Clare Hanson, Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-war Britain

Clare Hanson, Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-War Britain (New York: Routledge, 2013). 190pp. HB £85.00. ISBN 9780415806985.

Eugenics is frequently invoked in discussions of contemporary biomedicine and biotechnologies. Whether arguing that post-genomic biology provides opportunities for eugenics to re-emerge (as Troy Duster does), or that contemporary biopolitics is utterly dissimilar to the biopolitical strategies of eugenicists (Nikolas Rose’s position), the historical points of reference for such critics have tended to be the Nazis, or the eugenic programmes of the 1920s and 30s. The eugenic desire to improve the biological ‘quality’ of the population undoubtedly achieved its full realisation in the racial policies of the Third Reich. However, Clare Hanson’s engaging and valuable book Eugenics, Literature and Culture in Post-war Britain demonstrates that eugenic thought did not recede following the Second World War as has often been assumed, but had a profound and sustained impact on British culture after 1945. Her study provides a much needed spotlight on the more recent history of eugenic thinking which has led to the forms of biopower we know today.

Hanson traces how the chief architects of post-war reconstruction and the welfare state, including William Beveridge, Richard Titmuss and C.P. Blacker, promoted a variety of social interventions with the specific aim of improving human development. She examines the impact of eugenic ideas on social policy, sociology, medicine and genetic science, and considers how eugenic thinking was explored in the popular science and social science publications of the period, as well as in a range of literary, popular and science fictions. In the introduction Hanson argues convincingly that 'It is important to examine eugenics from this point of view precisely because eugenics is not (despite Galton’s initial ambitions) a science, but a social and cultural movement that has derived much of its power from its dissemination across a range of discursive fields' (10). The way in which eugenic ideas circulated across disciplines is reflected in Hanson’s approach, as she moves fluidly between diverse fields and texts in each of her five chapters.

The first chapter considers the influence of eugenics on the meritocratic ideal which emerged following the war. Hanson shows how the educational reforms of the 1944 Education Act, which divided secondary schools into grammar, technical and modern, were driven more by a concern with social efficiency than social justice - that is, by the desire to increase national talent whilst consolidating the natural intelligence believed to be concentrated in the higher social classes (16). However, the upward social mobility which this system enabled led to a range of anxieties about cross-class marriage and the role of women, issues which, Hanson reveals in a perceptive analysis, were explored by writers including Michael Young, Raymond Williams, John Osborne and Margaret Drabble. Chapter two addresses the ‘mentally defective’ who were the focus of considerable concern amongst social planners. Hanson examines best-selling paperbacks on the subject by leading psychiatrists and sociologists and explores fictional responses to the ‘problem family’, which was characterised as mentally subnormal, criminal and promiscuous, and seen to present a danger in terms of the possibility of cross-breeding with ‘normal’ individuals (43).

Chapter three examines the continuing intertwinement of eugenics with genetic science, and opens with a fascinating account of the Lysenko affair. Hanson traces how Russian geneticist Lysenko’s theory that genetic inheritance was not fixed but that characteristics could be altered by environmental change (a theory clearly influenced by Lamarck) intersected productively with the Marxist social ideals of the Soviet state and was condemned, on that basis, by the British scientists Julian Huxley and Cyril Darlington (71-72). The direction of genetic science in Britain was shaped by this cold war position-taking, Hanson argues, as a gene-centric, deterministic view of (human) development came to dominate British genetic research, sidelining work on ‘soft inheritance’ which examined the complicated interplay between genes and the environment, and which has only recently begun to re-emerge in the science of epigenetics (75-76). In an astute and original reading, Hanson argues that John Wyndham’s fiction, often consigned to the category of ‘cosy catastrophe’, offers a complex critique of the opposed genetic objectives and eugenic ambitions of the West and Russia. Reading The Day of the Triffids as a dramatization of the Lysenko affair and the British response to it, Hanson then considers dysgenic pressures, the fear of genetic mutation and decay which Wyndham explores in The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids.

The way in which race continued to be defined as a biological concept by biologists and psychologists concerned with the effects of miscegenation in the context of West Indian immigration to Britain, is addressed in chapter four. Hanson explores how the arguments of geneticist Cyril Darlington about the genetic damage that miscegenation could cause, outlined in books aimed at the general reader such as The Facts of Life (1953), were taken up by the Eugenics Society which published the broadsheet West Indian Immigration shortly after the Notting Hill riots in 1958. The chapter also considers the targeting of West Indian and Asian immigrants by the Family Planning Association, which encouraged the prescription of the dangerous contraceptive Depo-Provera for black and Asian women in the 1970s. The discussion of how the drug acted as a means of population, rather than birth, control frames Hanson’s examination of Buchi Emecheta’s fiction and leads into the final chapter in which Hanson examines the global reach of the eugenics movement. Hanson makes a case study of the Indian eugenics movement in the context of international concern about the growing populations of ‘under-developed’ nations, showing how C.P. Blacker played a pivotal role in India’s sterilisation campaign of 1975-6. Offering an incisive reading of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children in this context, Hanson then examines Australia and the desire to populate the country with ‘British stock’ which informed Britain’s encouragement of emigration there.

Chapters four and five focus more on eugenic thought in the 1970s, following the general trajectory of the eugenics movement toward interventions amongst immigrant and non-white populations. There are fewer literary examples in these chapters, but what could seem like unevenness is rather a reflection of the fading away of this era of eugenic thinking. In a concise afterword, Hanson outlines how, at the end of the 1970s, the shift away from the welfare state and a concern with the population, toward a neo-liberal economics which focused on the individual, led to new modes of eugenic intervention in the form of reproductive technologies. Concluding with an overview of contemporary fictions which tackle the eugenic possibilities of these new technologies, Hanson’s study demonstrates that we need not go back to Huxley’s Brave New World for literary predecessors to such fiction. Instead there are multifarious engagements with eugenic thought in British literature from 1945-1979 which, thanks to Hanson’s important new book, have now been illuminated.

Josie Gill, University of Cambridge