About the Tanganyka region

An item on an inexplicably esteemed ‘litblog’ complains about a recent essay in the WSJ by John Miller that criticized H.G. Wells:
"Finally, Miller leaves us with a few bizarre insinuations about Wells' beliefs in science, evolution, and materialism. It is a peculiar claim of today's "conservatives" that by embracing evolutionary theory, the left has also embraced social Darwinism, thus destroying individual dignity and ushering in a merciless, survival-of-the-fittest world. Of course, it was the uber-capitalists of the Gilded Age who turned the theory of natural selection into a pseudo-scientific social creed. And the victory of laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog capitalism -- and the abolition of civilizing regulatory and social policies that guard against its worst excesses -- have been the central causes of the Republican Party for the last thirty years."
H.G. Wells, in his own words:
"It seemed to me that to discourage the multiplication of people below a certain standard, and to encourage the multiplication of exceptionally superior people, was the only real and permanent way of mending the ills of the world. I think that still."

"I believe that now and always the conscious selection of the best for reproduction will be impossible; that to propose it is to display a fundamental misunderstanding of what individuality implies. The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies."

"The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease. I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyka region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live."

“[natural selection] has been more and more thoroughly assimilated and understood by the general mind, it has destroyed, quietly but entirely, the belief in human equality which is implicit in all the “Liberalising” movements of the world … it has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future to other masses, that they cannot be given other opportunities or trusted with power as the superior peoples are trusted, that their characteristic weaknesses are contagious and detrimental in the civilising fabric, and that their range of incapacities tempts and demoralizes the strong. To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity"

“[Wells was in favor of] the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds...and to check the procreation of base and servile types...of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men.”

"the conclusion is that if we could prevent or discourage the inferior sort of people from having children, and if we could stimulate and encourage the superior sort to increase and multiply, we should raise the general standard of the race."
While some promoters of eugenics were 'laissez-faire capitalists', the most prominent and active promoters in the English speaking world were ones on the Left (and still are - is it necessary to point out which side of the political spectrum favors abortion?): the Fabian Socialists, G.B. Shaw, Margeret Sanger in America – and Wells. The opponents of eugenics were religious conservatives, most famously G.K. Chesterton and Hillare Belloc. How can the author of this complaint be a fan of H.G. Wells yet unaware of any of this? I wonder what Wells would have thought of him...

Comments

  1. You can add pretty much the rest of the non-religious British intellectual left of the era -- Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Harold Laski, even Churchill during the decade and a half when he was a Liberal -- all enthusiastic eugenicists.

    Same for America -- sterilization laws flourished in states with a strong Progressive bent, such as California, but lagged in the Bible Belt in the South and the lower (i.e., non-Progressive) Midwest.

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  2. I wish I had H.G. Wells time machine so I could go back in time and kick Beatrice and Sidney Webb in their respective balls.

    I never knew that about California. Didn't Sweden have eugenic laws until very recently?

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  3. The primary thrust of my piece on MaudNewton.com was to refute the distorted picture of Wells' political and philosophical views portrayed by John Miller in the Wall Street Journal.

    The single paragraph of my piece which you quote was about social Darwinism. You respond by attempting to shift the debate to the subject of eugenics. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate bait-and-switch, or if you don't understand the difference between the two.

    A quick refresher: Social Darwinism was not invented nor embraced by Charles Darwin, but by Herbert Spencer. He attempted to apply Darwin's ideas about biology to the social sphere, as a means of justifying existing stratifications of race, wealth, and social class. In Progress: Its Law and Cause, Spencer wrote:

    http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/spencer-darwin.html

    "Simultaneously there has been going on a second differentiation of a still more familiar kind; that, namely, by which the mass of the community has become segregated into distinct classes and orders of workers. While the governing part has been undergoing the complex development above described, the governed part has been undergoing an equally complex development, which has resulted in that minute division of labour characterizing advanced nations."

    Spencer and his disciples viewed the social hierarchy of "the governing" and "the governed" as biologically based and immutable. Of course, the existing political, social, and economic elites of Spencer's day found this idea tremendously useful, satisfying, and affirming of their own positions.

    Advocates of social Darwinism (which might better be called social Spencerism) suggested that "social evolution" was a natural process that should not be interfered with. The prosperity of certain individuals, and the poverty of others, were held to be products of their innate biological abilities. Economic competition -- between both individuals and businesses -- was held to be an extension of natural competition. Social welfare programs, a minimum wage, anti-trust laws, and labor regulations were all deemed to be unjustified attempts to interfere with the natural "Darwinian" order of things. Those at the bottom of society, it was believed, deserved to be downtrodden.

    The perpetuation of such views in contemporary American conservatism is obvious, even if the social-Darwinist cant that accompanied them a century ago is absent (because the anti-evolution fundamentalists who make up much of the Republican voting base would be upset by any positive reference to Darwin, even a misguided one).

    Wells, in contrast, viewed the oppression of the masses as not inevitable, but capable of (and demanding) remedy. In speculative novels such as When the Sleeper Wakes, A Story of Days to Come, and The Time Machine, he examined how an idle elite prospering at the expense of the laboring masses could lead to negative outcomes (for both the elite and the masses). The Time Machine posited that social stratifications, rather than being caused by biological differences, might actually cause them: the Morlocks and the Eloi are the biologically distinct descendants of a once-united human species that was divided into a working class and a leisure class. Over hundreds of millennia of physical separation, the two groups evolved into separate species.

    Wells was certainly a technocrat and a paternalist, and held that an idealized scientific elite would best equipped to make many key social decisions. But he was not blind to the problems of elite rule, as his "social futurist" novels demonstrate. Nor was he unaware of the limitations of scientific knowledge.

