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    Inkling University > Birth Control and Eugenics >
    BC-02. From Malthus and Darwin to Eugenics


    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Malthusian and Darwinian ideas began to provide many educated people with a way of looking at the world that replaced traditional religious beliefs. By the late nineteenth century those beliefs were influencing social and political thinking, particularly among liberals and socialists.



    Edmund Burke, Thomas Malthus and the French Revolution

    The first major contribution to what Margaret Sanger's later believed came from Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an economist best known for writing about the influence of population on society in his Essay on the Principle of Population. You can find the text of the first (1798) edition of his book as web pages or Project Gutenberg text.

    In the history of ideas, timing is important. The most controversial political event of Malthus' lifetime was the French Revolution and the accompanying claim (by William Godwin and others) that it was possible to create an ideal society. As events developed in France, two ways of criticizing French utopian ideas developed.

    One was advocated by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), a member of the British Parliament. Burke was not opposed to revolution as such and was a supporter of the American revolution and Irish independence. What he opposed in his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France was the idea that a select group of thinkers could develop an abstract set of ideas and impose them on society without doing great harm. Society and its laws, he said, needed to be based on experience. We should not carelessly change what has worked in the past under the assumption we know how to do better. And when we make changes, we should look at their results carefully to see if the changes do more harm than good. He also believed human nature was too complex and resistant to change to fit into anyone's model of how a society ought to be constructed. For Burke, societies will always be less-than-perfect patchworks with flaws that cannot be entirely eliminated.

    Thomas Malthus championed the second approach to criticizing utopianism. He accepted the basic principle of all utopian thinkers, that a society can be constructed with the predictability and logic of a machine. But he pointed to a fatal logical flaw in utopian reasoning. Less-than-ideal societies have their population growth restrained by high death rates. A population does not outrun its food supply because starvation and disease limit population growth. And one of the causes of high death rates are injustices that leave some rich and well-fed while others others are poor and hungry.

    The utopians proposed to do away with those injustices, ensuring as a matter of government policy that everyone will get the proper food and shelter. For a time, Malthus said, that scheme might work. Resources devoted to providing the wealthy with a large and rich diet could be turned to feeding the poor a more basic diet. But in the long run the kindness of a utopian society would turn to cruelty. Instead of dying, the poor would have more children who would, in turn, have still more children. Eventually the population would grow to a point where the land was no longer capable of feeding the people and starvation would return on a far larger scale.

    It is true that Malthus muddled his argument with clumsy mathematical claims about geometric growth that neglect the fact that human populations multiply far more slowly than the population of almost anything we eat. But the logic of his basic idea was sound. If the birthrate each year exceeds the death rate, then eventually the population will grow so great that even if the entire planet were turned into a vast farm and fishery, it could not provide enough food.

    Edmund Burke's ideas were taken up by conservatives and that's one reason why they have proved less likely to be seduced by Malthusian-like warnings such as eugenics in the 1920s, the 'Population Bomb' in the 1960s, and more recently warnings about environmental catastrophe. Experience and history teach, they say, that the human race has more than enough ability to overcome obstacles and continue to improve its condition.

    The Liberal and Socialist Response to Malthus

    Liberals and socialists had a difficult time digesting Malthus. Like him, they valued logic over experience and Malthus' ideas were certainly logical. Like him, that saw society as a machine whose future could be predicted with reasonable accuracy. They also believed that they knew how to create a near-perfect society. Unfortunately Malthus had shown them that such a society would eventually crash into ruin, defeated by its own success at curbing deaths. For that they had no answer.

    For a time, rather than deal rationally with Malthus' ideas, many on the political left attacked him as a cold and callous reactionary. In her two autobiographies, Sanger expressed her frustration when she spoke to Marxist groups. As soon as she brought up Malthusian ideas, their minds would close. Karl Marx had taught them that Malthus' writings were evil and "a libel on the human race."

    Some on the left tried to evade Malthus' cruel logic with other arguments. In his 1901 Fécondité (English: Fecundity), the French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902) wrote a tale in which a prolific French family does well while those with few or no children suffer for their selfishness. Zola solved the resulting population problem by sending out the excess French colonists, an approach that those already living in Africa might not like. In Lesson 3 we will see that H. G. Wells held a similar idea, believing those of European extraction (particularly the English) would eventually rule the world and dictate who among the "vast proportion of the black and brown races" would be permitted to exist. Morality aside, a temporary solution to the Malthusian problem is for one race to take over the 'living space' of another. That's exactly what Hitler would try to do in Eastern Europe. It was not, however, the approach that Sanger and her friends advocated.

