When Did Eugenics Slip Into Religious and Spiritual Movements?

When Did Eugenics Slip Into Religious and Spiritual Movements?

While watching a YouTube video interview discussing Neville Goodard, one of the hosts Josiah Brandt jokingly says something to the effect that for him “Neville Goddard is grandpa, Barbara Marx Hubbard is grandma and Brian Scott the other host, is dad”…. found it a bit bizarre to “marry” Neville Goddard with the spiritual eugenicist Hubbard….and not sure how Brian Scott would feel about being part of that family.

In any case, while researching Barbara Marx Hubbard…came across a very interesting essay by Jules Evans, Barbara Marx Hubbard and the Evolutionary Leaders

A few excerpts:

The shadow side of this evolutionary spirituality (as regular readers will know by now) is a tendency to spiritual inflation and spiritual elitism — it’s not very attractive to be certain you are one of the very few enlightened humans who are steering the evolution of the species. Nor is it very endearing when you declare that only the smart should survive (Salk called this ‘survival of the wisest’), and everyone else is disposable (Salk tested out the polio vaccine on mentally retarded children, while both Huxley and Chardin were advocates of the eugenic sterilization of those they deemed obstacles to humanity’s advance).

Barbara Marx Hubbard, mother of conscious evolution

In the 1960s, these ideas spread into popular American culture and attracted people who were not, strictly, part of the intellectual or scientific elite, although they were wealthy and happily saw themselves as part of the evolutionary elite.

Such a one was Barbara Marx Hubbard, the ‘mother of evolution’, the ‘midwife of humanity’s transformation’, an extraordinarily grandiose figure, whose actual achievements pale besides her cosmic self-estimation. GK Chesterton once said of HG Wells, ‘one can lie awake at night and hear him grow’, but Wells to some extent earned his self-inflation. Ol’ Mother Hubbard, not so much.

I’ve been researching her this year — I read three of her books, God help me — and this week watched a documentary on her, American Visionary, which you can watch for free over the next few days here(as of December 19 2020). It is a poignant portrait of the bubble of spiritual narcissism encountering reality.

Barbara was born in New York in the 1930s, the daughter of a beautiful mother and a millionaire father, Louis Marx, who owned the largest toy company in the world. Sadly, her mother died of breast cancer when she was a child — she still, in her 80s, burst into tears when recounting this traumatic event.

Barbara went to Paris and married an American artist. But the life of a wife and mother did not fulfil her ambition. A greater destiny was calling to her.

It seems that, around this time, she had a powerful mystical experience, in which she felt herself rise into space and see the Earth from above, labouring to breathe and covered by too many humans. Then she heard Evolution itself speaking to her.

I heard the words: ‘Our story is a birth. What Christ and all the great beings came to reveal is we’re one, we’re good, we’re universal. Go tell the story Barbara’.

Barbara left her husband to preach the Evolution of Humanity. She went to work for Jonas Salk on outreach projects for his new Institute, and fell in unrequited love with him. She read Sri Aurobindo and met Abraham Maslow and Buckminster Fuller. She became a fervent flirty networker — she describes the thrill of networking, or ‘synergy’, as ‘better than sex’.

She started to call herself a ‘futurist’ and worked on various grand projects. She worked on a project with Salk called the Theatre of the World— an attempt to tell the story of evolution dramatically, which didn’t come to much (although Robert Anton Wilson saw it and loved it). She led a project to persuade NASA to have a ‘people’s shuttle’, but the idea didn’t take off.

In 1984 she ran to be the vice-presidential candidate for the Democratic Party. Her manifesto was that there should be a Peace Room in the vice-president’s office, like the War Room, but to map all the good projects happening in the world.

She managed to get a nomination, and the speech she gave at the 1984 Democratic Convention was taken as proof of the extraordinary power of consciousness, will and intention to alter reality. Magical politics!

Read the rest here

Jules Evans’ Spiritual Eugenics Project

Even more fascinating is Evans series of lectures,  Jules Evans’ Spiritual Eugenics project (2021) that explore the eugenic aspects of religions and spiritual movements.

So far it is a series of six essays.

Here are some takeaways from each essay.

1) Introducing ‘Spiritual Eugenics’

By eugenics I refer to a programme, launched in 1883 by Francis Galton, to improve the genetic quality of human beings, through negative eugenics (preventing those deemed genetically unfit from passing on their genes, either through voluntary or involuntary sterilization, confinement, or extermination) and through positive eugenics (encouraging those deemed genetically fit to pass on their genes more, through breeding with others deemed fit, or through donating their seed to ‘genius sperm banks’).

