Steve Fuller, Auguste Chair in Social Epistemology, University of Warwick This is history of science at its best – a search for a moment of decision in the past that set in motion a train of events that constitute a now taken-for-granted way of organizing knowledge. However, this is not a search for origins in order to legitimise the present. On the contrary, Chris Renwick’s aim is to reveal the openness of the original situation, especially since we are entering a period – a century after the one recounted in these pages – when a similar decision may be facing us. In broadest terms, the decision is to do with negotiating the difference between the social and natural sciences – more specifically, the disciplinary boundary between sociology and biology. At stake is nothing less is what it means to be ‘human’, especially in a sense that requires a special body of knowledge somewhat set apart from the study of living things more generally.
Whatever decision one takes about where and how to draw the line between sociology and biology, some decision must (and had to) be taken. In the early years of the 21st century, as in the early years of the 20th century, there are strong intellectual and political currents calling for the social sciences to be fully subsumed under the natural sciences. In both cases, Darwin’s name is talismanic. In terms of the candidates for the first UK sociology chair, which provides the centrepiece for Renwick’s book, the person I have in mind here is Patrick Geddes, not Francis Galton. We nowadays think of Geddes mainly as a visionary urban and regional planner whose designs remain in evidence throughout the world from Mumbai to Tel Aviv. However, his inclination to treat human beings as animal populations adapted (or not) to their environments anticipate recent concerns that bring together evolutionary psychology, ecology, human geography and the sociology of space and mobility. These movements are amongst those today that would welcome a more porous boundary between the natural and social sciences, even at the cost of ontologically levelling the distinction between the human and non-human. But my guess is that as the current century wears on and advances in biotechnology throw open new possibilities for intervention in the human condition, Geddes will prove not nearly as interesting as Galton, the founder of eugenics, whose own anthropocentric orientation cannot be denied.
Although the main benefactors of the London School of Economics (LSE), Sidney and Beatrice Webb, were clearly sympathetic to eugenics, a de facto chair in the field – held by Galton’s follower Karl Pearson -- had already been established at the University of London’s flagship college. This bit of institutional politics probably did more to make Galton or another eugenicist a non-starter for the first sociology chair than any antipathy to the eugenic orientation itself. It is worth keeping in mind that even at the dawn of the 20th century neither biology nor sociology was a clearly defined field anywhere. ‘Biology’, a coinage of the first modern evolutionist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, challenged the classical way of thinking about ‘nature’ as consisting of animals, vegetables and minerals as three equal modes of natural being. Instead Lamarck drew a sharp ontological distinction between living and non-living matter, effectively establishing the disciplinary boundary between biology and geology within the field that had been recognised from Aristotle to Linnaeus as ‘natural history’. Fifty years later, Darwin was already taking this distinction for granted, as he tentatively posited the ‘primordial soup’ as part of an atheistic account of the transition from non-life to life. But Galton did not see his science of eugenics as an application of biology to human affairs. Rather, as Renwick makes clear, he saw it as an extension of political economy.
19th century political economy was a quasi-normative discipline that treated everything as capital that could be inherited, accumulated, enhanced and transmitted. In this context, eugenics made good on the bio-capital implications of the legal idea of ‘inheritance’, which can not only be taxed but also, so to speak, bred and farmed. Political economy had come into its own as the ‘science of capitalism’ once it junked the 18th century French physiocratic idea that land – as proxy for nature – was the source of all value and focused instead on a conception of value as the conversion rate between forms of capital. At that point, political economy became committed to indefinite growth through ever more efficient substitutions of natural by artificial means of production, resulting in ever more productive forms of capital. In this context, eugenics may be understood as extending the idea of increased agricultural productivity to what Darwin’s French translator, Clémence Royer, called puériculture, which takes the idea of ‘raising children’ to a new degree of literalness. When the political economy backdrop to Galton’s thinking is kept in view, then the route from late 19th century eugenics to early 21st century transhumanism is clear.
