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The Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton and the Paradoxes of Eugenics



This article discusses G. K. Chesterton’s criticism of eugenic programmes and rationalities in his essay "Eugenics and other Evils", originally published in 1922. The first part of the paper presents Chesterton’s analysis of central eugenic arguments, whose inner contradictions and lack of logical consistency he examines from both a humorous and a clear-sighted perspective. Chesterton is additionally interested in the social driving forces and political beneficiaries of eugenic programmes, and argues that they were mainly used to control the workers and the poor. In the second part, I show that Chesterton’s critical analysis of eugenic practices at the beginning of the 20th century contains important insights that can be fruitfully harnessed for the current debate on the social impact of genetic and reproductive technologies. The last part of the paper highlights some important continuities and breaks between eugenics in the past and current practices in reproductive medicine and human genetics.
Acta historiae medicinae stomatologiae pharmaciae medicinae veterinariae
Editor in chief
Prof. dr Nikola SAMARDŽIĆ
Prof. dr Nikola Samardžić, Faculty of
Philosophy, University of Belgrade
Prof. dr Vedrana Rašić-Milić, Faculty
of Medicine, University of Belgrade
Doc. dr Milica Bajčetić, Faculty of
Medicine, University of Belgrade
Prof. dr Siniša Mišić, Faculty of
Philosophy, University of Belgrade
Prof. dr Mirjana Roter-Blagojević,
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Doc. dr Zoran Ćosić, Novi Pazar State
Doc. dr Olivera Vuković, Faculty of
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As. dr Dragan Ilić, Faculty of
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ISSN 0352-7840 = Acta historiae medicinae,
stomatologiae, pharmaciae, medicinae veterinariae
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Angelina Milosavljević–Ault, From Precept to Regulation of Renaissance
Household: Leon Battista Albertis “Della Famiglia And Anonymous
Ordine Et O cij De Casa De Lo Illustrissimo Signor Duca D’ Urbino” 8
Ana–Maria Gruia, Bezoar Use in Early Modern Transylvania 18
Miloš Đorđević, Sanitary Policy of Habsburg Monarchy and
Organization of Paraćin Quarantine in 18th Century 29
Nenad Ninković, Goran Vasin, Microunits Taban, Sentanreja
and Pomaz as a Paradigm of Fighting Plague Epidemic 1738–1739 39
omas Lemke, e Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton
and the Paradoxes of Eugenics 50
Erna Kurbegović, Eugenics in Canada: a Historiographical Survey 63
Dejan Zec, Inquiries on Homosexuals in Serbia During the
Second World War 74
Uputstvo za autore 96
Instruction for Authors 100
Acta hist. med. stom. pharm. med. vet. / 2016 / 35 / 1 / 50–62
Review article
UDC: 613.94”19”
omas Lemke
Faculty of Social Sciences, Goethe-University
eodor-W.-Adorno-Platz 6, Campus-Westend – PEG-Building Room 3 G 027
60323 Frankfurt am Main, Germany
“ e old tyrants invoked the past; the new tyrants will invoke the future” [1]
Abstract:  is article discusses G. K. Chestertons criticism of eugenic programmes
and rationalities in his essay Eugenics and other Evils, originally published in 1922.
e rst part of the paper presents Chesterton’s analysis of central eugenic arguments,
whose inner contradictions and lack of logical consistency he examines from both a
humorous and a clear-sighted perceptive. Chesterton is additionally interested in the
social driving forces and political bene ciaries of eugenic programmes, and argues
that they were mainly used to control the workers and the poor. In the second part, I
show that Chesterton’s critical analysis of eugenic practices at the beginning of the 20th
century contains important insights that can be fruitfully harnessed for the current
debate on the social impact of genetic and reproductive technologies.  e last prat of
the paper highlights some important continuities and breaks between eugenics in the
past and current practices in reproductive medicine and human genetics.
