British Eugenics and Fabian Socialism: H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw

Eugenics itself varied from nation to nation, and within nations positions varied. Both Wells and Shaw were Fabian socialists who disdained the raggedness of the working class and sought in eugenics a means to attain socialism through gradualist reforms while supporting British imperialism. They were a forerunners to the contemporary Labour Party. This essay by Jenny Jopson explores their different positions as Fabian eugenicists.

“The Language of Degeneration: Eugenic Ideas in The Time Machine by H.G. Wells and Man and Superman by George Bernard Shaw”




Eugenics’ Critics: Another Sort of ‘Defective’

Despite the power and popularity of American eugenics in the early 20th century, the movement also faced its share of critics: from the Catholic Church to Boasian anthropologists, some formally trained geneticists, and standout politicians like Emanuel Celler.  (Unfortunately, resistance from communities targeted by eugenicists, such as new immigrants and people with disabilities, is more difficult to trace.) Though their criticisms were largely unheeded in the 1910s and 1920s, their contributions to a slowly growing body of political, academic, and scientific disregard for eugenics thought would help spell the end of popular American eugenics by the end of World War II.

Now, we’ve come across a fascinating refutation of eugenics from a 1915 edition of The Day Book, a Chicago daily newspaper. In it, writer R.F. Paine writes a scathing, radically anti-corporate critique of eugenics. Stirred by the 1914 slaughter of Standard Oil strikers by Colorado militiamen, Paine suggests that the perpetrators of corporate greed and exploitation make up the true “defective” class.

It’s a welcome rebuttal to the claims of eugenicists and the philanthropists who funded them. How would such an article have been received in 1915?


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Full text:

WHERE TO BEGIN.The millions of Mrs. Harriman, relict of the great railroad “promoter,” assisted by other millions of Rockefeller and Carnegie, are to be devoted to sterilization of several hundred thousands of American “defectives” annually, as a matter of eugenics.

It is true that we don’t yet know all that the millions of our plutocracy can do to the common folks. We see that our moneyed plutocrats can own the governments of whole states, override constitutions, maintain private armies to shoot down men, women and children and railroad innocent men to life imprisonment for murder, or lesser crimes. And if we submit to such things, we ought not to be surprised if they undertake to sterilize all those who are obnoxious to them.

Of course, the proposition demands much on who are the declared “defective.”

The old Spartans, with war always in view, used to destroy, at birth, boys born with decided physical weakness. Some of our present day eugenists go farther and damn children before their birth because of parents criminally inclined. Then we have eugenic “defectives” in the insane and incurably diseased…

But isn’t there another sort of “defective,” who is quite as dangerous as any but whom discussion generally overlooks, especially discussion by senile, long-hailed pathologists, and long-eared college professors involved in the Harriman-Rockefeller scheme to sterilize?

A boy is born to millions. He either doesn’t work, isn’t useful, doesn’t contribute to human happiness, is altogether a parasite, or else he works to add to his millions, with the brutal, insane greed for more and more that caused the accumulation of the inherited millions. Why isn’t isn’t such the most dangerous “defective” of all? Why isn’t the prevention of more such progeny the first duty of eugenics? Such “defectives” directly attack the rights, liberties, happiness, lives of millions.


Talk about inheriting criminal tendencies! If there a ranker case of such than the inheritance of Standard Oil criminality as evidenced in the slaughter of mothers and their babies at Ludlow?


Sterilization of hundreds of thousands of the masses, by the Harrimans and Rockefellers? Let’s first try out the “defectives” of the sons of Harriman and Rockefeller!

On Gatsby‘s “Mysterious” non-Nordic Origins

You may have seen our references to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby popping up throughout our Haunted Files written materials. So far, we’ve had a number of visitors ask us what Gatsby has to do with American eugenics history. Most apparent is Tom Buchanan’s eugenics-inspired tirade about civilization “going to pieces,” and his allusion to Lothrop Stoddard’s hugely popular eugenics text, The Rising Tide of Color (Fitzgerald, 17). But the entire subtext of Fitzgerald’s archetypal “great American novel” is a narrative of attempted, and ultimately failed, assimilation and passing in eugenics-era America. Constant allusions to Gatsby’s mysterious origins imply non-WASP, perhaps Jewish, heritage. Gatsby’s ambiguous claims to “whiteness” are called into question by the nativist Buchanan, who likens Gatsby’s affair with Daisy to miscegenation (137). Read this way, The Great Gatsby asks: can wealth, clothes, and social status grant Gatsby access to an increasingly exclusive Nordic American identity? Eugenics’ answer, offered via Buchanan, is a resounding “no”.

Buchanan embodies WASP nativist fears of the eugenics era.

Read more about the critical intersections of race, sexuality, and class in The Great Gatsby:

[via ProQuest] Goldsmith, Meredith. “White Skin, White Mask: Passing, Posing, and Performing in The Great Gatsby.” Modern Fiction Studies, Fall 2003. 

Forter, Greg. “Gender, melancholy, and the whiteness of impersonal form.” Gender, race, and mourning in American Modernism.

“The Marching Morons”

Marching Morons

Set hundreds of years in the future the 1951 C. M. Kornbluth short story “The Marching Morons” tells the story of an Earth overrun by the unintelligent. Just as eugenicist’s predicted, this future is the result of overbreeding by the “unfit” and the average IQ is just 45. The ever-shrinking elites are too small in number to overcome the enormity of the problem until John Barlow arrives from the past with a eugenics solution: the morons are convinced to migrate to Venus only to be euthanized in their spaceships!

The scientific eugenics movement may have declined in the 1930s and lost popular support following the revelations of Nazi atrocities during WWII, but eugenic ideas have continued to be reused in popular culture consistently. Check out the whole story here.