Sophie Kern illustration for Rationalism's dirty secretWhen newly minted Tory peer Howard Flight recently suggested that our welfare system discouraged the middle class from procreation while encouraging those on welfare to breed, he stumbled head first into a long-smouldering public debate. There was rapid and somewhat predictable response. Writing on the blog Liberal Conspiracy Dave Osler denounced Flight as “the latest upholder of the tradition of class-based eugenics”. Class-based? Not really. The Telegraph’s Ed West on his blog quickly waded in with a long list of socialist and radical eugenicists, which included such luminaries as the Webbs, John Maynard Keynes and Howard Laski. Eugenics was, he argued, a thoroughly left-wing passion.

Though West’s was hardly a comprehensive list – he omitted to mention, for example, Winston Churchill’s enthusiasm for sterilising the “feeble-minded” – it nevertheless makes uncomfortable reading for rationalists and humanists, as so many of the proponents of eugenics he mentions, like George Bernard Shaw and Marie Stopes, were also prominent humanists. As awkward as it may be to acknowledge, there is a connection between rationalism and neo-scientific ideas about how to limit population and minimise procreation by those who are in some way or other deemed undesirable. This is something the Pope might have had in mind when, in his much publicised and denounced speech, he suggested a link between “a Nazi tyranny” that believed that some people were “unfit to live” and “atheist extremism” that leads to a “truncated vision of man”. This glib equation between Nazis and atheists was denounced as a “libel” by the British Humanist Association. But the Pope, whatever he is, is no fool. His language could be read as a subtle but unmistakeable reference to an inconvenient historical fact – British rationalism and German National Socialism shared an enthusiasm for the “applied science” of population control called eugenics.

This enthusiasm is very close to home. The Rationalist Press Association (or RPA, founded 1899), the predecessor of the Rationalist Association, which publishes this magazine, does have a long history of publishing material sympathetic to various forms of eugenics.

It’s not all bad news. There’s some comfort perhaps in the news that the key figure in the birth of eugenics was not a rationalist but a Protestant vicar. Robert Malthus’s “Essay on the Principle of Population” (originally published in 1798, but constantly revised by Malthus during his lifetime) was, and continues to be, fundamental in the field. Writing before the full onslaught of the industrial revolution and its impact upon agricultural production, Malthus argued that in any population the rate at which humans reproduce will grow faster than the rate of food production until there is a population crash, as humans are culled by hunger and disease. The only way to avoid this inevitable disaster was active intervention to limit population sizes.

These ideas enjoyed a new lease of life with the development of evolutionary theory. Charles Darwin publicly acknowledged the debt he owed to Malthus in the development of his own theory of natural selection. And while Darwin’s theories are not eugenicist themselves, it was a combination of evolutionary theory and Malthus’s ideas about population control that gave rise to eugenics, a discipline which is intimately connected with Darwin’s family (in 1928, the RPA published What is Eugenics?, an introduction to the new science written by Darwin’s son Leonard).

But it was Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who became the acknowledged founder of the eugenics movement. And while his cousin’s anti-clerical feelings are still debated, there can be no doubt at all about Galton’s credentials as a proto-humanist. He was openly irreligious in an age when it was unpopular and even dangerous to be so, and went so far as to publish statistical analyses on the inefficacy of the power of prayer.

He saw eugenics – a term he derived from the Greek for good (eu) and born (-genes) – as a secular alternative to religion. Drawing upon the new science of statistics, to which he made notable contributions, he set out to encourage the procreation of eugenic, “well-born”, individuals and to discourage, or actively prevent, the “dysgenic” populations from breeding at all (Malthus himself had considered just such a scheme but, good churchman that he was, finally balked at the idea of artificially interfering with married couples’ God-given right to procreate).

Eugenics was clearly an idea whose time had come. Across the globe eugenics societies were established and research money became readily available to those who wished to investigate the quality of national populations. What counted as “quality” varied. American eugenicists tended to concern themselves with the manner in which contemporary migrants (mostly from eastern Europe) were having a dysgenic effect upon the gene pool of the original settlers, while in the UK the main focus was class-based: what could be done about the statistical finding that the lower classes were consistently outbreeding those from more “advantaged” classes.

Much of this class-based theory concentrated upon intelligence and its measurement, a perspective that understandably attracted the attention and often the support of literary figures such as George Bernard Shaw and the Bloomsbury set. The key term here was “feeble-minded”: a category so broad that it extended from those with severe learning difficulties to alcoholics and the socially indigent. At the time such perceived deficiencies were considered to be hereditary. HG Wells was only one of the leading figures of the time who therefore saw the next logical step as the mass sterilisation of the feebleminded. As he wrote in 1903, “if we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and if we could stimulate and encourage the superior sort to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race.”