Key words: eugenics, 20th century, reproductive medicine, human genetics
Non MeSH: G. K. Chesterton
At the beginning of the 20th century, the idea of steering and rationalising hu-
man reproduction was met with great enthusiasm both inside and outside of science.
e question of eugenics understood as a “science which deals with all in uences
that improve the inborn qualities of a race” [2] dominated the intellectual and
academic debate and shaped the emerging discipline of genetics.  e appeal of these
* e following considerationsare presented in more detail in my preface to the German translation of
Eugenics and other Evils. I would like to thank Alan Connor and Franziska von Verschuer, who helped
me with the work on the manuscript, and Gerard Holden, who copyedited the text.
Lemke T.,  e Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton and the Paradoxes of Eugenics
ideas and ideals extended far beyond Europe and North America. A er the  rst In-
ternational Eugenics Congress was held in London in 1912, professional associations
and magazines subscribing to the dissemination and practical application of eugenic
thinking were founded in more and more countries. Genetic theories were popular-
ised at fairs and exhibitions, and in Britain and the US articles on eugenic questions
regularly appeared in the daily press [3].
Against the backdrop of this historical boom, G.K. Chesterton published his
essay Eugenics and other Evils[4].  is essay marks the conclusion of two decades
of Chesterton’s critical engagement with eugenic theories and practices. Chesterton
was a contemporary witness to the increasing acceptance of eugenic thinking that
reached its peak in the 1920s.1Hardly anyone analysed the logical contradictions of
eugenic programmes and their social consequences as bluntly and shrewdly as Ches-
terton. In his view, eugenics threatened both freedom and democracy. He saw it as
an integral part of a more general social trend to disenfranchise people in favour
of a dictatorship of state-medical experts that would eventually lead to a regime of
oppression, in which individuals would be monitored and controlled right down to
their daily lives and most intimate decisions. Chesterton therefore understood eu-
genics to be an element and e ect of a “modern craze for scienti c o cialism and
strict social organization” [4].
In this article, I discuss Chesterton’s now entirely forgotten criticism of eugenic
programmes and rationalities.  e emphasis is initially on his analysis of central
eugenic arguments, whose inner contradictions and lack of logical consistency he ex-
amines from both a humorous and a clear-sighted perceptive. Chesterton is addition-
ally interested in the social driving forces and political bene ciaries of eugenic pro-
grammes, and argues that they were mainly used to control the workers and the poor.
In the second part, I show that his critical analysis of eugenic practices at the begin-
ning of the 20th century contains important insights that can be fruitfully harnessed
for the current debate on the social impact of genetic and reproductive technologies.
e third part highlights some important continuities and breaks between eugenics
in the past and current practices in reproductive medicine and human genetics.
G.K. Chesterton is known  rst and foremost as the author of the Father Brown
stories, in which a clergyman solves unusual criminal cases through a combination
of empathy, wit and logic. His work is, however, in no way limited to this popular
literary  gure. Chesterton was one of the most proli c and versatile writers of the
rst half of the 20th century. When he died in 1936 at the age of 62, he le behind
1 Chesterton apparently completed a large part of the manuscript of Eugenics and other Evils before
the First World War [4] (see 1987a: 294). As early as 1901, Chesterton vehemently rejected in a book
review proposals for the "improvement" of the population through birth control [3, 5]. A bibliogra-
phy of papers published in 1924 already contains thousands of entries [6].
Acta hist. med. stom. pharm. med. vet. / 2016 / 35 / 1 / 50–62
an extensive oeuvre that, in addition to some poems and plays, included numerous
novels, biographies and essays, many of which were a great success with the public.
Remarkably, this was not the case with his book Eugenics and other Evils, pub-
lished nearly a century ago.  e book met with little positive response, even though,
or especially because Chesterton is one of the few intellectuals who explicitly turned
against eugenic programmes and social common sense. But the essay is more than an
objection to the zeitgeist of the time in this slim volume Chesterton presents noth-
ing less than an anatomy of eugenics. He dissects its premises and astutely analyses
its inner tensions and paradoxes.
