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Demography and Degeneration

Demography and Degeneration: Eugenics and the Declining Birthrate in Twentieth-Century Britain

Richard A. Soloway
Copyright Date: 1995
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Demography and Degeneration
    Book Description:

    Richard Soloway offers a compelling and authoritative study of the relationship of the eugenics movement to the dramatic decline in the birthrate and family size in twentieth-century Britain. Working in a tradition of hereditarian determinism which held fast to the premise that "like tends to beget like," eugenicists developed and promoted a theory of biosocial engineering through selective reproduction. Soloway shows that the appeal of eugenics to the middle and upper classes of British society was closely linked to recurring concerns about the relentless drop in fertility and the rapid spread of birth control practices from the 1870s to World War II.Demography and Degenerationconsiders how differing scientific and pseudoscientific theories of biological inheritance became popularized and enmeshed in the prolonged, often contentious national debate about "race suicide" and "the dwindling family." Demographic statistics demonstrated that birthrates were declining among the better-educated, most successful classes while they remained high for the poorest, least-educated portion of the population. For many people steeped in the ideas of social Darwinism, eugenicist theories made this decline all the more alarming: they feared that falling birthrates among the "better" classes signfied a racial decline and degeneration that might prevent Britain from successfully negotiating the myriad competive challenges facing the nation in the twentieth century.Although the organized eugenics movement remained small and elitist throughout most of its history, this study demonstrates how pervasive eugenic assumptions were in the middle and upper reaches of British society, at least until World War II. It also traces the important role of eugenics in the emergence of the modern family planning movement and the formulation of population policies in the interwar years.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-1610-0
    Subjects: History, Population Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface to the Paperback Edition
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. xvii-xxviii)

    Demography and Degenerationrepresents the merging of several of my research interests associated with the great changes that have occurred during the past hundred years in European fertility in general and British fertility in particular. It is also the result of a wider historical preoccupation with how various influential and, for the most part, educated groups in society perceive, interpret, and respond to profound social change.

    I first explored this topic inPrelates and People(1969), a study of ecclesiastical social thought in England in the first half of the nineteenth century. There I was concerned with how the leadership of...

  6. One The Turn of the Century
    (pp. 1-17)

    The waning years of the Victorian era and the approach of a new age aroused a great deal of commentary on the recent past and anxious speculation about the future. Whatever their oracular proclivities, most contemporary observers were proud that within their lifetimes, as well as those of their parents and grandparents, their small island nation had been transformed into an extraordinarily wealthy, powerful, and populous empire. If, increasingly, some critics questioned the social, physical, and moral costs of Great Britain’s dynamic achievements, most admired them and the inventive, energetic, and vital people who had brought them about. To the...

  7. Two Eugenics and the New Population Question
    (pp. 18-37)

    The rise of the eugenics movement in Great Britain closely paralleled the emergence of the new population question which, unlike the old, focused not upon the Malthusian consequences of unchecked fertility but upon the implications of its differential decline. Arthur Newsholme and T. H. C. Stevenson recognized in 1906 that the surge of interest in eugenics was in large measure a response to fears that the “less fit” were reproducing themselves in greater proportions than ever before. Although the two medical statisticians were by no means persuaded this was so, or that fitness was a monopoly of class, they acknowledged...

  8. Three Deterioration and Decline
    (pp. 38-59)

    Edwardian anxieties about the declining birthrate were exacerbated by more generalized fears that the race was somehow physically and mentally deteriorating. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, numerous advocates of sanitary improvements and public health reforms had warned that England was “on the verge of a great calamity” unless steps were taken to reverse the physical deterioration of the lower classes. Descriptions of the appalling squalor and desperate poverty endured by millions of people in the industrial towns of the country were reinforced during the 1850s by reports of the high rejection rates of military recruits during the Crimean...

  9. Four Class and the Religion of Race Culture
    (pp. 60-85)

    Comparing the eugenics movement in Britain and the United States, Daniel Kevles has observed how in each country specific social, cultural, and economic anxieties determined what was proclaimed “in the name of eugenics.”¹ In the case of the United States, tortured race relations and extensive alien immigration were the principal sources of eugenic worry; in Britain, where long-established ethnic and racial homogeneity prevailed, the relative contribution of indigenous classes to the population was the predominant concern. The influx of eastern European immigrants, mainly Jews, between 1880 and 1914 stirred up some ethnocentric, eugenicist fears about race adulteration, but the numbers...

  10. Five Eugenics and Neo-Malthusianism
    (pp. 86-109)

    The rise of the eugenics and birth control movements were parallel developments of the late Victorian and Edwardian years. Although Darwinism was not as central to the latter as it was to the former, supporters of both insisted that they were promoting policies of “rational selection” to compensate for the diminished effects of natural selection in the modern age. One of these effects was the persistence of a high rate of survival among people who in an earlier age would have seen their excessive numbers curtailed by disease and poverty. In the same vein, the two movements also shared a...