Many nations around the world pursued eugenic policies from the 1900s to the 1970s, with the United States leading the world in the 1920s and Nazi Germany following its lead in the 1930s and 1940s. Starting in the 1980s, this cruel and ineffective scientific programme to steer human evolution received a boost from genetic editing technologies, which began to make it possible to alter the genes of human foetuses, and reignited the dream of engineering superbeings.

For the last 18 months of the pandemic, I have been researching the overlap between New Age spirituality and eugenics. I came across this connection by accident, when I was researching the life and ideas of Aldous Huxley.

I realized how many other figures in the New Age occulture, broadly configured, voiced support for eugenics at some point in their careers. Theosophical leaders like Madame BlavatskyAnnie BesantLady Emily Lutyens, and Rudolph Steiner wrote of the evolution of superior races and the inevitable dying off of inferior races, and sometimes called for eugenic policies to aid this process. Aleister Crowley, WB Yeats, and several other members of the Order of the Golden Dawn also enthusiastically embraced eugenics as a means to develop a master-race of superbeings. So did members of the Society for Psychical Research, an important organisation for the Modernist New Age — several of the SPR’s presidents and leading figures, such as Arthur Balfour, William McDougall and FCS Schiller, were also leading members of the Eugenics Society, as were psychical researchers in other countries, like Nobel prize-winners Charles Richet and Alexis Carrel.

Many other New Age figures in the second half of the 20th century espoused a form of evolutionary spirituality in which a small elite are supposedly evolving into superbeings. This idea is at the heart of the human potential movement and much of New Age culture. The flipside of this dream is the belief that many humans, perhaps most, are not evolving, they may even be degenerating, and this mass of subhumans must be left behind or dealt with in some way, as the small spiritual elite evolve into superhumans.

Deepak Chopra, Barbara Marx Hubbard and several other New Age thinkers are founding members of an organization called Evolutionary Leaders, dedicated to steering humanity’s shift into superhumans. Both Barbara Marx Hubbard and her mentor, Buckminster Fuller, believed they were the cosmically-appointed vessels for the spirit of ‘evolution’, sent to help humanity evolve (or some humans, anyway). Various spiritual influencers offer courses, today, in ‘DNA activation’ — you can fulfil your divine genetic potential by meditating, chanting, and taking certain supplements.

Meanwhile, eugenics as a scientific programme morphed into ‘genetic enhancement’, a field which is alive, well, and living in California. There, organisations like the Salk Institute are trying to find the genes (human or animal) that can create superhumans. One sometimes meets the dream of genetic enhancement in New Age spirituality, but more often it’s found in an adjacent cultural neighbourhood — the world of transhumanism and biohacking, where people (usually men) turn to technologies ranging from psychedelics to neuroenhancers, from stem cell injections to gene editing to try and reverse ageing, optimize performance, hack death and become gods. These techniques are then sold in books and courses with titles like Superhuman: The Bulletproof Plan to Age Backwards and Maybe Live Forever; or The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance.

What I am not trying to do is simply debunk or denounce New Age culture, and to haul the spirits of various long-dead teachers into a celestial court-room, to sentence them and cast them into the outer darkness.

Eugenics emerged out of a deep human tendency to classify humans into Good and Bad, Pure and Polluted. It also emerged from the ancient dream that if we could just clean up impure humanity, and eliminate the evil and imperfect ones, we could create a perfect world. I see a similar tendency on both the far right and the far left today. Our brains love to collapse history into simplistic narratives with clearly demarcated heroes and villains. For example, on the one side, the righteous warriors of Anti-Racism, Anti-Imperialism, Feminism, LGBTQ+ rights, Indigenous rights, Anti-Capitalism and Intersectionality. On the side of darkness, White Supremacy, Patriarchy, Privilege, Capital and the Global North. With such clear heroes and villains, historical scholarship is an easy task — one simply tracks down anyone who expressed any support for eugenics and packs them off to the gulag of the damned.

2) Pre-Darwinian precedents for spiritual eugenics

It will explore how New Age spirituality adapted Darwin’s theory of natural selection into a theory of the ‘spiritual evolution’ of a new species of superbeings, a master-race. Along with this, one often finds the idea that some humans are not evolving, not ‘fully human’ (to use Abraham Maslow’s phrase), and these sub-humans perhaps need to be controlled, maybe sterilized or even at worst exterminated, to aid the next stage of humanity’s spiritual evolution.

This was, and still is, a very common idea in spirituality — particularly the idea that some humans are evolving into superhumans, and there is a genetic, hereditary aspect to this.

