Leonard Darwin in the History of Eugenics

Leonard Darwin (1928) What is Eugenics?

What was the research and advocacy that took place by personnel associated with UCL and other London-based institutions? Su Cheng investigates Leonard Darwin’s (1928) What is Eugenics?

Part A: Investigating the Author

Two of the most valuable sources for investigating Leonard Darwin’s (Henceforth Darwin) life are Norberto Serpente’s (2016) and TM Berra’s (2019). Berra gives a useful broad overview of critical points in Darwin’s life from a dispassionate perspective. Serpente (2016) supplements this by providing a somewhat revisionist account of Darwin’s life, arguing his role in actively shaping anglophone eugenics culture was more significant and more involved than prior historical analyses have suggested; using correspondence between Darwin and fellow eugenicist Ronald Fisher, Serpente provides a thorough overview of Darwin’s life and work that has been invaluable to the present analysis.

As noted by Serpente (2016), Darwin was a leading figure in the British Eugenics movement. The eighth child of famous biologist Charles Darwin, Leonard turned to the cause of eugenics relatively late in life, when he was 61 (Berra, 2019). Darwin was notable amongst Charles Darwin’s sons to be the only of them without an education in the natural sciences. Educated in engineering, he spent much of his life in the army while also working as a photographer for the Royal Society. This locates Darwin–like his father and the rest of his family–within a specific, upper-class British milieu. Alongside this, it is notable that Darwin’s expertise in the fields that eugenics was nominally linked to — i.e., biology and social-psychology — was the interest of an amateur. Darwin devoted much of his spare time to forwarding the Eugenicist cause, placing particular interest in proto-eugenicist thinkers such as Malthus (Mazumdar, 2011). His interest was so sustained that he became the Chairman of the British Eugenics Society (formerly the Eugenics Education Society) from 1911-1928, and this is where he likely developed the ideas that formed the backbone of his What is Eugenics? (1928; henceforth “Eugenics”).

Despite this limited formal training in the fields which underpin eugenic thought, Darwin was unique amongst his siblings in that he had a distinct political and economic career. As noted by Tim Berra (2019), after Darwin left the military, he became MP for Lichfield, in the Midlands, from 1892-1895. Afterwards, he learnt economics and produced an ‘influential book, Bimetallism… on the relationship between gold and silver prices’ (Berra, 2019: n.p.). This varied and eclectic approach to interests and careers perhaps explains the extensive influence Darwin had upon British eugenics. Because Darwin was respected as a military man, a politician, and an economist, he possessed decent standing and influence for when he began to forward ideas surrounding eugenics. Likewise, Darwin’s location as a definite member of the English upper classes means that the class-based and racial dynamics of eugenicism would have been appealing to him (Stack, 2000). Because eugenics is a theory that wishes to manage and organise populations based on desirable and undesirable traits, it arguably requires a mindset and way of seeing the world that does not view what is desirable and undesirable as simply arbitrary or subjective. This is because eugenics is premised on the idea that desirable and undesirable traits can be derived and controlled in human populations through science and reason (Allen, 2014). Here, it should be noted that an upper-class social milieu is obsessed with symbols of nationalism, British exceptionalism, and the natural basis of class divisions (class is something inherited and defined by birthright) (Searle, 1979; Stone, 2001). Such a milieu would have likely provided Darwin with the ways of thinking that made the ideology of eugenics attractive to him.

