Science Fiction Studies

#107 = Volume 36, Part 1 = March 2009

Anne Maxwell

Eugenics and the Classical Ideal of Beauty in Philip K. Dick’s “The Golden Man”

In April 1954, Philip K. Dick published one of his most celebrated and compelling short stories, “The Golden Man,” in If magazine. The tale of a beautiful, tawny-colored youth who is hunted down by bounty hunters because they believe him to be a mutant with powers to destroy the human race, “The Golden Man” is one of many postwar works inspired by scientific concerns about genetic mutations following the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the ongoing nuclear testing programs.1 Yet it is also, as I will argue in this essay, a critique of the masculine ideal of beauty that underpinned the eugenics movement as it developed in Britain and Germany and, especially, in the US in the years leading up to the Second World War. In what follows, I maintain that by drawing strong connections between the eugenic ideal of masculine beauty and ruthless sexual behavior, Dick was not only underscoring the emotional vacuum that lay at the heart of this intellectual movement but also hinting at the social price that women in particular—and humanity in general—might have to pay if physical beauty continues to be upheld as a social ideal.

Eugenics and the Beauty Ideal. Lasting roughly from the late 1880s to the early 1940s, the eugenics movement was premised on the pseudo-Darwinian assumption that different races of humankind were forced to compete against one another in the struggle for survival, and that physical beauty as a consequence denoted superior health and intellect and a higher stage of moral development. The features of Dick’s story that most directly suggest his evocation of the male eugenic ideal are the golden hair and skin coloring of his mutant Cris Johnson, his superior height and powerful athleticism, and his extraordinarily graceful body proportions. In addition, Cris is notably more successful at spreading his DNA than the other men in the story, a further indication that the race he belongs to is a “fitter” one. When we first meet Cris, we are—like the members of his adoptive family—bowled over by his stunning good looks. He is described as “[a] golden statue in the mid-day sun. Golden hair, skin, a light down of gold fuzz on his bare arms and legs” (7). Indeed, the remarkable color of his skin and hair, together with the fact that his physique matches perfectly with the classical ideal of beauty, conjures up visions of the Aryan ideal so strenuously defended by the Nazi leadership.2

Still, we would be wrong to associate this ideal only with the Nazis, since eugenicists throughout Britain and the US championed it just as vigorously. Indeed, as early as 1865, Sir Francis Galton, the eminent British scientist credited with inventing the “science” of eugenics, had argued that the highest racial types, besides living longer and being more intelligent than other races, were genetically primed to be noticeably more beautiful (“Hereditary Talent” 165).3 To identify his own nation’s best breeding stock, Galton created what he referred to as a “Beauty-Map” of Britain. In his autobiography Memories of My Life (1908), he described this map as follows:

Whenever I have occasion to classify the persons I meet into three classes, “good, medium, bad,” I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross with a long leg. I use its upper end for “good,” the cross-arm for “medium,” the lower end for “bad.” The prick-holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place and date are written on the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, but it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population. I found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest. (315-16)

In this passage, Galton focuses on female beauty, and what emerges is a distinct preference for the women of London and the Southern Counties—the very regions where people of Nordic descent (Galton called them Anglo-Saxon types) were generally thought to be in highest concentration. By contrast, in the manuscript of his unpublished novel, “The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere,” he refers to both female and male beauty, tying each explicitly to the Greek classical ideal as well as to the hard-line gender distinctions that characterized Darwinian theory and Victorian society:

The physique of the girls reminded me of that of the “Hours” in the engraving of the famous picture of “Aurora” by Guido in Rome. It is a favourite picture of mine and I recall it clearly. The girls have the same massive forms, short of heaviness, and seem promising mothers of a noble race.… As for the men they are well built, practiced both in military drill and athletics, very courteous, but with a resolute look that suggests fighting qualities of a high order. Both sexes are true to themselves, the women being thoroughly feminine, and I may add, mammalian, and the men being as thoroughly virile. (qtd in Pearson 422)4

For Galton, the highest forms of beauty were to be found in classical paintings and sculptures, a criterion to which later eugenicists, including those in the US as well as Germany, also adhered.

