How to fight against degeneration

Conclusions of a Professor of Physiology

Peter Kropotkin

Les Temps Nouveaux, 8 and 15 November 1913


The bourgeoisie, assisted in this by a number of pseudo-scientists, is very busy at this moment with the issues of heredity and the measures to be taken to prevent the procreation of those whom the bourgeois courts have identified as “degenerate” or “criminals.”

Last summer (1912), an international congress, specially convened for this purpose, was assembled in London under the title of Eugenics Congress.[1] For such is the name given by some English scientists to a science which would study the means of improving the human race by selective mating [la sélection des accouplements].

To be concerned about the economic and social conditions of existence of the poor classes is, according to these gentlemen, sentimentalism. The real way to prevent humanity declining would be “Eugenics.”

For five or six days, during this congress we witnessed a flood of speeches, throughout which could be seen all the hatred of the upper classes of England against the poor of their nation. These, to hear the “scientific” advocates of the ferocious rich, could only be a collection of drunks, idlers, degenerates who by their presence poison the life of the well-to-do classes, and who must be got rid of at any cost.

The pièce de résistance of the Congress was the report of a eugenic committee based in the United States. There was much praise for the results of what the report called the sterilisation of around a hundred individuals, locked up in the prisons of the North-American republic. The report did not utter a word about the physiological results of these “sterilisations”: it limited itself to affirming that many of the sterilised people were delighted with it – an assertion that we must accept at face value.

A young American professor, Kellogg, distinguished by his work in biology, made some very apt but far too moderate observations to combat the conclusions arrived at by most members of the congress.[2] He showed which degeneration sprang from militarism and permanent armies; and an English prison chief, MacDonnell, opposed this idea of the “sterilisation of undesirables” with knowledge and good sense. For my part, taking advantage of the seven minutes that were allowed in the discussions to those who had not sent reports in advance, I made some observations. I pointed out that “eugenic” science did not yet exist: that it was barely constituted, and that the most barbaric legislative measures were already being demanded in the name of a future science. I indicated that it was impossible to fight degeneration by “sterilisation” while at this moment, in London, tens of thousands of children, deprived of food following a big strike of  dockers were wasting away every day and would feel the effects all their lives; while one-third of the total urban population of England lived “below the poverty line,” as English statisticians say (that is, earning less than 22 fr. 50 [centimes] per week and per family, not counting periodic unemployment), and that hundreds of thousands of families lived with four, five, ten, and twelve people in a single room. I concluded by asking: Who are the “degenerates” that were doomed for sterilisation? Women workers who raised their children despite their misery, or the ladies of the world, no longer able to breast-feed their children? The degenerates in the slums, or the degenerates in the palaces?

But these few observations by the three of us were only one drop beside the eugenics torrent.

All those who spoke at this congress spoke, it goes without saying that, in the name of Science. However, we must distinguish between Science and “Scientists.” For there is Science, which is the whole of our knowledge of Nature, such as it gradually emerges from research; and there are the Scientists, some of whom, out of laziness of mind, take a dim view of anything that exceeds the level they reached in their youth, and others, who finally reaching the summits of academia, entirely embrace the interests of the wealthy classes, and bend their pseudo-science in this direction.

Fortunately, there are always, especially amongst young scientists, a number who do not distort their conclusions to please the powerful, and are not afraid to reach heretical conclusions. This is the case of a young professor at the university of Moscow, N. Kabanoff, whose recent book – Sketches on the Physiology of the Human Body, in a state of health and illness (Moscow, 1912) – very scientific, although written for a wider public than that of learned societies, interests us in his conclusions concerning heredity and degeneration.

Mr Kabanoff first studies the causes of degeneration, and he naturally finds that there are two sets of causes for degeneration. There is heredity, but there is also the influence of the environment – the physical and moral conditions of existence. And, comparing the effect of these two causes, he notes, as you might expect, the immense, preponderant, effect of the second cause – that of the conditions of existence.

Families, in which degeneration is transmitted from father to son, do not last forever. Either they wither and disappear or else they improve by cross-breeding with healthy families.

The great danger to society is therefore in the continual production of new families of degenerates and new causes of degeneration, by virtue of social and economic conditions. This obviously leads the author to conclude that the great problem of medicine and social hygiene is to eliminate the conditions which always produce new degenerate families.

This conclusion will undoubtedly be answered by repeating what we all have heard so often in the daily newspapers: they cite the case of the United States family that gave rise to 1,200 degenerates and criminals. And they will not notice that this fact, if it is true, would represent the most terrible indictment against the means by which they are now seeking to combat the scourge of degeneration. For what has society been able to do for generations of degenerates, drunkards and “criminals” from a degenerate ancestor? – Nothing, but committing the crime of perpetuating and exacerbating their degeneration by putting them into prisons – which are themselves nurseries of physical, sexual and moral degeneration, and Universities of criminality. Indeed, let them read only this book, so terrible in its sincerity, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, by A. Berkman (New York, 1912); they shall see what prisons are in this respect, whether they be old or modern.[3]


What is needed to combat degeneration – says Mr Kabanoff very well – is to increase the adaptability of the organism, and, hence, its adaptation to the new urban environments created by modern civilisation. This is the goal of any progressive culture. But, to reach that, we need not only sufficient food and a healthy and attractive home; we must also increase the intensity of life – of all the vital processes. But this can only be achieved by the variety of work, by the interest and stimulation it gives when it ceases being monotonous overwork, by the exercise of intellectual and artistic faculties – in short, by variety of interests, by the development of individuality[4] – by one’s intellectual enlargement and expansion.

