The claim often made is that Darwin is the sine qua non of the eugenics that the Nazis used to justify their genocide.What I aim to do today is show that while it is true (and widely accepted) that Darwinism was used by eugenicists to justify the “scientific” nature of their project, particularly in America, in point of fact the eugenics program was based on the idea that evolution wasn’t preserving the “fit” in modern society, and needed the assistance of public policy.
Moreover, many of the opponents of eugenics were themselves evolutionists (a term that just means here a specialist in evolution), in addition to the mostly Catholic, but also some Protestant, opposition. Their arguments ranged from technical concerns about the vagueness of the criteria used by eugenicists, to the point that if the poor and “feebleminded” were outbreeding the “noble” members of a society, in evolutionary terms that meant they were the fitter ones.
The best history of eugenics is by historian Daniel Kevles:
Kevles, D. J. (1995), In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Revised ed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
We’ll be relying on his work mainly.
The source of eugenics as a modern program was of course the work and ideas of Francis Galton, who was Darwin’s first cousin. As I noted in the first post, Galton’s ideas on eugenics were inspired by some of Darwin’s ideas, but oddly not those of evolution, but of heredity. Darwin realised that his evolutionary theory relied upon an as-yet unworked conception of two aspects of biological inheritance – one being the preservation of types across generations, and the other being the origination of varieties on which selection could work. He proposed that inheritance was caused by particles that collected in the gametes from all over the body. In a kind of Lamarckism, he thought that those traits that were used by the parent would most strongly be inherited by the progeny. Galton tested this idea experimentally and effectively disproved it, using blood transfusions in rabbits.
But Galton was inspired by the idea of biological inheritance. Previously, no clear idea of inheritance was available, and there was no clear distinction made between cultural or social inheritance and the biological, although the aristocracy had for centuries held that they were the best (which is what aristos means in Greek) inherently, and they carefully tracked pedigrees for “good” blood (which was thought to be the seat of inheritance) through marriages the way one would track a horse’s pedigree. This was no coincidence. The aristocracy mostly made their wealth through animal husbandry and farming, and were very well aware of the needs to breed desireable traits in their livestock, and it was only natural they would apply this to their social standing. But even prior to this, animal husbandry had been applied to humans, as far back as the deliberate breeding program of the Spartans, and Plato’s Republic in which he proposed mating the different “kinds” of people to ensure the right mix of philosopher-kings, warriors, and workers.
Galton was a well-off scion of the rising middle class industrialists of the 19th century. It seemed to him, and he documented this in his 1869 Hereditary Genius (the term “genius” here meant only that they had some noble abilities, not that they were necessarily more intelligent); you can read the 1892 second edition here. He came to conclude that these aspects of genius ran in families, and began a project, first to track and measure these abilities, and then to manage them in society. From the former, came the disciplines of science known as statistics and genetics. From the latter came eugenics, a term he coined in the 1883 book Human Faculty. As a result, he founded the Galton Laboratory for National Eugenics, which, in conjunction with Karl Pearson, of Pearson’s coefficient, began the project known as the “biometrics” program, from which statistics arose. The biometricians had their peak in the 1920s, doing what we would now call physical anthropology on the societies of their day.
The two traditions of biometrics and its consequent statistics, and Mendelian genetics which was fast taking over from the biometrical approach in English speaking countries, were synthesised in a book entitled The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection, by one of Pearon’s colleagues, Ronald Aylmer Fisher. This book also had five chapters on eugenics, which are usually ignored by modern commentators. Fisher’s argument was that the new science of Mendelian genetics could be applied to human societies, to improve the breeding stock, as it were, of the human race.
Fisher had befriended Darwin’s son Leonard, who was a leading light in the eugenics movement. They campaigned for a law to allow voluntary sterilisation of those who were genetically less endowed, but it was defeated by a 2/3rds majority. Neither they, nor Pearson nor Galton, insisted upon involuntary sterisation. Fisher and Darwin also argued for a subsidy for higher class families of larger numbers, and abolishing the subsidy for those who were poor with large families, in order to reduce the incentive for the poor to have more children.
The logic of the eugenicists of Britain was that modern society permitted those who would ordinarily have been eliminated by selection to breed, thus lowering the fitness of the gene pool of a nation. That is to say, evolution was impeded by society, such as by improved food resources and modern medicine.