We can see the classical ideal being upheld at the Second International Exhibition of Eugenics, held at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in the Fall of 1921. This was an exhibition that coincided with widespread concern about the large numbers of immigrants entering the country and the presumed detrimental effects on the racial fitness of Americans generally; consequently, many of the exhibits were aimed at communicating this idea. Among the exhibits was a statuette of a man whose body shape, according to the caption, was based on the statistical average of 100,000 white male army recruits (Laughlin 31).5 At first glance the appearance and posture of the figure are highly reminiscent of classical Greek sculpture, and indeed, as Coffey points out, it was modeled with that example in mind (189-90); but a closer look revealed significant differences. According to Cogdell, some journalists attending the exhibition remarked on the man’s “pudgy stomach, slouching posture, heavy hips, and undefined muscles,” seeing the statue as a “symbol of American ‘degeneracy’” (Eugenic Design 193). Given that the statuette was “paired with a statue of a composite athlete sculpted from the measurements of the ‘50 strongest men of Harvard’,” itself exhibiting the classical body shape that most eugenicists attributed to America’s original “native stock” (Coffey 196, 198), it seems reasonable to suppose that the statuette’s purpose was to suggest that race mixing was causing the average American to fall well short of the desired ideal.6

Why were eugenicists so obsessed with the classical ideal of beauty? Intent on speeding up the process of natural selection so as to increase the numbers of genetically fit people inhabiting their respective nations, eugenicists searched for the outward physical designators of genetic fitness. According to them, there was a powerful correlation between genetic superiority and physical attractiveness. While today’s scientists reject the premise that physical beauty is a sign of higher intelligence or advanced moral development, they are not so dismissive of the idea that it may confer some sort of evolutionary edge. Research conducted by a new generation of evolutionary biologists based at the London School of Economics, for example, seems to suggest that the incidence of balance or symmetry in facial and other bodily features is a prime factor in mate selection because it is widely perceived as a sign of health.7

A similar argument has been offered by Harvard Medical School neuropsychologist Nancy Etcoff, who claims that ordinary beauty in humans equates to an average, and that since what is average tends to “signal good health and good design,” then what is judged beautiful must also be related to fertility (145-46). Etcoff also remarks, however, that the extreme beauty of many film stars and supermodels is not the result of averaging but an exaggeration of the traits that we associate with averages. As further explanation of this phenomenon she adds that, “when there is competition for partners—the precondition for Darwin’s sexual selection—those animals with certain kinds of extreme traits can often be preferred” (150). According to Etcoff, further examples of extreme beauty are “the well-shaped man” described by the Renaissance artist Vitruvius in his De architetura and Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing of “Vitruvian man” (140). These figures conform to that proportional measurement known as the golden mean, which—being a mathematical ratio—constitutes a distortion or exaggeration of what is commonly found in nature as well as what is normal or average in humans (Etcoff 141-42).8 The fact that the bodily proportions of classical sculptures are also based on the golden mean further explains their appeal for eugenicists: whatever was pleasing to the human eye was automatically thought to be a sign of health or fitness, and therefore a reliable index to evolutionary survival.9

Following the Nazis’ defeat and the exposure of the full dimensions of the Holocaust, eugenics and other “sciences” of racial differentiation and development fell rapidly into disrepute. But what of the emphasis that eugenicists placed on physical beauty and the idea of a super race whose appearance coincided with the classical ideal? Did this disappear entirely from modern culture? By the time Dick published “The Golden Man,” the idea was certainly on the wane in the biological sciences. On the other hand, science fiction had its own long tradition of depicting supermen and super races, whose bodies conformed to the classical ideal and who were also super-intelligent. In the postwar period, this tradition, if anything, gained impetus from the phenomenon of radiation-induced mutation, which prompted a host of evolutionary “leaps” in numerous sf texts.

SF Supermen and the Ethos of Streamlining. It is no secret that there was a sudden preoccupation with supermen in American sf writing of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and that this trend stemmed mainly from a Social-Darwinist “goal-directed account of evolution,” which had “largely replaced Darwin’s random one in the popular imagination” (Attebery 69).10 With the exception of Brian Attebery, however, no critic has asked why it was that the majority of mutants appearing in this literature were also man’s evolutionary superiors, or supermen, as distinct from atavistic creatures or subhuman monsters, as one might have expected. According to Attebery, the positive spin on the phenomenon of genetic mutation that many of these supermen embodied can be traced to the influence of John W. Campbell, Jr., the editor of Astounding Science Fiction during its so-called “Golden Age.” In the role of editor, Campbell sought to control not just the subject matter appearing in his magazine, but also the particular slant the stories took, forcing even the most talented and successful of writers to adopt his particular vision. Attebery points out that Campbell’s positive treatment of mutation in turn relied on an unusually benign view of evolution, so benign in fact that he saw humans as evolving into beings with highly developed psychic powers that rendered them almost godlike, an idea born of Campbell’s dabblings in pseudosciences such as dianetics (Attebery 64-66).

Attebery maintains that Dick came into his own as an sf writer just as Campbell’s influence on the genre was waning, and that this helps to explain Dick’s decision to present his readers with a very different sort of mutant (79). Indeed, according to Attebery, Dick was implicitly criticizing Campbell and his legacy when he chose to present readers with such an extraordinary perversion of the superman ideal.11 In place of the benevolent superman who is also chivalrous towards women, we are confronted by something far less reassuring; Cris Johnson may appear all innocence and beauty on the surface, but as we soon discover, beneath his benign veneer there lurks an entirely heartless creature that humans have every reason to fear.

