Destiny of Crime

by Theodore Dalrymple (July 2013)

Those who mark books, I have noticed, tend to do so more heavily at their beginning than at their end. It is as if their attention wandered or they grew bored as they progressed; perhaps they do not even reach the last page.

My copy of a book with the title Crime as Destiny, published in English in 1931, is a good example. Its laudatory foreword was written by the great geneticist (and also Marxist), J B S Haldane. An unnamed previous owner has underlined in ink so much of this foreword that you might have supposed that he was trying to commit it to memory; it is not easy otherwise to guess why he should have underlined so obvious a thought as that ‘often a man who recognises his weaknesses arranges his life so as to avoid situations which he knows he cannot face.’ Could this really have come as a revelation to anyone, so much so that he deemed it worthy of emphasis?

The book was by Prof. Dr. Johannes Lange, Physician-in-Chief to the Munich-Schwabing Hospital and Departmental Director of the German Experimental Station for Psychiatry at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. It was translated by Haldane’s then wife, Charlotte, who was a feminist and socialist who subsequently became disillusioned with the Soviet Union when she was sent there in 1941 by the Daily Herald (the British trade union daily newspaper) as a war correspondent.

Johannes Lange was a psychiatrist, a pupil of Emil Kraepelin, the founder of modern psychiatric nosology; he died five years after the Nazi takeover of power and as far as I am aware had no political problems during that time. His career continued to flourish under Nazism.

Perhaps this was not altogether surprising, given the general drift of Crime as Destiny. Lange is mentioned twice in Paul Weindling’s Health, Race and German Politics between National Reunification and Nazism 1870 – 1945, an exhaustive account of the German medical profession’s intellectual propensity to compulsory euthanasia as a solution to social and psychiatric problems, real or imagined. Lange was a member of a government sterilization committee that met to consider the sterilization of psychiatric patients before Hitler’s arrival in power.

Crime as Destiny attempts to show that criminality is predominantly hereditary or genetic in nature. The author compared the rates of concordance for criminality of monozygotic (identical) and dizygotic (not-identical) twins: that is to say, the percentage of pairs in which, if one had a criminal record, the other had a criminal record also. The comparison is interesting because it is supposed to tease out what is caused by heredity and what by environment.

Monozygotic twins are genetically identical, whereas dizygotic twins are no more alike genetically than any other pair of siblings. It is therefore assumed that if, having been born at the same time into the same environment, dizygotic differ in rates of concordance of any given feature from the rates of concordance of monozygotic twins, the difference in those rates must be accounted for by heredity and not by environment. In this case, Lange found that 10 of 13 pairs of identical twins were concordant for criminal records whereas only 2 of 17 pairs of non-identical twins were concordant.  Crime is destiny (or is it that Destiny is Crime?).

I will not go into the many reasons why Lange’s conclusion that criminality is determined genetically was hasty and unproven at many levels of analysis; interestingly, the geneticist Haldane does not notice them in his foreword, which he concludes as follows:

If we desire that the fight against evil should be more successful in the future than it has been in the past, our first duty is to find out [the] causes…. No one in our generation has done more to dispel [the] darkness than Professor Lange.

It is likely also that Haldane’s wife endorsed Lange’s work, for she ends her own prefatory note:

The plain facts stated… could not be improved upon by any translator.

Early in his book Lange says something that is very startling, bearing in mind that his book was published four years before the Nazi accession to power:

We take the most comprehensive precautions to safeguard society, we sterilise thousands of criminals, and on the other hand we claim for a number of others protection on the ground of low powers of self-control which make them a danger to society, while we cannot know at all clearly who should be sterilised and who should be protected.

In his conclusion, Lange recalls one of his pair of identical twins, the Lauterbachs, both of them high-grade swindlers who, independently of one another, started companies to raise money for bogus inventions, and managed to inveigle large sums from investors. Lange says:

One might perhaps let them go [from prison] provided one could write their records on their foreheads for everyone to read, and if one could make it impossible for them to propagate their kind.

Lange seems to take it for granted that the son of a swindling Lauterbach will himself be a swindling Lauterbach; it is hardly surprising, then, that ‘we sterilise thousands of criminals.’

(Interestingly, the famous psychologist, H J Eysenck, who was born in Germany in 1916 but left in 1934 in protest against the Nazis, wrote a book published in 1964, revised and republished in 1977, entitled Crime and Personality, in which he maintained, like Johannes Lange, that criminality was predominantly hereditary in nature. Eysenck quoted Lange in extenso, most uncritically, and said of him that he was ‘the first to attack this whole problem [the heritability of criminality] in a truly scientific manner.’ Not surprisingly, the blurb of the 1977 edition of Eysenck’s book says:

Professor Eysenck’s emphasis [is] on the importance of heredity… He sees punishment as an irrelevant concept; instead we should try to eliminate criminal behaviour by whatever means psychological and experiment suggests.

(Such as sterilization, no doubt.)

