Full text: papers communicated to the first International Eugenics Congress held at the University of London, July 24th to 30th, 1912

4Presidential Address. 
civilisations have arisen from time to time and have then died away, leaving 
the world little or no better for the progress thus temporarily made. It 
is true no doubt that, if we take a wide enough field of view, it does 
appear that the world has always been slowly advancing towards a better 
state of things, and the teachings of science need not shake the faith that 
some of us hold, that this advance is destined to continue in the future. 
But if we confine our view within a narrower horizon, and if we look 
merely at our own form of civilisation, the history of the past affords us 
no right whatever to prophecy a continued improvement in the lot of our race 
in the immediate future—no, not even the right to deny the possibility 
of the decadence of any nation. In fact, pride in our past achievements 
must not make us turn a deaf ear to the warnings which come from a 
study of the laws of heredity. Indeed many circumstances brought to 
light in recent investigations ought to force us to consider whether the 
progress of western civilisation is not now at a standstill, and, indeed, 
whether we are not in danger of an actual retrograde movement 
No doubt we are ignorant in many respects concerning the laws under 
which evolution has been operative in the past. We are especially ignorant 
about the final causes of variations in animals and plants, and also about 
the effects produced by environment on the racial qualities of future 
generations; and there may therefore be forces now at work making for 
racial progress or decay of which we know nothing. There is, however, 
certainly one agency which has had a great influence in the past and of 
which much is now known, and that is natural selection, or Nature playing 
the part of the breeder of cattle in refusing to breed from inferior stocks. 
This progressive agency, by continually weeding out the unfit, has always 
tended to make living beings more and more able to seize the opportunities 
offered to them by their environments. And it seems as if this forward 
movement had gone on during all the long ages since life first appeared 
on earth until recent times, when by our social methods we have been doing 
our best to prevent further progress being made by this same means. The 
unfit amongst men are now no longer necessarily killed off by hunger and 
disease, but are cherished with care, thus being enabled to reproduce their 
kind, however bad that kind may be. It is true that we cannot but glory 
in this saving of suffering; for the spirit which leads to the protection of 
the weak and afflicted is of all things that which is the best worth preserving 
on earth; and we can therefore never voluntarily go back to the crude 
methods of natural selection. But we must not blind ourselves to the 
danger of interfering with Nature’s ways, and we must proclaim aloud 
that to give ourselves the satisfaction of succouring our neighbours in 
distress without at the same time considering the effects likely to be pro­ 
duced by our charity on future generations is, to say the least, but weakness 
and folly.
        

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