Yet the history of sf was not the only set of cultural forces Dick was responding to when he wrote “The Golden Man”; his target was in fact much broader. Even before Campbell embraced it, the superman idea had become a part of mainstream American culture, due to the emergence of the principle of streamlining during the 1930s. Streamlining was a method of designing forms using the optimally functional shapes found in nature, streamlined shapes being without protuberances and utterly smooth, causing the least amount of resistance and energy expenditure. In the late 1930s and 1940s, industrially manufactured goods such as automobiles, ships, and houses tended to be streamlined; so were the animals—horses and greyhounds—bred exclusively for racing. Streamlining was also important to those American designers influenced by the eugenics movement, because the beauty they pursued was not simply founded on the principle of symmetry or even the golden mean; rather, as Cogdell has shown, in many instances it also incorporated the notion of efficiency of form as well as movement—captured in the notion of the ideal body as “a perfectly-working machine”—since this was thought to be an added evolutionary advantage (“Products or Bodies” 39).

Cogdell explains that the application of evolutionary principles to manufactured goods derived from a widely held assumption among art historians that “stylistic evolution paralleled human evolution” (“Products or Bodies” 43). This same belief saw many prominent industrial designers insisting that the future shape of the human body would do well to be based on streamlined principles. The respect accorded streamlining at this time was such that Vogue magazine in 1939, in association with the New York World’s Fair, devoted an entire issue to the work of nine prominent industrial designers who had been invited “to design a dress for the ‘Woman of the Future’” (Cogdell, Eugenic Design 41). Cogdell adds that, in addition to “focusing on her clothing and accessories,” many of the designers, in a nod to the importance of eugenics, chose to comment on the future woman’s physique, with one, for example, announcing that “Medical Science will have made her body Perfect. She’ll never know obesity, emaciation, colds in the head, superfluous hair, or a bad complexion—thanks to a controlled diet, controlled basal metabolism. Her height will be increased, her eyelashes lengthened—with some X-hormone” (qtd in Eugenic Design 42). A year earlier, arguably the most streamlined male ever to be designed had made his appearance in the form of the famous comic-book hero Superman. The very first issue of the comic featured a page on which Superman’s physical perfection and strength, caught as he catapults across New York’s skyline, is compared to that of such super-strong creatures as the ant and the grasshopper.12

Dick was notoriously skeptical of the moral integrity of America’s large corporations, so the cooptation of streamlining by industry and the consequent mass marketing of sleekly designed manufactured goods would probably not have endeared him to the concept.13 Dick’s first published novel, Solar Lottery (1955), is, among other things, a critique of the burgeoning of large corporations in the postwar US; the novel conveys the sense that, even more than governments, corporations have the potential to alienate people and curtail their freedoms. His 1959 novel Time Out of Joint registers the shift to a new form of multinational, monopoly capitalism that saw a concentration of corporate power, cooperation between corporations and the state, and the shift from production to consumption.14 In addition, we know from his portrait of the narcissistic society in Dr. Futurity (1959) that Dick responded caustically to the idea of using genetic engineering to improve the human race. In that novel, the main character, Jim Parsons, wakes up in a future society where everyone is young and physically beautiful but also incredibly violent and selfish, qualities that he finds as repulsive as they are threatening. Indeed, I would hazard that the antipathy Dick felt toward both corporate streamlining and eugenics was a considerable factor in his decision to subvert Campbell’s model of the beneficent superman.

Superman as Sexual Predator. In “The Golden Man,” Cris Johnson is gifted with unusual physical and mental powers that set him apart from the human race, and his extraordinary coloring and superlative good looks also mark him clearly as humanity’s superior. In terms of streamlining, Dick makes it clear that Cris’s beauty derives not just from his dazzling skin color and superb body shape, but also the economical way he moves. The first description of him in motion is when he shows his adopted siblings, Jean and Dave, how to throw horseshoes. “Cris said nothing. He bent slightly, a supple arc of his incredibly graceful body, then moved his arm in a blur of speed. The shoe sailed, struck the far peg, and dizzily spun around it. Ringer” (7). There is also the impressive description of him running the length of the Johnson farm in an effort to elude his captors:

Cris shot forward. Like a released energy beam he bounded across the field, over the fence, into the barn and out the other side. His flying figure seemed to skim over the dry grass as he descended into the barren creek-bed, between the cedars. A momentary flash of gold—and he was gone. (7)

Ironically, it is Cris’s grace and efficiency of movement that alert readers to the possibility that the eugenic ideal of beauty is being satirized. We are told that the golden man of Dick’s story can run like a hare, dart between bullets, and instinctively entrance women, but these qualities—namely, his highly developed mating instincts and his perfectly honed reflexes—are the marks of an animal, the very features eugenicists were trying to breed out of human beings. As Attebery puts it: “Cris isn’t smart. He speaks no language; doesn’t even think as humans do; has an inexorable drive but no will behind it. He acts purely on instinct; his uncanny prescience is a reflex rather than a mark of higher intellect” (74).

