Wednesday, 20 June 2012

H. G. Wells and the intellectual origins of Eugenics

H. G. Wells (1866-1946)
During the first half of the twentieth century many prominent figures promoted the ideology of eugenics. H. G. Wells, best known for futuristic novels such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, provides a good example of how the various trends in contemporary thought, many already discussed in this series, could prepare the mind for the acceptance of eugenics.

H. G. Wells was born in Bromley in Kent on 21st September 1866. He was educated at the Normal School of Science, at South Kensington, by Thomas Huxley, the influential disciple of Charles Darwin. In early adulthood Wells rejected Christianity and, like Sir Francis Galton, embraced Darwinism almost as a substitute religion. Later in life Wells was to write that Darwinism had brought many of his generation to ‘the realisation that life is a conflict between superior and inferior types’.[1] He believed that the salvation of the human race lay in scientific progress which would ultimately give mankind the tools to establish a rationally ordered utopia that Wells called the ‘New Republic’.
Wells set out a detailed prediction of the future in his 1902 work Anticipations. In this book he professed disgust at the prevailing ‘really very horrible morality’ that led ‘benevolent persons’ to try to help large families that could not support themselves. He wrote that ‘from the point of view of social physiology’ such families appear a ‘horrible and criminal thing.’[2] Like Sir Francis Galton he believed that the ‘quality’ of the human race was declining; ‘the average of humanity’ he wrote ‘has positively fallen.’[3] For those who are seen ‘increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence.’[4]

Wells’ views on population control owe much to Thomas Malthus whom he described as ‘one of those cardinal figures in intellectual history’.[5] He considered that ‘probably no more shattering book than the Essay on Population has ever been, or ever will be, written.’[6] It made ‘as clear as daylight that all forms of social reconstruction… must be either futile or insincere or both, until the problems of human increase were manfully faced.’[7] He suggests that Malthus influenced the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution and awakened ‘that train of thought that found expression and demonstration at last in the theory of natural selection.’[8] To Wells it had ‘become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future’.[9]

In common with many other population controllers Wells considered that it was the uneducated and impoverished majority that was the problem and his own social class that was the solution. Wells believed that a future utopia would have to be ruled by a well educated, scientifically literate population. What, he asks, was the future of ‘those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?’  ‘Well’, he declared ‘the world is a world, not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. The whole tenor and meaning of the world, as I see it, is that they have to go. So far as they fail to develop… it is their portion to die out and disappear.’[10]
In the ‘New Republic’, ‘the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge—and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men.’[11]

Wells prophesied that ‘the method that must in some cases still be called in… is death…the merciful obliteration of weak and silly and pointless things’.[12] With great foresight he also predicted modern attitudes towards euthanasia and assisted suicide, writing that in the future men ‘will naturally regard the modest suicide of the incurably melancholy, or diseased or helpless persons as a high and courageous act of duty rather than a crime.’[13] He asserted that ‘this euthanasia of the weak and sensual, is possible. On the principles that will probably animate the predominant classes of the new time, it will be permissible, and I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved.’[14]

When we read such predictions we can only come to the conclusion that in our own times we are witnessing the systematic implementation of theories that have existed in a highly developed form for more than a century. It is important for us to possess a clear understanding of the intellectual roots of the crisis in which we find ourselves. In Wells, and many of his contemporaries, we see firstly a Darwinism which reduces man to the status of an animal and places the weak in perpetual competition against the strong. Secondly we can identify a Malthusianism which identifies new human life as a threat to the already born and which tranforms the majority of the population into the source not of national health but of social disorder. Finally, we see a conviction that the history of mankind is necessarily an evolution to a more perfect state, and that this will be achieved largely through scientific progress. These three factors combined with the general loss of a moral framework in our post-Christian age have brought us to our current predicament where nearly six hundred unborn children are killed every day in this country alone and where the elderly and disabled are increasingly treated as a burden to be eliminated rather than persons whose dignity requires loving care.

H. G. Wells died on 13th August 1946 despairing at the future of mankind. He had lived to see many of the policies of the ‘New Republic’ actually applied by the National Socialists in Germany. Ideological principles in which he had so long trusted had in fact brought his own civilisation to the brink of destruction. In his last work Mind at the End of its Tether, he declared his conviction that the human race had now played out its purpose and would soon come to an end.

Our world of self-delusion…will perish amidst its evasions and fatuities. It is like a convoy lost in darkness on an unknown rocky coast, with quarrelling pirates in the chartroom and savages clambering up the sides of the ships to plunder and do evil as the whim may take them…And this, its last expiring thrust, is to demonstrate that the door closes upon us for evermore.

There is no way out or round or through.

H. G. Wells' final lesson to us is that the culture of death will end in despair.


[1] H. G. Wells, A Modern Utopia, Ch. 10
[2] H.G. Wells, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (2nd Edition,1902), p306 -307
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid, p297
[5] Ibid, p288
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Ibid, p289
[9] Ibid
[10] Ibid, p317
[11] Ibid, p298
[12] Ibid, p299
[13] Ibid, p300
[14] Ibid, p308
[15] H. G. Wells, The Mind at the End of its Tether
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