The urge to sterilize the socially expensive or inconvenient on the grounds that they reproduce themselves is often treated as though it were a German nationalist or extreme right-wing aberration, but it is not. Eugenics was introduced into the world by the polymathic genius, Sir Francis Galton; it was quickly taken up (and acted upon) in the United States. I quote from a textbook published by Macmillan in 1918, and republished in 1924, called Applied Eugenics, by Paul Popenoe and Roswell Hill Johnson:

The inmates of prisons, penitentiaries, reformatories, and similar places of detention numbered 111,609 in 1910; this does not include 25,000 juvenile delinquents… it is worth noting that the number of offenders who are feeble-minded is probably not less than one-fourth or one-third. If the number of inebriates be could be added, it would greatly increase the total; and inebriacy or chronic alcoholism is generally recognized now as indicating in a majority of cases either feeble-mindedness or some other defect of the nervous system.

The number of criminals who are in some way neurotically tainted is placed by some psychologists at 50% or more of the total prison population… The estimate has frequently been made that the United States would be much better off eugenically if it were deprived of the future racial contributions of at least 10% of its citizens… When a criminal of this [feeble-minded] type is found, the duty of society is unquestionably to protect itself by cutting off that line of descent…

And the authors go on to list the states that have sterilization laws.

Nor is it true that eugenics as a means of dealing with social problems was particularly attractive to the authoritarian right (if statist nationalism is on the right): it was equally attractive to the authoritarian left. The intellectual progenitors of the British welfare state, Beatrice and Sydney Webb, H G Wells and Bernard Shaw were strongly in favour of eugenics, both positive and negative. And by now it is well-known that Scandinavian welfare democracies continued with their eugenic programmes into the 1970s.

Oddly enough it was G K Chesterton who was the most far-sighted of opponents of eugenics. In 1922 he published a book, mostly written before the First World War, entitled Eugenics and Other Evils. It begins:

The wisest thing in the world is to cry out before you are hurt. It is no good to cry out after you are hurt. People talk about the impatience of the populace; but sound historians know that most tyrannies have been possible because men moved too late. It is often necessary to resist a tyranny before it exists. It is no answer to say, with a distant optimism, that the scheme is only in the air. A blow from a hatchet can only be parried while it is in the air.

He foresaw the horrors that eugenics might bring.

Not everything about Chesterton’s book is admirable, however. It contains a certain amount of casual anti-Semitism, though mild by what was soon to come elsewhere. And I think that Chesterton misunderstood the psychology behind eugenics, to which he devoted the second half of his book (the first half he devoted to proving to his own satisfaction that eugenics was based upon fundamental, and obvious, intellectual error).

Chesterton thought that eugenics was the response of a plutocratic capitalist class to an understanding, whether a conscious one or not, that it derived its wealth from the exploitation of the labour of the poor, and that it was the beneficiary of an economic system that accorded no place whatever in the unequal scheme of things to a considerable part of the population (this, after all, is what kept wages low). Under feudalism, said Chesterton, the lord and the peasant were highly unequal, but the peasant nevertheless enjoyed minimal customary rights over the parcel of land that he was allotted, from which the lord could not evict him even though he was the lord. By contrast, continued Chesterton, those at the bottom of the scale in a plutocratic capitalist state had no rights or protections at all; the homeless in such a state, for example, had neither a right to a home nor to wander homelessly about the country in search of somewhere to rest their heads. They likewise had a right neither to a subsistence nor to ask (that is to say, to beg) others for a subsistence. The only pleasure left to them in such a society was sex and its consequent reproduction; and the plutocratic class was worried that, by means of rapid and uncontrolled reproduction, the very lowest social class would increase in size relative to all the others and thereby threaten the social order, that is to say its own security. For reasons of its own survival, therefore, it came to believe that biological inferiority inhered in the lowest social class and that this inferiority was genetic in nature; therefore it was politic to prevent it from reproducing. Eugenics was the means by which this would be achieved. 

There are several problems with this theory. The first is that it takes the homeless demographically fecund tramp as representative of the lowest social class. But in reality such tramps were not very common, nor was it true that the standard of living of the lowest social class was constantly falling below that of the peasant in feudal society; the protections enjoyed by the lowest social class at the time Chesterton wrote were different from those of the feudal peasant, and were no doubt insufficient for a decent life, but they were real nonetheless.

Second, it was clear to at least some of those whom Chesterton calls plutocrats that the immiseration of the general population was not necessarily in their own economic interests, if for no other reason than that a totally impoverished population would not have the wherewithal to buy the increasingly sophisticated range of products made by the plutocrats’ companies. A plutocrat like Henry Ford, for example, depended on a population rich enough to buy his mass-produced products. It is in the economic interests of plutocrats that everyone should be impoverished only if an economy is a zero-sum game; the appreciation it is not such a game, and that cheapness of labour is not the royal road to economic success, while by no means universal, was actually quite widespread.  Employers wanted to keep wages down in their enterprises not to immiserate workers, but to ensure that their products were cheap enough for others to buy at a profit to themselves. They did not want a majority of the world’s population to be as poor as possible.

Third, socialists were at least as keen on eugenics as plutocrats, and in fact their enthusiasm for it lasted much longer.

Eugenics, I suspect, was in reality a symptom of a growing impatience of intellectuals with the intractability of the human condition, with the fact that that Man was irredeemably imperfect. And this impatience grew because of a decline in the religious understanding of life (it was no coincidence that Chesterton, who saw so easily through the pretensions of eugenics, should have been firmly Christian, while none of his opponents was). In the 1920s sterilization of the unfit would do for humanity what psychopharmacology is now supposed to do: render it happy because perfect. No one with an understanding of Original Sin could believe such a thing – even if Original Sin is not based upon an actual historical truth.


Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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