As noted above, Darwin turned towards eugenics later in life, first publishing an article on Eugenics in 1912 (Darwin, 1912). However, Darwin did not find and develop his eugenicist ideas simply alone. As noted by Bennett (1983), much of these ideas were developed in tandem with his collaborator, Ronald Aylmer Fisher, with whom Darwin struck up an involved correspondence from 1915 onwards. Alongside this, Darwin was also very much influenced by thinkers who had come before, both his father and the geneticist Gregor Mendel (Serpente, 2016). These links are essential in the development of the ideas behind Darwin’s Eugenics, as Mendel’s work on genetics, since its revival in the early 20th century, was quickly seized upon by eugenicist thinkers who thought it gave a scientific basis to their theories (Garver and Garver, 1991). Darwin seemed somewhat fixated on Mendel and other thinkers close to his father, such as the preceding head of the British Eugenics Society, Francis Galton (Mazumdar, 2011). Much of Darwin’s correspondence with Fisher, for example, took the form of encouragement for Fisher to develop his work which attempted to ‘synthesi[se] between Mendelism and Darwinism’ (Serpente, 2016: 464). It was also during this correspondence with Fisher that Darwin developed his own ideas with eugenics, often creating them through involved debate with Fisher. This correspondence with Fisher, therefore, structured the development of Darwin’s work, and arguably powered the development of his ideas in texts on eugenics published prior to Darwin’s Eugenics. For example, only six years after beginning correspondence with Fisher, Darwin (1921) published the text Organic Evolution, which was his first full-length work to discuss eugenicist ideas. Then, five years later (two years before the publishing of Darwin’s Eugenics), Darwin (1926) published The Need for Eugenic Reform as well as ‘other…articles… in the Eugenics Review. This means that, though Darwin was not a natural scientist, he developed and constructed his ideas on eugenics very seriously in tandem with Fisher and a close examination of prior works in the natural sciences (Serpente, 2016). This, combined with his military, political, and economic career, helps to explain why his work–in particular the ideas on eugenics espoused in Darwin’s Eugenics — came to be so influential for British eugenicism.

Part B: Analysis of Leonard Darwin’s (1928) Eugenics

Now it is worth looking at Darwin’s Eugenics more closely. The primary goal of Darwin’s Eugenics is to explain and defend a concept of eugenics, which is defined as the project of improving ‘the breed of the race’ (Darwin, 1928: 20) by ‘increas[ing] superior stocks and decreas[ing] inferior strains’ of persons (Darwin, 1928: 24). Darwin’s Eugenicsbegins with a summary of the relevant scientific literature on natural selection. Darwin argues that humans are well aware of the benefits of breeding animals in order to enhance desirable qualities and get rid of undesirable qualities (Darwin, 1928: 1-10). However, he also notes that humans are comparatively less aware or invested in turning this form of natural selection by breeding to their own race. From this, Darwin defines eugenics as a collective project whereby certain desirable genetic traits are pursued, and undesirable traits are removed by such processes of natural selection (Darwin, 1928: 72). In order to support his argument that eugenics would be a benefit to society, he uses an argument from ‘common sense’ (Darwin, 1928: 26), claiming that it is self-evident that some traits are hereditary and beneficial because some schoolchildren are better at tasks than other schoolchildren. Darwin argues that ‘the criminal, the insane, the imbecile, the feeble in mind, the diseased at birth, the deformed, the deaf, [and] the blind’ are all prime examples of hereditary traits that should be removed from the human population (Darwin, 1928: 25). As for desirable traits, Darwin seems to find that those are harder to define, but still argues that they involve an observed proficiency and competence in whatever social role someone has.

If a person is ‘winning good wages by doing good work’, then they are the kinds of the person whose traits should be passed on (Darwin, 1928: 26). In terms of implementing the eugenics programme, Darwin recommends a range of measures from self-selected birth control, voluntary sterilisation, more planned marriages, and the introduction of financial incentives like ‘family allowances’ (Darwin, 1928: 88; 34-80).

Darwin (1928) makes a few clear conceptual slippages when making a case for eugenics. Firstly, he argues that eugenics is simply a process of applying natural selection to ‘the human race, in a somewhat similar manner’ (Darwin, 1928: 9), meaning selective breeding and natural selection are constantly conflated for rhetorical purposes. As noted by Diane Paul and James Moore (in Bashford and Levine, 2010), this slippage in part stems from the relative reluctance of Charles Darwin to discuss the question of “man” in his Origin of the Species (1859/1998), alongside his application of evolutionary theory to human breeding in Descent of Man (1871/2011), both of which have left the relationship of Darwinist natural biology to eugenics something of a contested question. Complicating matters further is Charles Darwin’s close relationship to arch-eugenicist Francis Galton, and his praise of Galton’s work on human breeding which formed a key intellectual strain of the anglophone eugenics movement; as Paul and Moore (2010) note, the elder Darwin felt flattered that Galton would think of his own family line as a product of successful passing of hereditary traits, which valorizes the Darwin families’ upper-class position and high social status as stemming from natural and immutable genetic attributes.

