Jane Harris Zsovan, author of Eugenics and the Firewall talked to Uncommon Descent recently about her book on the controversial topic of social Darwinist eugenics in Western Canda in the mid-twentieth century.
Denyse: The thing that struck me, reading your book, was how widespread the idea was in the province of Alberta, that sterilizing “socially challenged” people was a great idea. You write, “Many early eugenicists were leftists, but most important, Social Darwinist ideas behind right-wing eugenics absolved the wealthy of responsibility to help the poor.” (p. 8.) True, and many were pastors and churchgoing people. Today’s evangelicals would likely have a hard time believing that, but it’s a fact.
Jane: You bet! Eugenics was widely accepted by the business, academic, medical and political establishment. Preachers – in evangelical and mainline churches – even preached it from the pulpit. One exception: Roman Catholics. And they were ridiculed for their ‘backwardness’ in not endorsing eugenic theory. Also, the Conservative Party in Alberta was the only party to consistently refuse to support eugenics legislation in Alberta after it was introduced. (Your readers should know that, in the policy spectrum, the Conservative Party in Alberta was not similar to American Republicanism, but to the British and Canadian Conservative tradition. Pro-American free trade policies and trickle-down “Adam Smith”-style economics were the Liberal Party’s platform in those days.)
Denyse You note that eugenicist Francis Galton felt free to manipulate global politics, Chinese, Africans … – disposing of the lands and peoples freely. (P. 12) I’m not here focusing on the moral badness of it; rather the political ineptness. Look what he was doing: promoting huge Chinese settlement in Africa, for example, without asking the Africans. Isn’t that a recipe for intractable future conflict? More important, doesn’t it suggest ambitions far vaster than any government should have? To what do you attribute the enormous, misplaced certainty that seems to have prevailed in those days about the extent to which intervention and interference would produce a better human being? I mean, at the time there was also a hypothetical creature known as the “new Soviet man.”
Jane: Galton was a man of his generation and class who believed that the upper classes were superior and that the poor were inferior and that whites were superior to other races. But he went even further, by creating a hierarchy of races in which Africans were considered inferior to Asians, and Asians were inferior to Southern Europeans, who were in turn, considered inferior to Northern Europeans. This hierarchy of races was considered “scientific.”
Galton, and many of his generation, did not believe that blacks could run modern cities and nations. Unlike the Soviets, he wasn`t trying to create a new type of human. He was vastly underestimating the potential of Africans because he believed that genetics was destiny and that that the hierarchy of races meant some peoples were limited in their intellectual capacity. He really believed this.
He believed it was the “white man`s duty” to rule the world. The Anglo-American ascendency in politics and business was seen by many as proof that the white were more ‘fit’ and or ‘predestined’ to run the world.
It all goes to prove that you can believe something, insist it’s scientific and proven, and be totally wrong. Atheists and religious people are equally vulnerable to this error.
Denyse: Did no one notice that these activities uniformly subverted natural justice and normal relationships and – on the whole – caused people to behave even worse than normal human nature allows for?
Jane: Well, the Roman Catholics did. But, by and large, most middle and upper class people thought eugenics explained poverty, vice, criminality and a whole load of social ills that were part of society.
Denyse: It’s helpful to remember that The Catholic Church of the day was in the process of developing social teachings to specifically address issues of the modern era. Factories, for example, had not been important features of life before the nineteenth century, but were a critical political issue across Western Europe thereafter. Speaking as a Catholic, I would say that the Church has made some awful mistakes, but was sparred that one because key thinkers understood the temptation that technocracies face – thinking that every problem has a technocratic solution.
to be continued