At the centre of the essay is Chesterton’s opposition to one of the most signi -
cant eugenic laws in the United Kingdom: the Mental De ciency Act, which came
into force on 1 April 1914. In his examination of the law, Chesterton addresses an
issue that concerns him in many of his works: how societies de ne insanity and how
they treat lunaticsas they were called at the time. e inexact de nition enshrined
in law and the extension of the category of madness, coupled with the facilitation of
incarceration are, for him, totally unacceptable and unbearable. For Chesterton, the
Mental De ciency Act embodies the domination of medical experts together with
political elites. He sees “a medical tyranny” looming that turns the state into a “mad-
house” [4]. If the de nition of insanity is not limited and determined more clearly,
it will result in “[bringing] all human life under the Lunacy Laws” [4]. Chesterton
succinctly elaborates the paradox of this endeavour: eugenics attempts to eradicate
feeble-mindedness by declaring everyone to be feebleminded as a matter of princi-
ple; there is no longer any boundary between normality and pathology, and eugenic
rationality is limitless [4] (cf. ibid.: 315).
Chesterton’s rejection of the guiding principle of a “scienti c civilization” [7]is
known from his earlier essays. In Eugenics and other Evils, he relates this criticism of
the tyranny of medical and scienti c experts to issues of reproduction and sexuality.
Chesterton refutes the eugenic premise, according to which it is possible and neces-
sary to distinguish between di erent valuable forms of human life. He sees the basis
of this concept in the entanglement of scienti c authority with state power, a con-
nection that paradigmatically he sees embodied in the Prussian state, long before the
rise of National Socialism and its implementation of racial hygiene objectives [7]. For
Chesterton, by contrast, marriage and the desire to have children are fundamentally
a private matter.  ey are a matter only for those involved, not for doctors or politi-
cians; marital unions between people should be self-selected and free, and not be
judged and monitored from outside.
In Eugenics and other Evils, Chesterton presents a di erent interpretation in
his criticism of a medical-state expertocracy than is contained in his earlier works.
He now sees eugenics as the “control of the few over the marriage and unmarriage
of the many” [7]; it is not only part of a general social trend toward oppression and
disenfranchisement, but also an instrument and e ect of bourgeois class rule. In this
perspective, the Mental De ciency Act is not just a “feeble-minded bill” [7] because
Lemke T.,  e Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton and the Paradoxes of Eugenics
it de nes the category of feeble-mindedness and idiocy so vaguely that, in principle,
everyone can be covered by it; it is primarily a law that is de facto directed against a
speci c group: the poor and the marginalised.
Chesterton’s assessment captures the reality of British society at the beginning
of the 20th century: distinct class hatred was characteristic of British eugenics. In
particular, paupers and the proletariat, whose o spring were o en seen as de cient
or degenerate, were targeted. At the end of the 19thcentury, 90% of the inmates of
psychiatric hospitals were poor, a situation that remained unchanged until the mid-
1920s.  e Mental De ciency Act was prepared by a commission headed by Winston
Churchill, and was intended as a continuation and further development of Victorian
legislation on internment.  e theory of hereditary degeneration and the rhetoric of
social Darwinism were also re ected in the commission’s report, which provided the
justi cation and basis for the adoption of the law.  e report declared the “ rst prin-
ciple” to protect those who “cannot take part in the struggle for life” [8]. is “protec-
tion” consisted of interning social “losers” classi ed as “imbeciles” and “idiots” in
special facilities to prevent them from reproducing. In her study on the history of the
eugenics movement in the United Kingdom, historian Pauline Mazumbar therefore
arrives at the assessment that, in fact, the law was directed against members of the
lower classes [9] (see Mazumdar 1992: 258).
Chesterton vehemently opposed the biologisation of social problems expressed
in the law. He viewed eugenics as an inadmissible transfer of categories derived from
evolutionary theory to society in order to legitimise and secure capitalist rule. Ac-
cording to this perspective, only those who have successfully competed in the social
struggle for existence can be regarded as  t and healthy. Chesterton  rmly opposes
these assumptions and assertions, arguing that the poor cannot per se be held re-
sponsible for something that is clearly a de ciency of capitalism; for him, the social
situation of the poor has nothing to do with their biological constitution.  ey are
not a de nable and uniform “race, but victims of quite speci c social decisions:
“ ere are people of every physical and mental type of every sort of health and breed-
ing, in a single back street.  ey have nothing in common but the wrong we do to
them.” [4] In Chesterton’s view, the poor are exploited to make the rich even richer.