Contextualised in this way, it is clear that Darwin (1928) is drawing from and manipulating extant aspects of his own father’s legacy in conflating natural selection and selective (human) breeding in the way that he does. Nonetheless, it is still arguable that this conflation is an unjustified conceptual slippage because natural selection is not an instrumental process. There is no telos or end to natural selection where a specific desirable quality is striven for. Instead, the process is open-ended and based on the ever-changing aspects of an animal’s environment (Darwin, 1859/1998). This means the natural selection is different in kind from the selective breeding of animals by another (human) animal, as this latter form involves breeding in search of specific traits as conceived by a specific person. Selective breeding can only ever produce fitness that is for someone, rather than a general fitness for an environment.

To then argue that selective breeding of humans would make the race fitter, therefore entirely misunderstands the nature of natural selection–the entire reason that natural selection is successful in creating a fit population of animals is that it is not instrumental or teleological. It is not undertaken for a specific purpose or end by a conscious mind, so it can generate traits that are well-suited to environmental cues of which many people may not be consciously aware. Selective breeding, comparatively, does not enhance the general fitness of a breed to adapt to its environment; rather, it only enhances the extent to which said breed can be instrumentalised by the persons doing the breeding. This point is brushed upon by Daniel Kevles (1995), who notes that in 1934, geneticists Lancelot Hogben and Lionel Penrose were questioning the validity of eugenicist claims, noting that many potentially hereditary causes for the conditions Darwin (1928) wished to breed out of populations were in fact carried by recessive genes, meaning, ‘it would be impossible to identify and eradicate [them] from the population at large through sterilisation’ (Bland and Hall, 2010: 222).

Secondly, there are some problems with Darwin’s argumentation which reflect his privileged class background. As noted above, he believes that he can discern scientific and presumably objective traits that will benefit the whole human population using methods like ‘common sense’ memories of his time at school (Darwin, 1928: 26). This means that many of his arguments, at their core, are derived from his class position and experiences and not from a scientific method as such. For example, Lucy Bland and Lesley Hall (in Bashford and Levine, 2010) note that British eugenics was inextricably linked to questions of class, with the desirable and undesirable traits being constructed as such insofar as they were seen to deal with problems typically associated with the poor — like unemployment and poverty. This suggests that Darwin’s (1928) project at its core is arbitrary and will inevitably reflect his own class position–which is evinced in how his list of undesirable traits gravitate around the behaviours of intellectually challenged, the disabled, and the poor, and how his list of desirable traits gravitate around the idea of a Protestant Work Ethic.

Seen in this light, Darwin’s eugenics project is inseparable from his class background, which is further revealed in how he was viewed as one of the more hardline eugenicists who was sceptical of social reform as it would ‘merely encourage the proliferation of the “unfit”’ (Bland and Hall, 2010: 5). The only way he can make his arguments appear scientific and for the good of the entire human population is by mistaking common sense for scientific inquiry, and by misrepresenting the nature of natural selection. Once this spurious link between natural selection and selective breeding is undermined, then it becomes clear that it does not matter what traits Darwin, or any other eugenicist, thinks are desirable; the project of eugenics is, at its core, a project where one class of people–who decide what traits are desirable and undesirable–instrumentalises the whole human population in order to create a society that is no fitter, but simply more reflective of said class’s social position and biases.

Part C: Placing Leonard Darwin’s Eugenics in Historical Context

Now it is time to place Darwin’s Eugenics in its historical context. How does Darwin’s explication of eugenics sit within the broader beliefs and discourses which were being circulated at the time? Eugenics, first coined by Galton in 1883, was arguably reaching the height of its popularity in Britain during Darwin’s time of writing, and it had steadily been encroaching onto the public consciousness since the early 20th century (Mazumdar, 2011). For example, Eugenics ideas had begun to influence a range of reformers in areas related to ‘mental health, child care, and the development of intelligence testing, public health, town planning and the problems of the slums’ (Welshman, 1997: 56). This growing popularity is reflected in the establishment and spread of eugenics societies alongside the existing Eugenics Education Society of which Darwin was a member.

