It’s easy to forget how many respectable people embraced eugenics

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

21 February 2020

10:00 PM

Imagined Futures: Writing, Science And Modernity In the Today and Tomorrow Book Series, 1923–31 Max Saunders

OUP, pp.448, £60

Between 1923 and 1931 the publisher Routledge produced ‘Today and Tomorrow’, a series of 110 short books by intellectual luminaries of the time who were asked to imagine the future 50 to 100 years hence. The writers included Bertrand Russell, his wife Dora, J.B.S. Haldane, C.E.M. Joad, Sylvia Pankhurst, Robert Graves, Winifred Holtby, Basil Liddell Hart and Vera Brittain. The titles ranged between Science and the Future, An Anatomy of Clothes, The Conquest of Cancer, Women and Knowledge, The Future of War, The Future of the Jews, The Future of Humour, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, The Problem of Race and The Price of Justice. Those announced but never published included The Future of Sex by Rebecca West and The Future of Traffic in Women by H. Wilson Harris. Surprisingly, the series was reissued by Routledge in 2008, to little notice. Max Saunders’s erudite and comprehensive account is the first serious study of the series as a whole, setting it in the intellectual context of its time and showing how futurology — regardless of the accuracy of predictions — illuminates both past and present as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does.

Studying how our forefathers and mothers imagined the future is not only an important part of cultural and intellectual history but has lessons for our contemporary imaginings. We will have our own biases and blind spots, as they did, and our own surprisingly accurate apprehensions; and we too will fail to anticipate the unexpected. As Saunders points out in his elegant and dauntingly well-informed commentary, there is a computer-sized hole running through every volume of the series. Nobody imagined the computer.

About 30 volumes deal with the broadly scientific and technical. Writing before telephones, cars, electric light, central heating, antibiotics and indoor lavatories were universal, they got a lot right — video phones, air travel, space travel, robotics. They got a lot wrong too — our skies are not full of seaplanes and autogiros; disease has not been eliminated; the population has exploded and the Earth is getting warmer. But the importance of these books is not in what they got right and wrong — the ticks and crosses — but in what they say about us, about our endeavour to understand the world and ourselves.

There is no single unifying theme, but there are trends and tendencies. Eugenics, for instance — essentially, the notion that by applying genetic knowledge to social engineering we take control of the natural selection process to produce more desirable, or fewer undesirable, humans — was much in vogue at the time and also much debated. Because of its later association with Nazi ideology it is easy for us to forget that many respectable and well-meaning people thought it a good way to improve the human lot.

These volumes reflect varying views of it, although tending towards the sceptical or critical; but the terms in which it is discussed — especially the more utopian — have particular relevance for us, now that modern genetics give us the potential to do precisely what our forefathers could only speculate about. We should attend to their arguments, Saunders argues, ‘rather than patronise them where their science is unscientific or their predictions wrong. It is exactly by studying where they go awry that we can learn most from them’.

Harder to appreciate now is the enthusiasm for psychic research, also in vogue at the time. Several contributors envisage advances in the field, though one dismisses it as symptomatic of ‘a degeneration of old intellectual faculties in those who claim it’. Similarly, Bertrand Russell in the second of his two contributions, What I Believe, argues with customary clarity that all religious beliefs are unnecessary hypotheses. He has equally little time for ‘naive humanism’, the assumption that human life has any cosmic significance: ‘All such philosophies spring from self-importance and are best corrected by a little astronomy.’ His generally dystopian view of scientific progress, however, is aptly counterpointed by Haldane’s scientific utopianism. At almost 100 years on we can reasonably say that they were both half right and half wrong.

Imagined Futures is not a summary of the series but a commentary on it, and not one for the intellectually half-hearted. Saunders is an authority on the literary and cultural currents of the early 20th century, particularly modernism, and takes pains to show how this extraordinary sustained exercise in futurology emerges from that world and merges into our own. That is why this is an important book. OUP have done author and subject proud by producing a handsome volume — but in pricing it at £60 they have probably ensured, once again, that the general reader is not seen as part of the future.

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