If the children of the poor are less knowledgeable than the rich, this is not because of
the heritability of intelligence but because their parents have less money for food, and
they themselves have less time to study because of their long working days. In order
to disguise their exploitative intentions as Chesterton addressed his accusation to
capitalists they used eugenic laws “to get the grip of the governing classes on to
the unmanageable output of poor people” [4] (Chesterton 1987a: 388).  e eugeni-
cists’ credo was the expression of a world turned upside down: instead of solving the
problem by redistributing wealth and thus halting the decline, the poor should stop
Acta hist. med. stom. pharm. med. vet. / 2016 / 35 / 1 / 50–62
producing more mouths than they can feed and work harder.2 Chesterton accuses
the social elites of attempting to conceal their  rst failed experiment with an even
crueller second one [4]. Capitalists immunise themselves against criticism by treating
all those who criticise the system as sick: “ ey are apparently ready to arrest all the
opponents of their system as mad, merely because the system was maddening.” [4]3
So in Eugenics and other Evils, a new theme emerges in Chesterton’s analysis
and critique of scienti c and medical authority. While he interpreted the social de -
nition of mental illness and the treatment of the “feeble-minded” in his earlier writ-
ings as a universal control mechanism to which all members of society are equally
subject, here they are conceived as an instrument of class rule [8].4
Chesterton’s essay helps to dispel three misguided perceptions that persist even
today in the scienti c and intellectual debate on eugenics:  rstly, that it is a preju-
diced and ideology-led pseudoscience, secondly, that it is driven primarily by state
actors, and thirdly, that it is mainly characterised by the use of violent or compulsory
As for the suspicion of ideology, Chesterton rejects eugenic thinking not only
because he considers it to be a “false theory” [4] or a misguided scientism; he criti-
cises eugenics even more strongly because it is deemed to be scienti cally correct and
appropriate and to represent the state of contemporary knowledge. So the object of
his criticism is not so much the lack or absence of scienti c knowledge, but rather
an excess of scienti c and medical authority. Chesterton points out that, with few
exceptions, eugenic thought pervades the entire scienti c and intellectual elite. He
knew many followers of eugenic thinking personally, such as George Bernard Shaw
and H.G. Wells, and conducted a lively intellectual exchange with them. Chesterton
emphasises the interpretatory  exibility and “ambiguity” [4] of eugenics and the fact
that eugenic ideas are followed by very di erent social groups and political parties
[13, 14, 15].
Chesterton’s booklet also promises relief in terms of the frequent  xation on
the state in the analysis of eugenic programmes and strategies. His reasoning makes
is "solution proposal" already appeared in the classical political economy at the end of the 18th
and the beginning of the 19th century, in the works of Joseph Townsend and  omas Malthus. In
his famous book on the law of population, Malthus determined unequivocally "that when the wages
of labour will not maintain a family, it is an incontrovertible sign that their king and country do not
want more subjects, or at least that they cannot support them; that if they marry in this case, so far
from ful lling a duty to society, they are throwing a useless burden on it" [10]
3 Ironically, Chesterton’s diagnosis is con rmed by the reception of the book.  e EugenicsReviewcom-
mented the essay in the following words: “ e only interest in this book is pathological. It is a revela-
tion of the ineptitute to which ignorance and blind prejudice may reduce an intelligent man.” [11]
4 Historian Edwin Black's book on the history of eugenics in the US [12] already incorporates in its
title Chesterton's idea (as well is its wording) that eugenic measures are directed primarily against
social minorities and the poor [4].
