land of scientific culture from which the ideal of a Superman had come." In fact, the very group that Nazism tried to exterminate, Eastern European Jews, and the group it targeted for later extermination, the Slavs, were two of those whose biological unfitness eugenists sought so eagerly to confirm.
What are sometimes called the "excesses" of Nazism drove the open advocacy of eugenics underground. But there's little evidence that the elements of society who once trumpeted the idea have changed their mind. Dr. Alan Guttmacher provides a good example. The fact that he had been Vice-President of the American Eugenics Association was no hindrance to his assuming the Presidency of Planned ParenthoodÐWorld Population in 1962. And his seedy past did not keep Congress from providing millions of dollars in federal funds to Planned Parenthood. Nor did it stop the Supreme Court from carrying out the central item in Dr. Guttmacher's political agendaÑlegalized abortion. Many of those who now admit that eugenics was evil have trouble explaining why so few of its advocates were every exposed and why so many are still honored.
As the title suggests, eugenics is not the only evil that Chesterton blasts. Socialism gets some brilliantly worded broadsides and Chesterton, in complete fairness, does not spare capitalism. He also attacks the scientifically justified regimentation that others call the "health police." The same rationalizations that justified eugenics, he notes, can also be used to deprive a working man of his beer or any man of his pipe. Although it was first published in 1922, there's a startling relevance to what Chesterton had to say about mettlesome bureaucrats who deprive life of its little pleasures and freedoms. His tale about an unfortunate man fired because "his old cherry-briar" "might set the water-works on fire" is priceless.
That tale illustrates Chesterton's brilliant use of humor, a knack his foes were quick to realize. In their review of his book, Birth Control News griped, "His tendency is reactionary, and as he succeeds in making most people laugh, his influence in the wrong direction is considerable. Eugenics Review was even blunter. "The only interest in this book," they said, "is pathological. It is a revelation of the ineptitude to which ignorance and blind prejudice may reduce an intelligent man."
History has been far kinder to Chesterton than to his critics. It's now generally agree that eugenics was born of evolution and the "ignorance and blind prejudice" of social elites. But never forget that Chesterton was the first to say so, condemning what many of his peers praised.
The completely new edition of Chesterton's classic includes almost fifty pages from the writings of Chesterton's opponents. They illustrate just how accurate his attacks on eugenists were. For researchers, it also includes a detailed, 13-page index.
"There exists to-day a scheme of action, a school thought, as collective and unmistakable as any of those by whose grouping alone we can make any outline of history. . . . I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin. . . . But Eugenics itself does exist for those who have sense enough to see that ideas exist; and Eugenics itself, in large quantities or small, coming quickly or coming slowly, urged from good motives or bad, applied to a thousand people or applied to three, Eugenics itself is a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning."
Institutionalizing the Unfit
"I will call it the Feeble-Minded Bill, both for brevity and because the description is strictly accurate. It is, quite simply and literally, a Bill for incarcerating as madmen those whom no doctor will consent to call mad. It is enough if some doctor or other may happen to call them weak-minded."
"Indeed one Eugenist, Mr. A. H. Huth, actually had a sense of humour, and admitted this. He thinks a great deal of good could be done with a surgical knife, if we would only turn him loose with one. And this may be true. A great deal of good could be done with a loaded revolver, in the hands of a judicious student of human nature."
The Tyranny of Science
"The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemenÑthat creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics."
"There is no reason in Eugenics, but there is plenty of motive. Its supporters are highly vague about its theory, but they will be painfully practical about its practice. And while I reiterate that many of its more eloquent agents are probably quite innocent instruments, there are some, even among Eugenists, who by this time know what they are doing."
The Poor Man and his Child
"There is one human thing left it is much harder to take from him. Debased by him and his betters, it is still something brought out of Eden, where God made him a demigod: it does not depend on money and but little on time. He can create in his own image. The terrible truth is in the heart of a hundred legends and mysteries. As Jupiter could be hidden from all-devouring Time, as the Christ Child could be hidden from HerodÑso the child unborn is still hidden from the omniscient oppressor. He who lives not yet, he and he alone is left; and they seek his life to take it away."
The Rich Begin To Fear the Poor
"So at least it seemed, doubtless in a great degree subconsciously, to the man who had wagered all his wealth on the usefulness of the poor to the rich and the dependence of the rich on the poor. The time came at last when the rather reckless breeding in the abyss below ceased to be a supply, and began to be something like a wastage; ceased to be something like keeping foxhounds, and began alarmingly to resemble a necessity of shooting foxes."
"That is the problem, and that is why there is now no protection against Eugenic or any other experiments. If the men who took away beer as an unlawful pleasure had paused for a moment to define the lawful pleasures, there might be a different situation. If the men who had denied one liberty had taken the opportunity to affirm other liberties, there might be some defence for them. But it never occurs to them to admit any liberties at all. It never so much as crosses their minds. Hence the excuse for the last oppression will always serve as well for the next oppression; and to that tyranny there can be no end."
"In short, people decided that it was impossible to achieve any of the good of Socialism, but they comforted themselves by achieving all the bad. All that official discipline, about which the Socialists themselves were in doubt or at least on the defensive, was taken over bodily by the Capitalists. They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State."
The Working Classes
"The working classes have no reserves of property with which to defend their relics of religion. They have no religion with which to sanctify and dignify their property. Above all, they are under the enormous disadvantage of being right without knowing it. They hold their sound principles as if they were sullen prejudices. They almost secrete their small property as if it were stolen property. Often a poor woman will tell a magistrate that she sticks to her husband, with the defiant and desperate air of a wanton resolved to run away from her husband. Often she will cry as hopelessly, and as it were helplessly, when deprived of her child as if she were a child deprived of her doll."
To the Reader
1. What Is Eugenics?
2. The First Obstacles
3. The Anarchy from Above
4. The Lunatic and the Law
5. The Flying Authority
6. The Unanswered Challenge
7. The Established Church of Doubt
8. A Summary of a False Theory
9. The Impotence of Impenitence
10. The History of a Tramp
11. The History of a Eugenist
12. The Vengeance of the Flesh
13. The Meanness of the Motive
14. The Eclipse of Liberty
15. The Transformation of Socialism
16. The End of Household Goods
17. A Short Chapter
A. "Hereditary Talent and Character" by Francis Galton
B. "Eugenics: Its Definition, Scope, and Aims" by Francis Galton
C. The Progress of Eugenics by C. W. Saleeby
D. "Two Decades of Eugenics" by C. W. Saleeby
E. Eugenics Review
F. Eugenics Review and the Mental Deficiency Act
G. Birth Control News and Forced Sterilization
H. Birth Control News and the 'Unfit'
I. Birth Control News and Eugenics