This remark makes clear that the social and political ramifications of streamlining were by no means straightforward, and indeed from the point of view of eugenicists, the concept contained a worrying contradiction. While on the one hand, the ideal of streamlining suggested that the social world, including the human bodies in it, can be improved using the designs inherent in nature itself, it also implied that there is no evolutionary hierarchy among species because each animal, as the ant and the grasshopper demonstrate, is optimally designed to suit its particular environment.15 That Dick hoped to draw attention to this contradiction in eugenic thinking is suggested by the fact that it is only Cris’s looks and animal instincts that make him a lethal competitor, not his intellect or moral inclinations, since he possesses neither. Indeed, in addition to attacking the eugenicists’ belief that physical beauty is a sign of high intellect, Dick’s story challenges their notion that races allegedly only one or two steps removed from animals cannot compete with the more highly evolved Caucasian race; for here we have a man whose brain is modeled after an animal’s, who not only resists all human attempts to detain and extinguish him, but who usurps the place of the Caucasian male in the reproductive stakes. According to the bounty hunter Baines’s comments at the story’s close, Cris’s escape from the scientific complex in which he was being held captive marks the start of an era in which ordinary human males will be bypassed for reproductive purposes, since women will invariably choose instead the much more attractive and compelling men that the process of mutation has produced.

Cris might be all instinct, no memory, and no reflection—in other words, the embodiment of pure animal reflex—but he is nevertheless also portrayed as infinitely more desirable physically to the female characters than the non-mutant males—such as Baines himself, with his fat stomach, rumpled grey suit, sweat-stained shirt, and sleazy jokes. Baines is engaged to Anita Ferris, the scientist who works at the facility where Cris is being detained and who will eventually help him to escape. Fully aware of the possible danger Cris poses to the continuing existence of the human race, even she cannot resist his superlative glamor. Indeed, Cris is protected first by his adoptive family, and then by Anita, precisely because he is so breathtakingly beautiful. When she first sees him, Anita is both surprised and excited by his beauty and horrified that the other scientists want to kill him.

Anita moved over to the view windows…. She gasped. “Is that him?”
“What’s wrong?” Baines asked.
Anita’s cheeks were flushed. “Why, I expected a–a thing. My God, he’s beautiful! Like a golden statue. Like a deity!” (18; emphasis in original)

Later, as he strides towards her, she is mesmerized by his literal animal magnetism, her description of his appealing features suggesting those of a huge cat rather than a human male: “[t]he great dignified face, handsome and impassive. Broad shoulders. The golden mane of hair, golden skin, pelt of radiant fuzz” (27). While Anita’s instinct is to preserve such a gorgeous creature, Baines wants to destroy it. It is clear from remarks he makes to Anita at the end of the story that he regards Cris as a sexual competitor against whom he and other human males have no chance in the mating stakes. Bitterly, he comments that Cris will always manage to survive and prevail “as long as human women exist to take care of him…. [H]e’s sexually irresistible to human females.” In an even starker judgment, he complains to Anita that “[w]e can put you through a sterilization tank—but we can’t pick them all up, all the women he meets along the way” (32; emphasis in original). In the mating sweepstakes, a paunchy slob such as Baines has little hope against the lithe and virile Cris Johnson.
Dick assigns to Cris equal amounts of the attributes we associate with gods and with animals. In the moment before she is possessed by Cris, Anita’s thoughts register this paradox:

In the half-light of the room, the great golden figure seemed to glow and shimmer, outlined against the darkness. A god—no, not a god. An animal. A great golden beast, without a soul. She was confused. Which was he—or was he both? She shook her head, bewildered. (28)