Modern progress helps to make these things possible. The decentralisation of industries, the dispersal of industries in garden-towns, the possibility of combining industrial work with work in the fields, the possibility for women to emancipate themselves from the yoke of the individual household, the possibility of setting up co-operative institutions [établissements sociétaires] for the education of children, and so on – all this, says Mr Kabanoff, helps to make the complete development of individuality more and more possible.

The freedom, conquered by modern societies, to establish all kinds of societies to improve their conditions by all kinds of application of mutual aid and co-operation – freedom to which is added the ever growing autonomy of village and urban communities (that is to say of administrative organs approaching closer and closer to the population itself), as well as the free school that elevates the faculties of the child instead of depressing them – all this contributes to the same direction.

After showing once again how much it is necessary to exercise your intellectual faculties in a variety of directions (intellectual, poetic, artistic, love of nature, etc.), as the first condition for obtaining the necessary strength of resistance for the nervous system; and having indicated that the conditions of social hygiene required to achieve this do not yet exist, Professor Kabanoff concludes his work with the following few pages, which I translate in full.

“From the above it is clear,” he says, “that the most essential condition for combating morbid heredity [l'hérédité maladive] and the degeneration of society is to organise all life on the principles of mutual aid and co-operation.

“Indeed, it is doubtful that there exist other conditions that can yield the same maximum degree of impressions, increase the vigour of the individual, contribute to the development of his individuality and promote the same degree of social education, than co-operation, based on “mutual aid” and not on charity.

“But, apart from that, mutual aid and co-operation are of the utmost importance in the fight against all that prevents the real sanitation and progress of society, in other words, against that which hinders the action of measures aimed at combating morbid heredity.

“For, indeed, it is only through the free play of all varieties of mutual aid and co-operation that we can arrive at the complete development of the individual, which is not only the condition of all progress, but also its essence, its goal.

“In order to apply the principles of co-operation and mutual aid in life, the complete freedom of organisations is indispensable. It is necessary that all varieties of collaboration and mutual aid, co-operation and companionship can develop freely. And at the same time, it is also essential that a corresponding change in economic and social conditions take place, so that everyone can take part in the various kinds of co-operation and consider their relations with other individuals in a conscious and intelligent way. In other words, a certain material well-being, a certain leisure and a sufficient intellectual development are the first conditions.

“Finally, it is also necessary that the principles of local autonomy (of self-government, as the English say) are applied at all levels; it is necessary, in addition, that this local autonomy must be applied so that, as far as possible, the population itself, and not representatives, take a direct part in all local affairs. And it is necessary for this autonomous organisation of small administrative units to possess the broadest rights, the largest freedom in the management of local affairs and in the performance of local firms.

I omit here some repetitions made by the author to better explain his idea.

“Organised in this way” – continues the author – “the local administration, representing a special form of free co-operation, would be, with all other forms of co-operation and mutual aid, the best school for developing social instincts, social solidarity and public initiative. At the same time, it would also be the best means to achieve economic freedom, as well as political freedom; that is to say, the freedom to dispose of your time and your person in general, the possibility of rest, the freedom to move – not in theory only, but in reality; in short, a freedom which represents material well-being and independence: intellectual freedom, that is to say, liberation from tradition, the freedom of a being which thinks, and finally moral freedom. For moral servitude is submission to the established traditions of good and evil, even though these traditional conceptions are not in accord with what we consider as bad and immoral in the depths of our thought.

“To liberate yourself of this dependency (as to achieve intellectual freedom), it is obviously necessary to have at the same time a profound respect for every human person, for every individuality. For, indeed, there can be no personal freedom if we do not practice the same freedom for everyone. The conception of freedom, by its very essence, is a reciprocal conception (and this is especially true if you seek to raise the moral health of society); because moral freedom means the absence of any imposition, including the moral imposition of one individual on another.

“Only when this freedom, broad and expansive in every direction, exists, will each individual be able to develop all his faculties and his forces. Today, with our privileges of birth and of fortune, of education and of class, which exist alongside black misery and ignorance, men are placed in extremely unequal conditions in the struggle for existence. That is why it always happens that victory in this struggle belongs to those who are ill-adapted by their natural capacities to the needs of society, or to families that have fallen into degeneration, which becomes a cause of harm for society. Furthermore, those who are well adapted, thanks to their natural abilities, not only cannot develop all their strengths and faculties, but often they perish in the struggle, which is again an unmitigated waste for society. These two causes thus diminish the proportion of well-adapted individuals and contribute to the degeneration of society, taken as a whole.

“Thus, it is only by guaranteeing a full and broad freedom to all members of society, and by organising all life on the basis of co-operation and mutual aid, that the progress of degeneration in a society can be reduced to a minimum and brought back to their natural limits.”

Here is finally a sensible and scientific voice that is heard and which, obviously, contradicts the rantings of the “eugenicists.”

End Notes

[1] The First International Eugenics Congress took place in London on July 24–29, 1912 and was attended by around 400 delegates. A report by Bleecker van Wagenen presented information about American sterilization laws and propagated compulsory sterilisation as the best method to cut off “defective germ-plasm”. The final address extolled eugenics as the practical application of the principle of evolution. (Translator)

[2] Vernon Lyman Kellogg (1867-1937) was a U.S. entomologist, evolutionary biologist, and science administrator. A delegate to the congress from the American Breeders' Association, he gave a talk entitled “Eugenics and Militarism.” (Translator)

[3] Berkman is the young anarchist who shot at Frick, the head of the Homestead factories, after the big strike in which Pinkerton gunmen slaughtered the strikers. He was in prison for fourteen years, and he recounted his life during these fourteen years in a book, remarkable as a veracious document and as a literary work.

[4] We speak, understandably, not of individualism, which diminishes and narrows individuality, as will be understood one day, no doubt, by those who are still infatuated with Nietzsche, with his “blond beast,” and Stirner, with his bourgeois “association of egoists.”