In August 2014, The Guardian journalist, Giles Fraser, criticised Richard Dawkins for sympathising with eugenics. Dawkins’ most enthusiastic endorsement came in 2006, when he suggested that with Hitler long gone, we could now reconsider the role of eugenics in society: “If you can breed cattle for milk yield, horses for running speed, and dogs for herding skill, why on Earth should it be impossible to breed humans for mathematical, musical or athletic ability?” (The Guardian, 29 August 2014)
Dawkins, author of the bestselling The God Delusion (2006), is a renowned atheist. In response to Dawkins’ ‘humanistic’ eugenic ideas, Fraser compared them with a ‘religious’ outlook: “The humanist attack on religion is that religion often places human flourishing second in its cosmological order of importance, and that this leads to human beings losing out to divine command. […] [M]any humanists also place the category ‘human’ quite a long way down their order of importance, with things such as rationality or choice or the avoidance of pain being deemed of greater significance. Human life can thus be easily traded away in some utilitarian calculation. It so happens that, when it comes to eugenics, religion has a much better track record at defending the human than science or leftwing progressives.” (The Guardian, 29 August 2014) Here one may assume the comparison with ‘religion’ (in its broadest sense) intends to undermine Dawkins’ overtly rational approach and endorsement of eugenics. However, there is also an assumed divide between the scientific/humanist – and sometimes eugenic – worldview and that of ‘religion’. Are ‘secular’ eugenics and ‘religion’ (or for the sake of argument, Christianity) two incompatible approaches? Arguably eugenics is the belief in the use of practical measures – be it extermination, selective breeding, pre- and post-natal healthcare etc. – to further human evolution. Thus, we should also ask, does one’s belief in God prevent the belief in evolution?
One of the most radical eugenicists in the British movement was E.W. Barnes, the Bishop of Birmingham from 1924-1953. Interestingly, Barnes – along with others in the Christian Modernist movement – wished to reconcile Anglicanism with the doctrine of evolution.Thanks to his acceptance of evolution and particularly Mendel’s theories of heredity, Barnes, a religious leader, was able to become a leading eugenicist alongside his career in the Church. The same year as he became Bishop, Barnes joined the British Eugenics Society.
In the 1930 lecture, titled ‘God and the Gene’, Barnes gave a useful overview of his brand of ‘Christian eugenics’: “by struggling against evil and adverse circumstances, man’s moral and spiritual faculties have been sharpened; and the individual who emerges most successfully from such a struggle is best fitted to lead the race on a little nearer to the perfect ideal of social organisation which the Christian terms the Kingdom of God. […] In the stage of civilised progress which we have now reached, it is, in particular, our duty as a race to eliminate mental defect. […] We regard measures to improve the quality of the race as a service to God” (Barnes, ‘God and the Gene’, 7 November 1930). This was contrary to more ‘traditional’ Christian approaches at the time, in which the pious strove not to eliminate the ‘poor’ and ‘downtrodden’ from the population, but care for and protect them.
After the Second World War, Barnes preached the need to introduce sterilization and euthanasia of the ‘feebleminded’ (or ‘mentally deficient’) into the newly created Welfare State: “fairly often we hear of a child being born pitiably defective in mind or body and of the parent’s relief when it dies. I am convinced that in such cases early euthanasia should be permitted under proper safeguards. […] Equally, from the Christian standpoint, as I see the matter, there is no objection to medically controlled sterilisation.” (‘Euthanasia and Sterilisation,’ 21 May 1945). Curiously, his main downfall in garnering public support was not from opposing religious figures, but the association of such ideas with the recently defeated Nazi Germany. Is Dawkins correct in suggesting that over 60 years on it is time to rethink the popular revulsion of eugenics? Should religious leaders be encouraged to engage in open dialogue on the subject?
Despite one being a religious leader and the other an outspoken atheist, Barnes and Dawkins have much in common. Above all, they agree first, in the existence of superior and inferior traits in humanity, and second, that eugenic improvement is morally commendable. In his article, Fraser disagreed: “Morally, the category of the human ought to be entirely indivisible: all being of equal worth, irrespective of wealth, colour, class, ability, Some people are better at sports or sums, but nobody is better at being human, neither are there better sorts of human beings.” (The Guardian, 29 August 2014) Is this position likely to be that adopted by society in general? As new genetic technologies emerge, will human enhancement become increasingly desirable? Will they be associated with Hitler and the Holocaust or the future of humanity?
Giles Fraser, ‘Nobody is better at being human, Professor Dawkins, least of all you,’ The Guardian (29 August 2014), [http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2014/aug/29/nobody-better-at-being-human-richard-dawkins].
Ernest W. Barnes, ‘God and the Gene’, 7 November 1930, The Papers of E.W. Barnes, 12/1/456, Special Collections Department, University of Birmingham.
-. ‘Welfare and Population’, The Eugenics Review 42, 2 (July 1950), 94.
‘Euthanasia and Sterilisation’, The Manchester Guardian (21 May 1945), 3.