G.K.Chesterton Castigates Eugenics

Chesterton was a noted opponent of eugenics which was the doctrine to go to in the late 19th century, and reached its gory depths with Nazi race theory and the Holocaust.

Eugenics was the controlled breeding of humans. Positive eugenics advocated interbreeding of the “fittest” (usually white, well educated, members of the Establishment), while negative eugenics discouraged the breeding of the “unfit” (usually the poor, the “feebleminded”, habitual criminals, those lower down the evolutionary ladder). Measures proposed included sterilisation, segregation, even “elimination”.

Chesterton, a devout Catholic, attacked the eugenists for having contempt for the masses of humanity. God’s love was directed towards the poor and afflicted (“blessed are the poor”). He asked for more Christian charity and reminded people that the Bible was harsher towards the rich and powerful.

He denounced the “pseudo-science” behind categories such as “imbeciles” or “morons” , such as used in the flawed IQ tests of the day or in treatment of the mentally ill.

As GK said, we no longer burnt witches, but were increasingly punitive towards the poor, attacking the right to strike, or people’s pleasures such as drinking beer ( a favourite activity of his) or smoking. He saw capitalism as in league with eugenics, aiming to produce a plentiful supply of docile workers, getting rid of “wastage” in the system.

Eugenics also used what Orwell later called Newspeak. For example eugenists did not speak of it being necessary to kill off the old, but spoke of “euthanasia” or remedying “the burden of longevity”. They wanted to eliminate the disabled, even when they were highly intelligent (Stephen Hawkins in our day, consumptive Keats and many other geniuses).

Ever the optimist, GK hoped that humans would embrace ideals of caritas, democracy and Christianity, ideals that had not really been tried. Christianity, for example, “has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried”.

Were the Habsburgs All That Bad? The Case for Supranationalism

Much history written about the famous Habsburg dynasty has been written from a nationalistic perspective and that has been consistently negative. Sure the dynasty had its weaknesses and failures, and fell mainly because of “overreach” and strategic mistakes, such as a misguided push into the Balkans, which sparked World War 1.

But the Habsburgs achieved much, showing the advantages of an overarching and cosmopolitan system. Hasn’t out of control nationalism been responsible for mind-blowing world disasters, wars and civil strife? An historian of the dynasty, Benjamin Curtis, speaks of “the small minds and restrictive confines of nationalism”. A loose and largely tolerant, ethnically diverse system gives us something to think about in today’s catastrophic world.

Are Science and Religion Compatible?

Alec Vidler thought so. This distinguished English church historian had respect for science, even though he accepted that it was seen by some as a dissolving agent upon religious belief. Vidler had respect for science. He argued that theology had itself to blame for not keeping up with the achievements of science (including evolutionary biology). Theologians (or many of them) had simply not done the same hard work and research as scientists had done.

Nevertheless science did not have all the answers: “…there still remain mysterious depths in the whole universe and in human existence which mortal man has not fathomed”. It was the function of religion to cast light on those mysterious depths.

Christian Belief(1950).

No Sudden Damascus Experience: Muggeridge

In no point in his life did he undergo any dramatic change:

“I would say that for me at any rate, the process has been not a sudden Damascus road experience, but more like the journeying of Bunyan’s Pilgrim, who constantly lost his way, fell into sloughs, was locked up in Doubting Castle and terrified out of his wits in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but still, through it all had a sense of moving towards light, moving out of time towards eternity “:

Malcolm Muggeridge Christ and the Media (1977)

The Danger of Judging the Past by the Present

Here is what the distinguished historian, Geoffrey Elton, an expert on Tudor England, had to say about this:

“If knowledge of the past is to entitle the historian to speak to his own day, it must not be so organized as to satisfy that day’s whim; if it is to teach usefully about mankind and the human condition, it must be understood for itself and in all its variety, undetermined by the predilections of the present and unruled by it at a time when the present did not yet exist”


Scientists wash their hands of war weapons guilt

As early as the 1930s scientists were engaged in war industry research , well before they invented the atomic bomb. There were groups of ethical scientists who fought against this dangerous trend. They pointed out that the armaments industry was funding research in universities which would inevitably be used to disastrous effect in future wars. Chemists had already devised “mustard gas” used in trench warfare in World War I:

“At this point men of evil will stepped in, the military intelligence came into operation, and the forces of disunion, envy, hatred and malice” were unleashed. Like Pontius Pilate the scientists washed their hands of any guilt: “It is as if the house of the spirit, which was previously inhabited by the genius of religion, always preoccupied about God, Man, the Good, the Holy, the Right, were thoroughly spring-cleaned, swept and garnished, leaving nothing but the empty rooms and bare walls of scientific ethical neutrality, whereupon seven other demons, all worse than the first, including war and pestilence, enter in and take up permanent residence there”

[Joseph Needham,1931]

Was Joseph Needham a Marxist?

The short answer is that he was influenced by Marxist theory and ideals but did not allow this to influence his scientific objectivity. He said that he had been an “equalitarian socialist” long before he read any Marxist classics, and reaffirmed that he had adhered to the Christian Socialism of his youth for the rest of his life.

He agreed that he had been influenced by colleagues who embraced a dialectical materialist philosophy, such as J. B. S.Haldane, J. D. Bernal and Roy Pascal. But Needham maintained an independent, “personal non-exclusive” style of thinking. He wrote of his “world view of faith… I combine Marxist thought with the revolutionary Christianity of Rudolph Otto and R. G. Collingwood, and the emergent evolutionism of Lloyd Morgan and Samuel Alexander. Teilhard de Chardin I came to know and admire only after the second world war” (Notes written in 1967).

A Forgotten Scholar – Joseph Needham

Joseph Needham (1900-1995) was a world renowned scholar who helped put the history of Chinese science on the map. He is now, sadly, in danger of being forgotten. He was a ground-breaking bio-chemist at Cambridge whose life-long interest in Chinese civilisation resulted in a series of books on Chinese science, which was fostered by a research team at the Needham Research Institute from 1976. He was renowned for conducting informal seminars and get-togethers at his home off Grange Road in Cambridge. I was studying at Cambridge in 1992 and never learnt about these soirees after his death in 1995. They were open to all and I wish I had attended.

Needham has been described as a bridge builder between science, religion and Marxist socialism. He was one of a group of leftist scientists in the UK who wanted to popularise science for the masses, and to reform it away from its elitism. Needham was the son of a Harley Street speciialist and an artistically gifted mother.. His life has been seen as an attempt to bridge the gap between his creative mother and a more rationalist father who nevertheless had a deep interest in theology and the classics and was active in the Anglican Oxford Movement. Joseph himself became attached to a broad and tolerant Christianity, plus a deep interest in religions such as Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism. He had veered towards a religious vocation in his early years, trialling for two years as a novice in the Oratory of the Good Shepherd (an Anglo-Catholic order) and was also active in the Guild of St Luke, promoting Christian ethics in the medical profession.

I will look in future at how these influences turned out in his later efforts to reconcile science and religion, the Holy and Society. I have published my thoughts on Needham in my book Intellectuals and the Decline of Religion (Boolarong Press, 1917).