When a Little Darwinian Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

Every now and then an article on a supposedly “obscure” subject leaps at you.  One of those was “Children Who Disappeared in Britain” by Deborah Cohen of Northwestern University.  It chronicles the history of the Normansfield Training Institution near London, from its opening to its ignominious end in 1997.  It’s significant because it follows the changes in attitudes towards mentally challenged people both by Normansfield’s management and society in general.

It’s start was a bright one:

Normansfield opened in 1868, the brainchild of Dr. John Langdon Down and his wife Mary, ardent liberals and devout evangelicals. John Langdon Down identified the condition he called “Mongolian idiocy,” today known as Down syndrome. His promise — “to open out fresh realms of happiness for a class who have the strongest claims on our sympathy” — soon brought trainloads of worried parents to Normansfield’s iron gates…Pupils who came to Normansfield unable to say more than a few words had learned to multiply 17 by 24, sing hymns, and decline Latin nouns. Imposing from the outside, light and airy in its interior, Normansfield called to mind a well-funded private school, not a hospital. According to one reporter, Normansfield was a place where “idiots had been found to have a future.”

Unfortunately things went downhill for the patients, and that slide started with Down’s own son:

John Langdon Down’s son, Reginald, who succeeded to the directorship of Normansfield upon his father’s death at age 67 in 1896, emblemized this new view. A prominent member of Britain’s Eugenics Society, Reginald became one of Britain’s leading advocates for the sterilization of the mentally unfit. More than simply a man of his time, he was also a more pessimistic and aloof personality than his genial parents. The devotion to Christianity and liberalism that motivated the elder Langdon Downs was replaced in Reginald by a commitment to the medical profession and a passion for Oriental porcelain, pottery and furniture.

Reginald’s pessimism about Normansfield’s patients was increasingly widely shared. The majority of witnesses who testified before the 1907 Parliamentary Committee on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded agreed not just that theproblem of mental deficiency was passed down through the generations but that it was on the rise. The 1913 Mental Deficiency Act gave the authorities unprecedented powers to detain and segregate the weak in intellect; they, alone among all segments of the community, could be deprived of individual liberties that — it was argued — had never rightfully been theirs to enjoy.

First: this is a good argument against the creeping “hereditary aristocracy” practice that’s become fashionable in Evangelical circles.  The movement that trumpets that “God has no grandchildren” should think twice before reflexively handing the leadership based on family.

But returning to the main point, what changed other than generations at Normansfield? What changed was the diffusion of Darwininan ideas of natural selection in society, and with them the eugenics movement.  With that hope for improvement among Normansfield’s patients faded and the simple removal of mentally challenged people into dreary institutions where they could be hidden and prevented from reproducing became the norm.

Since that time we’ve experienced many changes.  The eugenics movement was discredited by its efficient implementation in Nazi Germany, although we’ve seen a back-door revival of this through selective abortions and now genetic engineering.  In the 1960’s and 1970’s the sorry state of such institutions led to the usual response of the time: throw the baby out with the bath water, in this case by emptying the institutions. The result is that our prisons are full of those who would have been more appropriately institutionalised in an earlier era, and non-professional caregivers struggle with their charges.

Today, of course, evolution is presented as a scientific religion, with whatever extrapolations its followers want to take out of it as part of the package.  But implementation of such a creed has had ugly consequences in the past, and there’s no reason to believe that they won’t happen again.

One thought on “When a Little Darwinian Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing”

Leave a Reply