Lemke T.,  e Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton and the Paradoxes of Eugenics
it clear that it is not only the state or some kind of state-medical complex that is
responsible for the historical development and social acceptance of eugenics. Ulti-
mately, according to his theory, eugenics serves to obfuscate and safeguard capitalist
domination. For all his dislike of sociology and sociologists who frequently sup-
ported eugenic projects and ideas, particularly in Britain and the US,5 Chesterton’s
reasoning here is basically sociological. He seeks and  nds the social driving forces
“behind” or “under” the eugenic movement. He analyses these especially in the sec-
ond part of his essay, which is entitled “ e real aim. In brief, Chesterton comes to
the conclusion that capitalism and the social distortions and problems it brings about
form the material basis for the emergence of eugenic programmes. In simpler terms:
“at root the Eugenist is the Employer” [4]. To paraphrase the famous dictum of Max
Horkheimer, one could say: Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should
also remain silent about eugenics.6
However, Chesterton’s critique of capitalism should not be understood as ad-
vocacy of the socialist alternative; on the contrary, he is far more concerned about
showing that socialism does not represent an alternative model [4]. Chesterton was
as critical of socialism as of capitalism [1, 17].7In his opinion, both consider humans
to be predictable andcalculable and pursue the idea of improving them in terms of
societal objectives. Eugenic ideas and practices were not limited to Western countries
or liberal capitalist societies. A er the successful October Revolution, the Soviet Un-
ion pressed ahead with the project of socialist eugenics, and many British socialists
also agreed with the eugenic ideals that Chesterton dealt with in detail [18, 19, 20,
Chesterton’s analysis reveals the deep dimensions of a political rationality that
both social formations have in common. In his analysis, he at times comes very close
to what the French philosopher Michel Foucault dubbed “biopolitics” in the 1970s.
With this term, Foucault describes the break in the history of political thinking and
action: “the entry of phenomena peculiar to the life of the human species in the order
of knowledge and power, into the sphere of political techniques” [22]. He postulates
that, in the 18th century, a new form of power arises that has two “poles of devel-
opment” [22], disciplining individuals and regulating the population. According to
Foucault, sexuality and its control play a prominent role here, resulting from its posi-
tion as a “pivot” [22] between both types of power. Sexuality represents a physical be-
haviour that is subject to normative expectations and open for disciplinary measures;
at the same time, it is subject to population policy measures due to its importance
5 One of the most important articles by Francis Galton on the issue of eugenics, for example, was  rst
published in a renowned sociological journal [2] (Galton 1904).
6 e original quotation reads: "Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain
silent about fascism." [16] (Horkheimer 1988: 308-9)
7 Chesterton's economic model was Distributism, a kind of third way between capitalism and social-
ism in which the ownership of the means of production is very uniformly distributed in society and
is neither concentrated in the hands of the capitalists nor centralised in the state.
Acta hist. med. stom. pharm. med. vet. / 2016 / 35 / 1 / 50–62
for reproduction. In this way, it links the micro level of the physical body with the
macro level of the population. Foucault points out that life and its preservation and
improvement has become a central area of responsibility of the state, and that it in u-
ences current political action and thinking extensively [22].
