Robert Bannister
Social Darwinism

Precisely because eugenicists proposed dramatic intervention in the process of nature, modeled after natural selection, they were neo-Darwinians with a vengeance in describing nature itself. 'We must learn from nature's method for the preservation and elevation of races, the selection of the fittest and the rejection of the unfit,' wrote W. Duncan McKim in possibly the most extreme of prewar eugenics tracts. So horrible was this natural process in McKim's view that at this point he suggested the really weak be treated to 'a gentle, painless death' through carbonic-acid gas.

Such extremes masked complex emotions that by the end of the decade began to eclipse whatever humanitarian goals the movement originally possessed. The result, as Kenneth Ludmerer has noted, was less a change of program than 'changes in tone,' more exaggerated claims, and the ascendency of racist and nativist elements. After World War I, as Ludmerer has also shown, eugenicists threw their political energies behind the blatantly biased Immigration Act of 1924 and state sterilization laws, many of which were later judged unconstitutional.

In Britain, perhaps because the restraints of egalitarian ideology were less, some eugenicists appeared willing to consider both the sacrifice of the unfit, and the creation of a new elite. 'Our race, viewed from a physiological standpoint, is not on the way to race improvement,' wrote J.B. Haycraft in Darwinism and Race Progress (1895). Developing an earlier idea of Galton's, he proposed that selected individuals serve as 'race producers.' More dramatically inhumane was a suggestion from G. Archdall Reid, another British eugenicist, that the unfit be allowed to drink themselves into extinction. Since the very act of drinking was proof of unfitness, he reasoned, temperance legislation would have a harmful eugenic effect: is surely clear that if the world is to become more temperate it must be by the elimination not of drink but of the excessive drinker. If Artificial Selection be found impracticable in the future, as, owing to the state of public opinion, it undoubtedly is at present, then the only alternative is Natural Selection, in which case the world will never be thoroughly sober until it has first been thoroughly drunk.
Although Reid intended in this statement to caricature natural selection, British journals by 1910 rang with predictions only slightly less extreme. Urging parental responsibility in the production of children (birth control), a British clergyman lectured the Victoria Institute of London on the real connection between Malthus and Darwinism:
The phrases 'survival of the fittest,' and 'elimination of the unfit' were not invented by Malthus; but they follow directly from his principles of population. Modern legislation, and indeed sentiment, without which legislation is powerless, have sought, and are still seeking to preserve the unfit and to encourage their multiplication. But the laws of nature will prove themselves too strong even for the strongest radical government, or the most plausible socialistic theory. The laws of nature will assert themselves in the end, even if it be by the end of our entire civilization. It is useless to complain of their harshness and severity. But we may do much, if we recognize them as facts, we may do very much to mitigate the harshness and severity of their application.
'National progress can only take place when means are taken to increase the fit and decrease the unfit,' added a physician, who proposed to isolate the defective.

In the interwar years, if not before, some American eugenicists shared this gloom and doom. Writing in 1921, the journalist E. E. Slosson commented on the prevailing pessimism at a recent conference of eugenicists. An outpouring of new eugenics literature contributed to the antidemocratic mood of the decade. But it was in Britain that this mood again produced extremes of which Americans were seemingly incapable. 'All through nature we see a free production of young life with an equally free elimination of the greater number of those that are born,' wrote the author of Biological Politics (1935). He continued:
Human beings produce but few offspring and they threaten to produce fewer still. In despair at this tendency we attempt to prevent the loss of even a few; this must be dangerous; there must be some method of getting rid of the mass of poor, weak, unfitted-for-survival children. These, too, are more liable to be the first born, so that when you have small families it is more urgent than ever to kill a large proportion of them.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.