    Darwin Transforms Malthusianism from Pessimism to Optimism

    Malthus' pessimism had dealt an enormous blow to the left's optimistic vision of the future, and he undoubtedly believed the blow had been a fatal one. But events took a different turn. It was possible to put an optimistic and progressive spin on all those deaths. Charles Darwin did just that with his ground-breaking The Origin of Species (as web pages or Project Gutenberg text). According to Darwin, all those deaths have a favorable result, so much so that he closed Origin with these words:

    "Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

    In one brilliant stroke, Darwin had found beauty (of a strange sort) in Malthus' cruel law. Progress had been restored to nature and death had become its instrument. Of course, Darwin's answer to Malthus still had problems. For one, it required that deaths continue in order to purge out the unfit and improve the fit. But utopians and their kin had never been bothered by the 'butchers bill' of progress--the Great Terror of the French Revolution had demonstrated that. Already inclined to view abstractions as more real than living individuals, they eagerly accepted Darwin's new theory. Karl Marx even wanted to dedicate his Das Kapital to Darwin, something he never would have done for Thomas Malthus.

    You can catch some of the optimism of this era in Chapter I of the download for this topic (below), "The Martyrdom of Man" (1872) by Winwood Reade. Decades later, friends would still be recommending Reade's book to Margaret Sanger. In the author's words, "Our religion therefore is Virtue, our Hope is placed in the happiness of our posterity; our Faith is in the Perfectibility of Man." In later topics, we will see just what these people were willing to do to perfect humanity. It is not pleasant.

    Darwinism Turns Pessimistic

    In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Darwin and his supporters would be overtaken by progress of a different sort. The world in which Darwin and his peers lived was fading away. The age in which superior gentlemen of a scientific bent lived on country estates off inherited wealth (Darwin's wife was a heiress to the Wedgwood china fortune), their live eased by numerous servants was passing. By the end of the century, it would be increasingly difficult for such people to have large families. Even more important, their wives were becoming increasing hostile to bearing and rearing large families.

    Growing professional competition now required living in cities. Servants were becoming harder to find and taxes on land and inherited wealth were rising. Most important of all, the women of Darwin's social circle were becoming more interested in careers than with the burden of raising large families in the city without nannies. (Today, rearing even one child without a nanny seems too much for their modern counterparts.)

    To compound the problem from a Darwinian perspective, improvements in public health (such as safe water supplies) meant that the children of the industrial poor were far less likely to die before having several children of their own. The perverse "beauty" and "grandeur" that Darwin had found in "the Extinction of less-improved forms" was coming to an end. That, they would find alarming. And that would inspire the birth of two new movements--Neomalthusianism and eugenics.

    Chapter II, "Malthusianism, Darwinism, and Pessimism" in the accompanying material for this lesson, written in 1879, describes that same problem from the American perspective. First, there was a declining interest in large families among the elite. As one writer put it:

    "And everywhere, the men of affluence and culture, the highly born and highly bred--the Brahmans of society as Dr. Holmes calls them--prize the refinements of live, and the gratifications of the social and artistic tastes, more than the homely comforts and enjoyments which any one may have who can induce some good-natured woman to share them with him."

    There were also the still high birthrates but now rapidly declining death rates of the less exalted:

    "And this victory of the lower classes in the battle for life is a survival, not of the fittest, but of the unfittest, so that it constantly tends to the deterioration of the race instead of contributing to its improvement. . . ."

    The result was, as the article title notes, a return to pessimism by those who were temperamentally inclined to see themselves and their offspring at the forefront of human progress. The future no longer seemed to belong to those who had long considered it their birthright. Darwinism had always had this as a fatal flaw. Nature's laws defined fitness in only one way--having the most surviving offspring. It cared nothing for for refinement, culture or "social and artistic tastes." Alas, Darwin and his supporters had almost forgotten that. Three broad movements would develop in response to the problem.