Long before Foucault, Chesterton observes a new constellation in which issues
of health and disease, the body and sexuality are under the threat of regulation and
control by the state. He claims that a regime of oppression and paternalism is tak-
ing root to the extent that, on the basis of medical and scienti c knowledge, state
authorities are taking an interest in fertility and mortality, health standards, and the
productivity of individuals, and are trying to control and improve these things.  e
consequence is a dictatorship in the name of physical and mental health and the
prevention of possible dangers and risks. In Chestertons words: “It is a principle
whereby the deepest things of  esh and spirit must have the most direct relation
with the dictatorship of the State. [...] Police administration will begin at home, for
all citizens will be like convicts.” [4] He very pointedly describes the consequences of
this creeping expropriation of the body: “ us our civilization will  nd itself in an
interesting situation, not without humour; in which the citizen is silently supposed to
wield imperial powers over the ends of the earth, but has admittedly no power over
his own body and soul at all.” [4]8
Chesterton points out that the resources used by eugenics collide with the ob-
jective of the higher evolution of humanity:
“ e one objection to scienti c marriage which is worthy of  nal attention
is simply that such a thing could only be imposed on unthinkable slaves and
cowards. I do not know whether the scienti c marriage-mongers are right (as
they say) or wrong (as Mr. Wells says) in saying that medical supervision would
produce strong and healthy men. I am only certain that if it did, the  rst act of
the strong and healthy men would be to smash the medical supervision.” [7]
is brings us to the third point. Chesterton elaborates the violence and con-
straints of the eugenics discourse in detail. He denounces the “law of the jungle” ex-
pressed in social Darwinist rationales, and makes it clear who has to bear the cost of
visions of eugenic improvement. His analysis does not end at this point, however. He
is not so much interested in eugenics as a coercive apparatus, but rather in the “new
morality” [4] it encourages. It is not the violent or compulsory mechanisms eugenics
puts forward that are crucial, but rather its reliance on altered moral principles and
societal norms that make the use of violence and coercion appear legitimate in the
8 ere are also striking similarities between Chesterton's analysis of social provision and treatment
of madness and Foucault's reasoning on the "history of insanity" [23, 8]. However, there are also
key di erences between Chesterton and Foucault,one of the main ones being their assessments of
Christianity. While Foucault examines Christianity from the perspective of a "pastoral power", which
develops precisely those elements of a bio-political "government of men" that are the object of his
analysis and criticism [24], for Chesterton the Christian faith is the antithesis and antipode of eu-
genic rationality.
Lemke T.,  e Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton and the Paradoxes of Eugenics
rst place.  is new discourse makes the concern for the quality of future children an
object of moral unease and turns health orientation and disease prevention into pri-
mary social virtues.  e moral reference point for eugenics is the life that does not yet
exist [4], the unborn life.  e concern for real people with determinable diseases is
replaced by the fear of possible future illnesses, physical and mental as well as moral
and social, and their “carriers”. And it is precisely this process of abstraction that al-
lows eugenicists to present themselves as the guardians of a new morality, to develop
a sense of moral superiority, and to immunise themselves against criticism [4].
Chesterton works out two important aspects of eugenic thinking at this point:
the production of fear and the orientation towards the future. He interprets eugenics
as an expression of the richs fear of the poor a fear that is to a certain extent shi ed
and de ected into the future as a fear of degeneration and general social decline.
Eugenicists emphasise the future orientation at the expense of a relationship to the
present.  ey institutionalise a new morality, according to which the more immedi-
ate and present life is the lower and more animal-like it becomes. Conversely, the
more life is oriented to the future, the more superior, human, rational and civilised
it appears [25].
It is precisely this moral value judgement that Chesterton passionately contra-
dicts. His criticism of eugenics also strikes at the heart of the logic of prevention:
“ e mistake of all that medical talk lies in the very fact that it connects
the idea of health with the idea of care. What has health to do with care? Health
has to do with carelessness. […] For all the fundamental functions of a healthy
man ought emphatically to be performed with pleasure and for pleasure; they
emphatically ought not to be performed with precaution or for precaution. A
man ought to eat because he has a good appetite to satisfy, and emphatically
not because he has a body to sustain. A man ought to take exercise not because
he is too fat, but because he loves foils or horses or high mountains, and loves
them for their own sake. And a man ought to marry because he has fallen in
love, and emphatically not because the world requires to be populated.  e
food will really renovate his tissues as long as he is not thinking about his
