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At Nature: An honest attempt to come to terms with Darwinism’s role in eugenics

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As part of a series on how science has shaped ideas in the modern world:

It was in the seventh issue — 16 December 1869 — that Huxley advanced a scheme for what he called ‘practical Darwinism’ and we call eugenics. Convinced that continued dominance of the British Empire would depend on the “energetic enterprising” English character, he mused about selecting for a can-do attitude among Britons1. Acknowledging that the law, not to mention ethics, might get in the way, he nevertheless wrote: “it may be possible, indirectly, to influence the character and prosperity of our descendants.” Francis Galton — Darwin’s cousin and an outer planet of Huxley’s solar system — was already writing about similar ideas and would come to be known as the father of eugenics. When this magazine appeared, then, the idea of ‘improving’ human heredity was on many people’s minds — not least as a potent tool of empire.

Huxley’s sunny view — of infinite human progress and triumph, brought about by the inexorable march of science — epitomizes a problem with so-called Enlightenment values. The precept that society should be based on reason, facts and universal truths has been a guiding theme of modern times. Which in many ways is a splendid thing (lately I’ve seen enough governance without facts for one lifetime). Yet Occam’s razor is double edged. Enlightenment values have accommodated screechingly discordant beliefs, such as that all men are created equal, that aristocrats should be decapitated and that people can be traded as chattel.

I want to suggest that many of the worst chapters of this history result from scientism….

Nathaniel Comfort, “How science has shifted our sense of identity” at Nature

With eugenics, as with racism, all critics want is an honest acknowledgment of the sources, not butt-covering bafflegab. It doesn’t matter now except for the butt-covering bafflegab. Which suggests that people are hanging onto something they should just let go of.

Hat tip: Heather Zeiger

See also: Was Neanderthal man fully human? The role racism played in assessing the evidence

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15 Replies to “At Nature: An honest attempt to come to terms with Darwinism’s role in eugenics

  1. 1
    BobRyan says:

    Darwin believed their were 4 distinct human races, with himself as the most evolved and Africans as the least evolved. Eugenicists could point to Darwin as one of their cited sources. The movement did not remain a British idea, but spread through Canada and the United States. Margaret Sanger was a Eugenicist who worked to pass a law in California to bring about forced sterilization of those deemed to be morons. California was not the only state to pass the law, but it was the only state cited by the National Socialists when they created their own forced sterilization laws. The Nazis referred to it as the California plan. Hilary Clinton, upon receiving the Margaret Sanger award from Planned Parenthood, said she greatly admired everything Sanger did. No one ever asked her why she would admire any Eugenicist.

  2. 2
    Ed George says:

    The idea of eugenics long pre-dated Darwin’s theory. The European nobility strongly believed that they were in their position because of their innate superiority to the “peasants”. A misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory simply gave them a “scientific” justification for their arrogance. Laying the blame at Darwin’s feet simply ignores the root cause.

    The impression I get from these types of OPs is that they are arguing against the search for “truth”. I think it is important to always search for “truth”, and to constantly question what most perceive to be truth. This includes religion, evolution, Newtonian physics, social constructs and norms, etc. Only through questioning do we progress.

  3. 3
    ET says:

    Ed George:

    A misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory simply gave them a “scientific” justification for their arrogance.

    What misinterpretation?

    Laying the blame at Darwin’s feet simply ignores the root cause.

    The OP merely says that Darwin had a role in eugenics. Did you even read it?

  4. 4
    Ed George says:

    ET

    The OP merely says that Darwin had a role in eugenics. Did you even read it?

    In the same way that The Wright brothers had a role in 9/11.

  5. 5

    I get it. Learning to fly justifies terror and murder.

  6. 6
    Ed George says:

    UB

    I get it. Learning to fly justifies terror and murder.

    No more than the theory of evolution justifies eugenics. Eugenics is a moral and ethical decision. Just like using Wright brothers inventions to bring down the World Trade towers was a moral and ethical decision.

  7. 7
    ET says:

    Ed George:

    In the same way that The Wright brothers had a role in 9/11.

    and

    No more than the theory of evolution justifies eugenics.

    What? The elimination of the less fit is what Darwin proposed. Keeping the less fit alive to be able to propagate is completely artificial.

  8. 8

    .
    The theory of evolution is (and was) used throughout academia to promote the idea that moral and ethical questions are ultimately relative. You can piss and moan, and rock back and forth in your chair all you want about that recorded historical fact, but there it is all the same. Thus if one decided that sterilizing and putting to death a certain type of human being was for the good of the whole, it all makes perfect sense in the posterity of Darwin’s thesis and the way in which it has been seized upon and used among the educated. On the other hand, learning to fly was not used throughout educated society to promote terror and murder. It’s as simple as that, Ed, your little quip may have given you a rush of a poetry, but it was stupid.

  9. 9
    goodusername says:

    BobRyan

    Darwin believed their were 4 distinct human races, with himself as the most evolved and Africans as the least evolved.

    Darwin didn’t believe that human races were distinct, let alone that there were four of them.
    The idea that races were distinct was a polygenist idea, and was the mainstream idea at the time, but is something which Darwin spent a great deal of time arguing against.

    Darwin even seems to mock the idea that any distinct lines can be drawn between races:

    But the most weighty of all the arguments against treating the races of man as distinct species, is that they graduate into each other, independently in many cases, as far as we can judge, of their having intercrossed.
    Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory de St-Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke.

    Also you won’t ever hear Darwin describing a race or species as “more evolved” or “less evolved” than another, as that was a Lamarckian idea.

