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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