John MacNicol (1989) corroborates this, observing that eugenics social movements reached a peak during the inter-war years. During this time, the eugenics movement became vocal in support of campaigns like voluntary sterilisation–mentioned as a possible eugenicist policy in Darwin’s Eugenics above–as well as conducting investigations into ‘race crossing’, or procreation between people of different races (Kevles, 1995; Bland, 2007: 66). However, while eugenics ideas were extremely vocal amongst some sections of society, they had limited representation when it came to converting these ideas to policy (Hansen and King, 2011). For example, Randall Hansen and Desmond King (2011) note that the British campaign for voluntary sterilisation throughout the 1920s was ultimately unsuccessful; this compared more successful interventions by eugenics movements in other countries like America, where ‘eugenics-based immigration policies’ found some expression in the policies of the government (Hansen and King, 2011: 239; Kevles, 1999). This suggests that, while British eugenics was a growing and popular idea at the publication’s time of writing, it struggled to gain relevant political power.

Part of this struggle might be to do with how the eugenics movement was articulated strictly along class lines (Bland and Hall, 2010). As noted by Dan Stone (2001), the eugenics movement in Britain was a predominantly middle-class movement concerned with controlling and disciplining the behaviours of the poor. Indeed, this perspective is borne out through the analysis of Darwin’s Eugenics in the previous section, which revealed the philosophical basis of eugenics to be fundamentally arbitrary and based on Darwin’s class position. This predominantly middle-class movement arguably struggled then to make headway in British politics because of its limited, though vocal and influential, base of support (MacKenzie, 1976). Eugenics in the USA, comparatively, is understood by Hansen and King (2011) to have made more successful inroads into politics because it was articulated among more strictly racialised and xenophobic lines. This meant that eugenics policies could be constructed as inclusive of certain elements of the white working class, who have been historically divided and ruled from their African-American counterparts through symbolic practices which attempt to locate their identity as primarily racial, instead of class-based (Robin, 2012).

While a lack of robust racialisation to British eugenics explains its lack of political success in Britain, it does not then follow that British eugenics was unconcerned with race. Indeed, what is notable about Darwin’s work is that it skirts the question of race quite overtly, with desirable and undesirable traits being located within human behaviour and practices. This is arguably notable given that Darwin had in 1919 been concerned about race-mixing, which reflected the interests of other contemporaneous British eugenicists regarding the question of race (Bland and Hall, 2010). As indicated in the aforementioned studies on ‘race crossing’, the British eugenics movement was particularly worried about miscegenation. For example, Robert Reid Rentoul (1906: 4-5) wrote in 1906 that ‘the intermarriage of British with foreigners should not be encouraged,’ and called the children of mixed marriages a progenitor of ‘terrible monstrosities’. This shows that there are some traces of lineage between the British eugenicist context in which Darwin’s Eugenics was written, and the development of German racial eugenics, which became a cornerstone of Nazi ideology.

Nonetheless, it remains clear by examining both Darwin’s Eugenics and the context it was written in that Darwin’s Eugenics’s cosmology derives from a specific, British form of eugenics which is primarily concerned with class, or in Dan Stone’s (2001: 416) words, ‘the inheritance of pauperism’. This is not to disavow the link between British eugenics and the more overtly racialised forms that emerged in Germany and the United States. As shown above, British eugenics was still founded on a lineage of ideas that had their base in racist pseudoscience, and this lineage still inflected many British eugenicist ideas of Darwin’s time.

In terms of historical theme, the above analysis suggests that the historical context of eugenics is best situated within a wider theme of social control and power–in particular, the social control of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. Indeed, as noted by Chris Harman (2008), since there has existed written history, it has been striated and organised by questions of class, power, and conflict. It is arguable that the history of eugenics arguably exemplifies and represents this theme in a variety of clear ways. For instance, it is arguable that regardless of the strain of eugenics–whether it is US eugenics racialised against immigrants, or British eugenics concerned with the behaviours and habits of the poor–all permutations of this theory represent the imposition of certain ideal standards of human behaviour from one class of people upon another.

