As white supremacist ideologies proliferate globally, an analysis of the racist pseudoscience that fuels their beliefs
Last May, British journalist and conservative commentator Toby Young attended what he called a “secretive” conference on intelligence and genetics, the London Conference on Intelligence. Those associated with the conference include Richard Lynn, a white nationalist who argued for a self-conscious effort to “phase out inferior cultures,” and Helmuth Nyborg, a Danish radical right figure who has lamented the effect of immigration from the Middle East on Denmark’s gene pool.
Young was in attendance to gain “some material about the history of controversies provoked by intelligence researchers,” a topic he championed since his 2015 article The Fall of the Meritocracy. In it, he argues for a “progressive eugenics” that would screen embryos for intelligence in the womb, engineering intelligent offspring. Young’s article praises Herrnstein and Murray’s deeply divisive book on the genetics of intelligence, The Bell Curve, and argues that his proposal is ‘a form of redistribution’.
When Young’s attendance at the conference came to light – after some excellent investigative reporting by the London Student newspaper – the ensuing outcry forced him to resign from his post on the British government body The Office for Students. Particularly shocking was the revelation of the involvement in the conference of Emil Kirkegaard, a figure on the radical right fringe. As well as his involvement in neo-Nazi politics, Kirkegaard has written posts that justify the rape of children.
The Young scandal exposed not just the continued presence of eugenic ideologies on the radical right – where, with their key role in Nazi and Fascist politics, you might expect them – but the danger of such ideas infiltrating the mainstream. Notwithstanding the importance of eugenics and ‘race hygiene’ for various totalitarian regimes in the early twentieth century, such ideas reached much larger audiences in this period. A case in point is the intriguing history of the British Eugenics Society and their accompanying journal, The Eugenics Review.
Whilst some within the Society displayed an open racism and sympathy towards the eugenic policies of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, others were critical of an obsession with ‘race’ in ethnic terms, and championed a ‘positive eugenics’ (compare with Young’s ‘progressive eugenics’) that would essentially encourage ‘desirable’ middle-class families to conceive more children.
As a fluid concept in the work of the Society, ‘race’ was deeply intertwined with issues of class. After the First World War, many eugenicists anxiously worried about the decline of middle-class populations and were haunted by fears of fertile working-class families. Donald Childs has shown how these fears work their way into the modernist writings of authors like Virginia Woolf and T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), is, according to Childs, haunted by anxieties over fertility. Passages removed by Eliot as he edited the poem (some on the advice of Ezra Pound) refer to the ‘swarming’, ‘breeding’ life of London.
Such anxieties were by no means uncommon throughout the 1920s and 1930s. The biologist Julian Huxley, a key figure in the Eugenics Society, wrote in 1936 in The Eugenics Review that: ‘We must be able…to pick out the genetically inferior stock [in humanity] with progress and we must set in motion counter-forces making for faster reproduction of superior stocks.’
Huxley’s words sound chilling now, but he was the genteel, popular face of Darwinism; he opposed the focus on race and ethnicity within some quarters of the eugenics movement and laid claim to be a ‘progressive’ interested in universal betterment. Huxley and others campaigned regularly for a voluntary sterilization bill to be brought into British law; such a bill would financially encourage those deemed to be mentally or physically “unfit” to undertake a voluntary sterilization procedure.
Other articles in the Eugenics Review in the inter-war period are even more recognizable to those who have studied the history of the radical right in any detail. In 1919, the Review published an article by G.P. Mudge entitled ‘The Menace to the English Race and to its Traditions of Present-Day Immigration and Emigration.’ The article was dedicated to ‘the Memory of the English Boys who have fallen in the War’ and urged the importance of preserving the English race ‘as pure as possible.’ The ‘inborn physical and mental attributes’ of the English, writes Mudge, are its ‘jewels.’ To fail to preserve this race, he continues, is to ‘betray our English heritage and our dead.’
Of course, the folly of this idea isn’t simply moral but also scientific. The “fitness” of an individual defined by arbitrary standards is the hallmark of the pseudoscience behind eugenics and comes from Francis Galton’s inability to understand a statistical phenomenon known as regression toward the mean. As industrialization improved education and life outcomes for millions, he saw less extreme variations in achievements and IQ. But instead of taking this as a sign that the world was doing better in aggregate, Galton decided it was a sign that civilization was devolving.
At this point, the article descends into crazed anti-semitic rhetoric that warns of the ‘menace’ of a ‘race of Oriental origin’ that have colonized the ‘East End of London’ and parts of Manchester. Here the classic connections made by fascist rhetoric – an appeal to the sacrificial dead of the nation married to an anxious desire to preserve the ‘purity’ of the race – are filtered through the eugenic language of ‘hereditary traits.’
Marius Turda points out in his book Modernism and Eugenics (2010) that the period in which this article appeared (1919-20) marked the beginning of a ‘nationalisation of eugenics,’ where eugenic concerns began to form an increasingly important component of nationalist ideologies. Eugenicists, writes Turda, wanted to ‘awaken’ the nation to the ‘necessity of a biological rejuvenation built around the laws of heredity.’ For Turda, the emphasis on the ‘national’ importance of eugenics fed easily into his role within fascism: ‘Fascist and eugenic aesthetics were congruent, as both were centered on the ideal of a healthy, beautiful body.’
The refusal of eugenic pseudoscience to disappear should trouble everyone concerned with future directions in policy and culture. Whilst language and emphases change over time, behind much contemporary evocation of eugenics lie older desires to rejuvenate and renew the nation. As scientific research has shown, desires to shape or “purify” the genetic makeup of populations carry an existential risk, ironically, of endangering human survival. Beyond this is a moral imperative to challenge narratives that pit the supposedly strong, vigorous, or intelligent against the ‘weak.’ Appealing as such narratives may be in certain quarters, they carry no scientific validity and exacerbate the divisions and anxieties of contemporary life.
Dr. David Barnes is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and an expert in the cultural history of nationalism and fascism from the 19th century to the present. See his profile at:
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