Charles Galton Darwin, Eugenics Advocate

Sir Charles Galton Darwin (grandson of Charles Darwin), who helped direct the Manhattan Project, saw eugenics as the logical outgrowth of the theory of evolution and as the only way to better the human condition.
Sir Charles Galton Darwin (grandson of Charles Darwin), who helped direct the Manhattan Project, saw eugenics as a logical outgrowth of evolutionary science and as the only way to better the human condition.

by Kevin Alfred Strom

I WAS INTRIGUED and then pleased and then astounded as I listened to National Public Radio yesterday morning. As soon as I switched on my Boston Acoustics radio, I heard the resonant, engaging, elegant, and intelligent words of Charles Galton Darwin — Charles Darwin’s grandson and Francis Galton’s godson and a distinguished scientist in his own right — reading a radio essay that he had recorded in 1953. Amazingly, though he openly stated that improvements in the lot of mankind could only be achieved through a eugenic application of the principle of heredity, there was no negative commentary from the “NPR Weekend Edition Sunday” program host, Liane Hansen. The Opponent will at least be writing angry letters over this; so we ought to tell NPR how appreciative we are to hear an alternative point of view amidst the sea of modern equalitarianism.

Charles Galton Darwin had a long scientific career, including being Managing Director of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory before and during World War II, President of the Physical Society from 1941 to 1944, President of the Eugenics Society from 1953 to 1959, and, near the end of his life in the early 1960s, Advisory Editor of the still-published Mankind Quarterly. He was also a major figure in the Manhattan Project. Here’s what he had to say:

‘I RECOGNIZE FULLY that the appeal of things in life will be different for different people, and I can only say what I have found the most important things in life for myself. I count as one of the most important things in the world the understanding of the world.

‘I have spent most of my time working at the physical sciences, and I count myself fortunate in having lived through the heroic age of physics when, what with relativity and the quantum theory, our understanding of the nature of inanimate matter has been as much revolutionized as it was 300 years ago in the days of Newton.

‘This has been the science I have mostly studied, but I have always had a lively interest in biological subjects too, and these have much affected what I believe. Among such subjects one is the question of human nature, and this has colored my view of what will happen to mankind in the future. I believe that a great deal of what is now being attempted for our betterment is doomed to fail, and so I don’t share the particular enthusiasms of many of the would-be benefactors of humanity.

‘It is true that there have been immense improvements in material conditions during the past century, but they are quite external and they leave man’s fundamental nature no better than it was before. So too the intellectual triumphs of recent years don’t signify that man has become any more intelligent than he was in the preceding dark ages. I see no safeguard for us against a relapse into conditions like those exemplified in the sad records of past history.

‘The main hope of bringing about any real betterment in mankind depends on a different thing; it must be based on applying the idea of heredity, a science that is already understood in its principles, though hardly yet in many of its applications. Holding this, I believe intensely in the importance of the family as the continuing unit of human life. When the science of eugenics has been more fully developed, there may be a hope on those lines of really bettering humanity.

‘These are the things that for me are consciously of chief importance. But underlying them, there are others. The great philosopher Kant once said that there were two things that continually filled him with wonder: the starry heavens above him and the moral law within him.

‘Like him I, too, continually wonder at the moral law within me, which dictates my conduct, or perhaps I ought to say the ideals of conduct, which I wish I could fulfill. But I am entirely lacking in the thing which so many people seem to regard as their mainstay in life, a mystical sense of religion. This I lack, and I am perfectly content to be without it.’

Though Charles Galton Darwin devoted a large part of his life to promoting the ideals of a humanity improved by selective reproduction of the best and most fit, he was pessimistic about the prospects for eugenics. When asked what might practically be done in the post-WWII West, he said “very little indeed … for the simple reason that most human beings do not care in the least about the distant future.”

C.G. Darwin's 1953 book, The Next Million Years
C.G. Darwin's 1953 book, The Next Million Years

As he said in his radio speech, Darwin had little use for the world-improvers whose endless crusade to transfer wealth to the “wretched refuse” of the Earth he saw as not only destructive but pointless and doomed to failure: “…the policy of paying most attention to the inferior types is the most inefficient way possible of achieving perfectibility of the human race… this preoccupation with the weaker members is part of the present menacing trend of political thought which insists on absolute equality.”

C. G. Darwin was no black sheep of the Darwin family in his support of racial betterment. His father (Charles Darwin’s son, the mathematician George Howard Darwin) supported the Eugenics Society, his mother was a member from about 1915, and five of his six aunts and uncles were members too.

He restated the perennial problem of the dysgenic effect of civilized society, implying that the genetic doom entailed by “social democracy” was almost upon us: “…the well-to-do are rather more likely than others to possess hereditary ability … but the more prosperous members of the community are not producing their share of the next generation … The whole thing is a catastrophe which it is now almost too late to prevent …”

Darwin knew that superior men and women might arise from the lower classes, and he was well aware that existing Western societies were far from perfect meritocracies. In fact, he helped to shift the Eugenic Society’s focus from negative eugenics (discouraging the reproduction of the unfit) to positive eugenics (encouraging — through rewards, taxation, and state policies — the reproduction of the best among us).

Nevertheless, he felt that success did very roughly correlate with genetic fitness and that therefore it would be good if ways could be found to encourage the successful to have more children, which surely they could afford more easily than the perversely more fecund lower strata of society. “There is no better rough and ready way of estimating a man’s value than by the amount he is paid,” he said, “… our national organisation ought to be such that the number of children would bear some close positive relation to income.” He advocated what he called “eugenics by taxation” but despaired of its enactment in the age of equality, saying that trying to turn his tax plan into law was probably “hopeless because it would never get votes in a democracy.”

Listen to Charles Galton Darwin’s statement (1953; mp3)

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