Survival of the Unfittest

Reading the book today, Survival of the Unfittest (1927) by Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, it has all the elements that ensured its descent into completely obscurity: concerns about human degeneration, advocacy of eugenics, and classical liberal views on state and political economy.

Authors such as Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, who posit that survival of the fittest is an immutable law of nature, are challenged to explain how natural selection can give rise to degeneracy, or, as he also calls it, the “survival of the unfittest.” Armstrong answers that:

To say…that Natural Selection is no longer operative in man is nonsense, because natural law is immutable. But any given law may produce different results to-day from those of yesterday when new factors arise to complicate matters. Thus, if we make unfitness in any way more advantageous for procreation than fitness, this will tend to make Natural Selection cause the survival of the unfittest instead of the fittest.

In his chapter on “Humanitarian Legislation” he identifies socialist public policies as producing a reproductive advantage to the “unfit:”

By heavy taxation we penalize success; by the dole, the Poor Law and public and private charity in a hundred forms we encourage the weak, the defective, the shiftless and the unsuccessful, not only to continue in their present condition, but to breed freely. We even give them extra help for every child they produce, and although the amount given may be insufficient to keep that child in comfort, yet to the improvident and the selfish it acts as a real incentive, for it is certainly made to yield, in many cases, extra comforts for the parents, even if the child goes hungry in consequence.

Armstrong rejects the argument that social legislation is required “by the demands of morality:”

To force everybody to do what you think is moral is not to make men moral. A good action must be voluntary; therefore let any man whose Christianity may move him that way save his poorer brother. But you cannot in the name of morality force anyone to do so.

In the same way, if thrift is a virtue it cannot be compulsory. By forcing people to insure you cannot teach them thrift or make them thrifty. In fact, you kill thrift as a virtue.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to substantiating that welfare- and unemployment benefits, instead of reducing poverty and misery, instead increase it. To make his argument  he relies on “logical inquiry by the inductive and deductive methods:” statistics and economic reasoning. In particular, Armstrong is greatly concerned by the existence of unemployment benefits without an obligation to engage in productive work. As a consequence, the incentive to find work is reduced and productivity declines, which further impoverishes the nation. As far as involuntary unemployment and the “inability” to work is concerned, the author remarks that “trade union rules..are far oftener responsible for such “inability” than is anything else. Then, again, the inability to work does not, unfortunately, bring with it inability to procreate…”

In today’s terminology, the author is very much a “supply-sider” who thinks that all obstacles to create wealth should be eliminated and that productivity, not re-distribution of income, is the real source of prosperity. He also anticipates the rise of a class of welfare and tax recipients.

In every part of the country, especially the great towns, there has now grown up a new and dangerous class, a mass of humanity dependent on the payer of rates and taxes. Before the change, a man had no right to vote, that is to take part in the government of others, unless he were at last independent and able to support himself. Now he helps to govern those who maintain him. This great host of paupers and semi-paupers is already organized in the Socialist interest and has become a factor which can decide elections.

Naturally, as many 19th century classical liberals, Armstrong was strongly opposed to the idea that everyone has the right to vote:

I see no reason why the vote should be called a right. It used to be said, “No vote, no taxation.” Is it not equally just to cry, “No taxation, no vote?”

He has little patience for democracy and politicians:

God save us from the politicians! Perhaps some of the nations of Southern Europe are wiser than we in their generation. They have abolished the politicians – and democracy.

In his chapter on “Government” he describes the transformation of liberalism as it unfolded in Europe and the United States:

Since the true definition of liberty is the power to do anything that in no way causes suffering to others (future generations being included in the term “others”), the proper function of legislation in a free country is to determine what specific acts do cause suffering, and prevent them. The further we get away from this, in legislation, the worse we fare. When Liberalism, leaning more and more towards Socialism, begins to regulate our lives by legislation that has since become oppressive, the excuse was that laissez-faire involved the oppresssion of  one class by another. Under this pretext it abandoned the great principle of individual liberty that had been its main characteristic up to that time. But having once abandoned this principle, “Liberal” statesmen began to indulge in a great deal of lawmaking that interfered with the individual without having anything to do with the prevention of oppression. Thus began the new tyranny.

Under democratic government, each party, when in power, considers itself under the obligation to invent new laws, often under the pleasing name of “social reform,” with a main view to adulating the mass of voters. These enactments interfere more and more with the order of our lives, and oblige all to subscribe to the pet theories of idealists, or the latest scheme elaborated for winning the applause of the mob, cheating it into the belief than an open sesame has been found to the earthly paradise.

