Sunday, March 01, 2009

Sunday Essay - Race, Eugenics and the views of J H Curle

My last post introduced J H Curle’s The Face of the Earth. In this post I want to look at some of Mr Curle’s views because I think that they provide very interesting insights into a world that was coming to an end. The First World War overthrew the old imperial order; the Second World War completed its destruction.

J H Curle was in his sixties when he wrote The Face of the Earth. By then, he had become a deeply pessimistic man. Things had not worked out in the way he had expected. He feared the worst. This, combined with his extensive travels, made him a quite acute if sometimes misguided observer.

The second half of the nineteenth century, the first half of the twentieth century, was a rapidly changing world marked by swift technological, social and economic change, imperial competition and the rise of nationalism and the nation state. It was also a world marked by an avid fascination with the concepts of race, ethnicity and nationality.

The publication and popularisation of the views of Charles Darwin on evolution and the origin of species threw an intellectual time bomb into this world extending well beyond science. If evolution through competition and natural selection applied in the natural world, then what did this mean for the human race and its institutions?

One outcome was what would come to be called Social Darwinism, sets of beliefs centred on the idea that competition among all individuals, groups, nations, or ideas drove social and economic evolution in human societies.

The new views appealed especially to the secular modernists. Those from the old order with its emphasis on faith and hierarchy necessarily found Social Darwinism less attractive, even confronting.

In 1883 Sir Thomas Dalton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, expounded the concept of Eugenics, controlled breeding of humans in order to achieve desirable traits in future generations.

The Wikipedia article on eugenics notes that Galton built upon Darwin's ideas, suggesting that the mechanisms of natural selection were potentially thwarted by human civilization. He reasoned that, since many human societies sought to protect the underprivileged and weak, those societies were at odds with the natural selection responsible for extinction of the weakest; and only by changing these social policies could society be saved from a "reversion towards mediocrity," a phrase he first coined in statistics and which later changed to the now common "regression towards the mean."

In 1904 Dalton clarified his definition of eugenics as:

the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage
The concepts built into eugenics were not all new. The Greek philosopher Plato believed human reproduction should be monitored and controlled by the state to ensure best outcomes, while the Spartans (among others) practiced selective infanticide intended to maintain the strength of the Spartan people. However, Dalton’s statistical and scientific approach provided a formalised structure.

The ideas and concepts associated with eugenics appealed to many leading secular modernist writers and reformers; supporters included H G Wells, Bernard Shaw, Emile Zola, Sydney Webb and John Maynard Keynes, as well as J H Curle. Driven by the American Charles Davenport, eugenics became an international movement. From the early 1900s, a number of Governments adopted eugenics policies starting in the United States. These included things such as compulsory sterilisation of mental patients.

Reading J H Curle today, his constant comments on race and racial attributes seem simply racist. They are far more complex than that.

J H Curle was born in 1870. He was, I think, very much a modernist, absorbing the ideas of Social Darwinism including eugenics. He believed that there was a hierarchy of races or people, that different peoples had different attributes. In his travels and subsequent writings, Curle applied his sometimes acute powers of observation to delineate what he saw as the differences between peoples.

By the time of the publication of The Face of the Earth in 1937, the world had changed around J H Curle. In some ways he had become a very conservative man, out of sympathy with the times, railing against things such as the use of cosmetics, the excesses of the Labor movement and the excesses of democracy.

There is an air of desperation in this book.

At the time Mr Curle was born, the British Empire was at its peak. It seemed natural to assume that the white race was by process of natural selection destined to maintain a dominant position. However, Mr Curle’s Social Darwinist views did not allow him to believe that any nation, people or race had an automatic God-given superiority. All three could rise or fall.

I also think it worth noting that Mr Curle had no belief in the “purity” of any race or people. He was not opposed to racial mixing so long as the mix raised the “quality” of the race or people.

In this context, Mr Curle supported the Nazi eugenics policy as it related to things such as sterilisation. However, he did not believe that there was such a thing as a German or Nordic race. He thought the Nazi expulsion of German Jews was unwise because to his mind the admixture of Jewish and German blood had done much to strengthen the creativity and strength of the German people. He still hoped that Germany would learn this and re-admit the Jews.

The reason for the desperation in Mr Curle’s writing is simple. By 1937 he had come to believe that in the absence of fundamental change, both the Empire and the current pre-dominance of the white race were doomed.

In economic terms, the world trend towards protectionism had destroyed the free trade that had given Britain and the Empire its wealth. Great Britain was still wealthy because of its enormous overseas investments, but the mines, factories and railways throughout the world were threatened by rising nationalism and were likely to be lost.

In political terms, the rise of states that had made a state religion of nationalism – Japan, Russia, Italy and Germany – posed a potential threat to world peace. Further, the increasing spread of local nationalism and of self-government within the Empire and beyond created fragmentation and division. In India, for example, Mr Curle forecast that the grant of democratic self-government to Federated India must inevitably lead to the subdivision of British India on religious lines.

In military terms, Great Britain had failed to spend enough money on defence, so that its capacity to protect its Empire was reduced. Importantly, the rise of air power had destroyed the invincibility of the navy that had been the bulwark of Empire. Great Britain had yet to recognise this.

In racial terms, the British people had deteriorated. Mr Curle’s views here reflect his conservatism – he saw this deterioration linked to continuing assumptions about superiority, to increasing softness, to the rise of the Labor Movement.

Some of Mr Curle’s most scathing writing is addressed to what he sees as the unjustified racism of some of the working and middle class English throughout the Empire. He compares them very unfavourably with other peoples and races.

And who, in all this, are the races or peoples of the future?

It seems from The Face of the Earth that in terms of people at a purely personal level, Mr Curle is especially enamored of Chinese/Malay (this includes what is now Indonesia) or Chinese/European mixtures.

However, in the hierarchy of races or peoples driven by Mr Curle’s Social Darwinism, the future lies with the Chinese.

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