tissues.  e exercise will really get him into training so long as he is think-
ing about something else. And the marriage will really stand some chance of
producing a generous-blooded generation if it had its origin in its own natural
and generous excitement.” [7]
One could summarise Chesterton by saying that the tyranny of the future pre-
vails through the permanent reference to possibilities, chances and risks. Paradoxi-
cally, Chesterton’s lucid analysis and critique of prevention is itself informed by a
preventive logic: it is a matter of clarifying the consequences of this thinking with
regard to marriage and family in order to halt and reverse the problematic trend. His
committed polemic is intended to mobilise opposition to eugenic rationality by shed-
ding light on the foreseeable consequences: “It is o en essential to resist a tyranny
before it exists.” [4]
Acta hist. med. stom. pharm. med. vet. / 2016 / 35 / 1 / 50–62
Eugenics and other Evils appeared in 1922, the year in which Chesterton con-
verted to the Catholic Church a er years of warming to the religion. His criticism of
eugenics was fed not least by the belief that it constitutes a civil religion that de nes
new catalogues of virtues and moral obligations, and within which it is a social “sin
not to orient ones activities towards eugenic goals whereby the notion of original
sin takes on a whole new meaning. Chesterton therefore perceived eugenics as a “new
kind of State Church” [4] and as a threat to the Christian faith [4].  is is presumably
why Chesterton’s criticism of eugenics was so comprehensive and profound, because
he understood it as a mode of guiding and steering individuals rivalling Christianity
that, instead of being oriented towards otherworldly salvation, held out the prospect
of healing worldly su ering at least for the next generation(s).9
Because Chesterton’s Christian faith is an important reference point for his
criticism of eugenics [4], it is worth stressing its unusual form. His faith is character-
ised on the one hand by a strong sensitivity to social injustice and poverty, and on the
other by an unsentimental rationalism. For Chesterton there is a harmonious match
between religious commandments and the laws of reason. His arguments make no
appeal to the authority of Scripture, but are distinguished by a strikingly clear logic
that allows no intellectual contradiction and which wonderfully combinesstylistic
elegance with a simple and accessible language[28, 29, 30].10
Chesterton was not only an author who was able to accurately reveal the inter-
nal tensions and paradoxes of eugenics like no other; he o en advocated con icting
positions himself. He was one of the  ercest opponents of British imperialism and a
staunch patriot, he hated nationalist thinking, but was also a supporter of Mussolini.
Chesterton criticised the hate campaigns against Jews in Nazi Germany, but some-
times used anti-Semitic arguments himself [32, 33, 29]. As sharply and clearly as he
presented his arguments, his political-intellectual location remains strangely vague
and di use.
However, this does not alter the ongoing relevance of his insights even and
especially when, today, “eugenics” no longer denotes a scienti c programme and a
political utopia but rather stands for a misguided ideology and a social dystopia. In
9 e concept of a “genetic pastorate” is developed in more detail in Kollek and Lemke [26] and Rose
[27]. On eugenics as a functional equivalent for religion, see [20].
10 It would therefore surely be wrong to ascribe Chesterton's criticism of eugenics solely to his Chris-
tian faith. In addition, the Catholic Church can by no means be considered a haven for anti-eugeni-
cists in the  rst half of the 20th century. Heredity issues, for example, were not only openly discussed
in Catholic circles in Germany, but were widely accepted in the  rst decades of the new century.
Catholics suggested, for instance, isolating "those a icted by hereditary diseases" in homes, or is-
suing health certi cates for marriages. Catholicism of that period thus broke with the premise of a
fundamental equality of all men before God, and adopted the notion of di erent intrinsic values of
human life [31]
Lemke T.,  e Tyranny of the Future: G.K. Chesterton and the Paradoxes of Eugenics
addition to referring to the “racial politics” of the National Socialist State, the criti-
cal and negative relationship to historical eugenics which dominates today is closely
related to  ndings in human genetics and innovations in reproductive technologies
since the 1970s. While Chesterton was still able to write that we do not know what is
hereditary and what is non-hereditary [4], this “veil of genetic ignorance” [34] has at
least been li ed to some extent. Until the 1960s, couples with a familial risk wishing
to have children could only be advised in genetic counselling to forgo biological chil-
dren.  is changed in the 1970s with the establishment of prenatal diagnosis and the
introduction of new reproductive techniques, such as in vitro fertilisation.  e avail-
ability of prenatal care and the ever-increasing reliability of genetic testing now made
it possible to determine with a higher probabilitywhether a couple’s o spring would
be a ected by a genetic disorder or disease. At the same time, the success of the wom-
en’s movement and the growing criticism of the authoritarian-patriarchal tendencies
of the welfare state resulted in a substantial withdrawal of the state from reproductive
issues and a (partial) legalisation of abortion in many Western countries.
