An Argument Against
the Scientifically Organized Society (1922)
by G. K. Chesterton
With a few honorable exceptions, our historians have tended to gloss over the Progressive Era’s affinity for many of the 20th century’s most troubling ideas. Few Americans know, for example, about the magnetic appeal Italian fascism held in the 1920s for many of the most prominent American liberals and pragmatists. They openly praised Mussolini’s achievement in transforming a chronically disordered nation into “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen”, as FDR Brains Trust adviser Rexford G. Tugwell enthused.
An even more interesting omission is our neglect of the then-widespread popularity and respectability of eugenics. This new “science” for the systematic practice of selective human breeding for the supposed improvement of society led to the sterilization and segregation of the “feeble-minded” and other “undesirable” individuals and groups in American society. It sounds like a preoccupation of the exotic fringe to most of us now, but nine decades ago eugenics was openly advocated as a mainstream Progressive idea. Indeed, the most certifiably advanced minds of the day promoted and celebrated it. In 1923, former President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, U.S. Senator Royal Copeland of New York, former President David Starr Jordan of Indiana and Stanford Universities, President Livingston Farrand of Cornell University, and a host of other educational, medical and social-welfare luminaries making up the Eugenics Committee of the United States came forth with a program calling for “selective immigration, sterilization of defectives and control of everything having to do with the reproduction of human beings.” In 1932, Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” Nor was support restricted to a secularist avant-garde. As Christine Rosen has shown, many American Christian and Jewish religious leaders, including even some Roman Catholics, were fully supportive of eugenic ideas and policies. It was no fringe phenomenon.1
Nor was eugenics merely a utopian idea. It formed the basis of concrete policies. For one thing, it lent its strong support to the immigration-restriction statutes of the 1920s. But there were more direct and telling effects. Thirty-three American states passed laws that allowed for the involuntary sterilization of those deemed “unfit.” The famous words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case—”three generations of imbeciles are enough”—expressed the Supreme Court’s upholding of a Virginia law, thereby signaling the general acceptability of eugenic involuntary-sterilization laws. Such activity was hardly restricted to Southern states. California, well-known to be one of the most Progressive-influenced states in the nation, led all others in performing some 20,000 forced sterilizations and did not cease the practice until the 1960s.
Although all these details are specific to the United States, they faithfully reflect the general intellectual and political environment of the then advanced Western world within which, and against which, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton was writing when he published Eugenics and Other Evils in London in 1922. Indeed, eugenics was just as widely accepted by the cognoscenti in Great Britain as in the United States, and insinuated itself no less fully into British public life. Figures such as H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, Sidney Webb and Winston Churchill endorsed it as a beneficent and necessary tool of human progress. The eminent British scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin who invented the term “eugenics” in 1883, was its most enthusiastic and prominent advocate, at times even envisioning it as “a new religion.” Committed to the view that variations in human faculties and abilities were the consequence of variations in heredity, Galton envisioned eugenics as “the self-direction of evolution”, the means by which the human race could harness the randomness and waste of the natural-selection process and turn its genetic mechanisms in the direction of consciously chosen and ennobling goals.
So Chesterton had an uphill battle against eugenics, perhaps more than would be the case today. As a consequence, his tone is aggressive, dismissive and bitingly polemical. Though showing flashes of his characteristic humor, he gives no quarter to the enemy. Eugenics ought, he declared, “to be destroyed” as “a thing no more to be bargained about than poisoning.”
Did Chesterton score sufficient points to make his case worth revisiting? I will return in a moment to consider that question more closely. But first, it is important to think about what happened to the once high-flying eugenics movement. The answer can be expressed in a single word: Nazism. Thanks to Hitler’s Third Reich and the implementation of its horrifying eugenic policies, including the systematic extermination of Jews and other “undesirable” groups, the very ideas of “racial hygiene” or of “unfit” members of society were discredited. The concept of eugenics became despoiled even to the point of being rendered literally unspeakable. Many of the victorious Allies’ postwar efforts, from the Nuremberg Trials to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sought to vindicate the inviolable dignity of individuals.
In addition, the once characteristic eugenic belief in hereditary determinism was largely abandoned in favor of a strong emphasis upon the social and cultural making of the human person. This newer environmental emphasis grew from the rise of cultural anthropology, and of influential figures within it such as Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The balance tipped decisively, for a time, from nature toward nurture, emphasizing the molding force of cultural environment rather than the hardwiring of the genetic constitution. This made eugenics seem not only brutal but outmoded both intellectually and as a practice. Intellectual fashion shifted accordingly.
