I have been rereading G.K. Chesterton’s prophetic book Eugenics and Other Evils, and I must say I am enjoying it all over again. The book, published in 1922, is extremely witty and well-reasoned, which makes it a good read, even though the content he deals with is horrific. If you are unfamiliar, Eugenics is a movement that began back in the mid-to-late 19th century, but really hit its stride at the turn of the 20th century. The optimism of that era combined with faith in science produced this movement which sought to improve the human species through, well, through breeding. Their logic was that scientists have been able to isolate preferred genes, traits, and strengths in animals to better those species, and the same methods could be employed for the favorable and quick advancement of the species homo sapiens.
I am amazed at Chesterton’s ability to recognize the far reaching effects of this movement, which we are heavily experiencing today. Perhaps in a later post, I can relay to you how accurately he pegged the rise of Nazism a decade before Hitler was even on radar. He saw where the ideas of forced sterilization, government-arranged marriage, abortion, and birth control would lead (and yes, all of these sprung from the same fountainhead of eugenics).
In Chapter 2, Chesterton addresses several classes of “good, shouting, short-sighted people” who promoted eugenics with a whole lot of fluff, while misunderstanding the intellectual substance of the movement. I could not help but read the word “abortionists” every time he wrote “eugenists”, not only because the abortion movement is a stem from the trunk of eugenics, but because these same exact people exist in the abortion movement that he describes from the 1920s. Consider his first characterization: Eugenists Who Are Euphemists. In the quoted text, I will insert the word “abortionists” where “eugenists” appears. See if the shoe doesn’t fit:
Most [Abortionists] are Euphemists. I mean merely that short words startle them, while long words soothe them. And they are utterly incapable of translating the one into the other, however obviously they mean the same thing. Say to them “The persuasive and even coercive powers of the citizen should enable him to make sure that the burden of longevity in the previous generation does not become disproportionate and intolerable, especially to the females”; say this to them and they will sway slightly to and fro like babies sent to sleep in cradles. Say to them “Murder your mother,” and they sit up quite suddenly. Yet the two sentences, in cold logic, are exactly the same. Say to them “It is not improbable that a period may arrive when the narrow if once useful distinction between the anthropoid homo and the other animals, which has been modified on so many moral points, may be modified also even in regard to the important question of the extension of human diet”; say this to them, and beauty born of murmuring sound will pass into their face. But say to them, in a simple manly, hearty way “Let’s eat a man!” and their surprise is quite surprising. Yet the sentences say just the same thing.
-G.K. Chesterton from Eugenics and Other Evils, Edited by Michael W. Perry (Seattle: Inkling, 2000), 20.
What Chesterton found to be true of eugenists in his day is equally true of abortionists in our day. Our culture has been lulled to sleep through euphemisms, blurry language, and straw men. The culture has been unfairly forced to choose between women’s health and a child’s life; they have fallen prey to reasonable arguments filled with words like tissue, fetus, and embryonic reduction. It all sounds so clinical, medical even, and our basic inclinations tell us that medicine is good.
This won’t be the last post drawn from this book. However, to close for now, consider a quote the editor included from a hard-nosed intellectual eugenist of 1865, Francis Galton. Can you wade through the euphemisms and science-speak to see what he is implying?
The power of man over animal life, in producing whatever varieties of form he pleases, is enormously great. It would seem as though the physical structure of future generations was almost as plastic as clay, under the control of the breeder’s will. It is my desire to show, more pointedly than–so far as I am aware–has been attempted before, that [human] mental qualities are equally under control.