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Social Darwinism revisited

Sir Francis Galton, the founder of eugenics, was ever mindful of the fate of the ancient Greeks (in particular, the Athenians), in his judgement the most gifted people in history. In Hereditary Genius (1869), he attributed their unique qualities to a ‘system of partly unconscious selection’. For the unrivalled opportunities offered by Athens had attracted foreigners of calibre, while slavery (Galton implied) protected the racial purity of the ‘high Athenian breed’. He maintained that the Athenians declined when morality deteriorated and marriage became unfashionable, the balance of the population being kept up by immigrants ‘of a heterogeneous class’. Galton’s idiosyncratic reading of ancient history persuaded him that man has the power both to improve and to damage the qualities of his own species.

For Galton feared that his own fine country was threatened with decline brought on by social class differentials in fertility. In Inquiries into Human Faculty (1883), he complained that those who possessed sufficient foresight and self-control to delay marriage, as advised by Malthus, were exactly the people whose reproduction it was vital to encourage. Galton assumed that social distinctions reflect differences in innate endowment and that the middle and upper classes tended to possess more ‘civic worth’. Ability, he believed, is determined by heredity and runs in families, revealing itself by success in competitive careers. The early marriage and reproduction of members of such ‘thriving families’ therefore ought to be encouraged, in his view. Only by raising the average intellectual standard of the nation by one grade could its survival and expansion be assured, since that standard was not keeping pace with the fast-changing requirements of modern civilisation. Eugenics, then, was nothing less than a programme for national survival.

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