In Plato, one finds a similar idea to the Upanishads — humans have the potential to awaken to our true, divine nature, but in practice most humans are asleep and sunken in bestial desires. In The Republic, Plato divides humans into a spiritual hierarchy, with a priestly caste of philosophers at the top, then warriors, then the masses. The Republic suggests the philosopher-rulers should oversee citizens’ reproduction, so the ‘best’ breed with the best. Citizens might object to this scheme, so instead their breeding would apparently be governed by a state lottery, which would in fact be fixed by the philosopher-rulers (one of Plato’s more ridiculous ideas).

Renaissance magic was deeply influenced by Plato’s philosophy and the idea that the magus can, through magical techniques, become superhuman. Some magi also wrote schemes for Platonic utopias. One spiritual eugenic example is The City of the Sun, written by an Italian magus called Tommasso Campanella and published in 1602. Campanella’s Platonic utopia is run by an elite of priest-magicians, who use astrological magic to govern the city. The chief priest, in his utopia, is also in charge of the city’s breeding, and chooses who can breed and when, to ensure the spiritual fitness of the population.

3) The Varieties of Darwinism

As we’ll see, Darwinism was a decisive influence for the alternative forms of New Age spirituality that emerged in the late 19th century. New Age innovators adapted and spiritualized the idea of natural evolution, to create theories of ‘spiritual evolution’, in which humans (or a few special humans) are evolving into a new species of homo superior. This project explores the repercussions of that idea, and how it sometimes led to spiritual elitism and ‘spiritual eugenics’.

The principle influence on Darwin’s revolutionary idea was his reading of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population (1798), which Darwin read ‘for amusement’ in 1838.

Humans thus found themselves in a radically new and confusing universe in the late 19th century, in which their identity, values and destiny were uncertain. Does the universe care about us? Do we have free will? What was the grounding for ethical claims, if not God? Were some ways of living, some societies, perhaps some races, better or more ‘fit’ than others?

Would humans evolve into something new and glorious, or would we go extinct? And could we even perhaps intervene in the evolutionary process, to create ‘higher’ and ‘better’ forms of human? This was the ‘creed’ of eugenics, introduced in 1883 by Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton.

4) Francis Galton and the new religion of Eugenics

On the 18th of January, 1874, a remarkable dinner party took place at the London home of Erasmus Darwin, older brother of naturalist Charles Darwin. The guests included Charles Darwin, the novelist George Eliot, a young classicist named Frederic Myers, and Darwin’s cousin, the statistician Francis Galton.

After dinner, they sat around the dinner table in darkness, eyes closed, hands touching on the table. At the head of the table sat a famous medium, Charles Williams. Darwin’s son George had organized an experimental séance with Williams, to see if there was any truth to his claim that he could contact the dead. George and his cousin, Hensleigh Wedgewood, positioned themselves under the dinner table for the séance, clinging to the medium’s legs. They wanted to make sure the medium didn’t try any ‘jugglery’, as Charles Darwin put it, by banging on the table and claiming it was the spirits.

For a long time, nothing happened. Charles Darwin started to find the séance ‘hot and tiring’, so he went to bed. Shortly afterwards, a connection to the spirit-world was finally established. The spirits’ arrival was announced by the movement of various items which the medium had placed around the room — a chair, a flute, a bell, a candlestick. It ‘astounded everyone and took their breath away’, Charles Darwin wrote in a letter to his friend, the botanist Joseph Hooker. He continued:

How the man could possibly do what was done, passes my understanding. I came down stairs & saw all the chairs &c &c on the Table which had been lifted over the heads of those sitting round it. — The Lord have mercy on us all, if we have to believe in such rubbish.

For Galton, this foray into the spirit world was a one-off — he ultimately dismissed Spiritualism as bunk. But his eugenic ideas were taken up and endorsed by many in the ‘occulture’ of late 19th and early 20th century society, as this research project explores.

If anyone has heard of Francis Galton today, it is as the notorious inventor of ‘eugenics’ — the attempt to steer the genetic evolution of humanity, for the good of the species. Eugenics is now a taboo word. But there was more to Galton than that.

He had a mania for classifying and grading humans. He invented a beauty map of Britain, scoring the men and women according to their physical attractiveness (Aberdeen scored lowest). And this obsession with classifying the fittest led to his chief interest — heredity, and how talents and flaws are passed on through the generations.

He noted that certain families — like the Darwins, the Galtons and the Wedgwoods (who all intermarried) — produced more than average people of exceptional talent. There appeared to be what Noel Annan would call an ‘intellectual aristocracy’ of certain families that produced the cognitive elite of a country.

