(LifeSiteNews) — In August, the National Post’s Tristin Hopper published an informative essay titled “The time when Canada’s elite wanted to sterilize ‘insane’ and disabled people,” a cautionary tale on following the fads of the moment. The history of eugenics, which I detailed in my 2016 book The Culture War, is a largely forgotten chapter in the Western story – but as it creeps back under the guise of abortion and euthanasia, it deserves a closer look once again.
As much as humanists would like to protest this fact, it was the rise of the evolutionary theory of natural selection, propagated by Charles Darwin and his acolytes, that first began to erode the foundational belief that all human life was inherently valuable. After all, if there was no God, then no one was created in His image. If there was no God, then some people were, by very definition, defective evolutionary accidents. If there was no God, then there was no reason whatsoever to assume that all human beings were valuable and equal. In fact, the very theory of evolutionary natural selection precluded the idea of equality. In the Darwinian view of the human race, equality as anything other than a feeble social construct cannot be possible.
Charles Darwin did not shy from this fact or avoid its conclusions. In his 1882 work The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, he noted:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man itself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
What Darwin quite accurately described was a Christian society dedicated to caring for the weakest members of society. What he was decrying, in not-so-subtle terms, was the fact that the result of Christian charity seemed to him to be a human race containing a significant number of faulty and worthless human beings.
The distinction between so-called “civilized men” and “savages” soon became difficult to differentiate. With Darwin’s theories of natural selection providing the supposedly definitive evidence that human beings were not fundamentally equal and therefore did not need to be treated as such, eugenics became all the rage. God did not make mistakes in creating humans, but natural selection certainly could. This meant that the mentally ill, the handicapped, and the constitutionally weak were not created in God’s image. They were defective accidents of nature.
Darwin’s cousin, the scientist Francis Galton, dedicated himself to the pursuit of applying Darwin’s theory of natural selection to social policy. Ted Byfield’s history of Christianity, Unto the Ends of the Earth, describes the dark and cruel movement that sprung up:
With the publication of Galton’s book, Hereditary Genius, in 1869, the science of ‘eugenics’ (literally, ‘good birth’) was born and named. Within two decades it was also a ‘movement,’ promulgating throughout the occidental world plans for selective breeding of the white race, suppression of the yellow race, and eradication of the black race. Among whites, the less worthy should not be allowed to procreate or even associate with higher stock. Confined to ‘labor camps,’ they should be treated benignly, but any violation of the eugenic code would bring a charge of treason. Although most people unsurprisingly felt that Galton had somehow ‘gone too far,’ his defenders portrayed any critics as obstructing scientific advance, just as they had tried to obstruct Galileo, they declared. His cousin Charles was exuberantly in favor, however. ‘I do not think I ever in all my life read anything more interesting and original,’ he wrote.
Eugenics was never fully embraced in Great Britain, despite it being the birthplace of these ideas. Too many politicians opposed them, many for religious reasons. But the eugenics movement did find great success in the United States and Canada. Harvard zoologist Charles Benedict Davenport, for example, promoted eugenics as a way of reducing the crime rate and creating a moral society. His eugenicist comrade Harry Hamilton Laughlin, the superintendent of the Eugenics Record Office in New York from 1910 until it closed in 1939, was so fanatic that he actually condemned many charitable organizations. He was willing to admit that they did much for the suffering, but that, in his mind, was a barrier to scientific progress. His view of what progress actually consisted of was chilling:
Davenport and Laughlin founded and developed the Eugenics Record Office on Long Island, New York, which over the next thirty years would send out hundreds of young women to compile detailed records on 534,625 Americans whom they deemed to be ‘defective.’ Sixty thousand of them would face sterilization, many of the males by compulsory castration. But the eugenicists saw this as barely a beginning. Their initial goal was to sterilize fourteen million people in the United States and millions more worldwide, thus replacing the ‘lower tenth’ of the human race with ‘pure Nordic stock.’
It was not just Davenport and Laughlin, either. Scores of scientists and scholars climbed aboard the grotesque eugenics bandwagon, from the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, to Nobel Prize winner and surgeon, Alexis Carrel. Attracted to the moralistic overtones of ridding society of criminals and degenerates, and seduced by the supposed scientific underpinnings, liberal clergy members soon began to support the movement as well. Stories of this dark chapter in Western history are often ignored, and it is no surprise. They are a testament to the danger of Darwinism and the inevitable brutality of big government. The United States Supreme Court, for example, upheld state policies of forced sterilization, even in the face of public outcry:
Public support for eugenics had never been strong, particularly after the Hearst newspapers launched a campaign against it in 1915 with one horror story after another. Some of these came from far-off Britain where an eight-year-old boy reportedly was castrated when found masturbating, and a fifteen-year-old because he allegedly ‘rubbed himself’ against a woman. After thirty-eight children in one Kansas institution had been surgically sterilized, an inquiry found that the superintendent had violated the law by ordering it, although he was neither charged nor fired. There were heartrending stories from poor farm families of the South who cooperated hospitably with the ‘nice lady’ who came to ask them about their family and then found themselves ordered sterilized by the local board of health. But their son and daughter-in-law had only just been married, they pleaded. Naturally they wanted to have children. That was too bad. Progress was progress.
