Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Bertrand Russell on Eugenics

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Bertrand Russell on Eugenics

Article excerpt


Eugenics, at least in England, is nowadays a word not to be used in polite company. All shades of conventional opinion in the news media have put the subject under a taboo, as shown by two recent articles in the British press. One, in a conservative magazine, rubbishes eugenics as a "dismal pseudo-science."1 The other, in a progressive magazine, apologizes for the many rationalists between the world wars who promoted eugenics, a phase in its history that it describes as "Rationalism's dirty secret."2

Perhaps the last public figure in England to highlight the need for eugenic policies was the Conservative politician Sir Keith Joseph. Giving a speech to party members in 1974, Sir Keith warned that two dysgenic factors were threatening Britain's "human stock"-the increasing numbers of children born to unmarried mothers of low intelligence and low education, and the increasing numbers of their highly talented compatriots leaving the country.3 Although Sir Keith's Jewish ancestry deflected any accusations of Nazism, this speech torpedoed his chances of becoming leader of the Conservative Party, a post subsequently won by his erstwhile campaign manager, the more flexible Margaret Thatcher.

But there was a time in 20th-century England when public figures embraced the idea of eugenics. The first International Eugenics Congress, held in London in 1912, had its inaugural address given by the former Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, while one of the vice-presidents of the Congress was the rising politician Winston Churchill.4 Other prominent advocates of British eugenics in the first half of the 20th century spanned the conservative spectrum from Anthony M. Ludovici, a Nietzschean opponent of Christian ethics, to William Inge, the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.

Among the more progressive thinkers in England, many of them members of the Fabian Society, who called for eugenic measures were the dramatist George Bernard Shaw, the novelist H.G. Wells, the social reformers Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the economist John Maynard Keynes, the sexologist Havelock Ellis, and the economist William Beveridge, whose 1942 Beveridge Report gave a blueprint for the Welfare State.5

One of these progressive figures was Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), philosopher, mathematician, Fellow of the Royal Society, social reformer, peace campaigner, prose stylist, Nobel laureate for literature, aristocrat (who in 1931 succeeded to the title of 3rd Earl Russell), lothario and serial husband. Russell took a keen interest in population quality and eugenics throughout his adult life, from the 1890s until the 1960s, and never lost interest in the subject, although he became disillusioned after the Second World War about how unscrupulous rulers might distort eugenic states in practice.

As a young man Russell had his interest in eugenics piqued by reading Darwin's Descent of Man, Galton's Hereditary Genius and Karl Pearson's Socialism and Natural Selection. Once he had become more knowledgeable he often discussed eugenic ideas in correspondence with the biologists Julian Huxley, J.B.S. Haldane and Lancelot Hogben.


Russell's thoughts about eugenics began with the institution of marriage. His 1929 book, Marriage and Morals, has a whole chapter on eugenics. A feminist who would stand for parliament in 1907 as women's suffrage candidate, Russell wrote to his fiancée Alys in 1894 and argued that, for the "race" to survive, "the vast majority of women must be mothers."6 Indeed, women should spend the first ten years of their marriages bearing and raising children.7 One of Russell's biographers notes that only when the octogenarian Russell married his fourth wife in 1952 did he find "complete marital contentment."8 Although he spent a great deal of his life pursuing women, Russell believed that marriages were empty shells when they were barren:

Love is what gives intrinsic value to a marriage, and, like art and thought, it is one of the supreme things which make human life worth preserving. …

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