Magazine article The Spectator

The Bottom Line

Magazine article The Spectator

The Bottom Line

Article excerpt

Measuring women's buttocks with a sextant in the spirit of scientific inquiry sounds a bit like a dodgy dentist asking his female patients to remove their clothes while he examines their teeth. And they fell for it? we hear ourselves asking. No doubt the Victorian founder of eugenics, Sir Francis Galton, really did wish to discover something fascinatingly scientific about the female posterior but one can't help wondering.

Galton, according to an amusing programme on Radio Four last weekend, Darwin's Clever Cousin (Saturday), possessed a mind of insatiable curiosity. The presenter, Professor Steve Jones, described him as a polymath. He not only mapped what is now Namibia but drew up a beauty map of Britain, scoring the local women on a scale of attractive to repulsive. Aberdeen fared badly, it seems. He also invented the first pair of prescription goggles for divers and introduced fingerprinting to detective work. He came from a wealthy family and was able to dabble in many things, regarding himself as a Victorian gentleman amateur.

It is for his championing of eugenics that he is best remembered, a utopian who believed in the creation of a race of intelligent people through selective breeding. Perhaps that was why he was peering at women's buttocks, dreaming of the perfect female behind and how to eradicate the less pleasing ones. Although eugenics was later taken up by the Nazis, the programme reminded us how astonishingly fashionable it was among British and European intellectuals earlier this century. Professor John Maynard Smith of Sussex University said it was all the rage when he began studying biology, `Eugenics was a religion of the intellectual middle classes.'

Those appalling boobies, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Stalin's apologists, embraced eugenics with enthusiasm and the socialist H.G. Wells was a fan too. Jones quoted from the latter's 1902 collection of essays, Anticipations: `And how will the new republic treat inferior races? Those swarms of black and brown and dirty white and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency. Well, the world is a world not a charitable institution and I take it they will have to go . . . It is their portion to die out and disappear.' Galton himself was just as clear about it: 'I cannot doubt that our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children that is now allowed to undesirable classes. …

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