In Canada too, eugenics spread. The province of Alberta’s 1928 Sexual Sterilization Act was intended to reduce the number of undesirable humans, and thus created a Eugenics Board to assist in this endeavor. Similar legislation passed in British Columbia in 1933.These boards possessed an appalling power, and were even permitted to make sterilization contingent for release from a mental institution.
Nearly 3,000 sterilizations were carried out, and the Alberta Eugenics Board remained in place until Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservative government abolished it in 1972. British Columbia’s legislation was repealed in 1973. A postscript to Canada’s entanglement with social Darwinism came in 1996, when an Alberta court awarded Leilani Muir nearly one million dollars for “wrongful sterilization.” She had been sterilized against her will in 1959.
Ironically, it was the Second World War that for the most part halted the eugenics movement. The Nazis embraced eugenics whole-heartedly, and were determined to accelerate the process to create a race of supermen. They would go beyond sterilization – although they certainly practiced that, too – to extermination. Initially, eugenicists across the West were thrilled by Nazi ideas. Charles Davenport, for example, had to be told to quell his enthusiasm by financial backers at the Carnegie Foundation, who found his writings in Eugenics News in support of Nazi eugenic policies to be rather embarrassing. In 1937, one American eugenicist actually headed to Germany to assist them in their efforts:
At Buchenwald near Weimar, a prison camp would provide Dr. Edwin Katzen-Ellenbogen, a Polish-born, American-trained eugenicist, with research and other facilities. A founding member of the American Eugenics Research Association, Katzen-Ellenbogen had been chief eugenicist of the State of New Jersey under its former governor, Woodrow Wilson. At Buchenwald, he proceeded to infect some prisoners with typhus to test new drugs. In others he made gland implants with synthetic hormones to observe the physical effects. The camp’s program was generously funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, and its files maintained through a system developed by IBM.
Dr. Katzen-Ellenbogen was eventually given a life prison sentence at the Nuremburg trials for his efforts. It was at Nuremburg that the sordid details of the Nazi obsession with eugenics began to come out in their entirety. In fact, the very year that the Eugenics Record Office closed in Long Island, New York, Adolf Hitler initiated the secret T4 Euthanasia Program in Germany. The Nazis had no intention of waiting for handicapped and mentally ill people to be bred out of existence. Along with many elderly people, they dedicated themselves to culling those who had “lives unworthy of living.” Hitler’s personal physician, Dr. Karl Brandt, was put in charge of the process.
Seduced by the trash science of eugenics and fueled by ideological fervor, almost the entire psychiatric community in Germany collaborated with the practice of euthanizing patients they deemed unfit to live. The very people who were supposed to be assisting the mentally ill and the handicapped were the very people signing death warrants. Many of them viewed the Nazi ideology as “applied biology,” and saw the deaths they assisted or perpetrated as “mercy killings.”
Victims selected for execution were starved, lethally injected, or poisoned. After testing the method of gassing patients in chambers disguised as showers, six gas chambers were set up across Germany and Austria as the most effective way of dispatching those selected for death. The infamous SS were put in charge of transporting the victims, and the families of the murdered were dutifully informed of their relatives’ passing with a formal death certificate and the ashes of their loved one in an urn. Many had no idea that their family member had not died of natural causes, but had been killed by physicians appointed by the state to cull the human herd. In only two years, more than 70,000 people were killed by doctors.
The T4 Euthanasia Program was formally discontinued on August 24, 1941, partially in response to the growing voices of protest from the Christian community. But it was a ruse. The killing of those deemed too weak to be worthy of life in the race of Nazi supermen continued unabated, with some historians estimating that close to 200,000 people were actually murdered in secret.
It is hard to know what the precise number is, because by that point the Nazis were killing people in their millions, slaughtering men, women, children, and families, including Jews, gypsies, Slavs, and countless other groups of people who did not qualify for membership in society due to their lack of “good birth.” Instead, the Nazis would give them a terrifying death.
The crimes of the Nazis stunned the world, and the voices of many eugenicists fell silent as the sickening realization dawned on them that eugenics does not begin and end with sterilization. It may start there, yes. But when the theories are wholly and enthusiastically applied, their natural end is the yawning death pits of the Nazi concentration camps, filled with the broken corpses of discarded humanity.