The problem of — as he put it — “stupid people” frequently troubled the thoughts of H.G. Wells. But eventually he hit on the solution: “The species must be engaged in eliminating them.” In 1905, that kind of language was commonplace: it was the era when thinkers and politicians alike dreamed of breeding a “better” race. As the Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland has written, eugenics is “one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the Left”. Then again, maybe it never died. When Richard Dawkins made his remarks about the “immorality” of not aborting those with Down’s Syndrome, he was accused of propounding eugenics. Dawkins replied that he couldn’t be because “DS has extremely low heritability” — which, though true, does not quite resolve the matter.
Perhaps we need a larger term than “eugenics”. After all, the movement of that name, which flourished from about The Origin of Species until the Second World War, had both ancestors and descendants. Well before Darwinism entered the popular imagination, Herbert Spencer was enthusing about the triumph of the strong over the weak. It would be stretching things to call Aristotle a eugenicist, but he did recommend “a law that no deformed child shall live”. The ancient Romans never passed a Mental Deficiency Act, but they disposed of unwanted babies with some efficiency, and certain birth records show an amazing preponderance of male newborns over female ones.
That, of course, brings us full circle to the “gendercides” of the present day. China’s birth restrictions, though somewhat relaxed since last year, continue; and census analysis suggests that thousands of British girls are missing thanks to sex-selective abortion. UK law has other eugenic features. The unborn are protected after 24 weeks — unless they are “seriously handicapped” (a category which includes cleft palate), in which case they can be aborted up to birth. As Dawkins pointed out, the elimination of those with Down’s Syndrome is already the norm. And it is striking that many eugenicists, after the movement went out of fashion, redirected their efforts into campaigns for liberal abortion laws.
From Aristotle to Richard Dawkins, it seems to be a constant temptation for the brainy and successful to make brains and success the criteria of how much your life is worth. And the strongest bulwark against that tendency remains the belief which the eugenicists always derided: that sheer existence is enough to make you an infinitely valuable member of the human community. Sentimental, you might say. But it’s the unsentimentalists who are a really frightening prospect.