But perhaps the most embarrassing figure in the dubious historical story of the relationship between rationalism and eugenics is Herbert Spencer. Although Spencer’s sociological theories have now largely been forgotten or discredited, he was hugely influential in his day and, between the wars, the RPA sold enormous numbers of cheap reprints of his works. A famous devotee of natural selection, Spencer anticipated Social Darwinism with his application of evolutionary theory to all aspects of the world. He opposed inter-racial marriage on the grounds that it distorted bloodlines and was famous for coining the phrase “survival of the fittest”. He also found the time to write approvingly about Malthus’s claim that the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s was a natural consequence of Irish overbreeding and to insist that intervention would therefore be futile.

It is a sad fact that prior to the 1930s it is a struggle to find prominent British rationalists who were not in favour of some form of eugenics. Even Bertrand Russell was writing approvingly on the subject. In Marriage and Morals (1929), he cast a critical eye over some of the eugenicists’ claims and concluded that much of their biology was sound but that they overreached themselves when they derived sociological truisms from biological ones. This did not stop him, however, from joining Wells in advocating the sterilisation of the feeble-minded, although he drew the line at those with physical disabilities. It is a relief to discover that he had largely abandoned such ideas by the time he became President of the RPA in 1955.

It is widely thought that mainline eugenics became discredited when the full horror of how the Nazis had acted upon its proposals became known. But this is not the full story. A major factor in the discrediting of mainline eugenics was the development of Gregor Mendel’s work by geneticists in the 1930s. A key aspect of this development was the discovery of recessive genes and the consequent recognition that breeding out undesirable characteristics in large, fluid human populations would be very difficult, if not impossible. There was also a growing appreciation of the influence of environment, which ensured that many of the various characteristics dumped into the “feeble-minded” box could no longer be regarded as simply the result of heredity. All this gave rise to a movement known as “reform” eugenics, which stressed personal choice in procreation rather than coercion. In this new form it attracted a number of other serious scientists and rationalists.

JBS HaldaneA good example is JBS Haldane, right, (honorary associate of the RPA 1927-64 and considered for President in the early 1930s, when he was apparently too busy). One of the pre-eminent biologists of his day (known especially for his work on enzymes and the development of mathematical modelling for population genetics and natural selection), Haldane was also noted for his left-wing sympathies. It was arguably this predilection, as much as his superior knowledge of genetics, that led him to attack class-centred mainline eugenics. His commitment to reform eugenics is perhaps most evident in his popular speculative book Daedalus; or, Science and the Future (1924), which takes the form of a student’s report written 150 years into the future.

One of the themes is the development of “ectogenesis”, or the artificial insemination and gestation of humans outside the womb. In the essay, the student extols the futuristic separation of sexual love from procreation and the fact that desirable traits can now be selected for individuals created in this new manner. (Daedalus was a major influence on Aldous Huxley – grandson of the famous evolutionary biologist and agnostic TH Huxley – and informs his famous attack on eugenics in Brave New World.)

Haldane continued to believe that voluntary sterilisation might be a justified option for certain “well-marked physical defects”, but as early as 1934 he was well aware of the dangers posed by the Nazis’ decision to combine eugenics with theories of racial superiority. In the short essay “Sterilisation” from his collection Fact and Faith (RPA, 1934) he asks, “Is it likely that German eugenic courts will be completely impartial with regard to race, in view of the fact that the primary German text-books of eugenics preaches the congenital inferiority of various races?” While Haldane is prepared to countenance some justification for reform eugenics, he gives priority to the resolution of social and economic inequality.

 Haldane was not the only reform eugenicist who thought that sexual pleasure should be uncoupled from procreation; the sex investigator Havelock Ellis made similar arguments. Perhaps the best-known advocate of such a policy, though, is Marie Stopes. Feted now for her progressive attitude towards birth control, Stopes was an enthusiastic supporter of eugenics and reputedly disinherited her son when he insisted on marrying a woman who was short-sighted. Indeed, the original Stopes clinics were opened in working-class areas in order to limit the breeding of dysgenic individuals. This hardly limited her reputation in rationalist circles. In 1952 she was chosen to address the annual RPA conference on the subject of the Catholic Church and birth control.

It would be incorrect to suggest that mainline eugenics completely disappeared from the British rationalist community after the 1930s. For example, Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA and an RPA Associate Member, was both virulently anti-religion and pro-mainline eugenics. At one point he suggested enforced sterilisation via the use of doctored food, and as late as the 1960s he was advocating that couples should apply for a breeding licence if they wanted to procreate.