Embodying as he does both god and beast, Cris also defies the evolutionary gap that American eugenicists had argued separated Caucasians from putatively inferior races. When Dick was writing his story, Americans were still recovering from the shock of the Holocaust, the atrocities committed by the “blond beasts” of the Nazi “master race.” Indeed, Dick’s critique of the eugenicists’ classical ideal of beauty highlights the extraordinary gap between the Nazis’ claims to evolutionary superiority and their barbarous treatment of Jews and other minorities. At the same time, Americans were struggling with their own racial problems, with unrest building in the South that would shortly erupt into the Civil Rights Movement. The golden man of the story represents not just a mutant but a very different type of species—or race—to ordinary humans: he resembles not only the Aryan ideal aspired to by the Nazis, but also underneath his golden looks his brain is wired so differently that he is regarded by the locals with the same kind of fear and loathing that white racists accorded African-Americans. In other words, as part of his quarrel with eugenics, Dick was using the idea of the mutant to effect an imaginative reversal of the dynamics of racial discrimination as he saw them still operating in 1950s America.16

This is not the only kind of reversal the story enacts; in Dick’s story, the male eugenic ideal is at first upheld, then deflated. This deflation is achieved primarily by switching the narrative point of view from Cris to Anita at a crucial point in the story, a switch that allows us to see that, far from indicating a superior intellect or a heightened morality, Cris’s beauty is a hollow shell, one that from the human female’s point of view is ultimately worthless. In the scenes conveyed from Cris’s perspective, we get a privileged glimpse into the peculiar structure of his brain: as is generally thought to be the case with most animals, his is a consciousness that (presumably for efficiency’s sake) is confined solely to the present and the immediate future:

He stepped out into a deserted passage. No one was in sight. That didn’t surprise him. He couldn’t be surprised. The element didn’t exist for him. The positions of things, the space relationships of all matter in the immediate future, were as certain for him as his own body. The only thing that was unknown was that which had already passed out of being. In a vague, dim fashion, he had occasionally wondered where things went after he had passed them. (25)

The sudden switch in viewpoint from Cris to Anita makes the reader question Cris’s benevolence not only towards women but towards humans in general. Before this point, we experience little ambivalence towards him; like the supermen of the comic books and Campbell’s fictions, he is portrayed as an innocent hero unfairly hounded by the authorities, and we are accordingly invited to both identify and sympathize with him. His youthfulness and seeming naïveté, along with his enormous physical beauty, help in this regard.

When we first meet him, he is still living on the Johnson farm, where he has grown up benefiting from the care provided by the kindly Nat Johnson and his wife. Not quite fully adult, he has yet to reach that stage of full autonomy that is his by story’s end. Ironically, at this point in the narrative his failure to relate normally to other human beings (we learn, for instance, that he has never spoken) only causes us to see him as exceptionally vulnerable—further underlining his underdog status. Along with Jean, who when the bounty hunters arrive watches him disappear into the distance, we hope that he will manage to evade his captors. Our response in this regard is as much the result of our instinctively taking the side of the downtrodden as it is of wanting to preserve all beautiful creatures in danger of becoming extinct. The women in the story, however, also wish to rescue what they unconsciously sense is superior gene stock. But is the most beautiful always the most intelligent and most noble? This is where Dick’s story introduces a startling twist to the beneficent model of the superman advanced by both Campbell and the eugenicists.

In the moment that Cris succeeds in escaping from the research facility, he is lost not just to Anita, but also to the reader. Until this point, we have had a privileged view of all his movements and actions, but suddenly he disappears from view. Like Anita, we are left feeling abandoned, watching as the man who has just ravished her vanishes into the early morning darkness beyond the main door:

Anita stood dazed, confused, leaning against the wall, trying to get her breath.
He was gone. He had left her. Good God—what had she done? She shook her head, bewildered, her face buried in her hands. She had been hypnotized. She had lost her will, her common sense. Her reason! The animal, the great golden beast, had tricked her. Taken advantage of her. And now he was gone, escaped into the night. (31)

Once Cris has succeeded in escaping, the reader, like the women he seduces, suddenly becomes aware of the emotional vacuum that lies at his core. This is no sensitive lover. Indeed, as the chief scientist Wisdom remarks, Cris is merely a highly successful sexual predator whose beauty, like the proverbial peacock’s, is designed purely to attract multiple sexual partners, one after the other, with no accompanying signs of affection, let alone instinct for bonding.

So all that gold, that mane, that god-like stance, was for something. Not just ornament .... He doesn’t have just one faculty—he has two. One is new, the newest thing in survival methods. The other is as old as life.... Plumage. Bright feathers, combs for the roosters, swans, birds, bright scales for the fish. Gleaming pelts and manes for the animals. (32; emphasis in original)

Cris is indeed optimally designed, with no intellectual or emotional baggage to hamper his calculated sexual behavior, but of course by the time Anita (and the reader) recognizes this, it is too late—he has presumably sown his seed and begun producing the new “master” race.

