Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

The pseudo-scientific state and other evils

Jerry Stratton, July 14, 2015

The Eugenics tree

When I was growing up, much of my reading library was my dad’s large collection of westerns and mysteries. I read a lot of Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner and other mysteries of the era, as well as the occasional G.K. Chesterton Father Brown story in a best of collection.

Lately I’ve been using Project Gutenberg to keep iBooks filled with waiting-for-others reading, and pulled down some Father Brown collections. While browsing through Chesterton’s work, I discovered he also had essay collections, so I added a few of those as well.

Sunday morning, I started reading Eugenics and Other Evils and was hooked right from the introduction:

Though most of the conclusions, especially towards the end, are conceived with reference to recent events, the actual bulk of preliminary notes about the science of Eugenics were written before the war. It was a time when this theme was the topic of the hour; when eugenic babies (not visibly very distinguishable from other babies) sprawled all over the illustrated papers; when the evolutionary fancy of Nietzsche was the new cry among the intellectuals; and when Mr. Bernard Shaw and others were considering the idea that to breed a man like a cart-horse was the true way to attain that higher civilisation, of intellectual magnanimity and sympathetic insight, which may be found in cart-horses. It may therefore appear that I took the opinion too controversially, and it seems to me that I sometimes took it too seriously. But the criticism of Eugenics soon expanded of itself into a more general criticism of a modern craze for scientific officialism and strict social organisation.

And then the hour came when I felt, not without relief, that I might well fling all my notes into the fire. The fire was a very big one, and was burning up bigger things than such pedantic quackeries. And, anyhow, the issue itself was being settled in a very different style. Scientific officialism and organisation in the State which had specialised in them, had gone to war with the older culture of Christendom. Either Prussianism would win and the protest would be hopeless, or Prussianism would lose and the protest would be needless. As the war advanced from poison gas to piracy against neutrals, it grew more and more plain that the scientifically organised State was not increasing in popularity. Whatever happened, no Englishmen would ever again go nosing round the stinks of that low laboratory. So I thought all I had written irrelevant, and put it out of my mind.

I am greatly grieved to say that it is not irrelevant. It has gradually grown apparent, to my astounded gaze, that the ruling classes in England are still proceeding on the assumption that Prussia is a pattern for the whole world. If parts of my book are nearly nine years old, most of their principles and proceedings are a great deal older. They can offer us nothing but the same stuffy science, the same bullying bureaucracy and the same terrorism by tenth-rate professors that have led the German Empire to its recent conspicuous triumph. For that reason, three years after the war with Prussia, I collect and publish these papers.

He wrote this in 1922, so his “war with Prussia” was what we would call the First World War. He of course didn’t call it that, being as the Second had not yet happened.

In his “and other evils”, Chesterton appears to expand the term eugenics too a much wider definition than what we usually mean. It encompasses a lot of the so-called “scientific state”, that is, a state modeled around controlling people’s lives according to scientific principles that will make them more useful to the state.

Eugenics Board

For a long time, World War II and the Nazis precluded any fears of the state organizing society along such pseudo-scientific principles; while many of the trappings of the scientific state remained, such as Margaret Sanger’s project to weed out black babies and the minimum wage’s pricing unskilled workers out of the market, they were unmoored from their eugenicist docks.

But now today this grievous ideal is taking root again among our elite.1 You could take those last two paragraphs and replace Prussia with China and make it relevant yet again, nearly a hundred years later.

His first chapter goes on to describe what he means by eugenics, which is notable especially for its intro on the spread of evil:

I know that [Eugenics] means very different things to different people; but that is only because evil always takes advantage of ambiguity. I know it is praised with high professions of idealism and benevolence; with silver-tongued rhetoric about purer motherhood and a happier posterity. But that is only because evil is always flattered, as the Furies were called “The Gracious Ones.” I know that it numbers many disciples whose intentions are entirely innocent and humane; and who would be sincerely astonished at my describing it as I do. But that is only because evil always wins through the strength of its splendid dupes; and there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin.

Then he goes on to describe the various kinds of arguments in favor of eugenics, including those that say the law will only go so far as they leash it, so to speak, and no further:

I had thought of calling the next sort of superficial people the Idealists; but I think this implies a humility towards impersonal good they hardly show; so I call them the Autocrats. They are those who give us generally to understand that every modern reform will “work” all right, because they will be there to see. Where they will be, and for how long, they do not explain very clearly. I do not mind their looking forward to numberless lives in succession; for that is the shadow of a human or divine hope. But even a theosophist does not expect to be a vast number of people at once. And these people most certainly propose to be responsible for a whole movement after it has left their hands. Each man promises to be about a thousand policemen. If you ask them how this or that will work, they will answer, “Oh, I would certainly insist on this”; or “I would never go so far as that”; as if they could return to this earth and do what no ghost has ever done quite successfully—force men to forsake their sins. Of these it is enough to say that they do not understand the nature of a law any more than the nature of a dog. If you let loose a law, it will do as a dog does. It will obey its own nature, not yours. Such sense as you have put into the law (or the dog) will be fulfilled. But you will not be able to fulfil a fragment of anything you have forgotten to put into it.

The emphasis is mine; it is worth remembering for any law. A law will draw forth as interpreters everyone who thinks they can use the law for their purpose. It will thus go as far as its nature, not as far as yours. There is no “pass the law to see what is in it”. What is in it is, with certainty, what you will see, whether you read it or not.

  1. <- Transgender insecurity
  2. The Fisher Space Pen ->