Science & Faith
12/5/12 at 02:53 PM 0 Comments

Debate Over Darwin and Eugenics Continues: Part 2 (Racism and Moral Evolution)

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A reader of my earlier blog on Darwin's influence on Hitler's ideology wrote:

I find it ironic that people like this author insist on associating evolution with the Nazis. The Nazis specifically banned the works of Darwin because the "master race" could not have evolved from lower creatures. Eugenics is often conflated with natural selection because people often associate "evolution" with a teleological perspective that species always "evolve" to a higher form. Actually, adaption does not always mean moving "forward" as we think of it as we see amphibians who lose the ability to leave the water, and cave fish who lose their eye sight. Consequently, as soon as someone claims evolution means always moving "higher," I know they don't really understand the theory. "Social Darwinism" is the invalid link between evolutionary biology and eugenics. Identifying that humans are eliminating the impact of natural selection is a true statement. However, it is not justification for the genocide committed by Hitler. Darwin never would have approved of active eugenics. In case the author forgets, Darwin was an abolitionist opposed to slavery, which make him hardly the villain or the source of so much racial villainy as some right wing anti-science christians try to associate with Darwin.

We ought to be grateful that Darwin, personally, was opposed to slavery and the genocidal elimination of the "races" of humans that Darwin's own theory said were biologically inferior. But, one only has to read a little more Darwin to know how he promoted a new allegedly scientific justification for racial inequality ("weaker" and "more powerful" races or tribes in Darwin's own words--see below). Most Darwinists today would rather ignore such racist statements in Darwin's book The Descent of Man (1871). Let me drag them back into the light of day for careful review. You may find these quotations on the indicated page numbers of the first edition of Darwin's Descent of Man.

“At the present day civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations, excepting where the climate opposes a deadly barrier; and they succeed mainly, though not exclusively, through their arts, which are the products of the intellect. It is, therefore, highly probable that with mankind the intellectual faculties have been gradually perfected through natural selection; and this conclusion is sufficient for our purpose” (p. 160).

“Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race. Various checks are always in action, as specified in a former chapter, which serve to keep down the numbers of each savage tribe,—such as periodical famines, the wandering of the parents and the consequent deaths of infants, prolonged suckling, the stealing of women, wars, accidents, sickness, licentiousness, especially infanticide, and, perhaps, lessened fertility from less nutritious food, and many hardships. If from any cause any one of these checks is lessened, even in a slight degree, the tribe thus favoured will tend to increase; and when one of two adjoining tribes becomes more numerous and powerful than the other, the contest is soon settled by war, slaughter, cannibalism, slavery, and absorption. Even when a weaker tribe is not thus abruptly swept away, if it once begins to decrease, it generally goes on decreasing until it is extinct” (p. 238)

Although Darwin sometimes argues that “progress” in evolution is not inevitable, at other times he argues for general tendencies toward progress, such as in this passage about the evolution of morality:

“At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase” (p. 166).

Benjamin Wiker, in his essay “Darwin’s Views on Morality” responds well to these ideas of Darwin:

Darwin’s account of morality is flawed on its own terms; that is, it is self-contradictory. His account of morality is undergirded by a theory of natural selection that by definition has no goal, yet Darwin attempted to make the evolution of morality “aim” at the production of one key character trait, “sympathy.” The contradiction is even more curious and even more serious because the evolved trait “sympathy” acts directly against natural selection.

Wiker continues:

Now to the details. The origin of morality is, of course, natural selection. Certain traits of certain individuals prove beneficial in the struggle for survival. But before anything like “morality” can arise, we must have become social creatures, and this must have been the result of natural selection. Individuals with “social” natures—i.e., those inclined to stick together in a group—were selected over individuals who were loners. Groups beat individuals in the struggle to survive. Thereafter, whatever contributes to making the social nature of one group stronger than another is naturally selected. Here’s a nice summary from Darwin:

When two tribes of primeval man, living in the same country, came into competition, if the one tribe included…a greater number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without doubt succeed best and conquer the other….A tribe possessing the above qualities in a high degree would spread and be victorious over other tribes; but in the course of time it would, judging from all past history, be in its turn overcome by some other and still more highly endowed tribe. Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world. [Darwin, Descent of Man, p. 162]

We must not flinch from what all this really entails. Evolution climbs by the struggle for existence, and the losers lose for good. In Darwin’s terse words, “Extinction follows chiefly from the competition of tribe with tribe, and race with race.” Conflict over scarce recourses is the Malthusian core of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. By making tribal and racial conflict the engine of human evolution, Darwin had to baptize racial extermination—not just in the past, but the future as well. The more evolved races (those furthest from the apes) will continue to exterminate the less evolved (the more savage, who are closer to the apes). In his chilling words, “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races,” Darwin wrote with scientific detachment. “At the same time the anthropomorphous apes,” that is, those that look most like the human sub-species lowest on the evolutionary scale, “will no doubt be exterminated. The break [between human beings and apes] will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

We cannot appeal to some standard of “morality” to stop one race from exterminating another. The extermination of one tribe, one race, by another is the cause of the evolution of morality itself (as it is the cause of all our higher traits). Struggle and extermination allow superior moral traits to evolve. Indeed, what we mean by a superior moral trait is defined solely by its actual contribution to the survival of a particular tribe or race. Thus, whatever trait has contributed to the survival in the struggle for existence of any tribe or race is therefore by definition moral for them, whether it is “nice” (like sympathy) or “nasty” (ruthlessness toward enemies, slavery, infanticide, oppression of women, polygamy). Consequently, there are as many successful moralities as there are surviving societies. Morality is relative in the exact sense that any evolutionary trait is relative. It is relative to the particular conditions of particular societies. Whatever works, works; whatever doesn’t, perishes.

Now you better understand how Darwin helped lay the foundation for evolutionary (and racist) ethics. Hitler and other Nazi leaders adopted such Darwinian justifications of racism and employed them in ways that might have shocked Darwin himself. There will be more on Hitler (in his own words) in part 3 of this series. Although Darwin personally was opposed to slavery (or England engaging in genocide), his theory of moral evolution cound not properly ground his own abolitionist and humanitarian outlook. Consider this as you read about Darwinism, racism, and other social issues today. Here is an important webpage that links you to essays that address such issues:

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