As noted by Molly Ladd-Taylor (2018), eugenics policies were very often couched in discourses of child welfare, even when occurring in an overtly racialised context such as the USA in the 1930s. This, she argues, draws a direct link between policies of state welfare in the 20th century and a eugenic mindset. These insights enable an understanding of eugenics as one ideological component of more comprehensive processes of social control of citizens by the state–a form of social control which is not always so easily viewed as wrong with the added hindsight of history. For example, a thematic analysis driven by social control helps to show how successive liberal reforms engaged by social actors in early 20th century Britain were, in fact, mechanisms of control as much as they were intended to uplift the material conditions of their targets. In offering small amounts of what is essentially state charity to the destitute, it was hoped that the behaviours and habits of the poor could be more regulated. As Richard Johnson (1970) notes, these policies have their roots in a specific Victorian mindset where social control of the poor was couched in a historically specific form of moralism and notions of proper behaviour, temperance and sin. However, it remains arguable that the impulse and need to control populations of citizens by the state and elites is a much older and more persistent theme (Harman, 2008).

The social context in which Darwin’s Eugenics was written should therefore be seen as a specific instance of a more extended and more transcendental history of social control of the poor and powerless by influential actors like elites and states. This is reflected not only in how a variety of welfare policies at the time can be linked to a eugenicist mindset, but also in how the eugenic mindset constructs the poor as a population of immoral and misbehaving, irrational actors who must be corrected through reasonable practices of state policy. This kind of mindset, notes Harman (2008), is in fact distributed within historiography itself, as seen in the preponderance of ‘great men’ theories of history that elide the actions, desires and agency of more ordinary people who shaped and influenced historical events. Indeed, it is arguable that writers like Leonard Darwin were, in essence, attempting to position themselves as Great Men of History, as the subjects of historical processes, while positioning the working classes who were the recipients of the proposed eugenics policies as the objects of history–as passive populations to be manipulated and improved by the rationality of elites.


In conclusion, this critical analysis has looked at Darwin’s Eugenics in terms of its author, textual arguments, and historical context. It has been argued that questions of class and class privilege run through Darwin’s Eugenics in its history, the class background of Darwin, and how it sits within wider literature. The author, Darwin, has been situated firmly as a member of the British establishment whose enthusiasm for science and social policy is tempered and inflected by the ideas and beliefs of his class position. This is shown in how his text fails to understand that the value and effectiveness of natural selection lie in its lack of instrumentalisation and teleology. This means that the adaptations made, because they are not guided by a conscious and partial will, will tend to create some adaptations which enhance fitness for an environment. Comparatively, Darwin’s (1928) presentation of selective eugenic breeding will only produce traits desirable for a specific class of people speaking from a specific time and place. Finally, this problem of class, power, and social control has been shown to have strong links with the wider historical context of eugenics in the 20th century West. It has been shown that Darwin’s Eugenicsrepresents a specifically British form of eugenics which is articulated along class control of the poor–as opposed to US variants which focus on racialised control of immigrants. This shows that eugenics is fundamentally about social control and power–more specifically, extending social control and power throughout a social order under the guise of benign policy. This means that it has arguably direct relevance to understandings of public policy today, which still represents this split between benign formal intention and controlling and coercive underlying rationale (Allen, 2014; King, 2008).

List of References

Allen, A. (2014) Benign Violence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bennett, J. (1983) Natural Selection, Heredity, and Eugenics. Oxford University Press.

Berra, T.M. (2019) ‘Commentary: Who was Leonard Darwin?’, International Journal of Epidemiology, 48(2), pp. 362-365. doi:10.1093/ije/dyx241.

Bland, L. (2007) ‘British eugenics and “race crossing”: a study of an interwar investigation’, New Formations, (60), pp. 66-79.

Bland, L. and Hall, L. (2010). Eugenics in Britain: The View from the Metropole. In: Bashford, A. and Levine, P. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ch.11.

Darwin, C. (1859/1998) The Origin of Species. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions.

Darwin, C. (1871/2011) The Descent Of Man. London: Penguin.

Darwin, L. (1912). ‘The First International Eugenics Conference’, Nature 89: 558-561.

Darwin, L. (1921). Organic Evolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Darwin, L. (1926). The Need for Eugenic Reform. London: John Murray.

Darwin, L. (1928). What Is Eugenics? London: Watts and Co.

