Monday, 22 February 2016

Birdkill And The Science Of Making Better People

English: Anglo-Irish playwright George Bernard...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
"There is now no reasonable excuse for refusing to face the fact that nothing but a eugenics religion can save our civilisation from the fate that has overtaken all previous civilisations."
George Bernard Shaw

The idea that we can somehow shape the betterment of our species has long held scientists in thrall. And yet we are still chilled by the efforts of the Nazis and others who ventured into the territory of human enhancement through selective breeding. It's fine to breed and cross dogs or horses, to transplant trees and splice varieties to create disease resistant, hardier and larger fruit and vegetables. But when you start doing that with people, the overwhelming majority of us feel a line is being crossed.

Eugenics is, in short, a dirty word.

Although thinkers way back in human history toyed with the idea - the soldiers of Sparta were an early example of hardy stock applied to a task, as I suppose the Nepalese Gurkhas are today - it wasn't until the Victorians happened by that we started playing with the idea of improving the human gene pool by spaying the insane and sterilising the less than perfect humans out there. Armed with calipers to measure people's heads and various other dubious 'sciences' to categorise people in nice, easy boxes that conformed to Victorian ideals of human perfection, a number of organisations around the world sprang up around the world, all espousing the spurious ideals of eugenics.

We like to think of it as a uniquely German invention, but it wasn't. The Eugenics Education Society of London was formed in 1907; the American Eugenics Society in 1912 and the French Eugenics Society in the same year. They were joined by the Belfast based Irish Eugenics Society: British perceptions of the Irish as a nation of sub-human, troglodyte beings and Catholic notions of shame were to morph through the C20th into the vile social experiment we would come to know as the Magdalene Laundries. At their heart, the ideals of eugenics; cleansing humanity of those too weak or afflicted to defend themselves against the perfect puritans of Victorian society.
I propose to show in this book that a man's natural abilities are derived by inheritance, under exactly the same limitations as are the form and physical features of the whole organic world. Consequently, as it is easy, notwithstanding those limitations, to obtain by careful selection a permanent breed of dogs or horses gifted with peculiar powers of running, or of doing anything else, so it would be quite practicable to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations.
Introduction to Hereditary Genius by Francis Galton (1869)
Galton's book would have graced the library in Lawrence Hamilton's cosy study at the Hamilton Institute, the setting of Birdkill. He would have taken it down and cupped its leather spine in his hand as he soaked up the great man's words, because Hamilton, too, believed in creating a highly gifted race. With a mixture of breeding, chemical augmentation, training and experimentation into the workings of the human mind, Hamilton's work is funded because he has said he can produce better, more effective soldiers.

He is Robyn's rather dubious host as she tries to embark on her new start in a life so recently torn apart by a nameless terror...

Birdkill launches at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature on the 1st March 2016 where copies will be on sale. If you can't wait, it's available now in paperback here and as an ebook to pre-order here.

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