1920s >> 1923 >> no-224-april-1923

Any More For The Sieve?

You will remember the immortal lines of Edward Lear :

“They went to sea in a sieve they did ;
In a sieve they went to sea.”

And then, after extravagant and variegated adventures, in the last verse he informed us :

‘‘In forty years they all came back,
“In forty years or more.”

I mention this to introduce you to the great thought that has struck Professor Arthur Thomson! He thinks we should all go into the sieve again; and, unlike kindly Edward Lear, he doesn’t want us all to come back.

We welcome the appearance in popular journalism of the man of science. It is good and fitting that those who have been enabled to withdraw from the cut and thrust of commercial life and pursue the search for knowledge exclusively should repay their debt to society in this way. It is to be feared, however, that with the standard of popular journalism fairly low, the scientific contributor is apt to follow suit. But to return to the sieve. The readers of “John O’ London’s Weekly’’ for March 17th were informed, under the large heading, “Mankind Must Be Sifted,’’ of the pickle we are in.

  “There is too little sifting. If ten biologists were asked what feature in modern civilisation gave them most anxiety . . . we are inclined to think all would agree in placing first the relative slackness of selective processes working in the direction of progressive evolution.”

Professor Thomson apparently does not agree with Viscount Grey, who in a recent lecture said that the great question which transcended all others in importance at the present time was the relationship between Capital and Labour. But that is merely by the way. Each to his taste, as it were. He summarises in an able and popular way the successive conquests of poor, puny man over rugged, titanic, barbaric Nature.

  ‘‘These were ages of stern sifting; they lasted long, and they had good results. Man was lifted to good purpose.”

But Professor Thomson almost deplores the fact that in the contest, microbe versus man, it is the microbe which is increasingly taking the count. There are some diseases, he tells us, that weed out the weaker and leave the stronger surviving.

  “But this is a rapidly dwindling process, for the progress of hygiene and preventive medicine tends to eliminate the eliminators; and if we devise methods for saving useful lives, . . .  we have to use them for saving weakly lives as well.”

How sad! How Professor Thomson must have cursed his article of the previous week, wherein he praised the work of Jenner and his conquest of smallpox. That’s the worst of this journalism business; your stuff’s in print before you have time to think. However, at the time of going to press, pending the publication of a further article on a new dilemma of civilisation, there seems to be a case for the scrapping of our sewage system and the return of the cesspool. Let Nature do the sifting. The weakest to the wall, that’s Nature’s way. There are sections of mankind who, so other professors have told us, do give Nature a chance with the sieve. Babies not up to market size are exposed to the vultures, or thrown to the crocodiles. Elderly people who feel the strain of living getting too much for them have their brains beaten out with clubs by their sons. The natives of India treat as sacred the poisonous reptiles which wipe out a few thousand of them every year. They decline to resist the claim of the bubonic plague germ to a place in the sun.

I fear I am doing Professor Thomson an injustice. He sees the other horn of the dilemma. Space precludes quoting in full, but he says :

  “Now, the throwing off of the yoke of Natural Selection without substituting for it any processes of sifting that can pretend to be adequately testing or consistent or well thought out means for man a difficult dilemma and a great danger . . .  the growing solidarity or integration of society makes it easier for the inferior, or defective, or undesirable slacker, to continue to live and multiply. ”

Now to his remedies, his sieves :

  “(1) The multiplication of the radically undesirable must be checked. (2) . . . re-education of public opinion in the lines of the old-fashioned eugenic ideals of pride of race and pride in having a vigorous family. (3) . . . selection which takes the form of insisting on efficiency requirements. The more of this the better when the requirements are reasonable, and when they tend to make life more difficult for unreliable types whose multiplication is not in the interests of the race. (4) . . . To put an end—so gradually that the process is not cruel—to the less desirable occupations. (5) Perhaps the sifting may come sooner than we think, and in an undesirable form.”

He does not mean warfare, for, as he says, war thins rather than sifts, and works in the wrong direction by removing the bravest and best. He concludes rather nebulously by saying :

  “Perhaps it is safer to say that man must more resolutely seek to discover rational and social modes of selection to take the place of Natural Selection, whose rule Is almost over—What is needed is a progressive evolution of sieves.”

Nebulous certainly seems the aptest adjective. Notice how the changes are rung on desirable and undesirable. By whom and for whom? Why is the question never once raised as to who and what are the defectives; whence they come or how they arise. I have seen it stated by another of the professorial fraternity that in spite of all hereditary taint 99 per cent. are born perfect. When one thinks of the lives led by millions of workers, this figure is surprisingly low. What happens after birth the war recruiting strikingly revealed, for to get an army of any size, the deaf, the half-blind, the half-witted, and the epileptic were roped in by the hundred. Reflect upon the thousands of dentists, tearing out the teeth of the nation; upon the thousands of oculists attending to our eyes; the battalions of doctors waxing fat on our unhealthiness; our huge and overcrowded hospitals, asylums, yes, and prisons; and then ask, is it sieves we want? Many “enlightened” employers have found that garden cities, well ventilated factories, fatigue reducing methods, staff athletic clubs, canteens, etc., result in higher efficiency, reduced sickness and greater contentment. They have found that the manufacture of defectives does not pay in their particular business. In scores of other businesses it does not matter. Any lapse through the non-operation of these factors is speedily remedied through the Labour Exchange. The employing class as a whole never says, “Low wages mean stunted men, starved women and defective children.” It never says, “Long hours and intense toil mean premature age, empty lives and high accident rates for the toilers.” But they do mean so. For every defective born there is a hundred made by capitalism. For the defective born there is a hope of cure; for the defective made there is none—except Socialism. Professor Thomson would chuck him in the sieve. The Socialist would render the sieve unnecessary by ceasing the manufacture of defectives. The scientific professor is concerned with effects, the Socialist with causes. Judge you between us.

W. T. Hopley