Washing the national laundry in public: our eugenic heritage

November 6, 2009

Simplistic analysis sometimes looks at the horrors of Nazi eugenics before and during the Second World War and wonders how they could ever have come up with such evil. The sad truth is that the philosophical roots of Auschwitz include in no small measure the influence of British polymath Francis Galton.


Francis Galton coined the term "eugenics" in 1883

The first episode of Andrew Marr’s The Making of Modern Britain A New Dawn includes a very helpful section (from 14:02 to 16:38) discussing the origins of Galton’s thinking on eugenics and the influence that they had on prominent figures in England and abroad.

Set by Marr in the context of paranoia about the crumbling Empire and embarrassment at the difficulties experienced in the Boer War, Galton’s ideas about the role of breeding in development of human attributes received a warm reception from influential politicans and thinkers of his day. Allowing the less desirable members of society to breed freely, whilst at the same time “better” members of society were having smaller families, was seen to be diluting the genetic pedigree of the race.

Although in no sense a details description of Galton’s views, this short clip could be a useful introduction to the origins of eugenics for a class in philosophy, bioethics, or indeed several other disciplines.

A New Dawn (TRILT code: 0123695A) was first broadcast on BBC2 on 28th October 2009. It is available on iPlayer until 10pm on Wednesday 9th December (UK only).