I recently discovered that H.G.Wells was a eugenicist. This made me particularly sad as he was somewhat of a hero of mine. Besides writing The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine he was also responsible for a letter to The Manchester Guardian (now The Guardian) and the subsequent lobbying of his friend President Roosevelt which lead to the resurgent idea of the ‘rights of man‘ which in turn became the The Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
To be a visionary author is a very good thing. To be one of the architects of one of the most humane things humankind has ever achieved allowed me to place him on a pedestal. Finding out that he thought the forced sterilisation of ‘degenerates’ was a cure to the world’s ills made me momentarily re-appraise my love for him. Fortunately it turned out that by the time he wrote The Rights of Man in 1940 he’d had an about turn and was advocating a prohibition of forced sterilisation. I was also pointed towards the likes of George Bernard Shaw and other social progressives having been in favour of eugenics in the first parts of the 20th century. The real world application of eugenic ideals in WWII highlighted exactly what a world looks like when such policies are implemented, but at one time it appeared to offer a real opportunity to move shape the world into a better place with less poverty and less suffering.
While I doubtlessly encountered both in other places first – the first place I knowingly encountered either eugenics or anthropology (or a fictional iteration of an anthropologist at least) was in the 1990’s animated series of the X-Men. Like Wells before him Bolivar Trask has his reasons for being a eugenicist. In the wider Marvel universe Trask is an anthropologist who sees the the spread of super-powered mutants as a threat to humanity, this is compounded by his finding out his children are mutants. Initially his activities take the form of publishing articles on ‘the mutant question‘ echoing the Nazi anthropologist Otmar Freiherr von Verscuer and Eugen Fischer’s involvement in ‘The Investigation Into The Jewish Question’ at the Frankfurt Institute.
Eventually Trask is driven to create an army of giant robots called the Sentinels who eventually decide they are superior to both humanity and mutants and go about trying to take over the world (again there are echoes of anthropological inspiration for the Final Solution). With the X-Men’s alterity allowing them to stand for outsiders and the downtrodden everywhere Trask has, since his inception in the 1960’s, variously stood as a cypher for anti-semitism, racism, homophobia and Senator McCarthy. As introductions to anthropology go, this is not the greatest. So it is a mixed blessing that Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage has been rumoured to be playing Trask in the upcoming X-Men film – an adaptation of Chris Claremont’s excellent Days of Future Past (up there with The Dark Phoenix Saga and God Loves, Man Kills as a contender for best X-Men story arc).
While I am a disproportionately pleased to of see anthropologists appear in films (I’m currently watching the last few findable films in an attempt to watch every fictional filmic representation of an anthropologist – no doubt more on this in future blogs) I can’t help feeling that we’ve come along way in all the the many branches of anthropology that inferring connections between our discipline and eugenics might not be fair in the 21st century. Possibly for exactly this reason Trask’s academic background has become increasingly hazy. It was always slightly odd to categorise a man capable of inventing super-intelligent giant robots as an anthropologist anyway. But being that my first exposure to anthropology was through Trask and I still became an anthropologist maybe I’m overthinking this. Maybe it’s just nice that the Marvel universe has an anthropologist – even if he is a bad guy.