Flight of fantasy
The chorus of disapproval that greeted Howard Flight’s remark about how cuts in child benefits will encourage ‘breeding’ among the lower social classes (or as Flight called them,‘those on benefits’) 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 a current consensus on ‘appropriateness’, or what some would sneeringly call political correctness. This solipsistic perspective is dangerously shallow.
The media coverage has largely ignored the obvious connection between Flight’s comment and the argument for eugenics originally advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton in the late nineteenth century and pursued by intellectuals on both the left and the right for a considerable part of the twentieth. Galton voiced explicitly what Flight had at least the restraint (or the nous) only to imply: given the chance, the inferior stock among the lower classes will breed like rabbits and thereby corrupt the species. 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, he said, 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 to encourage 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. Some biologists, such as Julian Huxley and J.B.S. Haldane, welcomed the prospect of ectogenesis – gestation of fetuses in artificial wombs – so that it might liberate ‘good’ mothers from that onerous obligation (presumably nannies could take over once the child was ‘born’). Even conservatives who regarded such technologies with distaste felt compelled to agree that they offered the best prospect for maintaining the vitality of the species.
This approach was called ‘positive eugenics’: redressing the imbalance by propagating good genes. It 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-sterilization programmes in the early twentieth century (and which ultimately sterilized around 60,000 people), this meant the mentally unstable or impaired (‘idiots and imbeciles’), 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. (There was no lack of racism in the US programmes either.)
Liberal eugenicists such as Haldane and Huxley were rather more nuanced than Flight. They argued that eugenic policies made sense only on a level playing field: while social inequalities held individuals back, there was no guarantee that ‘defective’ genes would be targeted. But once that levelling was effected, what Huxley referred to chillingly as ‘nests of defective germ plasm’ should be shown no mercy. As he put it, “The lowest strata, allegedly less well endowed genetically, are reproducing relatively too fast. Therefore birth-control methods must be taught them; they must not have too easy access to relief or hospital treatment lest the removal of the last check on natural selection should make it too easy for children to be reproduced or to survive; long unemployment should be a ground for sterilization, or at least relief should be contingent upon no further children being brought into the world.” Flight was at least socially aware enough to pull his punches in comparison to this.
Although it was mostly the taint of Nazism that put paid to eugenics (not to mention the emergence of the concept of human rights), the scientific case was eventually revealed to be spurious too, not least because there is no good reason to think that complex traits such as intelligence and sociability have isolable genetic origins that can be refined by selective breeding.
Yet the survival nonetheless of Galton’s ideas among the likes of Flight and, in previous decades, Sir Keith Joseph, should not be mistaken for a failure to keep abreast of the science. I should be surprised if Flight has even heard of Galton, and I suspect he would be surprised himself to find his remark associated with a word – eugenics – that now is (wrongly) often considered to be a product of fascist genocidal fantasies. Galton was after all only providing pseudo-scientific justification for the prejudices about breeding that the aristocracy had espoused since Plato’s time, and it is surely here that the origins of Flights remark lie. That is why what was evidently for him a casual truism represents more than just a lapse of decorum, sensitivity or political acumen. It implies that David Cameron does not merely have the poor judgement to favour loose cannons, but that he is still heir to a deep-rooted tradition of class-based bigotry.