This amazingly prophetic book demonstrates how a poisonious philosophy of life would lead not only to Nazi Germany, but our own “Culture of Death.” Editor Michael Perry has added a great deal of contemporary articles and material by Chesterton’s opponents who were arguing in favor of eugenics and birth control. They are nicely indicted by their very own words.
In the second decade of the twentieth century, an idea became all too fashionable among those who feel that it is their right to set social trends. Wealthy families took it on as a pet cause, generously bankrolling its research. The New York Times praised it as a wonderful “new science.” Scientists, such as the brilliant plant biologist, Luther Burbank, praised it unashamedly. Educators as prominent as Charles Elliot, President of Harvard University, promoted it as a solution to social ills. America’s public schools did their part. In the 1920s, almost three-fourths of high school social science textbooks taught its principles. Not to be outdone, judges and physicians called for those principles to be enshrined into law. Congress agree, passing the 1924 immigration law to exclude from American shores the people of Eastern and Southern Europe that the idea branded as inferior. In 1927, the U. S. Supreme Court joined the chorus, ruling by a lopsided vote of 8 to 1 that the forced sterilization of men and women was constitutional.
That idea was eugenics and in the English-speaking world it had virtually no critics among the “chattering classes.” When he wrote this book, Chesterton stood virtually alone against the intellectual world of his day. Yet to his great credit, he showed no sign of being intimidated by the prestige of his foes. On the contrary, he thunders against eugenics, ranking it one of the great evils of modern society. And, in perhaps one of the most chillingly accurate prophecies of the century, he warns that the ideas that eugenics had unleashed were likely to bear bitter fruit in another nation. That nation was Germany, the “very land of scientific culture from which the ideal of a Superman had come.” In fact, the very group that Nazism tried to exterminate, Eastern European Jews, and the group it targeted for later extermination, the Slavs, were two of those whose biological unfitness eugenists sought so eagerly to confirm.
As the title suggests, eugenics is not the only evil that Chesterton blasts. Socialism gets some brilliantly worded broadsides and Chesterton, in complete fairness, does not spare capitalism. He also attacks the scientifically justified regimentation that others call the “health police.” The same rationalizations that justified eugenics, he notes, can also be used to deprive a working man of his beer or any man of his pipe. Although it was first published in 1922, there’s a startling relevance to what Chesterton had to say about mettlesome bureaucrats who deprive life of its little pleasures and freedoms. His tale about an unfortunate man fired because “his old cherry-briar” “might set the water-works on fire” is priceless.
That tale illustrates Chesterton’s brilliant use of humor, a knack his foes were quick to realize. In their review of his book, Birth Control News griped, “His tendency is reactionary, and as he succeeds in making most people laugh, his influence in the wrong direction is considerable. Eugenics Review was even blunter. “The only interest in this book,” they said, “is pathological. It is a revelation of the ineptitude to which ignorance and blind prejudice may reduce an intelligent man.”
History has been far kinder to Chesterton than to his critics. It’s now generally agree that eugenics was born of a paranoia fed by evolution and by the “ignorance and blind prejudice” of social elites. But never forget that Chesterton was the first to say so, condemning what many of his peers praised.
The completely new edition of Chesterton’s classic includes almost fifty pages from the writings of Chesterton’s opponents to illustrate just how accurate his attacks on eugenists were. For researchers, it also includes a detailed 13-page index.
“The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statues, and spread not by pilgrims but by policeman–that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.” – G.K. Chesterton