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A Martian view of the Hardinian taboo

BMJ 1998; 316 doi: (Published 02 May 1998) Cite this as: BMJ 1998;316:1386

Eugenics is flourishing among population control groups and intellectual elites

  1. Gregory Gardner, Locum general practitioner (gardner{at}
  1. 64 Chelworth Road, Birmingham B38 0AE
  2. 1 bis Rue du Tir, Geneva 1204, Switzerland

    EDITOR—Ideologically driven movements are rarely equipped or eager to examine their own presuppositions. The population control lobby and its apologists in the BMJ1 are examples.

    King and Elliott, for instance, extol the ideas of Garrett Hardin. Hardin is a eugenicist, being a former director of the American Eugenics Society. He was an active member at the same time as the Nazi eugenicist Otmar Von Verschuer, who became a foreign member in 1956.2 Verschuer, who was a teacher of Josef Mengele and similarly interested in research on twins, helped finance Mengele's grotesque experiments at Auschwitz. “My assistant Dr Mengele has joined me in this branch of research. He is presently employed as Hauptsturmfuhrer and camp physician in the concentration camp at Auschwitz … the blood samples are being sent to my laboratory for analysis.”3 The activities of Verschuer were well known, but, far from being treated as an outcast, he was given honour and academic favours by the eugenics establishment.

    That Hardin would associate with those who trampled on human rights is not surprising. In 1969 he wrote, “Coercion is a dirty word to most liberals now but it need not forever be so. As with the four letter words, its dirtiness can be cleansed away by exposure to the light, by saying it over and over, without apology or embarrassment.”4

    The links between eugenics and population control are not difficult to discover. The International Planned Parenthood Federation was a member of the Eugenics Society in 1977. It still financially supports China's brutal coercive population policy, under which women have undergone forced abortion and sterilisation and untold numbers of baby girls have been killed. The Chinese law promotes these atrocities on eugenic grounds.

    King and Elliott claim that the genocide in Rwanda was due to population pressures. The real cause was eugenic racism. “All manner of humiliating folly was employed in the name of proving this theory of innate Tutsi superiority. Skulls and noses were measured.… The effect of this injustice and of the stereotyping of the Hutu as lesser beings was to create murderous feelings of inferiority and resentment.”5

    Eugenics did not die out in 1945. It is flourishing among population control groups and intellectual elites, and now it is on the pages of the BMJ.


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    Author's reply

    1. Maurice King, Honorary research fellow, University of Leeds (mhking{at}
    1. 64 Chelworth Road, Birmingham B38 0AE
    2. 1 bis Rue du Tir, Geneva 1204, Switzerland

      EDITOR—Our only presupposition was that there is something to be done other than casting a taboo over the whole problem when a community proceeds to starvation and slaughter as the result of exceeding the carrying capacity of its ecosystem, and its opportunities for migration, and the ability of its economy to produce necessary exports which it can exchange for essential imports, especially food—that is, it is demographically trapped. If tribal tensions are already acute, slaughter is inevitable. We argued that the level of slaughter normally endemic in the region would not have escalated in quite the way it did had not Rwanda been severely trapped.

      Here is the definitive report on the genocide: “the decision to kill was made by politicians. But at least part of the reason why it was carried out so thoroughly by the ordinary … peasants was the feeling that there were too many people on too little land, and with a few less there would be more for the survivors.”1 That would be tempting indeed if each person has only 34 m2 of some eroding hillside, as in Ruhondo.

      Demeny named this taboo, as he applied it to the discussion of entrapment by his fellow demographers in his own journal, the Population and Development Review. He named it by virtue of the fact that, as an ecologist, Garrett Hardin has over many years described the taboos that we humans apply to our population problems, of which demographic entrapment is merely the gravest.

      Whatever else Hardin may or may not have done is irrelevant to this issue. As an ecologist he considers us humans to be constrained by the limitations of food, territory, and migration and not somehow above them (the humanist exemption). Consequently, he has studied the taboos we use to avoid facing them. For this work he has had them named after him.

      Gardner muddles eugenics (“controlled breeding for desirable inherited characteristics” (Oxford English Dictionary)) with “population control,” a term inserted in the title of our paper by the editor and one that we avoid, since it is often used emotively. We argue that the legitimate incentives and disincentives for fertility control may be better than for a community, of whatever ethnic group, to proceed to starvation or slaughter. This issue needs to be debated globally in the context of a United Nations programme for a one-child world; it continues at


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