  10. 10
    john_a_designer says:

    Darwin certainly did discuss eugenics (human breeding) in his book, Descent of Man. Here are the key quotes:

    “With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick, thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” (Darwin, 1871, Chapter V)

    By the way,the term eugenics was coined by his cousin Francis Galton.

    “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.” (Darwin, 1871, Chapter V)

    So it appears that while he recognized deleterious effects of not allowing “the process of elimination,” to go on as it would have happened naturally, he is not advocating a change of the status quo. Ironically his closest disciples (including his cousin and one of his sons) didn’t see it that way. So were they deliberately trying to tarnish his legacy?

    “Both sexes ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; but such hopes are Utopian and will never be even partially realised until the laws of inheritance are thoroughly known. Everyone does good service, who aids towards this end. When the principles of breeding and inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man.” (Darwin, 1871, Chapter XXI)

    Notice in the next paragraph he mentions his cousin by name. Is there any doubt that he had discussed these ideas with him?

    “The advancement of the welfare of mankind is a most intricate problem: all ought to refrain from marriage who cannot avoid abject poverty for their children; for poverty is not only a great evil, but tends to its own increase by leading to recklessness in marriage. On the other hand, as Mr. Galton has remarked, if the prudent avoid marriage, whilst the reckless marry, the inferior members tend to supplant the better members of society. Man, like every other animal, has no doubt advanced to his present high condition through a struggle for existence consequent on his rapid multiplication; and if he is to advance still higher, it is to be feared that he must remain subject to a severe struggle. Otherwise he would sink into indolence, and the more gifted men would not be more successful in the battle of life than the less gifted. Hence our natural rate of increase, though leading to many and obvious evils, must not be greatly diminished by any means. There should be open competition for all men; and the most able should not be prevented by laws or customs from succeeding best and rearing the largest number of offspring.” (Darwin, 1871, Chapter XXI)

    The evidence from these quotes alone is that Darwin’s theory of natural selection laid the ground work for the modern eugenics movement. While maybe it can be argued that he was not an advocate of the idea, some of his closest followers (Huxley, Haeckel, Galton and his son Leonard) had no problem taking the idea and running with it.

  11. 11
    BobRyan says:

    For those that don’t believe Darwin could have anything to do with the Eugenicist movement to follow, they never read ‘The Descent of Man.’ “Darwin does not address human evolution and race until his 1871 book, The Descent of Man, in which Darwin applies his theories of natural selection to humans and introduces the idea of sexual selection…Darwin describes Australians, Mongolians, Africans, Indians, South Americans, Polynesians, and even Eskimos as “savages:”…Darwin explains that the “highest races and the lowest savages” differ in “moral disposition … and in intellect” (36).”
    https://sites.williams.edu/engl-209-fall16/uncategorized/the-dark-side-of-darwinism/

    According the University of Cambridge, “In his private notebooks, he modeled evolution after a tree of life or coral that was “irregularly branched” (Notebooks, B21), rather than linear…”
    https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/learning/universities/darwin-and-human-nature/race-civilization-and-progress

  12. 12
    john_a_designer says:

    I think we can argue from what Darwin says in The Descent of Man that his approach to eugenics was a ‘let’s take it slow’ one. It’s very clear that he was not in principle opposed to the idea. For example, in the first quote I provided above at #10, he writes, “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” So logically, in his mind, it’s the “right” or practical thing to do.

    But how then should we interpret the next paragraph which begins, “The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy…? Why does he use the term incidental? Merriam-Webster defines as “being likely to ensue as a chance or minor consequence.” One hardly defines any kind of absolute moral mandate as a “minor consequence.” Furthermore, Darwin was a moral relativist who rejected the idea of any kind moral absolute. So I think he was arguing ‘eugenics is the logical way to go but this is the right time for it, socially or scientifically.’

    In the third paragraph reinforces this idea that the science has not developed sufficiently. “Both sexes,” he writes, “ought to refrain from marriage if they are in any marked degree inferior in body or mind; but such hopes are Utopian and will never be even partially realised until the laws of inheritance are thoroughly known.” What are the laws of inheritance? It’s what we call genetics. When he wrote The Descent of Man genetics was virtually non-existent, so obviously science had not advanced sufficiently to be used to make public policy decisions in regard to eugenics. So it would have been prudent for Darwin to urge people to take a ‘go slow’ approach. That makes sense we read the next sentence: “When the principles of breeding and inheritance are better understood, we shall not hear ignorant members of our legislature rejecting with scorn a plan for ascertaining whether or not consanguineous marriages are injurious to man.”

    If he or someone like Huxley had tried to sell something like eugenics to the British Parliament in 1871 it indeed would have been rejected with scorn. In other words, in The Descent of Man, Darwin was urging his followers to take it slow. Nevertheless, less than 40 years later state legislatures* in the U.S. started passing eugenic laws based on Darwin’s ideas.

    *(In 1907, Indiana passed the first eugenics-based compulsory sterilization law in the world.)

  13. 13
    Ed George says:

    People are partaking in a voluntary eugenics on a daily basis. There are thousands of couples who opt not to have their own children because of family history.

  14. 14
    Seversky says:

    Let’s not forget that Darwin, while recognizing the beneficial effects of the survival of the fittest, also argued that the nobler course of action for human beings was to care for those less fortunate than themselves.

    The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, though this is more to be hoped for than expected.

  15. 15
    BobRyan says:

    Darwinists are fascinating. They believe in no absolute morality, but use it to justify every evil Darwin’s Theory has helped to bring into the world.

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