Science & Faith
12/3/12 at 06:37 PM 0 Comments

Debate Over Darwin and Eugenics Continues: Part 1

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My last few posts on eugenics has generated a debate that others might find interesting. Eugenics is the attempt to breed humans using Darwinian principles. But many Darwinists today try to disassociate Darwin with the social applications of his theory, especially because of the Nazi experience. When I quoted Darwin's book the Descent of Man (1871), p. 168, in my last post to show that he laid the foundation of eugenics, one reader responded:

Creationists dishonestly present the opinions of Darwin. An example from the article above is the quote from "Descent of Man." Here is the paragraph immediately following which concluded Darwin's thought: "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. 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 a certain and great present evil."

The additional quote from my reader (which begins a new paragraph) stops in the middle of that new paragraph. The rest of the parargraph reads:

Hence we must bear without complaining 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 the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage.

Darwin’s comments above (and in my previous post) on the subject of natural selection in civilized nations require careful scrutiny to interpret accurately. Here is how I direct students in my courses to evaluate this.

1. Explain how Darwin personally wished to aid the weaker members of society, but admitted that his own theory (on the whole) demonstrated that such benevolent practices are bad for humanity.

2. How does this passage provide the foundation for eugenics, which is the attempt to control human evolution by policies that promote more “fit” humans (e.g., forced sterilization of people judged less fit, etc.)?

3. Darwin claims we could not “check” (i.e., suppress) our sympathetic feelings toward weak people “without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature,” even though “hard reason” tells us that helping such weak people will result in them having more offspring, which is “highly injurious to the race of man.” Discuss how “the noblest part of our nature” means the allegedly evolved trait of “sympathy.”

4. Do you detect deep incoherence within Darwin’s theory of human evolution? Or is the main problem a contradiction between what Darwin knows is right (help the weak members of society) based on deep experiential intuitions (Romans 2 says God has written his law on our hearts), and what his theory says is best for humanity? Or is there incoherence in both regards?

Because my CP readers are unlikely to sit in on my courses (visit Fort Worth if you wish), I shall quote some noted scholars who answer most of the questions that I posed above.

Here is how John West responds on a website I've recommended before on this blog:

It’s true that Darwin wasn’t a champion of forced sterilization, but that’s because the technology for sterilization wasn’t developed until well after Darwin died. Darwin was certainly supportive of the early eugenics ideas promoted by his cousin Francis Galton (who actually coined the term “eugenics”), and he favored eugenic restrictions on marriage. [See the extended quotation above, and The Descent of Man (1871), vol. II, p. 403]. ...

Finally, although Darwin opposed slavery, he firmly believed that the evolutionary process had created superior and inferior races. He maintained in Descent of Man that human intellectual development was the product of natural selection and that natural selection had produced significant differences in the mental faculties of “men of distinct races.” [See Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 109-110, 160, 201, 216.] In the same book, Darwin disparaged blacks and observed that the break in evolutionary history between apes and humans fell “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla,” indicating that he considered blacks the humans that were the most ape-like. [Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201]. Darwin also predicted that “[a]t 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, The Descent of Man (1871), vol. I, p. 201.] The racist cast of Darwin’s thought is difficult to deny.

Darwin was undeniably a great figure in the history of human civilization, and I think that his works should be read by every literate American. But he was also a fallible human being who had some unsavory views about the social implications of his theory.

Or, note how Benjamin Wiker responds to Darwin's views above:

Darwin pulled back from the obvious implications of his theory, and took refuge in the evolved moral trait of “sympathy.” We could not withhold “our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature,” he maintained. But what if a society suddenly realized that a little savagery goes a long way, and began to eliminate all their imbeciles, maimed, sick, poor, weak members, and allowed only the fit to breed [as the Nazis did on explicitly Darwinian principles]? Wouldn’t they be much more in tune with natural selection, and hence much more natural? It would seems so, and they would certainly win in the struggle for existence against the “softer” society. That’s the way human evolution works.

This is part 1 of the ongoing debate over Darwin and eugenics. More is coming later. Thank you, dear readers, for caring about what Darwin really thought and the implications this has for us today. Ideas have consequences.

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