December 11, 1998

Eugenics began as a family affair, says historian

Evolutionary theorist feared inbreeding in his own clan

by Geoff McMaster
Folio Staff

Dr. James Moore

The eugenics movement has been mostly discredited since the Nazi atrocities of the Second World War, so it's easy to forget it was once considered a "new religion" among the most high-minded and politically correct. Especially in Britain, selective human breeding was considered the solution to the country's moral ills.

Historians offer a number of explanations for the origins of the eugenics movement in the 19th century, from concern over the declining birth rate to systemic racism to contempt for the lower class. None, however, is quite so quirky and compelling as the explanation offered by Dr. James Moore, author of the widely acclaimed, best-selling biography, Darwin.

According to Moore's latest research, eugenics was the natural child, so to speak, of Charles Darwin's personal anxiety. The father of evolutionary theory profoundly feared the results of inbreeding in his immediate family, says Moore, and he passed those fears on to his children and ultimately his country.

"What I think is happening here is, on one level, a family obsession was imposed on a large segment of the British upper middle class," says the professor of science and technology history at Open University in Milton Keynes, England. Moore was on campus earlier this month to present his findings to the history and classics department.

"The initiating impulse to the 20th century obsession with breeding better human beings arises from a family's preoccupation with the consequences of their own breeding."

The reproductive relationships in the Darwin family are enough to make your head spin. Charles Darwin married his first cousin, Emma Wedgewood. His sister also married one of her Wedgewood cousins and two other Wedgewood cousins married their Darwin first cousins. In all there were four first-cousin marriages constituting what Moore calls the Darwoodian pedigree.

Though it wasn't uncommon for first cousins to marry in the 19th century, "Charles worried about this for a number of reasons," says Moore. "He knew from his contact with animal and plant breeders that inbreeding can cause both bad and good things to happen. It's clear that from the very beginning of his engagement, he was keen to interpret their relationship, and later the children who would be born, as natural history phenomena."

Darwin observed his children as closely as he monitored "apes in the London Zoo," to see which inherited traits they displayed. Sure enough, all of them fell victim to his own defective digestive condition. His eldest daughter died at age 10 with severe gastrointestinal problems, and one after another, the remaining seven children fell ill at about the same age. "Over a period of 15 years, Darwin discovered how heredity works when first cousins marry," says Moore.

Darwin's five surviving sons became actively involved in the eugenics movement. His son George compiled statistics on the offspring of first-cousin marriages and also checked lunatic asylums for traits of inferior human beings. His youngest son Horace, the sickliest of the lot, started an engineering company to make anthropometric instruments used in measuring body parts to assess genetic quality. And both sons worked closely with Francis Galton, founder of the eugenics movement in the 1880s, which was hailed as "a new basis of moral obligation."

Eventually, most of the Darwin brothers moved to Cambridge and joined the Cambridge University Eugenics Society, all "deeply concerned with the proliferation of sub-normal working-class children in town." Darwin's second youngest son Leonard succeeded Galton as president of the British Eugenics Society.

"What may have driven the Darwin-Wedgewoods into eugenic concerns was not their genius but a deep fear of their own inbred weakness," says Moore.

Understanding eugenics as a form of psycho-pathology - "a projection onto the wider world of the fear of one's own hereditary deficiency" - may help us understand similar trends in contemporary society, Moore argues. He cites certain forms of gene therapy and the screening of embryos as examples of "eugenics through the back door."

"The long-term consequences of this will be a biologically stratified society ...people who have become economically successful will be able to afford techniques of genetic screening and therefore rid themselves of hereditary diseases, and in the long run constitute a class apart - the 'naturals' and what is called the 'genrich,'" he says.

"If it could be established that what was driving this was not really concern for health and happiness for future generations of humanity but a deep-seated concern for one's own worthlessness, that could have policy implications."

He adds it would be interesting to explore whether his theory of projection might apply to the early eugenics movement in Alberta in the '20s and '30s. History professor Dr. Julien Martin, however, says little work has been done by historians on "the degree to which people in Alberta were actually reflecting on their own particular families."

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