Although eugenics has now become a thoroughly dirty word, there is still a major movement concerned with population control. Here in the UK, the Optimum Population Trust (OPT), whose list of distinguished patrons includes the broadcaster David Attenborough, is probably the foremost lobby group. Relying upon Malthusian arguments about the sustainability of populations, the OPT “campaigns for stabilisation and gradual population decrease globally and in the UK”. OPT supporters are not, however, solely concerned with the impact of population size on finite resources. Unlike many earlier proponents of population control, they are equally concerned about the impact that large human populations have upon issues such as biodiversity and the effect of man-made climate change. Consequently, their campaigns are couched in more ecological terms than the purely economic ones that motivated Malthus and his early followers.

Many contemporary demographers, however, appear to have rather less faith in Malthusian predictions of doom. They point out that in societies that increase in wealth there is a correlative empowerment of women and a reduction in reproductive rates, which leads them to fall below the level required to replace those individuals who die off. So rather than a sudden explosion in population followed by social disaster as resources become scarce, as Malthus predicted, one finds that as a country becomes more wealthy, the inhabitants have fewer children, leading to an ageing population which finds itself having to import younger individuals in the form of migrants.

This trend certainly seems evident in most of Europe, and raises interesting questions for British rationalists. For whilst Malthusian theories would seem to indicate that the best way to ease population pressures is through intervention in the form of contraception or the promotion of voluntary sterilisation (which is much more popular than contraception in Catholic Latin America), it may be that resources would be better spent educating and facilitating the empowerment of women so that they can come to control their own reproductive strategies. David Attenborough recognised this when he said in a recent interview for the Guardian: “The one hope is this: wherever women are given the vote, are allowed to be literate, are allowed to have control over their own lives and have the medical facilities that enable them to do so, whenever that happens, the birth rate falls.”

Rationalists and humanists also need to face up to other contemporary questions which recall some of the past debates about eugenics. Consider the recent furore when the US charity Project Prevention attempted to extend its paid sterilisation programme for drug addicts to the UK (they have since backed down here and now only offer long-term contraception, but they continue to sterilise addicts in exchange for money in the US). Or take the current practice of screening foetuses for genetic diseases, a mode of reform eugenics that has been embraced by the scientific mainstream despite the thorny ethical questions it raises.

Many disability activists were outraged, for example, when, echoing Haldane, Robert Edwards, the pioneer of in vitro fertilisation and recent winner of a Nobel Prize, made a speech prophesying that “soon it will be a sin for parents to have a child that carries the heavy burden of genetic disease. We are entering a world where we have to consider the quality of our children” (reported in the Sunday Times, 4 July 1999). There is a real worry about the element of directedness to genetic screening whereby there is an assumption on the part of scientific and medical staff that once parents have agreed to a test, if it comes up positive they will naturally terminate the pregnancy. After all, why take the test otherwise?

This leads to enormous pressure on parents not to have children with genetic diseases. I have personally known and worked with many individuals who would never have been born and certainly not allowed to reproduce if reform eugenicists had had their way. And another question. If it is admissible to terminate foetuses because of undesirable genetic characteristics, can we continue to criticise cultures where female foetuses are terminated?

It is to be hoped that rationalists and humanists make a full contribution to such debates. They have no need to be inhibited by the past associations between rationalism and eugenics. For while the Catholic Church can be proud of its admirable record opposing eugenics (albeit for reasons centred around the idea that all humans possess a perfect, immortal soul), many Christians actively embraced eugenics. We should not lose sight of the fact that Malthus was a vicar, or that many other prominent figures, like Winston Churchill, were enthusiastic eugenicists.

Still, there is the possibility that rationalists’ stress on science and particular fervour for evolutionary theories make them especially susceptible to embracing such ideas, even if they later turn out to be pseudoscience. If some scientists believe there is no God, does this remove a potential safeguard against the misuse of science leading to such murky backwaters as eugenics? Such arguments fundamentally misunderstand the nature of rationalism, which is founded upon enquiry and debate.

Looking back at some of the material printed by and associated with the RPA, we might well be horrified by it, but should not lose sight of the fact that this is only a selection of the very large RPA output. The RPA had a long and honourable history of printing material that they did not all necessarily agree with, continuing today with New Humanist’s acceptance of articles critical of humanism, for example. Another term for “rationalist” that was popular at the end of the 19th century was “freethinker”: rationalists should be more open to persuasive argument and less attracted to dogma than the religious are. Bertrand Russell, for one, changed his opinion about mainline eugenics in the face of more evidence. Contemporary humanists would do well to follow his example.

Illustration by Sophie Kern.