A key moment in this development was The Principles of Political Economy (1817) by David Ricardo, an English stockbroker who converted from Judaism to Unitarianism, the dissenting Christian sect dedicated to human self-empowerment that was associated with the radical chemist Joseph Priestley. Whereas Ricardo’s older contemporary, Thomas Malthus (who himself was schooled in Priestley’s curriculum at Warrington Academy), still believed that nature places an outer limit to productive growth, Ricardo abandoned that assumption, recognising that even human labour would gradually lose its value through the introduction of more efficient mechanical substitutes. In this respect, attributing to Ricardo the ‘labour theory of value’ is a bit misleading, since for him the value of labour lies in the amount of it that is needed to make a commodity, regardless of who or what delivers it. Ricardo’s ‘labour’ is not a constant but a variable – one normatively spun in the direction of ‘least effort’. Before Ricardo, the labour theory of value (e.g. in Aquinas, Locke) had been tied to natural law theory, according to which human labour possesses absolute value, the source of the idea of ‘just wage’. The quantity of labour was not abstracted from the labourer, as Ricardo had proposed to do. However, once Ricardo got his way, the door was opened to make all sorts of previously unseemly comparisons: e.g. one well-paid worker who dutifully works on schedule versus many poorly paid workers whose erratic performance collectively produces more.
While Ricardo himself appeared to believe (as many neo-liberals do today) that this situation provides an incentive for workers to acquire smarter skill-sets, if not commit themselves to ‘lifelong learning’, to keep up with the market, Karl Marx observed that Ricardian vision of capitalism seemed ‘inexorable’ only if the laws of political economy followed the path of least resistance to the capitalist employer. Ricardo’s science of capitalism was in reality a science for capitalism. (Ricardo would try to regain the moral high ground by saying that Marx underestimates humanity’s capacity for individual self-transformation.) To be sure, Marx was rhetorically effective in mobilising workers to organize themselves and speak with one voice, but it was at a cost. He effectively reverted to the labour theory of value associated with the natural law tradition, even though his own historical materialist metaphysical framework did not support it. Marx clearly did not want to turn back the clock to pre-capitalist days, since the efficiency savings encouraged by the capitalist mode of production was a necessary condition for a Communist paradise. Nevertheless, unlike Ricardo, Marx shared the natural law theorists’ commitment to the integrity of the paradigmatically ‘normal’ human body, the legacy of which remains in the pejorative tinge attached to ‘exploitation’. However, in practice, successful self-styled ‘socialist’ governments – be they in Scandinavia, Germany or Russia – operated in a more Ricardian spirit than Marx would have wished, one favourable to eugenics.
Galton’s relevance to this debate is complex. While Galton questioned Ricardo’s faith that individuals have the wherewithal to acquire new traits in response to changing market conditions, he refused to concede the finality of Darwin’s Malthusian tendency to view these market shifts as expressions of natural selection that effectively decide who is fit to live. At the same time, Galton found Marx’s counter-strategy to rely on an outmoded, even fetishised view of human labour (of the sort promoted by the medieval guilds) that failed to distinguish socially desirable traits from those who happen to bear them at a given time – a distinction Ricardo had clearly recognised. Galton’s own strategy was to take the long view and try to persuade people that society’s desirable traits are not normally well distributed across living individuals. Nevertheless, this suboptimal situation may be remedied by proactive policies designed to encourage and discourage births of certain sorts.
Precedent for this move could be found in Auguste Comte’s mentor, Count Henri de Saint-Simon, the so-called utopian socialist who subsumed the human body under the category of ‘property’, the rational administration of which requires collective ownership and expert management. In that case, personal autonomy should be seen as a politically licensed franchise whereby individuals understand their bodies as akin to plots of land in what might be called the ‘genetic commons’, subject to all the rights and duties implied by the analogy. (An open question: Does this ‘genetic commons’ correspond to a racialised nation-state or a global human species?) The ultimate goal in this bio-capital utopia is maximum productivity – making the most out of one’s inheritance. To be sure, ‘irrational’ (aka traditional) socio-economic barriers are likely to prevent some individuals – especially of poor backgrounds – from achieving this goal. And while wealth redistribution and egalitarian legislation might well address much of this problem in the short term, a more comprehensive long-term solution requires improving the capital stock of humanity itself. So goes the logic that leads to eugenics.
