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For centuries, human hereditary improvement was a problem in social, not biological, engineering: how to persuade or coerce people into marrying to benefit the population as a whole. The obvious analogy was to agriculture and animal husbandry. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates says that only the best citizens would be allowed to mate, so that the population could be improved, just as dogs and chickens. Fourteen centuries later, Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton, called such a scheme ‘eugenics’, from the Greek for ‘well-born’ or ‘well-bred’. In 1865, in an article in Macmillan’s – a general-interest magazine where serious ideas found a wide audience – Galton indulged in a eugenic fantasy: ‘If a twentieth part of the cost and pains were spent in measures for the improvement of the human race that is spent on the improvement of the breed of horses and cattle, what a galaxy of genius might we not create!’

A galaxy of English genius, that is. Galton feared that the English race was degenerating, declining in both mental and physical ability. (It remains a common... see more