It’s not often that a book gives you an idea for dystopian fiction; the last time I decided to write a dystopia, the idea came from a Pulp song. But the reprint of Applied Eugenics  by Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson — a 1918 pop-science study of exactly what it sounds like — is an unusual volume.
The title of it rather embarrassed family members at Christmas, who asked me to hide the cover while carrying it on the Amtrak; jeez, Hitler really ruined eugenics for everyone, didn’t he?
Consequently, we’ve slipped into unintentional promotion of dysgenics . . . or is it really unintentional? Feel free to imagine a portentous musical cue. But first, the text.
Applied Eugenics was written decades after the discovery of evolution but before researchers knew what DNA was, much less where to look for “smart genes.” At first glance, what seems quaint about this book is the un-politically correct language; the authors nonchalantly scribble phrases such as “the yellow races,” “vigorous and ignorant peasants,” and “the American race” (the latter now used only in such self-deprecating satire as the theme song to Family Guy). It’s also odd to read a book about eugenics written by researchers who could only guess at heredity’s mechanisms; they use the phrase “germ-plasm” to refer to the shadows of DNA cast on the cave wall by the gross data.
But what’s really quaint and laughable, once you scratch the surface of the book, is the authors’ moral assumptions. The book’s interest to us now is not due to its rudimentary (but curiously familiar) science but to its public policy recommendations. In matters of policy, Popenoe and Roswell worked from the unspoken assumption that qualities we generally consider useful and pleasant—sufficient intelligence to participate helpfully in the economy; enough empathy to find living at others’ expense ethically distasteful—are traits that policy-makers should seek to increase in future generations.
Popenoe and Roswell also speak nonchalantly of the incompetent and lazy as though it would be irresponsible of policymakers to give them economic incentives to breed en masse. Didn’t they realize they were living in a democracy?
What they couldn’t have foreseen was the extremely rapid march of productivity-enhancing technology. Instead of needing a reasonably intelligent large body of laborers on farms and in machine sheds –instead of skilled typists and clerks and copyeditors — instead of relying on skilled wives and resourceful farmers, we’ve become a nation whose manufacturing base consists of three guys running a robot in Ohio. Our cubicle rats are all either Photoshopping ads or coding everyone else’s job out of existence; service workers need more charisma than competence. As for the rest, it hardly takes resourcefulness to know how to cash a welfare check. You just have to be able to find a voting booth so you can be bribed. (Welfare is the smartest bribe politicians ever invented: A monthly check instead of a one-time payment. And they don’t even have to give the voter their own money!)
I exaggerate, but fewer people can create more wealth in less time than ever before. Sci-fi back in the 20th century predicted we would come to a gentleman’s agreement to reduce the work week, so that everyone could share in both the wealth and newfound leisure.
But what we’ve done instead is to con the cleverest and hardest-working people into running the ship themselves for seventy hours a week; these middle classes are taxed heavily while the surplus wealth is split between the capitalist class — nothing new there, except didn’t capitalists once have to worry about competition from hardworking clever people? — and those who can’t or won’t get a job, and who are given a paycheck which increases with every child they breed.
From the point of view of eugenics — or merely avoiding active dysgenics — what we’re doing with the welfare state would look insane. Taking taxes from productive and hardworking citizens to give to people who are too stupid or too lazy to fit into a post-manual economy — and giving incentives to their fertility, no less — will inevitably reduce the intelligence and possibly even the work ethic of the next generation. (I don’t know if there’s a laziness gene, but there is such a thing as multi-generational welfare dependence; whether it’s genetic, environmental, or having an “in” with the welfare office doesn’t matter much to the caste system.)
More conscientious people, when their income is crushed through low wages and taxation, will have fewer children out of simple consideration for the children. Meanwhile those who are paid to breed, and whose checks — however small — increase per child, will find it in their self-interest to produce more little voters and perhaps skimp on their nutrition to keep more of the take for their own desires. The welfare state may not have been created with the intention of producing a dysgenic effect, but these effects are almost inevitable when welfare is tied to production of children. At least in Europe, it serves as a safety net for individuals — breeders or not — who are temporarily down on their luck, which is reasonably fair. But it serves for far too many as a permanent hammock.
But you know what? If I were a science-fiction villain, hell-bent on creating a rigid caste system — if I enjoyed human suffering very much, and if I felt threatened by the idea of a rise in the average man’s intelligence — if I had been faced with the specter of technological advancements that threatened to free the species from the yoke of drudgery forever — I would think this was a terrific idea.
It’s brilliant: create a ruling caste, a working caste, and a voting caste. The working caste must be kept too small and busy to matter in political life; instead of shorter hours and better pay, they may be granted all the joys of ever-higher productivity and taxes in order to keep their fertility trimmed. Instead of allowing the stupider segments of the voting caste to peter out, or to integrate into the working caste, they should be siloed behind welfare firewalls, safe from struggle, medically cossetted, their only duty to society contained in the voting booth. This will keep the comforting myths of democracy alive whilst keeping the top caste happily in the driver’s seat — or rather, in the back of the limousine; it’s the working class that drives. And their seat is lined with spikes.
Caveat: is this a credible exaggeration of, or at least metaphor for, an outcome that the shadowy “powers that be” are deliberately plotting? I wouldn’t know; I am but a primitive mammal running around under the thunder lizards’ feet. When it comes to grand conspiracies I habitually defer to Occam’s Razor, but the almost insuperable challenge in writing such a story using the Razor would be to make unintended consequences sound as exciting as a deliberate dysgenic coup d’état. Let’s just say I wouldn’t die of shock if this rigid layer cake from hell were, accidentally or no, the outcome of another generation of the welfare state.