  11. Six Race-Motherhood
    (pp. 110-137)

    Perhaps nothing betrayed the Victorian bourgeois origins of the eugenics movement more than its idealization of the genetically precocious large family reared under the watchful guidance of the devoted “race mother.” The Eugenics Education Society itself was in some ways, like the Moral Education League and the National Council of Public Morals, a descendant of an earlier social purity crusade committed to the motto: “The Foundations of National Glory are set in the homes of the people. They will only remain unshaken while family life of our race is strong, simple and pure.”¹ The provisional council that drew up the...

  12. Seven The Dysgenics of War
    (pp. 138-162)

    The Great War was a eugenics nightmare. It allegedly destroyed the finest physical, mental, and social stock in the country and seriously disrupted family life and selective reproduction. A hopeful surge in the marriage rate from 15.9 per 1,000 to 19.4 during the first year of the war was short lived, and the rate quickly retreated to a low of 13.8. If men and women were eager to marry while they still had the chance, they were not particularly concerned with posterity. The birthrate never rose at all but instead dropped precipitously from around 24 per 1,000 in 1910–14...

  13. Eight Eugenics and the Birth Control Movement, 1918–1930
    (pp. 163-192)

    The Eugenics Education Society emerged from the war with its small numbers depleted and its direction uncertain. Its select membership had fallen to nearly 300 from a prewar high of 714—a figure not reached again until I93O.¹ Despite tenuous financial resources and reduced supplies, the organization had managed to publish a truncatedEugenics Reviewthroughout the war, sustained by gifts and subscriptions as well as Major Darwin’s personal generosity. Although in the slump of 1920–21 it had to dispense temporarily with its salaried staff, the society was rescued by a series of private donations from wealthy supporters and...

  14. Nine Reform Eugenics, Population Research, and Family Planning, 1930–1939
    (pp. 193-225)

    The majority of British birth control proponents in the interwar years believed 1930 was the turning point in overcoming the major barriers to the dissemination of birth control information. Not only did the government concede that public welfare centers could provide contraceptive information, and a number of physicians and some of their professional organizations indicate that they were prepared to furnish the medical guidance the Ministry of Health required, but that other bastion of resistance, the Church of England, also relented. The Lambeth Conference essentially reversed its earlier condemnation of birth control by conceding “in those cases where there is...

  15. Ten Race Suicide Revisited: The Menace of Underpopulation
    (pp. 226-258)

    Eugenic anxieties about differential fertility and race degeneration altered considerably in the interwar years. The insistence of apologists that eugenics was concerned not with socioeconomic classes but with biological stocks in all sectors of society was a significant if not entirely convincing concession to political as well as scientific realities. Uncertainty about what constituted hereditary fitness and unfitness, coupled with the dramatic narrowing of the differing birthrates within the social and occupational hierarchy, forced a greater caution on those who, on the basis of prewar experience, were inclined to forecast the rate at which deterioration and decay would occur. But...

  16. Eleven Family Planning and the Fear of Population Decline
    (pp. 259-282)

    If the Eugenics Society’s equivocal decision to support the expanding birth control movement in the interwar years was an important first step to assure its voice would be heard in the formulation of a “racially-sound” population policy, its response to the fear of population decline completed the convergence of eugenics with the emerging field of demography. As in the case of birth control, it was the society’s wealth and C. P. Blacker’s determination to use it to foster the inclusion of eugenic considerations in the development of social and economic planning that governed the organization’s response to the depopulation scare....

  17. Twelve Feminism and Family Allowances
    (pp. 283-311)

    Although the women’s movement had not been prominent in the struggle for birth control before World War I, in the public’s mind the two were closely connected. Not a few observers recalled that the Bradlaugh-Besant trial and the emergence of neo-Malthusianism in the late Victorian period paralleled the beginning of concerted efforts on the part of feminists to expand their educational and economic opportunities and, more important, get the vote. Even if the women’s organizations pursuing these objectives deliberately avoided confusing them with the highly contentious issue of family limitation, their aspirations were nevertheless frequently interpreted as a “revolt against...

  18. Thirteen World War II and the Population Question
    (pp. 312-335)

    For more than two years after the outbreak of war in September 1939, the population question was pushed into the background of political, economic, and social concern. Not until 1942, when the Battle of Britain was over, America had entered the conflict, and there was reason to believe that the country would survive and eventually win the war, were the unresolved demographic issues of the 1930s revived. With a future, however uncertain, to look forward to, arguments over the birthrate, net reproduction, age distribution, and, of course, the quality of the population again accented discussions of the demographic needs of...

  19. Fourteen From Baby Boom to Birth Dearth
    (pp. 336-362)

    The prolonged deliberations of the Royal Commission on Population, which reported in 1949, and the detailed fertility surveys made on its behalf, resulted in the most comprehensive review of British reproductive behavior since theFertility of Marriage Censustaken in I9II.¹ The commission’s official inquiries, the last of which were not published until 1954, were seized upon by eugenicists as a long-awaited opportunity to achieve Gallon’s dream of scientifically improving “the inborn qualities of the race” so as to “raise the average quality of our nation to that of its better moiety.” In trying to refashion the Victorian founder of...

  20. Notes
    (pp. 363-406)
  21. Works Cited
    (pp. 407-424)
  22. Index
    (pp. 425-443)