Monday, 3 February 2014

Francis Galton's Kantsaywhere

Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, coined the term eugenics. He did foundational work for genetics, but also wrote a novel at the end of his life explicating his eugenic "utopia." Writer and broadcaster Dr. Matthey Sweet introduces the novel as follows  at the Library Service site of the University College London:

"Francis Galton invented the weather map and revolutionised forensic science – but the reason why he is historically important is probably the reason why he is so little known today. Galton is the man who coined the word “eugenics” – a body of thought that we now regard as irremediably toxic; reject as a pseudoscience that was once used to naturalise racism and justify the view that some humans are less human than others. It remains one of the dirtiest words in the lexicon of western thought.


The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere is a science fiction novel set in a country dedicated to the improvement of the human species by manipulating the sex lives of its inhabitants. “In Kantsaywhere,” we’re told, “they think more of the race than of the individual.” Here, prospective parents are required to undergo physical and psychometric tests before being pronounced fit to reproduce – and those found unfit are banished from the state. People denied the privilege of parenthood become the responsibility of a government agency that ships them to labour colonies where “sharp severity” is promised if they are sufficiently unwise to break a pledge of celibacy.

It is a plot that feels familiar, thanks to its echoes in twentieth-century science fiction: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) in which babies are spawned in bottles and conditioned to suit the purposes of a consumerist state; John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), where the character of Sophie knows her sixth toe is evidence that she is one of the genetic mutations so feared and despised by her community; Andrew Niccol’s film Gattaca (1997)in which those judged genetically imperfect connive to pass DNA tests by submitting the samples of their chromosomal betters, purchased on a black market in bodily fluids. These, of course, are examples of dystopian fiction. What is striking about Kantsaywhere is that it is a place in which Francis Galton clearly wanted to live. A later version of a similar story might have depicted the outcasts in the labour colonies reclaiming their right to sex and reproduction. Such an idea, however, would have been anathema to Galton. Kantsaywhere offers a design for living in a eugenic state, one sufficiently detailed that it might have been used as a starting point for anyone daring enough to try."

The full novel can also be downloaded at the the UCL site