Modern European Intellectual History - 11
Francis Galton - Hereditary Genius
Mathew Thomson - The Problem of Mental Deficiency: Eugenics, Democracy and Social Policy in Britain c. 1870-1959
Francis Galton published Heredity Genius in 1869, a second edition was published in 1892. The point of the book was to show that both the mental and the physical faculties of individuals obeyed the laws of heredity. To demonstrate the heritability of mental faculties he examines the families of what he calls “eminent men” in England: judges between 1660 & 1865, statesmen, English peerages, commanders, literary men, men of science, poets, musicians, painters, divines and senior classmen of Cambridge. To demonstrate the heritability of physical faculties he examines the families of oarsmen and wrestlers of the North Country.
In order to do this analysis he must quantify mental and physical faculties, and his solution is to apply the law of “frequency of error,” which is used by mathematicians to estimate the value that is probably nearest to the correct one from a collection of measurements of the same quantity. This method had been extended to the proportions of the human body by Quetelet on the grounds that differences in something like physical stature could be treated as if they were errors from some norm.
Galton felt that just as we breed our dogs and our horses for certain traits, so we could influence the mental and physical fitness of the human race and that we owed it to the future generations of humanity to attempt such an improvement. He coined the word eugenics in 1884. Two decades later a movement emerged with the formation of the Eugenics Education Society in 1907, which began publication of the journal Eugenics Review in 1909. The core concerns of the eugenics debate developed within the framework of social Darwinism.
By the end of the 19th century there was widespread concern that modern society was reversing evolution, leading to the degeneration of the English people. This was partly driven by an increase in the recorded rates of lunacy from 2.26/10,000 in 1807 to 29.26/10,000 in 1890. By the first decade of the 20th century mental defectives became defined as the central eugenic threat facing the nation. Greater social awareness plus universal education led to the growing realization of the presence of mentally deficient people in the population. This heightened awareness coincided with growing fears about the fitness of the population. In addition, the declining birth rates among the middle class combined with increasing birth rate among the lower class led to the fear of mental defectives breeding without control. Feeble-minded women were seen to be especially at risk for sexual exploitation by men, which created a link between morality and mental deficiency, leading to the notion of immorality as a sign of mental deficiency. All of these factors contributed to the growing feeling that the ills of society could be traced back to mental deficiency.
In response to these growing concerns the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded was created. Their 1908 report contained the conclusion that mental deficiency was in large part hereditary. In 1913 Britain passed the Mental Deficiency Act, which proposed mass segregation of the ‘feeble minded’.
Among the institutions proposed to deal with the problem of mental defectives in society were colonies, community care and sterilization. Colonies were seen as ways of segregating mental defectives from society at large in a positive environment in which they could be useful and maybe even educated to some degree. Community care provided supervision, guardianship and occupation centers but with limited resources it was difficult to provide the tight moral and sexual control over the defectives within the community as a separate colony would. This led, in the 1930s with the notion of linking community care with sterilization.
Sterilization as an option for dealing with mental defectives had been resisted both by the eugenics community and the mental institutions in Britain. They did not want to separate sex from reproduction and were worried about the sexual exploitation of mental defectives and the spread of venereal disease in the community. But by the 1930s it had become obvious that segregation was unable to cope with demand, that sterilization could relieve this pressure on the colony institutions as a part of community care and that it would also reverse the current trend of rising mental deficiency and improve the eugenic fitness and social welfare of the population as a whole.
The Eugenics Society failed to get sterilization adopted via legislation, the issue was simply too hot, politically. Sterilization was used, however, and by the 1960s the legislature approved it as a fait accompli. The operation was directed at just that class of women that had concerned eugenicists in the 1930s.