    1. Immigration Restriction. These were not the sort of people to stand idly by. In the United States, a push for immigration restriction would come first, as illustrated by Chapter III, "Immigration and Degradation," written in 1891 by Francis A. Walker, Superintendent of the Census in 1870 and 1880. The Irish, coming to the country in huge waves after the terrible famines of the late 1840s, would be their first target. But eventually attention would focus on those coming from Eastern Europe (heavily Jewish) and Southern Europe (mostly Catholic). Sanger referred to those groups in the quotation given in Topic One when she linked "the immigrant from Europe" with a prolific but poor quality of humanity. The first step in that drive would culminate in the harsh 1924 immigration laws.

    2. Forced Sterilization. In the early 1900s a drive would develop to forcibly sterilize those who were thought to be a burden on society, typically those in and out of state institutions. That would culminate in "Buck v. Bell," a 1927 Supreme Court decision in favor of forced sterilization, which we discuss in Topic 8. Consistent with the spread of Darwinian thinking, forced sterilization would be most attractive in 'progressive' states such as California and New York.

    3. Birth Control. Like most of the leading feminists of her day, Margaret Sanger supported immigration restrictions and forced sterilization, but she focused her attention on leading a third group intent on reducing the birthrate of alleged inferiors. That was the birth control movement, which we will study in Topics 10 and 11.

    In Topic 3, "H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and the British Fabians," we look at how the ideas of Malthus and Darwin impacted some of the most influential members of the British political left in the early twentieth century.

    Resources

    Topic 2: From Malthus and Darwin to Eugenics
    ____________

    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

    Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population

    Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

    Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

    Select Readings "Darwin and Darwinian World in American Society and Thought" (a detailed reading list)

    Contents of Topic 2, "From Malthus and Darwin to Eugenics"

    I. "The Martyrdom of Man" by Winwood Reade, 1872

    II. "Malthusianism, Darwinism, and Pessimism" by Francis Brown, 1879.

    III. "Immigration and Degradation" by Francis A. Walker, Superintendent of the Census, 1891

    From The Pivot of Civilization in Historical Perspective

    _____________________

    Keywords: Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, Evolution, Darwinism, Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man, Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, Population control, Overpopulation, Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, French Revolution, Utopia, Utopianism

    Posted: Thu - May 20, 2004 at 03:06 PM Inkling University Birth Control and Eugenics Previous Next

  • #2
    Inkling University > Birth Control and Eugenics >
    BC-02. From Malthus and Darwin to Eugenics


    In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Malthusian and Darwinian ideas began to provide many educated people with a way of looking at the world that replaced traditional religious beliefs. By the late nineteenth century those beliefs were influencing social and political thinking, particularly among liberals and socialists.



    Edmund Burke, Thomas Malthus and the French Revolution

    The first major contribution to what Margaret Sanger's later believed came from Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), an economist best known for writing about the influence of population on society in his Essay on the Principle of Population. You can find the text of the first (1798) edition of his book as web pages or Project Gutenberg text.

    In the history of ideas, timing is important. The most controversial political event of Malthus' lifetime was the French Revolution and the accompanying claim (by William Godwin and others) that it was possible to create an ideal society. As events developed in France, two ways of criticizing French utopian ideas developed.

    One was advocated by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), a member of the British Parliament. Burke was not opposed to revolution as such and was a supporter of the American revolution and Irish independence. What he opposed in his 1790 Reflections on the Revolution in France was the idea that a select group of thinkers could develop an abstract set of ideas and impose them on society without doing great harm. Society and its laws, he said, needed to be based on experience. We should not carelessly change what has worked in the past under the assumption we know how to do better. And when we make changes, we should look at their results carefully to see if the changes do more harm than good. He also believed human nature was too complex and resistant to change to fit into anyone's model of how a society ought to be constructed. For Burke, societies will always be less-than-perfect patchworks with flaws that cannot be entirely eliminated.

    Thomas Malthus championed the second approach to criticizing utopianism. He accepted the basic principle of all utopian thinkers, that a society can be constructed with the predictability and logic of a machine. But he pointed to a fatal logical flaw in utopian reasoning. Less-than-ideal societies have their population growth restrained by high death rates. A population does not outrun its food supply because starvation and disease limit population growth. And one of the causes of high death rates are injustices that leave some rich and well-fed while others others are poor and hungry.

    The utopians proposed to do away with those injustices, ensuring as a matter of government policy that everyone will get the proper food and shelter. For a time, Malthus said, that scheme might work. Resources devoted to providing the wealthy with a large and rich diet could be turned to feeding the poor a more basic diet. But in the long run the kindness of a utopian society would turn to cruelty. Instead of dying, the poor would have more children who would, in turn, have still more children. Eventually the population would grow to a point where the land was no longer capable of feeding the people and starvation would return on a far larger scale.