Only when she glimpses him disappearing into the night without a backward glance does Anita realize the full extent of his indifference. At this point one is reminded of an earlier passage when Nat Johnson, seeing Cris ignoring Jean’s pleas to play, thinks to himself:

No, Cris didn’t want to play. He never played. He was off in a world of his own, a world into which none of them could come. He never joined in anything, games or chores or family activities. He was by himself always. Remote, detached, aloof. Seeing past everyone and everything…. (6-7)

Compared to Cris’s impassiveness, and indeed his incapacity for any kind of feeling, even the leering, sweaty Baines seems preferable, sharing as he does at least some cognitive and emotional traits with women. In a footnote to “The Golden Man” Dick wrote:

Here I am saying that mutants are dangerous to us ordinaries, a view which John W. Campbell, Jr. deplored. We were supposed to view them as our leaders. But I always felt uneasy as to how they would view us. I mean, maybe they wouldn’t want to lead us. Maybe from their superevolved lofty level we wouldn’t seem worth leading. Anyhow, even if they agreed to lead us, I felt uneasy as to where we would wind up going. (“Story Notes” 332; emphasis in original)

In the story we are given a glimpse of precisely this scenario, for not only does Cris Johnson remain both untouched by and uncaring towards the humans who assist him, but he also turns out to have no social instincts whatsoever, built as he is for one thing only—the survival and perpetuation of his species.

Cris needs to seduce Anita in order to spread his DNA among the human race, and the sexual attraction she feels for him has the added advantage of guaranteeing his escape. But why did Dick make him noticeably younger than Anita? Significantly, the age difference between Cris and Anita corresponds almost exactly with the findings of the Kinsey Reports concerning male and female sexual peaks.17 Cris at eighteen is at the height of his sexual powers, while Anita at twenty-eight is similarly approaching her peak. In evolutionary terms this would make them ideally suited; but by most social criteria such a coupling would be far from ideal, suggesting as it does the unlikelihood of their remaining together and sharing the role of parenting. If we read the story with this in mind, it would seem that at least one of Dick’s aims was to hint at the potential damage done to human society by the sanctioning of couplings based on ideas about racial fitness and physical beauty, an idea most obviously embodied in the planned marriages or matings advocated by eugenicists, but also those more recent accounts of sexual selection furnished by evolutionary scientists such as Etcoff.

“The Golden Man” is a classic Dick story in the way it undercuts traditional assumptions concerning the benevolent leadership offered by the superman figure, whether in the form of the mutant superheroes of Golden Age sf or the masculine ideal championed by eugenicists. As Dick shows, the appeal of beauty cannot be relied upon to secure a reliable, lifelong mate or even the best kind of leader; other qualities, such as the capacity for communication and nurturing, are actually more important. Contrary to the eugenics thinking of the early twentieth century, with its desire to improve the human race through judicious matings or other “scientific” methods, our given, mundane humanity is something worth holding onto, despite all its physical and emotional flaws.

