The ScienceBlogs Book Club

Review by John Lynch, from Stranger Fruit
Originally posted on: January 16, 2009 12:56 PM

It is always cute when the anti-evolutionists (in all their guises) try to do history; witness here, for example. Veteran observers are not surprised to find them trying to warp history (see here, here, here & here for that). Nowhere is this warping more evident than in how DI-hacks such as John West & Richard Weikart have promulgated a meme linking Darwin to Haeckel to Nazism. This has been clearly dealt with by a number of historians (see references herein and read Robert Richards’ latest book on Haeckel). Equally as resilient is the idea (also held by West & Weikart) that American eugenicists at the start of the 20th century were inspired by Darwin (who was himself, they claim, sympathetic to eugenics) and, thus, Darwin was culpable for American eugenic policies. Historian Mark Borrello dealt with this when debating West back in 2007 and, of course, someone with even the most facile knowledge of history knows that eugenics pre-dated Darwin by quite some time. But let’s look at one American eugenicist, Charles Davenport, and his book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics.

Davenport has been described as ?the most notable American eugenicist? by James Watson, and a 1907 World Magazine article pitched him as ?the man of mystery who is searching for the secret of life.? Trained as a biologist, Davenport was initially a biometrician but eventually became a Mendelian, i.e. held ideas that were in distinct tension with the utility of Darwinian selection. In 1910, he became the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he founded the Eugenics Record Office, an organization which examined the application of Mendelian genetics to human affairs. Throughout his tenure at the ERO, which closed in 1935, Davenport?s ideas received significant criticism – which he ignored – from British eugenicists. In later years, he maintained connections with eugenic organizations in Germany.

Davenport?s central place within the American eugenic movement is undeniable and Jan A. Witkowski & John R. Inglis have recently issued a facsimile of Davenport?s Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), bundling it with ten essays by historians, scientists and legal scholars, under the title Davenport?s Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity and Eugenics (CSHLP, 2008). Davenport?s life gets briefly examined in an essay by Witkowski, Elof Carlson puts his work into a wider context, and Maynard Olson analyzes the logic of the reissued work. For me – as an historian – these were the most useful contributed essays, but I?m sure that folks more interested in bioethical issues would find much in the other contributions.

Historically, what is truly valuable here is the facsimile reissue of Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. Even the briefest perusal reveals how Mendelian the work is. There is page after page of genealogies for traits such as ?corpulency,? singing ability, artistic ability, mechanical skill, ?feeble-mindedness,? nervousness, nosebleeds, and ?brilliancy.? Except for the traits being examined, this is standard genetic fare and it is only in the latter third of the work that Davenport begins to clearly advocate eugenic procedures (either by ?elimination of undesirable traits? or by ?the control of immigration?*).

One has to wonder what Darwin has to do with all of this. The short answer is very little apparently. Davenport only cites Darwin once in the whole 300 page book, and here is the quote:

Inheritance of peculiarities of handwriting is often alleged (Darwin, 1894, p. 449), but it is difficult to get satisfactory evidence about it. [p. 63]

That?s it. And the reference is to Domestication of Plants and Animals, not even to the works that discuss natural selection, the central core of Darwin?s theory. Speaking of which, the index has no entries for selection or natural selection (or for that matter, survival or fit(ness)). My point here – such as it is – is that if you are going to put a tag on Davenport?s work, it should be ?Mendelian?. Would we thus hear the Discovery Institute wage war against the Austrian monk? Of course not. Davenport?s book is muddled in its application of Mendelian ideas to social issues. This misapplication does not in any way invalidate the ideas themselves. But of course, that?s what the creationists want you to believe – that the effects of a misapplication of a scientific theory somehow undermine the scientific ideas themselves. (On that, see the link between Newton & Hitler).

My advice is to read Davenport and the writings of the other eugenicists. Read them in conjunction with works by historians such as Dan Kevles, Elof Carlson and Mark Largent (to name but a few). You will discover that the history of eugenics in this country is a lot more complicated (and interesting!) that the simplistic ideas being promulgated by the Discovery Institute.

To end, I?d like to give a quote. See if you can guess whom it is from:

I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding, and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized, and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them.

The words were written by President Theodore Roosevelt whose image is carved into Mount Rushmore – that icon of ID – as one of our greatest presidents. Draw your own conclusions.


* It would be remiss of me not to quote Davenport?s opinion of the Irish immigrants:

The traits that the great immigration from the south of Ireland brought were, on the one hand, alcoholism, considerable mental defectiveness and a tendency for tuberculosis; on the other, sympathy, chastity and leadership of men. The Irish tend to aggregate in cities and soon control their governments, frequently exercising favoritism and often graft. [p. 213]


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