Trade unions, too, add ever to the number of rules and regulations that restrict liberty. The leaders, being often ignorant of the first principles of economic science, everybody is ordered to kow-tow to rules of behaviour based upon the most mischievous fallacies, such as those which purposely limit output, and those which prevent men from passing one district or one trade to another, when the needs of industry so demands.

Thus is democracy proving itself more fatally despotic than any autocracy. No emperor ever thought of reversing the process of evolution; but democracy, with its chance majorities, obtained by rhetoric of self-seeking demagogues, may succeed in doing so; not be superseding natural law, but by using it in ignorance for suicidal purposes – playing with forces it does not understand.

Armstrong devotes a whole chapter to spelling out his views on morality. He rejects the idea that a literal reading of the Bible should be the source of morality. “Fortunately, in our own times, this attitude is more characteristic of farmers in Tennessee than of educated Englishmen.” Similarly, he rejects the idea that the State or conventions provide us with an unambiguous set of moral rules. His own answer, however, may leave many people equally puzzled when he suggests that nature should be the source of morality as it seeks to avoid unnecessary suffering and “the happiness of all.” Armstrong’s emphasis on nature as the basis of morality seems to partly be motivated by his aim of criticizing a number of practices such as the unfair treatment of unwed mothers, puritanism, monogamy, and hunting for sport. Whereas some of his ideas on equality and political economy may be construed as “reactionary,” on many life-style issues and Christian fundamentalism, he is clearly in the progressive camp.

Although Armstrong is very concerned about a scenario where “the more intelligent and efficient…become relatively sterile, while the shiftless, decadent classes breed like prolific animals,” his case for eugenics does not depend on the presence of dysgenics:

It should be said at once that the need for eugenic reform in no way depends upon where the truth lies in the controversy about degeneration. Whether we are deteriorating or not we need this reform, for it is just as desirable to progress more rapidly if we are moving slowly as it is to stop degeneration if it is going on.

Like modern-day transhumanists, Armstrong seeks to accelerate human evolution so that we may one day even “conquer Death, and eventually Time and Space.” As to the question, how Eugenic Reform can be accomplished, he advocates abolishing public policies that discourage those with undesirable traits to procreate. He rejects involuntary euthanasia, is agnostic about segregation, and endorses sterilization for the “grossly unfit.” But because he believes that politicians have little interest in the long-term fate of humanity, he devotes a significant portion of the book to the idea of establishing voluntary communities that seek the accelerated progress of humanity.

Amusingly, while Armstrong believes that the “undegenerated Englishman…has no moral or intellectual superior among the world’s people…perhaps he is a trifle more inclined towards hypocrisy, intolerance and obstinacy than most progressive races.” Another defect of the English are the physical characteristics of the English. In particular, the typical English women with their “large feet, masculine stride and flat or angular form.”  Not to speak of the poor eyesight and poor teeth of the English:

How much pain, how much ill-health, and how much physical ugliness are due to bad teeth! The breath becomes offensive and the digestive and other organs seriously damaged. Even the heart itself is affected by abscesses due to caries. No defect, in fact, is more far-reaching in its effects upon other organs. Yet here in England of ours, even our children, a few years after receiving their second teeth, are already nearly all of them suffering from this grave trouble. Furthermore, it is undoubtedly hereditary. The truth is, in fact, little short of this: As a race we are in serious danger of losing our teeth altogether.

Charles Wicksteed Armstrong does not expect that the benefits from eugenics will result from exclusive selective breeding within one country and he actively advocates efforts to select for the most desirable traits of different populations, such as the Mediterranean people.

Armstrong himself may have been blessed with “longevity genes” because in 1961 the Eugenics Society congratulated Mr. Armstrong on achieving his ninetieth year. His old age allowed him to witness both the birth but also the decline of the eugenics movement. A casual search on the internet reveals little information on the life and ideas of Charles Wicksteed Armstrong, despite the renewed interest in the history of eugenics. His concerns and his constructive solutions, on the other hand, have not disappeared.

Discussions about decline today are mostly confined to cultural decline, although Prof. Richard Lynn has published books on both Dysgenics and Eugenics with similar concerns as Armstrong. The word “eugenics” has gone mostly out of favor with those in favor of human genetic enhancement, but contemporary transhumanism can be said to carry forward the legacy of liberal eugenics, but with a stronger emphasis on individual choice. A good example of a recent argument in favor of human genetic enhancement is Gregory Stock’s book Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future. Even the interest in overcoming death has it contemporary counterparts with publication of books about the Scientific Conquest of Death.