In the years after Galton’s death, eugenics was taken up by many — perhaps most — British intellectuals and politicians. Edwardian society became panicked that the unfit were outbreeding the fit, and the English national ‘stock’ was degenerating. Thinkers like George Bernard Shaw and politicians like William Churchill argued the mentally unfit should be confined, perhaps sterilized, or even (in Shaw’s off-hand suggestion) sent to the gas chamber.

This moral panic led to the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which allowed for the confinement of those deemed mentally unfit, sometimes for decades. It was only replaced by the Mental Health Act in 1959. Sterilization of those deemed unfit was never legalized in the UK, despite the efforts of campaigners like Sir Julian Huxley.

Meanwhile the gospel of eugenics spread around the world, and proved particularly popular in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s, and in Nazi Germany. The Nazis’ murder of anyone deemed mentally, physically or racially defective made eugenics a taboo word, loaded with associations with white supremacy and fascism. And it’s true that Galton also categorized the races into a hierarchy — in an 1873 letter to the Times he argued Africa should be given to the ‘industrious, order-loving Chinese’.

Now, some contemporaries of Galton’s argued that an interest in mysticism or spirituality, or a tendency to altered states of consciousness, was evidence of your mental unfitness and perhaps classified you for the mad-house. That was the opinion of Henry Maudsley, the British psychiatrist and author of Natural Causes and Supernatural Seemings (1887). It was also the view of Jean-Martin Charcot, founder of Europe’s first neurology clinic in the 1880s, who argued that religious ecstasy was a symptom of a brain pathology called ‘hysteria’.

Max Nordau, author of the influential 1893 book Degeneration, suggested a tendency to mysticism was evidence of congenital instability. He wrote: ‘Mystics are enemies to society of the direst kind. Society must unconditionally defend itself against them…[Civilized society] must mercilessly crush under his thumb the anti-social vermin.’

As a defence against this sort of thinking, leading mystical and spiritual thinkers adapted and remixed evolutionary and eugenicist ideas into ‘spiritual eugenics’. The person who was responsible for the injection of eugenic ideas into alternative spirituality was Friedrich Nietzsche, whose hymn to the superbeing, Thus Spake Zarathustra¸ was published in 1883, the same year Galton coined the word ‘eugenics’. We’ll examine Nietzsche’s ideas and influence in the next chapter.

5) Nietzsche and the New Age cult of the superbeing

Nietzsche prophesied his works would only become known 20 years after their publication. This turned out to be true. From around 1900, his books were discovered and translated, and they went off like dynamite in European intellectual culture. The playwright George Bernard Shaw declared in 1896: ‘Before long, you must be prepared to talk about Nietzsche or retire from society.’ The American reactionary columnist HL Mencken announced in 1904 that Nietzsche was ‘the prophet and embodiment of those habits of thought which are dominant among the thinking men of the world today’.

Why did his thinking capture the zeitgeist? It was an important part of what has been called the ‘mystical revival’ of the 1880s-1920s (see Alex Owen’s The Place of Enchantment, 2007). The 1860s-1870s had been the hey-day of Darwinism, scientific naturalism and materialism. But by the 1880s, the public mood had shifted. Where was meaning and purpose in the materialist universe? What about the mind, the soul, mystical experiences, life after death?

The intellectual and artistic culture of the 1880s-1920s was remarkably heterodox. New ideas and fads mingled together: occultism, psychical research, socialism, vegetarianism, anti-vax or anti-vivisection activism, ‘simple living’, arts and crafts, ‘life worship’, fascism, feminism, homosexuality, eugenics, ecology and the Nietzschean cult of the superman, all could jostle together and fuse in surprising ways. The playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up the eclecticism of the time: ‘I have attended a Fabian meeting, gone on to hear the end of a Psychical Research one, and finished by sleeping in a haunted house with a committee of ghost hunters.”

You can see this heterodox mingling of ideas in the pages of The New Age, a progressive journal edited by A.R Orage from 1907 to 1922, before Orage left to become a disciple of Gurdjieff. In the 1890s, Orage was a young spiritual seeker in Yorkshire. One day in a Leeds bookstore, he met another young seeker — Holbrook Jackson — who handed him a copy of Thus Spake Zarathustra. Orage read it all night and came back the next day with eyes gleaming.