    Like many intellectuals of his era, Wells unfortunately believed in some linkages between human biology and social status that were affirmed by reputable scientists of the day, but which have since been refuted by better research. (His views were nothing like the muddled, nasty caricature of "the evolutionary creed" portrayed in John Miller's Wall Street Journal piece -- which insinuates that a belief in biological evolution led Wells to treat women poorly and view human lives as worthless). In this day and age, the only people who cling to outdated views of this sort are a handful of crypto-racist conservatives, like the authors and advocates of the thoroughly-debunked "The Bell Curve", and those on the openly racist far-right fringe.

    The key point: Wells did not embrace the idea that allegedly biologically-based social differences were immutable, nor that they should be used to justify and perpetuate existing inequalities. These were the principles of social Darwinism, and Wells had no truck with them.

    As for Wells' eugenist views, G.K. Chesterton commented on them thusly:

    http://isteve.blogspot.com/2005/07/chesterton-on-hg-wells-eugenics.html

    "...An enormous number of newspaper readers seem to have it fixed firmly in their heads that Mr. H. G. Wells is a harsh and horrible Eugenist in great goblin spectacles who wants to put us all into metallic microscopes and dissect us with metallic tools. As a matter of fact, of course, Mr. Wells, so far from being too definite, is generally not definite enough. He is an absolute wizard in the appreciation of atmospheres and the opening of vistas; but his answers are more agnostic than his questions. His books will do everything except shut. And so far from being the sort of man who would stop a man from propagating, he cannot even stop a full stop. He is not Eugenic enough to prevent the black dot at the end of a sentence from breeding a line of little dots.

    "But this is not the clear-cut blunder of which I spoke. The real blunder is this. Mr. Wells deserves a tiara of crowns and a garland of medals for all kinds of reasons. But if I were restricted, on grounds of public economy, to giving Mr. Wells only one medal ob cives servatos, I would give him a medal as the Eugenist who destroyed Eugenics. For everyone spoke of him rightly or wrongly, as a Eugenist; and he certainly had, as I have not, the training and type of culture required to consider the matter merely in a biological and not in a generally moral sense. The result was that in that fine book, "Mankind in the Making," where he inevitably came to grips with the problem, he threw down to the Eugenists an intellectual challenge which seems to me unanswerable, but which, at any rate, is unanswered...

    "Having given honour for the idea where it is due, I may be permitted to summarize it myself for the sake of brevity. Mr. Wells' point was this. That we cannot be certain about the inheritance of health, because health is not a quality. It is not a thing like darkness in the hair or length in the limbs. It is a relation, a balance. You have a tall, strong man; but his very strength depends on his not being too tall for his strength. You catch a healthy, full-blooded fellow; but his very health depends on his being not too full of blood. A heart that is strong for a dwarf will be weak for a giant; a nervous system that would kill a man with a trace of a certain illness will sustain him to ninety if he has no trace of that illness. Nay, the same nervous system might kill him if he had an excess of some other comparatively healthy thing. Seeing, therefore, that there are apparently healthy people of all types, it is obvious that if you mate two of them, you may even then produce a discord out of two inconsistent harmonies. It is obvious that you can no more be certain of a good offspring than you can be certain of a good tune if you play two fine airs at once on the same piano. You can be even less certain of it in the more delicate case of beauty, of which the Eugenists talk a great deal. Marry two handsome people whose noses tend to the aquiline, and their baby (for all you know) may be a goblin with a nose like an enormous parrot's. Indeed, I actually know a case of this kind. The Eugenist has to settle, not the result of fixing one steady thing to a second steady thing; but what will happen when one toppling and dizzy equilibrium crashes into another.

    "This is the interesting conclusion. It is on this degree of knowledge that we are asked to abandon the universal morality of mankind. When we have stopped the lover from marrying the unfortunate woman he loves, when we have found him another uproariously healthy female whom he does not love in the least, even then we have no logical evidence that the result may not be as horrid and dangerous as if he had behaved like a man of honour."

    P.S. Your equation of advocacy for the individual right to abortion with advocacy for eugenics scarcely requires refutation.

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  4. You accuse me of: "attempting to shift the debate to the subject of eugenics. I'm not sure if this was a deliberate bait-and-switch, or if you don't understand the difference between the two."
    Eugenics was an integral component of social darwinism (see any encylcopedia). I’m not sure how anyone is to know you were restricting your statements only to Spencer when you didn’t say you were. Wells statement “The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born,” would seem to be both ‘Spencerian’ and eugenic, would it not?

    You state: "The key point: Wells did not embrace the idea that allegedly biologically-based social differences were immutable, nor that they should be used to justify and perpetuate existing inequalities"

    So when Wells said, as I noted above, "it has become apparent that whole masses of human population are, as a whole, inferior in their claim upon the future to other masses, that they cannot be given other opportunities or trusted with power as the superior peoples are trusted, that their characteristic weaknesses are contagious and detrimental in the civilising fabric, and that their range of incapacities tempts and demoralizes the strong. To give them equality is to sink to their level, to protect and cherish them is to be swamped in their fecundity," he was what, joking?

    You state: "In this day and age, the only people who cling to outdated views of this sort are a handful of crypto-racist conservatives, like the authors and advocates of the thoroughly-debunked "The Bell Curve"

    The Bell Curve hasn’t been debunked, and was based on well established findings which are uncontroversial among actual scientists. It's ironic you attack a book concerned that the class of high IQ individuals may be gaining too much influence while defending Wells who thought it only fitting the smartest rule over the less intelligent.

    In closing you remark: "P.S. Your equation of advocacy for the individual right to abortion with advocacy for eugenics scarcely requires refutation"

    While it's true many women have abortions for eugenic reasons, my point was merely eugenics is incompatible with a pro-life position.

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