1. On this trend in postwar sf, see Brians, especially Chapter Four, “The Long-Term Effects of Nuclear War”; this chapter is available online at: < ~brians/nuclear/4chap.htm>.
2. Hitler’s Übermenschen, or eugenically-engineered “super race,” derived from the tenets of the Nordic movement, which postulated that the “superior” races of Northern Europe descended from the tall, blond Vikings of the Middle Ages, who conquered and then mixed with the local populations. In addition to the story’s references to the Aryan ideal, at least two of the characters refer to Cris as “a blond beast,” thus invoking Nietzsche’s famous line about the social aristocracy of Germany as a cadre of “splendid blond beasts”—a view the Nazis would exploit in their visions of a “master race” (see Aschheim).
3. Galton’s actual words were: “So far as beauty is concerned, the custom of many countries, of the nobility purchasing the handsomest girls they could find for their wives, has laid the foundation of a higher type of features among the ruling classes…. What an extraordinary effect might be produced on our race, if its object was to unite in marriage those who possessed the finest, most suitable natures, mental, moral and physical” (“Hereditary Talent” 165).
4. Not all of the original manuscript of this novel survives; an edited version can be found in Pearson, who refers to the text simply as “Galton’s Utopia” or “Kantsaywhere,” whereas it is listed as “The Eugenic College of Kantsaywhere” in the catalogue of Galton’s Works in the Manuscript Collection of University College, London.
5. In his official history of the exhibition, Laughlin indicates that this statuette, called “The Average American Male,” was sculpted by Jane Davenport, daughter of Charles B. Davenport, at that time director of America’s most powerful eugenics organization, the Eugenics Record Office, situated at Cold Spring Harbor, New York. The caption accompanying the figure, both on its pedestal and in the photograph in the official publication, reads: “Statuette of man having the average proportions of 100,000 white soldiers at demobilization as determined by the United States War Department.” The image is reproduced in Cogdell, Eugenic Design (194).
6. Kline points out that, while foreign immigration into the country was thought to be the main cause of racial decline, it was not the only factor. White middle-class men in America were also presumed to be suffering from the effects of “nervous strain” (9) brought on by the change from a labor-based economy that favored the “cult of the self-made man” (8) to an economy that required most men to work in offices and to become the slaves of large corporations. Adding to this pressure were the demands made by the modern women’s movement, which was “challeng[ing] the existing social order by demanding the rights and privileges customarily accorded only to white middle class men” (10). As a consequence of these developments, “internal symptoms of increasing fragility and weakness manifested themselves in the male body” (9).
7. One of these scientists is Oliver Curry, who recently made headlines in Britain by claiming that within 100,000 years humanity (à la Wells’s The Time Machine) will have divided into two distinct sub-species—on the one hand, a genetically modified, “gracile” group that is “tall, thin, symmetrical, intelligent and creative,” and on the other hand, an unmodified, distinctly inferior specimen that is “shorter and stockier, with asymmetric features and lower intelligence” (Henderson). Significantly, Galton himself had discovered the correspondence between beauty and statistical averages while he was superimposing photographs of common criminals (see “Composite Portraits” 98). As Etcoff notes, he had been hoping to obtain a composite image of the prototypical criminal by averaging out all the men’s individual features; however, to his surprise he also found that the face in the composite was “better-looking” than any of the individual faces that went into its making (144). Galton continued the practice of composite portraiture as a valuable diagnostic tool for eugenics research; see the archive of materials available on the Galton Organization website: <>.
8. Etcoff makes the point that the proportion known as the golden mean is rarely found in human faces, even attractive ones (142-43). This is in keeping with the seventeenth-century painter Peter Camper’s discovery that the facial profile of classical Greek sculptures conformed to an angle of 100 degrees, an angle never found in nature. For a discussion of Camper’s ideas in relation to the emergence of racialized anthropometrics, see Lively (48-49).
9. According to some scholars, Etcoff and the new generation of evolutionary biologists are offering a “new eugenics” paradigm. Stone, for instance, considers much of this work, which he describes as “evolutionary psychology” or “socio-biology,” to be covertly racist (137). Reardon, by contrast, claims that such biologically-based research balances the heavy emphasis on cultural explanations that characterized the period immediately following WWII (see Chapter Two, 17-43).
10. As Attebery notes (64-65), a list of Golden Age writers of supermen stories includes Henry Kuttner, A.E. van Vogt, Isaac Asimov, Jack Williamson, Poul Anderson, James Blish, Robert A. Heinlein, and E.E. “Doc” Smith.
11. Attebery cites an essay in which Dick claims that Campbell demanded the mutants in the stories he bought must “be shown as (1) good; and (2) firmly in charge” (qtd 66). Attebery’s claim that Dick was rebelling against such dictates is reinforced by Dick’s comments, in the Introduction to his collection The Golden Man and Other Stories, regarding his innate aversion to authority: “That was my problem then and it’s my problem now: I have a bad attitude. In a nutshell, I fear authority but at the same time I resent it—the authority and my own fear—so I rebel. And writing SF is a way to rebel” (xvi; emphasis in original). That Dick regarded Campbell as a figure of overbearing authority who had to be resisted is confirmed by his further comment: “I think these people secretly imagined they were themselves early manifestations of these kindly, wise, super-intelligent Übermenschen who would guide the stupid—i.e. the rest of us—to the Promised Land” (qtd in Attebery 77).
12. The ant and the grasshopper were considered super-strong because their skeletal material contains a substance that allows them either to carry many times their own weight (in the case of the ant) or to jump many times their own height (in the case of the grasshopper). This substance was the earthly equivalent of the extraterrestrial forces that reputedly gave Superman his extraordinary physical strength (see Siegel and Schuster).
13. By the 1940s, the principle of efficiency embodied in the concept of streamlining had also penetrated America’s industrial structures in the form of Taylorism, a scientific form of business management designed to improve labor productivity that, pushed to its logical extreme, resulted in a deskilling of the workforce and a regimentation of the workplace. Taylorism derived from the theory developed by Frederick Winslow Taylor in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911). In the 1920s and 1930s, Taylor’s methods were enhanced and referred to as “quality control”; in the 1940s and 1950s, following further “improvements,” the theory became known as “operations research” and “management cybernetics.” See Waring for an effective critical history.
14. Hoberek details the ways in which Dick’s early novels were responding to the rise of corporate culture in the US.
15. Cogdell explains that designers sought out certain animals such as fish and birds as models for streamlining because it was thought their bodies were perfectly adapted to their environments (Eugenic Design 62-63).
16. Dick addressed the subject of racism toward African-Americans more explicitly in his story “James P. Crow,” published later in the same year as “The Golden Man.” The title is an obvious allusion to “Jim Crowism”—the name given to the social system and set of laws that sanctioned all manner of white discrimination against blacks, including segregation. In the same way that “The Golden Man” offers a reversal of the race relations intrinsic to eugenics, “James P. Crow” inverts the hierarchy that existed between white Americans and African-Americans for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; here, a race of robots rather than mutants assumes the position of master while ordinary human beings learn what it is like to be enslaved.
17. The Kinsey Reports consisted of two publications—Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948) and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female (1953). Based on over ten years of research into the sexual histories of some 12,000 men and women, the books made headlines because of their highly controversial findings. Among other things, they revealed that there was a much higher incidence of homosexual activity in the American community than was generally thought, but also much higher rates of marital infidelity. In addition, the report claimed that the average male reaches his sexual prime between 16-20 years of age, whereas for women there is a gradual rise to a maximum point in the early to mid-30s and then a gradual tapering off. Kinsey measured the sexual peak in males by frequency of erection and ejaculation, whereas in females he measured it by frequency of masturbation and nocturnal dreams, and the incidence of orgasm. Since the books were huge bestsellers, it is likely that Dick was aware of them when he was writing his story.

