Eugenics is an ideology which many had hoped is now something spoken of in hushed tones, a sinister intellectual dead-end that was forever abandoned with the fall of Nazism. But, as fascism merely evolved into new forms, so, too, did eugenics.
The Olympics have provided a backdrop for a resurgence of ideas of racial essentialism, with a Channel 4 documentary promising to shed light on the “controversial truth” behind why white men have not won the 100m sprint event in over three decades. In a similar vein, before the men’s 200m final, the BBC ran a short piece discussing eugenics and offered an evolutionary reason to support the perceived success of athletes of West African descent in sprint events. In both, the answer proposed was this: the people who survived slavery could run faster, and therefore their descendants are faster.
The BBC explicitly linked the argument to the old eugenic arguments for selectively breeding people so their offspring will have more “desirable” traits, going so far as to include footage of Hitler at the Berlin Olympics.
Arguments for race essentialism and genetically desirable traits being bred into groups over relatively short periods of time are alive and well, glossing a pseudoscientific veneer over stereotypical beliefs about race. The thinking behind this specific argument is revealing because, when attempting to explain a phenomena relating to Black people, it pivots instantly to slavery as a likely cause as this is, from a white Western perspective, one of the few things that is known about the history of Black people. This instinctive equating of Black people with the slave trade in order to explain the (supposed) anomaly of strong genes ignores the fact that history is littered with examples of the enslavement and slaughter of particular ethnicities or nationalities. Native Americans, aboriginal Australians and Indians descended from the former British Empire, for example, are not disproportionately favoured at the Olympic Games and, because the mass abuse of those groups occupies a less prominent place in Western cultural memory, people are not looking to those events to explain the current genetic properties of those groups. Though at first glance the idea that a mass slaughter event like the African slave trade would leave only those with the strongest genes to survive and reproduce appears scientifically plausible, it is ahistorical, culturally insensitive and based on a poor understanding of Darwinian science. Put simply, the genetic traits that might make a person good at sprinting do nothing to help them survive in the hold of a slave ship or from being killed by a slave owner. We must reject the core idea of this argument that people died during slavery because their genes were weak or unsuited.
In its earlier incarnation, eugenics was accepted by the liberal and socialist left as well as the fascists: outspoken socialist writer H. G. Wells was a proponent, as were many members of the Fabian Society in the early 1900s. In its modern form, this still appears to be so, with people who self-identify as left-wing claiming that we cannot dismiss the science, or that we just need to have this conversation, as unpalatable as it may sound.
When talking about eugenics, it is very difficult to engage in an argument without, implicitly, engaging with the politics behind this school of thought, namely that (1) there are essential differences between people of different races and (2) that selective breeding can amplify or reduce certain traits. This is a discussion which need not be had: even if true (and these arguments have a tendency to be highly fallacious), these points are immaterial.
To endorse the first point is to endorse countless stereotypes, both positive and negative. Proponents should recognise the equally pernicious corollary to this purely genetic explanation for Black success in sport – that genes also explain a lacking intelligence in a Black ‘race’. The temptation to look towards genes rather than social and economic conditions to explain difference should not be confused for ‘progressiveness’, rather it betrays a highly dangerous ontology. We need only look towards history for the logical conclusions of this. Those who seek to suggest eugenics was corrupted by the Nazis ignore the fascism inherent to it.
To dress up the airing of these sentiments in the guise of a debate that needs to happen does nothing more than lend credence to these fascistic tropes.