catallaxy files

catallaxy in technical exile

The pre-history of eugenics

with 2 comments

David Friedman has made a welcome return to regular blogging (he seems to go through on and off periods) and has a number of new interesting posts up. Here is one which attempts to clear Herber Spencer of his bad reputation for coining the term ‘Social Darwinism’. As Friedman explains, Spencer was well aware of its eugenic implications in coining that term but as a libertarian he could not be blamed for the wave of eugenic legislation that followed in various countries (including the famed Nordic social democratic states):

    Spencer was indeed concerned about human eugenics but, as a believer in laissez-faire, he did not propose using government to improve them. Compulsory eugenics originated with Galton and was rapidly taken up by the British left, with supporters including Shaw, Wells, Keynes, Laski and the Webbs. The idea spread across the political spectrum; Winston Churchill was one of many enthusiastic supporters. The result was an attempt, in 1912, to enact compulsory eugenics into law.
    It was successfully opposed by Josiah Wedgewood, who Ridley describes as a radical libertarian. His central argument was not that it was bad science but that it was a striking violation of individual liberty.

    In addition to libertarian politicians such as Wedgewood and Cecil, compulsory eugenics had another important opponent: The Catholic church. Compulsory sterilization was implemented in a considerable number of countries, including the U.S. and Sweden, and almost implemented in Britain. It was not implemented in countries where the Catholic church was powerful. In that case, at least, the Church’s opposition to the latest findings of modern science put it where it belonged, on the side of the angels.

This sort of coercive idea is to be distinguished from the sort of voluntary eugenics that people can now practice using better genetic screening techniques to avoid passing on debilitating hereditary disorders. Dare I say it, but another example is the mating choices that people make which are likely to be at the subconscious level guided by some eugenic considerations. Friedman himself, from a distinguished libertarian dynasty, is a good example of voluntary positive eugenics.

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Written by Admin

November 9, 2006 at 9:16 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Jason:
    >Dare I say it, but another example is the mating choices that people make which are likely to be at the subconscious level guided by some eugenic considerations.

    Yes, Pinker makes this point devastatingly in the “Family Values” section of his “How The Mind Works”, at the same time destroying the wishful trope that standards of beauty differ within cultures. Actually, they do, but only to a small degree. Standards of sexual attractiveness are in fact mostly universal, indicating basic biology at work.

    Daniel Barnes

    November 10, 2006 at 6:32 pm

  2. Is David Friedman a libertarian? He’s certainly an anarcho-capitalist. Can we really say they’re the same thing? Although I do agree, he is from fine stock (Milton is letting the side down in his old age, but Rose is still sharp).

    Sinclair Davidson

    November 10, 2006 at 7:01 pm


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