At some point the emphasis shifted from what has been called, by Kevles, “positive” eugenics, which was Galton’s, Pearson’s and Fisher’s major emphasis – to encourage those who were bearers of noble traits – to “negative” eugenics, which involved the forced sterilisation of the “feebleminded”. The latter form of eugenics became widely popular in America, Canada, Australia and other English speaking nations. The American law was admired by Hitler, who modelled his initial eugenics legislation upon it. The primary scientific foundation for this shift lay in Mendelian genetics, not in evolution, based on the idea that recessive genes were the locus of negative traits.
Many geneticists, as well as numerous religious figures (including William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial), however, objected to the eugenics program. According to Kevles, there were critics of the eugenics program from within the scientific community. One such was RC Punnett (Kevles 1995: 165), a geneticist who has given his name to the Punnett Square method of presenting fitness values of alleles. In 1917, Punnett calculated how many generations it would take to reduce “feeblemindedness” if all were sterilised in each generation. He worked out that to reduce the frequency from 1/100 to 1/1000 would require 22 generations, to 1/10000 90 generations and 1/1000000 700 generations! To give an idea of the magnitude of this, 22 generations takes us back to before the Black Death reached Europe. A debate ensued in which R. A. Fisher was taken to task in his attack on Punnett’s work by Herbert Jennings. By 1932, these criticisms had reach the New York Times.
By the mid-30s, Lionel Penrose was attacking the term “feebleminded” as covering a range of conditions. Note that he was a eugenicist. George Bernard Shaw attacked eugenic sterilisation on the grounds that he would not have been born. Shaw was an evolutionist, though not a Darwinian.
The leading evolutionist Theodosius Dobzhansky wrote an attack on eugenics in 1937 in his classic book that helped found the evolutionary synthesis:
The eugenical Jeremiahs keep constantly before our eyes the nightmare of human populations accumulating recessive genes that produce pathological effects when homozygous. These prophets of doom seem to be unaware of the fact that wild species in the state of nature fare in this respect no better than man does with all the artificiality of his surroundings, and yet life has not come to an end on this planet. The eschatological cries proclaiming the failure of natural selection to operate in human populations have more to do with political beliefs than with scientific findings. (Quoted from here)
Many eugenicists lost faith in the program after the depression, in which it became clearer that social status was more contingent than the biology of the poor or the rich, but the project didn’t really die until after the Holocaust and the atrocities of the Nazi regime became assimilated into Anglophone culture.
The point of this brief – all too brief – summary of the eugenics movement is as follows: the crucial source of the rise of eugenics was not evolution, although a number of people have linked it to social Darwinism (itself not really based on the principles of actual biology, but on a political program that employed evolution as its justification), but rather on genetics. If the sine qua non of the Holocaust was any science, then it was on the principles of breeding and thus genetics. To labour the point – if a science is false because it caused or contributed to the Holocaust, that science is genetics.
That said, eugenicists did see what they were doing as controlling evolution through social means. There was often a slide from “evolution does X” to “we should help evolution do X, because society is inhibiting evolution”. As Dobzhansky noted, species in the wild do fine with a genetic load of lethal recessives. Why should we fear that in humans? The answer came from political and social class considerations, not from biology, as several leading evolutionary theorists such as Haldane and (Julian) Huxley, Thomas Huxley’s grandson, noted.
A final point about the eugenics thesis. On evolutionary grounds, if a hereditary type is better at reproduction than another type in a population, that type is fitter than the other, by definition. Fitness in evolution is the average rate of reproduction of the gene or type. If you put the genes into a novel environment, like modern medicine, and that permits the “bad” gene to reproduce more rapidly, then in that environment, it is fitter. To deny this is to deny the fundamental point of Darwinian evolutionary theory. If Darwin himself, his son, Fisher or anyone else made that mistake, it remains a mistake.
And it behoves us to remember that the use of breeding principles on humans is ancient. That does not rely on evolutionary theory, as there was none before the mid-18th century, and the supposedly “evolutionary” views held by some Greeks were not held by Plato or the Spartans who advocated the use of breeding techniques on humans at that time.
Dobzhansky, Theodosius (1937), Genetics and the origin of species. New York: Columbia University Press.