Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain

Article excerpt

Reproduction by Design: Sex, Robots, Trees and Test-Tube Babies in Interwar Britain, by Angus McLaren. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012. viii, 235 pp. $55.00 US (cloth)

Angus McLaren's title may be taken as homage to the Canadian historian-activist David Noble's America by Design (1977) a leftist history of automation; David Noble died in December 2010.

This book too is in its way a history of automation: the modernist's own automation of sexuality, and reproduction in early twentieth-century Britain. As McLaren states from page 1, he is talking about the cultural preoccupation with controlling reproduction--with an emphasis on the underlying currents of eugenics both positive and negative--fears of falling birth-rates among the elite, leading to a degenerate population that will in the long run be drawn mostly from the lowest classes. Sex, gender relations and radicalism are much discussed in the context of Weimar Germany, but the connexion is equally striking in British writing, both before and after World War I. Eugenics, he says, sets the agenda.

Eugenics implicitly or explicitly frames every account of the future: writers in all fields, fiction, science, and philosophy, believe in a future where society will legally assure the reproduction of the healthy and repress that of the "degenerates," which, it seems, generally means the working class. McLaren's long list of writers includes H.G. Wells, Bertrand and Dora Russell, J.B.S. and Charlotte Haldane, Naomi Mitchison, C.E.M. Joad, the Huxleys, Marie Stopes and Ruggles Gates, C.P. Blacker and Enid Charles. They are all members of the British "Intellectual aristocracy," celebrated in Noel Annan's famous essay of 1955, with the addition of Karel Capek, whose play R. …

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