Louise Fein looks at the lessons to be learned about altering human genetics in the light of the history of eugenics, the chilling theory that lies behind her latest novel, The Hidden Child.
I recently heard a news clip about how human cells have been successfully grown in monkey embryos in a laboratory. The concept being that human organs can be grown inside other animals to later ‘harvest’ them to increase the number of organs available for transplant. Alongside this, we are also developing the ability to genetically engineer ‘better’ humans. Apart from the questionable ethics, this, to me, it is cause for concern.
History is always a good place to begin to reflect on where this may inadvertently lead. The pseudo-science of eugenics, the word perhaps most strongly associated with Nazi Germany, was, in fact, widely accepted and adopted in many countries in the first half of the twentieth century until it fell out of favour. Chillingly, the ideas behind it are not dead, as man continues to try to defy the natural laws of selection.
Eugenics is the focus of my latest book, The Hidden Child, set in the 1920s. A young couple are leading lights in the burgeoning eugenics movement, but when their own young daughter develops debilitating seizures, their charmed life begins to disintegrate, and their belief in genetic superiority called into question.
Some of the characters in the book are based on real influential figures of the time, who shaped powerful ideas around class, race, intelligence and superiority which have influenced education, health and social policy to this day.
The phrase, and concept of, ‘eugenics’ was first adopted by Sir Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin, in the late nineteenth century who took the idea from his famous cousin about breeding improvements into domestic animals and thought these should also be applied to humans, to improve their ability.
The idea of getting rid of ‘undesirables’ and increasing the proportions of ‘desirables’ in the general population gained much popularity, with champions of the movement coming not only from the right, but also from prominent socialists such as Sydney and Beatrice Webb, John Maynard Keynes, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, William Beveridge, HG Wells and Marie Stopes, to name but a few.
Indeed, there were few voices of dissent. In 1907 the Eugenics Education Society was established in England to campaign for sterilisation and marriage restrictions for those considered ‘unfit’ to prevent the deterioration of Britain’s population.
In 1912 the first International Eugenics Conference was held in London and presided over by Charles Darwin’s youngest son, Leonard Darwin, who headed the (later renamed) Eugenics Society until 1929. In attendance were prominent supporters including Winston Churchill and Lord Balfour.
Legislation was proposed for compulsory sterilisation and incarceration of those considered ‘weak-minded’, a catch-all phrase for those with learning difficulties as well as epileptics, criminals, those with behavioural difficulties, alcoholics and anyone else considered ‘undesirable’ and ruinous to the health of the population in general.
The Bill was almost universally supported but, in the end, the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act was greatly watered down by the heroic efforts of Liberal MP Josiah Wedgwood who managed to gain support through two main arguments: Firstly, the enormous and unknown cost of segregating and sterilising huge swathes of the population, and secondly, the concept of the liberty of the individual being subjugated by the State.
The other arguments – the spurious science upon which the whole concept was based, and the difficulty in defining exactly who and how people were captured under the definitions of the legislation – fell more on deaf ears.
The 1914–1918 war diverted attention away from eugenics, but by the mid-1920s, the economic bounce-back after the war was over. There was mass unemployment and a growing concern about the speed of which the relative classes were reproducing. The ‘poor’ were producing seven or eight children per couple, the middle and upper classes only two or three.
The Russian revolution was not yet a decade old and the fear of a Communist revolution in England was real. The economic and social upheaval of this decade were enormous, and debates raged about the tenuous future of life as they knew it, capitalism and Western democracy was doomed, and people were genuinely afraid. The echoes down the years are striking.
The eugenics movement picked up momentum again and in the US it was taken further, with hundreds of thousands subject to incarceration into institutions for sometimes dubious reasons and tens of thousands forceably sterilised. Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin (featured in The Hidden Child) ran the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island, NY. Laughlin wrote the Model Eugenical Sterilisation law, which went on to be enacted in various states.
In 1933 the German Reichstag passed the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring, closely based on Laughlin’s model. Laughlin himself was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Heidelberg for his work in the science of racial cleansing.
The concept of the superior Aryan in Germany could be traced to ideas decades earlier, cultivated in California, about the superiority of the blond-haired, blue-eyed master Nordic race. Philanthropic organisations such as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Harriman provided extensive funding. The Rockefeller Foundation also helped fund the German eugenics programme, including Josef Mengele’s twin studies before he went to Auschwitz.
Indeed, these policies made it awkward leading up to the Nuremburg trials when the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity were being devised and prosecutions proposed for the treatment of people in the period before the war began in 1939.
This was because of America’s own treatment of its black population and ‘the unfit’ with its own forceable sterilisation programme. During the trials, Germany raised the Californian eugenics statutes, albeit unsuccessfully, in its defence.
Eugenics philosophies continue to find support today. My personal view is that, whilst I understand there are benefits of reducing or eliminating certain inherited diseases, we should be wary of our interference with nature as we cannot know where it may lead.
We only have to look to history to see the dangers of it, when taken to extreme.
Louise Fein is also the author of People Like Us (Daughter of the Reich in the US/Canada edition), a story of forbidden love set in 1930s Leipzig.
- Eugenics Society poster, c1930s: Wellcome Collection (in copyright)
- Photo of Sir Francis Galton: Wikimedia
- Photo of a six-year-old girl with epilespy, roped to her bed from How the uncared-for epileptic fares in Illinois: Wikimedia
- US eugenics event, c1920s: Wikimedia
- Neues Volk eugenics poster, c1937: Wikimedia