Aschheim, Steven E. “Nietzsche, Anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust.” Nietzsche and Jewish Culture. Ed. Jacob Golomb. New York: Routledge, 1997. 3-20.
Attebery, Brian. Decoding Gender in Science Fiction. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Brians, Paul. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1987.
Coffey, Mary K. “The American Adonis: A Natural History of the ‘Average American’ (Man), 1921-32.” Popular Eugenics: National Efficiency and American Mass Culture in the 1930s. Ed. Susan Currell and Christina Cogdell. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 2006. 185-216.
Cogdell, Christina. Eugenic Design: Streamlining America in the 1930s. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2004.
─────. “Products or Bodies?: Streamline Design and Eugenics as Applied Biology.” Design Issues 19.1 (Winter 2003): 36-51.
Dick, Philip K. Dr. Futurity. New York: Ace, 1960.
─────. “The Golden Man.” 1954. The Golden Man and Other Stories. Ed. Mark Hurst. New York: Berkley, 1980. 1-32.
─────. “Introduction.” The Golden Man and Other Stories. Ed. Mark Hurst. New York: Berkley, 1980. xv-xviii.
─────. “James P. Crow.” 1954. The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Volume 2: Second Variety. 1987. London: Millenium, 1999. 311-26.
─────. Solar Lottery. New York: Ace, 1955.
─────. “Story Notes.” The Golden Man and Other Stories. Ed. Mark Hurst. New York: Berkley, 1980. 332-36.
─────. Time Out of Joint. New York: Lippincott, 1959.
Etcoff, Nancy L. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty. New York: Doubleday, 1999.
Galton, Francis.“Composite Portraits Made By Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure.” Nature 18 (May 23, 1878): 97-100.
─────. “Hereditary Talent and Character.” Macmillan’s Magazine 12 (1865): 157-66, 318-27.
─────. Memories of My Life. London: Methuen, 1908.
Henderson, Mark. “The Future Ascent (and Descent) of Man.” Times Online 17 Oct. 2006. 20 Dec. 2008 < ece>.
Hoberek, Andrew P. “The ‘Work’ of Science Fiction: Philip K. Dick and Occupational Masculinity in the Post-World War II United States.” Modern Fiction Studies 43.2 (Summer 1997): 374-404.
Kinsey, Alfred C. Sexual Behavior in the Human Female. 1953. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1998.
─────. Sexual Behavior in the Human Male. 1948. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1998.
Kline, Wendy. Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics from the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom. Berkeley: U of California P, 2001.
Laughlin, Harry H. The Second International Exhibition of Eugenics held September 22 to October 22, 1921, in Connection with the Second International Congress of Eugenics, in the American Museum of Natural History, New York: An Account of the Organization of the Exhibition, the Classification of the Exhibits, the List of Exhibitors, and a Catalog and Description of the Exhibits. Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins, 1923.
Lively, Adam. Masks: Blackness, Race and the Imagination. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.
Pearson, Karl. The Life, Letters, and Labours of Francis Galton, Vol. 3a: Correlation, Personal Identification and Eugenics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1930.
Reardon, Jenny. Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2005.
Siegel, Jerry, and Joe Shuster. Superman #1. 1939. Millenium Edition, Dec. 2000.
Stone, Dan. Breeding Superman: Nietzsche, Race and Eugenics in Edwardian and Interwar Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2002.
Waring, Stephen P. Taylorism Transformed: Scientific Management Theory Since 1945. Chapel Hill, NC: U of North Carolina P, 1994.

Back to Home