Farrall, L. A. (1969/2019). The Origins and Growth of the English Eugenics Movement, 1865-1925. London: UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies.

Garver, K.L. and Garver, B. (1991) ‘Eugenics: past, present, and the future.’, American Journal of Human Genetics, 49(5), pp. 1109-1118.

Hansen, R. and King, D. (2011) ‘Eugenic Ideas, Political Interests, and Policy Variance: Immigration and Sterilization Policy in Britain and the U.S.’, World Politics, 53(2), pp. 237-263. doi:10.1353/wp.2001.0003.

Harman, C. (2008) A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium. Later Edition. London ; New York: Verso Books.

Johnson, R. (1970) ‘Educational Policy and Social Control in Early Victorian England’, Past and Present, (49), pp. 96-119.

King, R.D. (2008) ‘Conservatism, institutionalism, and the social control of intergroup conflict’, American Journal of Sociology, 113(5), pp. 1351-1393. doi:10.1086/525511.

Kevles, D.J. (1995) In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity. Reprint edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Kevles, D.J. (1999) ‘Eugenics and human rights’, British Medical Journal, 319(7207), pp. 435-438.

Ladd-Taylor, M. (2018) Fixing the Poor: Eugenics Sterilization and Child Welfare in the Twentieth Century. 1st edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

MacKenzie, D. (1976) ‘Eugenics in Britain’, Social Studies of Science, 6(3/4), pp. 499-532.

MacNicol, J. (1989) ‘Eugenics and the Campaign for Voluntary Sterilization in Britain Between the Wars’, Social History of Medicine, 2(2), pp. 147-169. doi:10.1093/shm/2.2.147.

Mazumdar, P. (2011)  Eugenics, Human Genetics, and Human Failings: The Eugenics Society, its sources, and its critics in Britain. London: Routledge.

Paul, D. B. and Moore, J. (2010). The Darwinian Context: Evolution and Inheritance. In: Bashford, A. and Levine, P. (eds.). The Oxford Handbook of the History of Eugenics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, ch.1.

Rentoul, R. R. (1906). Race Culture; Or, Race Suicide? (A Plea For The Unborn). London: Walter Scott.

Searle, G.R. (1979) ‘Eugenics and politics in Britain in the 1930s’, Annals of Science, 36(2), pp. 159-169. doi:10.1080/00033797900200461.

Serpente, N. (2016) ‘More than a Mentor: Leonard Darwin’s Contribution to the Assimilation of Mendelism into Eugenics and Darwinism’, Journal of the History of Biology, 49(3), pp. 461-494.

Stack, D.A. (2000) ‘The First Darwinian Left: Radical and Socialist Responses to Darwin, 1859-1914’, History of Political Thought 21(4), pp. 682-710.

Stone, D. (2001) ‘Race in British Eugenics’, European History Quarterly, 31(3), pp. 397-425. doi:10.1177/026569140103100303.

Welshman, J. (1997) ‘Eugenics and public health in Britain, 1900-40: scenes from provincial life’, Urban History, 24(1), pp. 56-75. doi:10.1017/S0963926800012177.

[end – Copyright 2021 Author]

UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) logoInvestigating UCL Eugenics

“Investigating UCL Eugenics” is a series of essays investigating specific aspects of eugenics research and advocacy at University College London (UCL). This includes papers produced as part of student research projects in the undergraduate module, HPSC0070 Eugenics in Science and Culture in UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS). The module was co-taught in 2021-22 by Professor Joe Cain and Dr Maria Kiladi.

Instructions for this essay asked for a specific series of tasks. Each student was assigned one specific publication somehow linked to the history of eugenics research and advocacy at University College London (UCL), or a sister institution nearby. Students were required to structure their essay according to a series of sections: (a) author (place the publication in a biographical context), (b) text (interpret the publication as a historical text), (c) context (place the publication in a relevant historical context or interpretation), and (d) list of references (include a complete, well-organized, and clear list of references). The syllabus provides detailed instruction.

Individual posts remain the copyrighted intellectual property of the author and appear here with their permission. The author is the person responsible for post content. Readers are reminded this essay was completed in 2021 during a period of restricted movement and facility closures owing to pandemic restrictions.