But that is not the end of the story. In our own time, the brief hegemony of cultural or social constructivism is crumbling rapidly before the rapidly advancing knowledge of genetics. The more we learn about the genetic bases of human behavior and about how to alter and repair genetic material, the more fields of inquiry have opened which, in turn, have propelled scientists back in the direction of emphasizing biological determinants and constraints upon behavior. In short, there has been a broad reversal of sentiment, pushing the human sciences back in the direction of an emphasis on biological hardwiring. This view has been adopted not merely for philosophical reasons, but for eminently practical ones as well, given the therapeutic and other uses to which such genetic knowledge can be put. Genetic engineering, in tandem with ever more precise forms of genetic screening, offers the hope of eliminating certain diseases and disabilities, and otherwise accomplishing what are, in fact, broadly eugenic goals.
It is important not to exaggerate the extent to which we know, or ever will know, precisely how to engineer human traits, or the extent to which hereditary factors can be said to determine a person’s makeup. But the point is that we are now recognizably back in Chesterton’s world, except for the fact that in our time, the word “eugenics” itself is never spoken—for the Nazi-wrought taboo remains upon it. This peculiarity perhaps explains the kind of person who condemns sociobiology as racist today and yet insists tomorrow that her prospective sperm donor must have the loftiest pedigree imaginable, including documentary proof of superior SAT test scores. Protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the belief in the hegemony of the heritable has never been stronger.
This peculiar reversal in intellectual fashion alone provides us with good reason to look back at Chesterton’s book. It can tell us what the argument about eugenics looked like at a time when the debate was perhaps more candid, franker, clearer and less encumbered by history and by the kind of constraints on public discourse to which we have too readily acquiesced. I am clearly not the only one who has thought to do this, or else the 2000 edition of Eugenics and Other Evils would not exist.2 That edition was designed to bring that point home powerfully. Intent that we not lose sight of the views held by the people with whom Chesterton was debating, editor Michael W. Perry not only included appendices containing an ample selection from the writings of Chesterton’s foes but has inserted into the text small boxes containing quotations from Galton, Shaw, Russell and other “eugenists”, to use Chesterton’s term for them. These quotations are akin to and generally quite as appalling as the American quotations cited above. But one appreciates the bluntness and clarity with which the eugenics case was stated in those days by its leading proponents. Consider this quotation from Galton: “Men and women of the present day are, to those we might hope to bring into existence, what the pariah dogs of the streets of an Eastern Town are to our own highly bred varieties.”
But there are issues with Chesterton that even the best edition cannot resolve. Chesterton lovers will hate to be told this, but his garrulous style, like his girth, sometimes simply gets in the way. As all who have read him know, Chesterton is a splendid and inimitable prose stylist. His whirling, large-gestured prose, however, is not to everyone’s taste, particularly when the matter at issue is something of the utmost importance. One may rightly feel that clarity and precision have been sacrificed for vividness and spectacle. His manner of argument usually does not have a steady or logical flow; instead it spurts and gushes, overflowing its banks, cascading here, meandering there, stopping itself, reversing itself, rambling on, always dialoguing with itself and sometimes arguing with itself, all the while serving up a colorful assortment of metaphors and similes, analogizing wildly, brilliantly, imaginatively. And yet, such garish diction sometimes seems better designed to entertain, to uplift, or to provide confirmation to those who already agree than to sway those who are persuadable. And needless to say, Chesterton seems allergic to the use of anything that smells even remotely of a social-scientific approach to conceptualization or evidence. Even the most half-hearted affectation of a value-neutral way of talking would seem, for him, an act of self-betrayal.
So with Chesterton, one has to take the man as he is. Let us do that, then, but let us first take a look at a relatively brief example of what I am talking about. This example shows some of his excessiveness, but it also has the virtue of illustrating one of Chesterton’s most valuable insights. In the following passage, he is pointing out the limitations of the very kinds of specialists and experts who are required to make the decision that someone is “feeble-minded”:
Now, that specialists are valuable for this particular and practical purpose, of predicting the approach of enormous and admitted human calamities, nobody but a fool would deny. But that does not bring us one inch nearer to allowing them the right to define what is a calamity; or to call things calamities which common sense does not call calamities. We call in the doctor to save us from death; and, death being admittedly an evil, he has the right to administer the queerest and most recondite pill which he may think is a cure for all such menaces of death. He has not the right to administer death, as the cure for all human ills. And as he has no moral authority to enforce a new conception of happiness, so he has no moral authority to enforce a new conception of sanity. He may know I am going mad; for madness is an isolated thing like leprosy; and I know nothing about leprosy. But if he merely thinks my mind is weak, I may happen to think the same of his. I often do.
