Science & Technology

Eugenics Rides a Time Machine

H.G. Wells' outline of genocide


Eugenics—the discredited "science" that justified customizing people to service the goals of the state by making them bigger, better, whiter, you name it—is back. In fact, it's playing at a multiplex near you in the form of the latest version of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine.

Wells' novel, first published in 1895, tells the story of a future Earth where humanity has evolved into two separate "races." Descendants of the working class have become subterranean, ape-like, night creatures who live by eating the decadent descendants of the old upper class. This evolutionary nightmare reflected Victorian ideas about race and hierarchy, and about the undesirable direction that evolution might take if the better sort of people didn't intervene. These concerns are in fact a notable and recurring aspect of Victorian literature. Charles Kingsley's 1862-63 children's novel, The Water-Babies, for example, features a race that is free to "DoAsYouLike"; it devolves into apes. Kingsley's tale merges Thomas Carlyle's Gospel of Obedience with a version of evolutionary biology of the day.

Eugenics as a science has dared not speak its name since the Holocaust, and contemporary readers and viewers may not recognize a eugenics tract when they see one. But the purpose of The Time Machine was clear in its time, which was also the heyday of eugenics. Here, for example, is Irving Fisher, the great economist, giving his 1912 presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association: "The Nordic race will… vanish or lose its dominance if, in fact, the whole human race does not sink so low as to become the prey, as H. G. Wells images, of some less degenerate animal!"

Wells plays a particularly interesting role in the eugenics movement. In 1904 he discussed a survey paper by Francis Galton, co-founder of eugenics. Galton had concerned himself mainly with "positive eugenics," proposing for instance that the marriage of college professors, supposedly the best of the race, be subsidized. But this was feeble stuff for Wells, who urged the adoption of a negative breeding policy. "I believe," he wrote, "that now and always the conscious selection of the best for reproduction will be impossible; that to propose it is to display a fundamental misunderstanding of what individuality implies. The way of nature has always been to slay the hindmost, and there is still no other way, unless we can prevent those who would become the hindmost being born. It is in the sterilization of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding, that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies."

Wells' crude notions of racial hierarchy were overt. Here is what he had to say about the black/white intermarriage: "The mating of two quite healthy persons may result in disease. I am told it does so in the case of interbreeding of healthy white men and healthy black women about the Tanganyka region; the half-breed children are ugly, sickly, and rarely live." It is a signature of the deepest racism of this period that blacks and whites were considered to be a species apart so that their marriage was no more productive than that of a horse and donkey.

Wells was nothing if not energetic. Late in his life, his discussion with Joseph Stalin (scroll down) about the good society was published with comments by G. B. Shaw, J. M. Keynes and others. Unlike Stalin, who trusted that the Party would bring progress, Wells believed in the Scientific Elite. "Now," he told Stalin in 1934, "there is a superabundance of technical intellectuals, and their mentality has changed very sharply. The skilled man, who would formerly never listen to revolutionary talk, is now greatly interested in it. Recently I was dining with the Royal Society, our great English scientific society. The President's speech was a speech for social planning and scientific control. To-day, the man at the head of the Royal Society holds revolutionary views, and insists on the scientific reorganisation of human society."

The new movie version of The Time Machine may be an improvement on Wells. The novel's main character, simply called the Time Traveler, goes from Victorian London to a distant future. He was a member of the technological elite who pursued knowledge for its own sake. In the new movie, the character is much better realized, with a name and a history. In the novel, the generating mechanism for the bifurcation of the human race is unrestrained industrialization; in the new film, it is an eco-disaster generated when greedy capitalists blow up the moon. Most interesting of all, the separate evolution into predators and prey in the new version is the result of the decision of a de facto eugenics committee.

In fact, the movie does something that seems rather truer to the eugenics message than the book. In the book, the Traveler eventually decides to return to the present. Since the two new "races" of the future are both subhuman, what is to keep him? And, since the apish night people are sufficiently slow to be terrified of fire, his return is accomplished with relatively few deaths. In the movie, the Traveler wishes to stay and he employs his superior technology to exterminate the night people. Because the night people are parasites, their extermination is justified.

As economist Deirdre McCloskey has conjectured, the experience of "negative eugenics" in the Holocaust (exterminating those who do not serve the state's goals) has proven to be no firewall against an evil idea. Here, for example, is an extraordinary defense of the idea, one that appeared in London's Telegraph on March 10. "Eugenics," wrote A.N. Wilson, "was simply the notion that the useful and intelligent classes should be allowed, indeed encouraged, to breed, and the murderous morons, who are never going to contribute anything except misery to themselves and others should be discouraged."

Victorian critics of markets had a wide range of parasites—the Jewish vampire, Irish and Jamaican cannibals, and the cant-spouting evangelical economist among them. The Telegraph is concerned with "hooligans." The Nazis were concerned with Jews. The contemporary critics of globalism who defend the acts of 9/11 carry on this tradition with a vocabulary of their own. If it is justifiable to exterminate parasites, is it a far step to justify the extermination of someone labeled "parasite"?