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Entry updated 6 March 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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Term denoting the modification and concentration of supposedly desirable human traits, and elimination of supposedly undesirable ones, by selective breeding programmes and/or the sterilization of the "unfit", a category from the outset almost invariably restricted to lower class men and women, the mentally ill (arbitrarily defined), "habitual" criminals, and non-whites. Inhabitants of and migrants from various late nineteenth-century European empires were also excluded from the ranks of the genetically healthy (see Imperialism). In hindsight, a underlying narrative dynamic seems manifest: that eugenic "solutions", which rarely seem to have been generated by those whom they will control, are normally imposed by those with power upon those without.

The word was coined in 1883 by the scientific polymath Sir Francis Galton, who attempted to formalize a "science of improving stock", with hints of enforcement typical of any breeding programme; and who also advocated "eugenic" marriages of young and supposedly able couples in order to generate "men [sic] of a high type". His example influenced the early work of Julian Huxley, as well as giving intellectual sanction to distasteful advocacies on the part of politicians like Winston Churchill and reformers like Marie Stopes (1880-1958), who suggested that the weak and/or the racially mixed should be purged.

But the general concept is much older – Galton had been arguing his case, using different language, since 1865 – and has been considered in sf and Proto SF since the earliest times. Tommaso Campanella's Civitas Solis ["The City of the Sun"] (1623), for instance, features eugenic breeding guided by astrology. Aldous Huxley's human castes in Brave New World (1932) are not purely eugenic creations, being also subject to chemical and psychological adaptation to their roles; Huxley's ideas here are clearly derived from J B S Haldane's speculations in Daedalus (1924), where the notion that ectogenesis could liberate Homo sapiens from the durance vile of biology was first promulgated. From the later twentieth century, eugenics in sf has generally been eclipsed by the very much more dramatic possibilities of direct Genetic Engineering (see also Uplift), though the moral issues involved have not dissipated.

Post-Galton representations of eugenic speculation, often negatively couched, and often directed towards Utopian or Dystopian societies, include Joseph Carne-Ross's Quintura: Its Singular People and Remarkable Customs (1886); Edward Payson Jackson's A Demigod: A Novel (1886); C Wicksteed Armstrong's The Yorl of the Northmen (1892) as by Charles Strongi'th'arm; Will N Harben's The Land of the Changing Sun (1894); Eugene Shade Bisbee's The Treasure of the Ice (1898); Alexander Craig's Ionia: Land of Wise Men and Fair Women (1898); Geo W Bell's Mr Oseba's Last Discovery (1904 New Zealand); Rose Macaulay's What Not: A Prophetic Comedy (1918); Charlotte Haldane's Man's World (1926); C E Jacomb's And A New Earth: A Romance (1926); Katharine Burdekin's The Rebel Passion (1929); David J Footman's The Yellow Rock (1929) – a Yellow Peril novel; Aelfrida Tillyard's Concrete: A Story of Two Hundred Years Hence (1930); and Leslie A Howard's The Magnificent Eugenic (1933). M P Shiel's "The S.S." (in Prince Zaleski, coll 1895) is couched as a detective problem in which an apparent epidemic of suicides is in fact a cull of the supposedly unfit by the sinisterly idealistic "Society of Sparta". A particular and prophetic focus on eugenics as it might be practised in Germany is central to Owen Gregory's Meccania, the Super State (1918) and Milo Hastings's City of Endless Night (June-November 1919 True Story as "Children of 'Kultur'"; rev 1920), though neither could anticipate the full horror of Nazi experimentation. Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972) sardonically takes the Nazi fervour for racial purity to a more or less logical extreme by doing away with natural breeding altogether, in favour of making Clones of perfect Aryan specimens.

In the Pulp magazines, David H Keller wrote several stories about quasi-blasphemous eugenic tampering with human form and nature, most notably "Stenographer's Hands" (Fall 1928 Amazing Stories Quarterly), about a eugenic experiment to breed the perfect typist, with reduced initiative and a wasted body but jolly capable hands. Larger-scale eugenic programmes are featured in E E Smith's Lensman series (the main sequence of which first appeared in Astounding between 1937 and 1948), in which members of what becomes the Kinnison clan are brought together to breed an ultimately incestuous family of Aryan Supermen destined to rule the galaxy for generations, Robert Heinlein's Methuselah's Children (July-September 1941 Astounding; rev 1958), whose "Howard Families" have successfully bred for long life and in at least one case – that of Lazarus Long – achieved seeming Immortality; the same author's Beyond This Horizon (April-May 1942 Astounding as by Anson MacDonald; 1948); Gordon R Dickson's Dorsai sequence – including the significantly titled The Genetic General (May-July 1959 Astounding as "Dorsai!"; cut 1960 dos; text restored vt Dorsai! 1976) – where humanity divides into "splinter" cultures which eugenically enhance particular traits, in particular those of the warrior, Scientist, mystic (with concomitant Psi Powers) and fanatical devotee of Religion; Frank Herbert's Dune (fixup 1965), with the female Bene Gesserit organization attempting to produce the perfect Messiah through long-term genetic manipulation; Larry Niven's Ringworld (1970), whose character Teela Brown is the end-product of an experiment in breeding for luck; and Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; much exp 1985), whose child hero is one of many attempts to breed a Superman of battle strategy.

Eugenics presumes some kind of ethically sanctionable improvement; its converse is dysgenics, where "wrong" – ie degenerate – choices of breeding partner (frequently with some implied racial bias; see Race in SF) lead to deterioration or Devolution of the species. H G Wells suggests such a development in The Time Machine (1895; rev 1895), with its hardening of human class divisions into the attractive but effete Eloi and brutish but capable Morlocks, neither of them whole human beings. A notorious Thought Experiment in dysgenics – implausible and essentially unscientific since intelligence does not have simple genetic roots – is "The Marching Morons" (April 1951 Galaxy) by C M Kornbluth, where a tiny minority of bright folk (whose sensible ancestors used contraception) wearily look after a vast population of dullards (whose dim ancestors did not). This notion is reprised in an episode of Kornbluth's and Frederik Pohl's Search the Sky (1954; rev by Pohl 1985). In Fantasy, the back-story of Piers Anthony's Xanth novel Castle Roogna (1979) features an insidious curse which over many generations has degraded the goblin species by causing dysgenic breeding choices. [DRL/BS]

further reading

see also: Mary E Bradley Lane; Overpopulation.


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