He believed that ‘intelligence’ levels could be improved. Others, such as Francis
Galton, postulated that the (‘undeserving’) poor and the hereditarily ‘unfit’ would overwhelm the world resources (Malthus)
unless special measures were taken to encourage good breeding stock, ensuring the ‘survival of the fittest.’ In other words what came to
be known as social Darwinism but which had more to do with Spencer than Darwin. Galton
himself and many of those following in his footsteps revised their opinions when confronted with such consequences of their theories as positive eugenics,
the active, legal removal of ‘unworthy’ genetic material.
What had promoted the acceptability of such theories? Galton himself lived in a period of rapid industrialisation, the change from
a rural society to and urban-dominated one with all the resulting social upheavals (and evils) associated with that. Many of he rapidly expanding merchants
and industrialists needed cheap and abundant labour and objected to Poor
Law expenditure complaining about ‘taxing the industrious to support the indolent’. The scale of commitment was, in reality, quite low
and the concomitant fear of the poor and ‘criminal classes’, disproportionately large, as Charles Dickens portrayed often enough. That fear
is reflected not only in the way the poor are perceived, but the same standpoint can be observed in relation to colonial subjects.
Indeed, as far as visual images - drawing, painting then photos and later film - are concerned, the poor have always been ‘visited’ by
the affluent; mediated by the artist, photographer, filmmaker in the same manner as members
of subaltern cultures.
Thus optical ‘slumming’ was not only a means of awakening public conscience but was also a record of a visit to foreign,
exotic land. But the sheer size of the booty, the enormous numbers of photographs of the homeless, the rural poor, the picturesque hobos or the outright
alcoholic wrecks often meant that they cease to move us, victims of the law of diminishing returns as well.
Thus although eugenicist theories and anthropological perversions were never enshrined in formal laws in England, they continue(d) to
exert a strong influence on attitudes to social problems (the poor) in Europe and on the way imperial subjects were seen throughout the world. By the
end of the nineteenth century eugenics had found more fertile ground on the other side of the Atlantic, in the USA, though it was to be re-exported
to Germany from there with even more catastrophic results.
More about eugenics in the United States ›››
In one guise or another these pseudo-scientific theories are always present in complexly organised societies which emphasise individual
liberty, personal responsibility and competition. Their insistence on imputing behavioural and social characteristics to superficial hereditary factors
such as skin colour or their assertion that particular groups are innately inferior means that the groups so defined can be legally and/or socially excluded
from significant participation in social processes and power.