e interaction of scienti c-technological processes and political-regulatory
changes led to a signi cant shi in strategies for managing and controlling human
reproduction. It can hardly be overlooked that, in recent decades, a new prevention
regime has come into being that tends to replace social forms of control with self-
regulatory mechanisms. Even though current human genetic practices are not sim-
ply the continuation or extension of eugenic projects of the past, there are certainly
more historical continuities than many observers assume. One important di erence,
however, is that biology today unlike the eugenics of the  rst half of the 20th cen-
tury is no longer considered to be immutable and persistent. It no longer implies
a matter of fate and a sphere beyond social control but, on the contrary, refers to a
privileged  eld of intervention. In this respect, the body has ceased to be a solid and
stable unit and is conceived as open to strategies and techniques of modi cation,
adaptation, transformation and optimisation[35]. Genetic risks, for instance, appear
to be easier to measure and control than social, biographical or environmental risks.
is leads to a peculiar reversal: while institutional and social structures are largely
considered unchangeable and “natural”, the biological nature of individuals appears
to be open to modulation and intervention [36].
e fact that in life sciences and medicine today, strictly deterministic concepts
and mono-causal models are no longer prevalent and the emphasis is more on dis-
positions, susceptibilities, and risks represents an important di erence to previous
eugenic practice. However, this di erence may be just the condition for the extension
and generalisation of eugenic ambitions.  e scienti c and medical focus on moni-
toring genetic risks creates the conditions for a shi of eugenic practices that are no
longer only targeted againstmarginalised or stigmatised individuals and collectives,
but against each and every individual. In the light of risk semantics, every pregnancy
tends to be a “high-risk pregnancy” or “tentative pregnancy” [37], where the decision
to conceive and carry the embryo to full term becomes increasingly conditional on
Acta hist. med. stom. pharm. med. vet. / 2016 / 35 / 1 / 50–62
proof of “freedom from genetic damage. It is, however, becoming more and more
di cult to provide such proof, as the category of “damage” continues to detach itself
from a speci c describable a iction or an empirically observable symptom of dis-
ease; “damage” can mean the “wrong” gender, or “below average” intelligence [38,
e problem of eugenics has therefore not been „settled” with the improved
facilities for the diagnosis and monitoring of individuals’ genetic composition; on the
contrary, it has become inescapable. To the extent that, in today’s society, reproduc-
tion is increasingly subject to individual self-determination and freedom of choice,
society is inevitably becoming eugenic:
„ e genetic manipulability of humans confuses the spheres of freedom
and necessity.  e freedom to manipulate nature, providing copies or design-
ing human beings following genetic blue prints produces at the same time the
necessity to ascribe even our non-manipulated existence to a decision.” [42]
Whether we like it or not,even the seemingly „non-eugenic” decision not to
subject oneself to prenatal diagnostics and practise selective abortion becomes a eu-
genic one, since it is also based on a (normative) decision: the decision that it is better
not to decide.  e selection of a „natural” genetic make-up for an individual is merely
one option and „selection criterion” among others.
Contemporary eugenics is therefore universal and unavoidable. It is of second-
ary importance whether we wish to hold onto the word, or consider it unsuitable to
appropriately describe the present. It is important to recognise that the eugenicists
Chesterton rails against in his book would undoubtedly have welcomed the numer-
ous means to control reproduction that are available today, and which they could at
best only dream of at the time.
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Submitted: 12. 9. 2016.
Reviewed: 23. 9. 2016.
Accepted: 7. 11. 2016.
... In this project, scientific and technological developments play essential roles that give ultimate solutions to longstanding political dilemmas and debates. These visions are nothing new, despite what media hype tries to convince us; they are part of very classic and very modern thinking about enhancement, including eugenic visions of enhanced Anthropos (Gudding, 1996;Lemke, 2000Lemke, , 2017Meloni, 2019;Morrison, 2015). There is also a huge forum and plethora of discussions and reflections of utopian thinking on human body enhancement and eugenics (Adams, 2000;Bloomfield, 1949;Meloni, 2016). ...
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