Sunday, April 23, 2023

Shaw's Critique of Eugenics

A few years ago, Reinhard G. Mueller concluded that the playwright Bernard Shaw had an "ambivalent stance on eugenics." One of the dramatist's later plays, however, is fairly unequivocal in its condemnation of the eugenics movement.

Shaw, who believed in a Life Force that drove evolution, had warned people in previous plays like Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah that evolution needed to take its own course, free from conscious manipulation by governments or powerful authority figures

It was in his 1934 play The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles, however, that Shaw explicitly depicted a eugenic experiment, dramatizing its failure. In a preface to the play written the following year, he warned readers that just because he was depicting eugenicists, that did not mean he was one, stating he wanted to guard himself "against the assumption" he was "advocating the immediate adoption of" the methods he described in his comedy.

In the play, the character of Lady Farwaters refers to the practice of eugenics as "a little domestic experiment." Later, another inhabitant of the play's titular Unexpected Isles explicitly calls their selective breeding program "a eugenic experiment." This selective breeding produces four children raised collectively on their island home: Maya, Vashti, Janga, and Kanchin. The collective parents of the four need an outsider male to breed with Maya and Vashti, and they select a simple clergyman, who is nicknamed Iddy for his simple-mindedness.

The choice of a simpleton to intermarry with individuals selected for eugenic elevation might seem odd. As Pra (another one of the eugenicists) explains, though the children all "have artistic consciences, and would die rather than do anything ugly or vulgar or common, they have not between the whole four of them a scrap of moral conscience." Tending to biology alone, it turns out, is not enough. As Pra puts it, "biological chemists have not yet discovered either the gland that produces and regulates the moral conscience or the vitamins that nourish it."

In the play's second act, the simple clergyman shows moral advancement, but his two wives seem to be sinking into lethargy, and their brothers are no better. With some help from Pra, Iddy proposes the rest of humanity must be convinced to "live in a world of original ideas" instead of being governed by conventional belief. The problem is that most people are incapable of coming up with original ideas. Iddy's solution is to convince them to go along with the ideas of others. But what if they won't? The four eugenically created children all come up with the same answer: "Kill."

It is at this moment that an Angel descends to proclaim Judgment upon the world. The eugenic experiment is tolerated, until it turns to imposing its will upon the world through murder. The Judgment of the Angel is no less swift and fearsome, but the Angel comes not to force others to agree with the ideas of the eugenically enhanced, but instead to eliminate from the world all those who are useless. This includes the products of the eugenic experiment, who all begin talking like fascists, praising "flag" and "country" as well as the "soil" and "glory" of a new empire they plan to create.

The Angel proclaims, "The lives which have no use, no meaning, no purpose, will fade out." After the islanders hear about the effect of this Judgment on the rest of the British Empire, the eugenic children resume their proto-fascist tirade, rebelling against their elders and glorifying war, even war against heaven itself. After they exit, Lady Farwaters laments the fact that they have taught the children "everything except how to work for their daily bread." This should be a clue that the products of eugenics have no use, meaning, or purpose, and are destined to fade away, which is precisely what they do.

Iddy runs on terrified by the fact that Maya simply disappeared while in his arms, and her three siblings likewise vanish. The islanders who remain compare the disappearance of the children to the vanishing of Euphorion in the second part of Goethe's Faust, but instead of disappearing in highest flight, they vanish in boredom. This is where eugenics leads, and Pra predicts, "The coming race will not be like them."

In the Unexpected Isles, as in everywhere else, things never work out the way they are planned. Eugenics tries to plan life, but the play advises that we instead allow life to come to us. As in Shaw's Man and Superman and Back to Methuselah, those who try to bend nature to their will fail. The only way forward is to trust to the Life Force and prepare for whatever it may bring.