Orage and Jackson set up an ideas society in Leeds, then moved to London and bought The New Age in 1907, turning it into the most exciting avant garde journal of its day. In its pages could be found essays on everything from scientific utopianism to occultism, from Fabianism to psychical research. But above all, Orage turned The New Age into a vehicle for preaching Nietzsche’s cult of the superbeing. In his first edition, he wrote:

Believing that the daring object and purpose of the universal will of life is the creation of a race of supremely and progressively intelligent beings, the NEW AGE will devote itself to the serious endeavour to co-operate with the purposes of life…

6) Dune, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and ‘occult eugenics’

This is the latest chapter in my project to explore ‘spiritual eugenics’. It looks at occult eugenics in the practices and books of members of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a very influential occult society of the late 19th century. Its members believed they could use sex magic to engineer the incarnation of highly-evolved beings — an idea which would appear in later fantasy fiction, including Frank Herbert’s Dune.

The Golden Dawn taught that the point of life is for the soul to evolve. Initiation and adepthood were a way for a human to evolve spirituality…The over-arching function of the Order of the Golden Dawn was to facilitate the evolution of the human race, working through one individual at a time. [Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Yeats, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune, 2015, p.15]

The Golden Dawn was an unashamedly elitist organisation. It embraced Nietzsche’s idea that there is a tiny elite of humans who are responsible for all cultural and spiritual growth. To be an adept in the Golden Dawn was to be a member of this evolutionary elite. Israel Regardie, a disciple of Aleister Crowley’s who went on to write a popular account of Golden Dawn magic, said near the end of his life:

I would say that The Golden Dawn is an elitist system. Even in its heyday during the late 90’s and in the early part of this century, there probably were never more than 250 people at most in all the manifold temples in England… it is for those few who are willing to take evolution into their own hands, and make these attempts to transform themselves. The great mass of people are quite willing to drift along. They want no part or have no idea of voluntary forms of evolution, self-induced and self-devised. [An Interview with Israel Regardie, His Final Thoughts and Views]

Unlike the Theosophical Society, the Golden Dawn was closed to the general public. It was secret, and you needed to be invited and then initiated. The Order was hierarchical. Adepts were initiated to the first grade, and then had the chance to ascend the ten grades, according to their scholarly and magical abilities. Ruling the hierarchy were the three founders, and above them were the ‘secret chiefs’ — legendary figures who supposedly gave the founders directions, much as the ‘Masters’ supposedly gave direction to Madame Blavatsky in Theosophy. Mathers claimed the Chiefs were ‘human and living upon this earth; but possessing terrible superhuman powers’.

Golden Dawn adepts were taught to use sex magic as a means to assist their own spiritual evolution into superbeings. The basic idea was that sexual attraction between two adepts, usually a husband and wife, created a ‘magnetic polarity’ of opposites, which generated energy that could be used for spiritual advancement. The Golden Dawn also believed that sex magic could ensure your progeny are the reincarnation of highly evolved souls who would assist the evolution of humanity.

They probably took this idea from the body of Jewish mysticism and magic known as kabbalah, and specifically from the 13th century Kabbalah text, the Zohar, which declares:

When a man cleaves to his mate and his desire is to receive her, he worships before the holy King and arouses another union, for the desire of the Holy One, blessed be He, is to cleave to the community of Israel…for we have learned that, as res result of the king’s cohabitation with the Assembly of Israel, large numbers of the righteous come into their sacred inheritance, and a multitude of blessings are bestowed upon the world.

According to a new book by Professor Marla Segol, the idea behind this passage is that, if you and your partner prepare the proper spiritual frame of mind while having sex, you can bring down the blessings of Jehovah and make it more likely that your progeny will be one of the ‘righteous’. However, you need to be careful — if the spell goes wrong or your mind is impure, you could accidentally incarnate a demon-child. (You can watch a presentation by Professor Segol here).

According to some scholars, Kabbalah is the earliest source for western sex magic. But in fact, you could argue that humans have always used magic and prayer to appeal to the heavens for healthy, blessed children. Records for this sort of fertility magic go back at least as far as ancient Rome. The Bible could be read as one long prayer to secure ‘good births’, from Abraham and Sarah, to Mary and God.

Jules Evans Books

When Did Eugenics Slip Into Religious and Spiritual Movements?
When Did Eugenics Slip Into Religious and Spiritual Movements?
When Did Eugenics Slip Into Religious and Spiritual Movements?
When Did Eugenics Slip Into Religious and Spiritual Movements?
Eugenics in Religious and Spiritual Movements
Article Name
Eugenics in Religious and Spiritual Movements
Jules Evans’ Spiritual Eugenics project (2021) that explores the eugenic aspects of religions and spiritual movements.