This last point is worth stressing for two reasons. One is contemporary: When faced with the shortfalls from the redistributivist and egalitarian policies that Western social democracies have pursued since the 1960s if not earlier, it is nowadays common for left-leaning, biologically minded thinkers to declare – as Darwin himself might -- that there are definite limits to how much people can be changed. Indeed, in his 1999 manifesto, A Darwinian Left, Peter Singer went so far as to advise his fellow leftists to ditch Marx for Darwin. Whatever else one might wish to say about eugenics, it did not give up so easily – or more precisely, it had a more consistent faith in the import of new knowledge (aka ‘basic research’) for future policy-making. The other reason to elucidate the logic behind eugenics is to dispel a pervasive historical stereotype. Because eugenics continues to be closely associated with the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, Galton’s science is often seen as aiming for policy outcomes much more quickly than could (or would) be achieved by normal democratic processes. However, in the British soil where eugenics first took root, its most outspoken advocates – Sidney and Beatrice Webb – identified themselves as ‘Fabian socialists’, in the spirit of Fabius, the Roman general who refused to act impulsively against Hannibal in the Punic Wars but nevertheless won in the end. In other words, eugenics was supposed to provide a blueprint for basic research in the social sciences with a rather long time horizon, comparable to the experimental turn that had enabled the natural sciences to break with the natural history tradition over the previous two centuries.
Recall that the people normally taken to be the founding fathers of the social sciences (excluding psychology) believed that we either already knew enough about the human condition to now focus on its political implications or, if our basic knowledge was still lacking, we would proceed more systematically but in largely the comparative-historical mode of traditional humanistic scholarship. The former category included Comte, Mill and Spencer, whilst the latter included Durkheim and Weber, with Marx believing in a bit of both. Galton’s eugenics was arguably the first discipline to offer a clear statement of a basic research programme for the social sciences that had something like the character and dimensions in terms of which funding agencies think about such matters today – that is, a strong theoretical framework operationalised in terms of clear methodological strictures that enabled the collection and analysis of a wide range of original data. Put this way, it should come as no surprise that Otto Neurath, the sociological founder of logical positivism, was Galton’s German translator. Indeed, eugenics would not have been such an easy target for censure, had it not set its own scientific standards so high – something for which the field has yet to be given due credit.
Moreover, as Renwick shows in his current work (the early version of which appears in a recent issue of the journal History of Political Economy), the epistemic significance of eugenics was not lost on the father of the British welfare state, the economist William Beveridge. In 1930,as director of the LSE, Beveridge hired the experimental biologist Lancelot Hogben to establish a department of ‘social biology’ that would provide a ‘natural basis for social science’. But once again, it would be misleading to see in this project the sort of biological imperialism that, say, characterised E.O. Wilson’s ‘sociobiology’ of the 1970s. On the contrary, Renwick shows that Beveridge and Hogben saw the uncritical extension of animal-based studies to human populations as profoundly unscientific, making for capricious policy. As Hogben wittily put it, social biology needs to be less about ‘the sterilisation of the unfit’ than ‘the sterilisation of the instruments of research before operating on the body politic’. In his brief and unhappy tenure at the LSE, Hogben managed to launch a sophisticated survey of 4000 twins of school age in the London area to examine in some detail the relationship between heredity, environment and intelligence – with an eye to checking the validity of psychological testing. And while a failure in his own terms, Hogben nevertheless did train David Glass, who went on to become the doyen of British quantitative sociologists in the postwar era. As a passing shot of this era, it is interesting to note that the main difficulty for Beveridge in persuading his fellow LSE economists – not least Friedrich Hayek – of the need for social biology was simply convincing them that the social sciences needed ‘basic research’ at all.
The appointment of L.T. Hobhouse to the LSE’s first sociology chair, effectively making him the founder of sociology in the UK, may have been the strategically best appointment in 1907. Without denying this basic judgement, Renwick puts the original contenders on equal footing, as they might have appeared back then, hinting at the alternative histories of social science that would have resulted. In particular, he normalises the prospect of a eugenics-based social science, which remained very much alive into the 1930s, despite the bad politics that had already come to be associated with it. Today, with rapidly advancing frontiers in biotechnology that are wreaking havoc on the traditional disciplinary structures of both the social and the biological sciences, eugenics agendas are being advanced in everything but name. This book provides a clear and sober route to repatriating these discussions in the history of the social sciences, where they belong.