    It is true that Malthus muddled his argument with clumsy mathematical claims about geometric growth that neglect the fact that human populations multiply far more slowly than the population of almost anything we eat. But the logic of his basic idea was sound. If the birthrate each year exceeds the death rate, then eventually the population will grow so great that even if the entire planet were turned into a vast farm and fishery, it could not provide enough food.

    Edmund Burke's ideas were taken up by conservatives and that's one reason why they have proved less likely to be seduced by Malthusian-like warnings such as eugenics in the 1920s, the 'Population Bomb' in the 1960s, and more recently warnings about environmental catastrophe. Experience and history teach, they say, that the human race has more than enough ability to overcome obstacles and continue to improve its condition.

    The Liberal and Socialist Response to Malthus

    Liberals and socialists had a difficult time digesting Malthus. Like him, they valued logic over experience and Malthus' ideas were certainly logical. Like him, that saw society as a machine whose future could be predicted with reasonable accuracy. They also believed that they knew how to create a near-perfect society. Unfortunately Malthus had shown them that such a society would eventually crash into ruin, defeated by its own success at curbing deaths. For that they had no answer.

    For a time, rather than deal rationally with Malthus' ideas, many on the political left attacked him as a cold and callous reactionary. In her two autobiographies, Sanger expressed her frustration when she spoke to Marxist groups. As soon as she brought up Malthusian ideas, their minds would close. Karl Marx had taught them that Malthus' writings were evil and "a libel on the human race."

    Some on the left tried to evade Malthus' cruel logic with other arguments. In his 1901 Fécondité (English: Fecundity), the French novelist Émile Zola (1840-1902) wrote a tale in which a prolific French family does well while those with few or no children suffer for their selfishness. Zola solved the resulting population problem by sending out the excess French colonists, an approach that those already living in Africa might not like. In Lesson 3 we will see that H. G. Wells held a similar idea, believing those of European extraction (particularly the English) would eventually rule the world and dictate who among the "vast proportion of the black and brown races" would be permitted to exist. Morality aside, a temporary solution to the Malthusian problem is for one race to take over the 'living space' of another. That's exactly what Hitler would try to do in Eastern Europe. It was not, however, the approach that Sanger and her friends advocated.

    Darwin Transforms Malthusianism from Pessimism to Optimism

    Malthus' pessimism had dealt an enormous blow to the left's optimistic vision of the future, and he undoubtedly believed the blow had been a fatal one. But events took a different turn. It was possible to put an optimistic and progressive spin on all those deaths. Charles Darwin did just that with his ground-breaking The Origin of Species (as web pages or Project Gutenberg text). According to Darwin, all those deaths have a favorable result, so much so that he closed Origin with these words:

    "Thus from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers . . . from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

    In one brilliant stroke, Darwin had found beauty (of a strange sort) in Malthus' cruel law. Progress had been restored to nature and death had become its instrument. Of course, Darwin's answer to Malthus still had problems. For one, it required that deaths continue in order to purge out the unfit and improve the fit. But utopians and their kin had never been bothered by the 'butchers bill' of progress--the Great Terror of the French Revolution had demonstrated that. Already inclined to view abstractions as more real than living individuals, they eagerly accepted Darwin's new theory. Karl Marx even wanted to dedicate his Das Kapital to Darwin, something he never would have done for Thomas Malthus.

    You can catch some of the optimism of this era in Chapter I of the download for this topic (below), "The Martyrdom of Man" (1872) by Winwood Reade. Decades later, friends would still be recommending Reade's book to Margaret Sanger. In the author's words, "Our religion therefore is Virtue, our Hope is placed in the happiness of our posterity; our Faith is in the Perfectibility of Man." In later topics, we will see just what these people were willing to do to perfect humanity. It is not pleasant.

    Darwinism Turns Pessimistic

    In the closing decades of the nineteenth century, Darwin and his supporters would be overtaken by progress of a different sort. The world in which Darwin and his peers lived was fading away. The age in which superior gentlemen of a scientific bent lived on country estates off inherited wealth (Darwin's wife was a heiress to the Wedgwood china fortune), their live eased by numerous servants was passing. By the end of the century, it would be increasingly difficult for such people to have large families. Even more important, their wives were becoming increasing hostile to bearing and rearing large families.