It is an amusing passage, but not the easiest passage to parse logically. And yet, in his own hyperactive and indirect way, Chesterton is making one of his more telling points. The judgment that a man is “feeble-minded”, and the consequences deemed to flow from that judgment, cannot be placed in the hands of one person or authority. The entire concept of selective breeding breaks down here on the point that no single, discrete entity is capable of deciding, or is entitled to decide, which qualities should be artificially “selected” in or out. Besides, he avers, it is the strong, not the feeble, who have caused most of the trouble in human history—is it not?
Chesterton’s critique did not end there. In his view, the eugenic idea was false because the eugenists of his day lacked an adequate scientific basis for their claims, particularly the claim that heredity was the most powerful force over human existence—more powerful than free will itself, more powerful than the various accommodations made to heredity. This criticism still seems valid, even with our era’s shift back toward nature over nurture, driven by our vastly expanded knowledge. The would-be mother selecting for a sperm donor with high SAT scores, and ignoring the vast multitude of other factors in a child’s formation that cannot be traced to heritability—including, perhaps most of all, the presence of two natural parents in a stable household—is most likely in the grip of a large and poorly grounded mechanical illusion.
That falsity became more pernicious when linked up with state power and used to justify a comprehensive invasion of the most private aspects of human life. This goes beyond eugenics. For, wrote Chesterton, the man who would “control the health of the community . . . must necessarily control all the habits of all the citizens.” He will become a kind of undercover policeman, shadowing the citizen in his private life, finding out if forbidden behaviors like smoking and drinking and consumption of transfats are going on. As for the feeble-minded or defective, ultimately their sin is their superfluousness, their inability to “contribute” to the social life of the community, an ability that ultimately defines whether they deserve to live or die. In the end, Chesterton argues, eugenics always will devolve into an exercise of raw power, the strong against the weak, the upper classes against the lower ones. Eugenics has “its face turned toward the slums”, he insists, since it proposes a reform that one class imposes upon another, and never on itself.
Most of the book is drawn from materials that Chesterton had written against eugenics in the years before the First World War. At that time, he was fearful that his countrymen were being taken in by a materialistic and mechanical way of life that had become embodied in the Germany in his day. The war was in part a struggle to defeat such “Prussianism”, which he saw as, in turn, an expression of the “tyranny of Science”, the subjection of humankind to an abstract, soulless and rationalistic pattern of life imposed upon it by accredited experts who claimed to know what was best and would use the power of the state to impose it willy-nilly. With the war’s end, Chesterton had felt confident that “no Englishman would ever again go nosing round the stinks of that low laboratory” of eugenics. But, as he soon saw, his confidence was misplaced. When much to his dismay the ruling classes of England continued to operate on the same mechanical premises, “proceeding on the assumption that Prussia is a pattern for the whole world”, he concluded that the message needed repeating. That is why he gathered his earlier articles together and published them as Eugenics and Other Evils, adding the significant subtitle An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized Society.
That subtitle, I think, carries the weight of Chesterton’s ultimate meaning, and that meaning is perhaps as important to us as it has ever been, as we find ourselves launched into a vast new expansion of our own state apparatus, which claims the mantle of scientific organization for the better administration of our affairs. His is not merely a book about eugenics, but a book for whose purposes eugenics serves as a proxy, and a potent example, of that way of doing things. And it illustrates the dangers of going in that direction.
More than anything, Chesterton feared the loss of a kind of English liberty that is only possible when parts of life remain uncharted, open to serendipity, suffused with the kind of freedom that is only possible when the human will is only partly responsible for the conditions of one’s life. The scientifically organized society is bound to fail, in his view, since the appropriation of science by government will always be a class-based power play in which science is a name for the means by which some rule and some are ruled. But Chesterton calls into question not merely the ways in which the reality falls short of the ideal, but the ways that the ideal falls short of the reality. Even if we could manage to create the “scientifically organized society”, as Galton and Comte and Condorcet and Ward envisioned it, it would be a miserably disappointing place. It would be so precisely because such a world would have forfeited what Edmund Burke called “the unbought grace of life”, a gratitude for the motley and surprising world as it is given to us, rather than the world as we have refashioned it after our own heart, for better and worse.
Chesterton may have failed to appreciate the ways in which, say, medical science would be able to relieve pain and bestow years of life upon countless men and women whose existences would have been diminished or extinguished in his day. But that, I think, would not have changed his mind. A reading of Eugenics and Other Evils suggests that mastery over nature and extension of life do not automatically deliver the very things that such mastery is meant to secure for us. That paradox is real, and will never leave us. The men who want to play God cannot abolish it; they can, however, do plenty of other perhaps well meaning but ultimately monstrous things. Chesterton saw that truth in eugenics long before the Nazis made it clear to everyone. If he helps us to see it again long afterwards, he will have done double duty.
1Rosen, Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the Eugenics Movement (Oxford, 2004).
2Michael W. Perry, ed., Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized Society (Inkling Books, 2000).