Halliday Sutherland

"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.

Opposing Eugenics, then and now

No one warned me that this week was “Eugenics Week” in Britain, so recent events took me by surprise. In my previous post, I discussed the resignation of Andrew Sabisky as an adviser to the government of Boris Johnson. In this post, I discuss how opposition to eugenics has changed over the years.

On Sunday 16th February, Richard Dawkins tweeted:

The tweet copped praise, criticism and, as is often the way on Twitter, crude insults and abuse (including the contribution from Mr @bucketoftea shown at the top of this page). In reading some of these and other articles in response to Dawkins and Sabisky, two things struck me.

Firstly, opposing eugenics today is quick, easy and consequence-free.

Consider how long it took for Mr @bucketoftea to insult Mr Dawkins, and the possible consequences. I’d say, “less than a minute” and “close to zero”.

Things were more difficult for Dr Halliday Sutherland because in his time, eugenics was a bright shiny and new science that promised to transform humanity. In today’s parlance, it was “the settled science,” backed by some of the best and brightest of his era and which, were you to question it, would draw the scorn of its advocates.

Supporters of eugenics. Top row, (L to R): Dr Marie Stopes, Bertrand Russell, Sir William Arbuthnot Lane, Sir James Barr. Middle row, (L to R): H.G. Wells, George Henry Roberts MP, The Lady Constance Lytton. Bottom row (L to R): Karl Pearson FRS, G.B. Shaw, J.M. Keynes.

Of the ten persons featured in the photograph, one was president and six were vice-presidents of the Society for Constructive Birth Control and Racial Progress. Four testified against Dr Sutherland in his 1923 libel trial. Even if Twitter were available for Dr Sutherland’s use, mere insults were not going to cut it. His opposition had to be reasoned and backed by scientific data and it included:

The Soil and the Seed in Tuberculosis which appeared in the British Medical Journal in November 1912.

Consumption: Its Cause and Cure, a speech on 4th September 1917 and, in 1922, his book Birth Control:

Sutherland’s opposition did not go unnoticed, nor unpunished, and in May 1922 he received a writ for libel from Dr Marie Stopes. Having no money with which to fight the case, he planned to defend himself against the best K.C.s in Britain. After a bitter, drawn out legal battle that involved the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords, he won in November 1924.

Secondly, while people were able to, and frequently did, list the supporters of eugenics, not one named those who opposed it.

Why is this? Was it because there were none, or that they didn’t warrant mentioning, or that people don’t know?

Please help me by listing the opponents of eugenics in the “comments” section below and giving me your view as to why they are not as well-known.

Mark H. Sutherland, Curator, hallidaysutherland.com and author of Exterminating Poverty: The incredible true story of the eugenic plan to get rid of the poor, and the Scottish doctor who fought against it (in conjunction with Neil Sutherland).

Photo credit: The photograph of the Royal Courts of Justice by David Castor (Wikipedia user: dcastor).

4 comments on “Opposing Eugenics, then and now

  1. Dermot Grenham
    23 February 2020

    As well as the likes of Chesterton and Belloc, this paper has a few names. Mainly US based I think. https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1001&context=bio_facpubs

  2. markhsutherland
    23 February 2020

    Dermot, many thanks. Do you have any views as to why they are not as well known?

  3. Dermot Grenham
    23 February 2020

    The psychology of supporting and opposing the ideology of the day is fascinating. We see it today with topics such as transgender. In 50 years time I wonder who it will be that is remembered from the current debates.
    There my also be a subtle point that by listing the eminent men who supported eugenics one is, perhaps in a perverse way, giving credibility to the idea.
    Is there also a point that scientists did research and published on eugenics using statistical analysis which gave it a veneer of respectability. Those opposing, even if scientists, were generally doing so from a philosophical, cultural and religious point of view and were not so well published or analytical?
    This recent programme on the BBC touches on some of the current debate about eugenics: https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000dt7d/storyville-the-gene-revolution-changing-human-nature

  4. markhsutherland
    27 February 2020

    I agree with your comment that by listing the eminent men, credibility is given to the idea.

    In the commentary in the British media last week, none mentioned the Catholic opponents to eugenics, despite Catholics providing the fiercest opposition to it. (In “Eugenics and Politics in Britain 1900-14” G.R. Searle concluded: “It still remains a matter of some interest that the fiercest opposition to eugenics has come, not from the labour/Socialist camp, but from Roman Catholics and from a certain kind of individualist liberal”). I don’t imagine that this would have been the case if the fiercest opposition come from the labour/Socialist camp.

    Dr Anthony Horvath made a similar point to yours when he discussed the battle between scientific fact and religious opinion in the preface to the English translation of “Allowing the Destruction of Life Unworthy of Life” (Die Freigabe der Vernichtung Lebensunwerten Lebens): “Much of this [Malthusian] talk was aimed at the poor, and the poor were of different ethnicity than the people offering their proposals. One had their prejudice, but there it sat, as mere prejudice. One could not re-order society around it because one could not present it as anything more than ‘one man’s opinion’.
    “Then came Charles Darwin in 1859 who, in his ‘On the Origin of Species…’ ended the dispute decisively, putting one set of opinions on the firm foundation of scientific fact – the Malthusian outlook – and disproving the religious one. At least, that was how it was instantly perceived – and is still perceived to this day”

    On this point, many of the commentators I read in the British press described eugenics as “psuedo-science” and as a “non-science”, I believe, so that science is seen to retain its integrity. Galton and the rest believed that they were good men, acting in accordance with scientific principles so how could they tell? As Horvath put it: “Fish do not know they are wet.”

    My impression of the commentary in the British press commentary in relation to Sabisky’s is that they are throwing Galton under the bus, so that eugenics can continue.

    Thank you for the link to the BBC which I will watch with interest.

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This entry was posted on 21 February 2020 by in C.B.C., Eugenics, Opposition to eugenics.

Stopes v Sutherland libel trial 1922-24

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