    Growing professional competition now required living in cities. Servants were becoming harder to find and taxes on land and inherited wealth were rising. Most important of all, the women of Darwin's social circle were becoming more interested in careers than with the burden of raising large families in the city without nannies. (Today, rearing even one child without a nanny seems too much for their modern counterparts.)

    To compound the problem from a Darwinian perspective, improvements in public health (such as safe water supplies) meant that the children of the industrial poor were far less likely to die before having several children of their own. The perverse "beauty" and "grandeur" that Darwin had found in "the Extinction of less-improved forms" was coming to an end. That, they would find alarming. And that would inspire the birth of two new movements--Neomalthusianism and eugenics.

    Chapter II, "Malthusianism, Darwinism, and Pessimism" in the accompanying material for this lesson, written in 1879, describes that same problem from the American perspective. First, there was a declining interest in large families among the elite. As one writer put it:

    "And everywhere, the men of affluence and culture, the highly born and highly bred--the Brahmans of society as Dr. Holmes calls them--prize the refinements of live, and the gratifications of the social and artistic tastes, more than the homely comforts and enjoyments which any one may have who can induce some good-natured woman to share them with him."

    There were also the still high birthrates but now rapidly declining death rates of the less exalted:

    "And this victory of the lower classes in the battle for life is a survival, not of the fittest, but of the unfittest, so that it constantly tends to the deterioration of the race instead of contributing to its improvement. . . ."

    The result was, as the article title notes, a return to pessimism by those who were temperamentally inclined to see themselves and their offspring at the forefront of human progress. The future no longer seemed to belong to those who had long considered it their birthright. Darwinism had always had this as a fatal flaw. Nature's laws defined fitness in only one way--having the most surviving offspring. It cared nothing for for refinement, culture or "social and artistic tastes." Alas, Darwin and his supporters had almost forgotten that. Three broad movements would develop in response to the problem.

    1. Immigration Restriction. These were not the sort of people to stand idly by. In the United States, a push for immigration restriction would come first, as illustrated by Chapter III, "Immigration and Degradation," written in 1891 by Francis A. Walker, Superintendent of the Census in 1870 and 1880. The Irish, coming to the country in huge waves after the terrible famines of the late 1840s, would be their first target. But eventually attention would focus on those coming from Eastern Europe (heavily Jewish) and Southern Europe (mostly Catholic). Sanger referred to those groups in the quotation given in Topic One when she linked "the immigrant from Europe" with a prolific but poor quality of humanity. The first step in that drive would culminate in the harsh 1924 immigration laws.

    2. Forced Sterilization. In the early 1900s a drive would develop to forcibly sterilize those who were thought to be a burden on society, typically those in and out of state institutions. That would culminate in "Buck v. Bell," a 1927 Supreme Court decision in favor of forced sterilization, which we discuss in Topic 8. Consistent with the spread of Darwinian thinking, forced sterilization would be most attractive in 'progressive' states such as California and New York.

    3. Birth Control. Like most of the leading feminists of her day, Margaret Sanger supported immigration restrictions and forced sterilization, but she focused her attention on leading a third group intent on reducing the birthrate of alleged inferiors. That was the birth control movement, which we will study in Topics 10 and 11.

    In Topic 3, "H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and the British Fabians," we look at how the ideas of Malthus and Darwin impacted some of the most influential members of the British political left in the early twentieth century.

    Resources

    Topic 2: From Malthus and Darwin to Eugenics
    ____________

    Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

    Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population

    Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

    Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man

    Select Readings "Darwin and Darwinian World in American Society and Thought" (a detailed reading list)

    Contents of Topic 2, "From Malthus and Darwin to Eugenics"

    I. "The Martyrdom of Man" by Winwood Reade, 1872

    II. "Malthusianism, Darwinism, and Pessimism" by Francis Brown, 1879.

    III. "Immigration and Degradation" by Francis A. Walker, Superintendent of the Census, 1891

    From The Pivot of Civilization in Historical Perspective

    _____________________

    Keywords: Charles Darwin, Origin of Species, Evolution, Darwinism, Winwood Reade, The Martyrdom of Man, Thomas Malthus, Essay on the Principle of Population, Population control, Overpopulation, Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, French Revolution, Utopia, Utopianism

    Posted: Thu - May 20, 2004 at 03:06 PM Inkling University Birth Control and Eugenics Previous Next

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    • #3
      Oh, OK, now I know.

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