Respectful Insolence

I’m confused again about what appear to be mutually conflicting statements.

The Discovery Institute’s favorite creationist neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor two months ago on Pharyngula:

Perhaps a fable (not a just-so story!) will illustrate. Imagine that you, P.Z., were a student in 1925. You would study Darwinism fairly intensively as a high school student, undergrad, and med student (it’s a hypothetical!). In high school you’d read Hunter’s ‘A Civic Biology’ (unless you lived in Dayton, Tennessee), which taught the Darwinian superiority of the Nordic races and the need to eliminate the lesser races. In college you would take courses on Eugenics (thousands were offered), and learn the application of dog breeding to humans. As a medical student you would be steeped in Eugenic practices. You might do a term paper on Darwin’s lament in the ‘Descent of Man’ (ever heard of the book?) that the smallpox vaccine was regrettable because it enabled the ‘weak’ to breed, noting that ‘no breeder would ever breed from his worst stock’. You would then go off to practice medicine, and join the Eugenic frenzy. Fifty thousand Americans, tagged ‘feeble minded’ and manifestly poor breeding stock, were sterilized involuntarily. Your Darwinian-Eugenic work would be mainstream medicine, endorsed by all the big guys, except the ‘anti-science’ types like Chesterton and the Catholics, who kept bleating about human dignity, and your only interruption would be those pesky Germans who kept visiting, and learning from you. Darwinism was absolutely indispensable to Eugenics, and to American medicine (and some continental European medicine) in the first half of the 20th century…

Darwinism was the indispensable basis for Eugenics. I teach in the medical ethics course in my medical school. I make sure the students learn about Eugenics, and where it came from. I have a particular distaste for your ideological ancestors.

And:

Regarding your ‘Eugenics denial’, the link between Darwinism and Eugenics is tight, a matter of historical record. Everytime I hear the trope ‘Darwinism is indispensible to medicine’, I’m going to stick Eugenics in your face. Darwinism was indispensible to Eugenics, but is indispensible to nothing else in medicine.

Here’s Dr. Egnor one month ago:

It used to rely a lot on Darwinism back in the early 20th century when eugenics was a very important part of the practice of medicine in this country and many other countries. Eugenics was essentially the application of Darwinian ideas about breeding animals to human beings. And, almost immediately, with the publication of The Origin of Species, many of Darwin’s colleagues, including his cousin Francis Galton, began applying these ideas to people. Darwin himself applied these ideas in The Descent of Man, which he published subsequent to Origin of Species.

And eugenics was basically the concept that human beings could be bred as one would breed animals and that there was something morally right about “survival of the fittest,” that it actually extended Darwin’s ideas to the moral realm. Of course, all ideas as shattering as Darwin’s ideas were ultimately get extended to some extent into morality and politics, and eugenics was central to American medicine. 60,000 people were sterilized against their wills in the early 20th century…

And, finally, here’s Dr. Egnor now (and here’s where the confusion comes in):

Darwin’s theory asserts that all natural biological complexity arose by non-purposeful variation and natural selection. It doesn’t apply to purposeful variation or purposeful selection, which are designed.

Dr. Cartwright is right. The experimental selection of “desirable” bacterial variants is bacterial eugenics, using the same empirical principles that eugenicists applied to human breeding. Eugenics is human breeding, and is every bit as much of a misapplication of Darwin’s theory as are Dr. Cartwright’s examples of bacterial breeding…

Modern eugenics arose from a philosophical proposition. The basis for eugenics was philosophical materialism, which denied the inherent dignity and sanctity of every human life. Denial of transcendent ethical standards eventually leaves “because we can” as the sole ethical standard.

See why I’m confused, having noted the–ahem–evolution of Dr. Egnor’s story? I have to ask Dr. Egnor: Which is it? Is Darwinism the “indispensable basis for eugenics” or isn’t it? And, more importantly, now that you’ve admitted that eugenics is artificial, not natural selection, when are you going to stop blaming eugenics on “Darwinism” and stop telling medical students in your medical ethics classes that Darwinism is the “indispensable basis for eugenics”? After all, now that you admit that you know that eugenics is in reality “intelligent design” rather than natural selection (sorry, couldn’t resist), from now on, if you continue to tell your students that eugenics is based on “Darwinism,” we’ll know you’re lying.

Of course, It’s highly amusing to note that Dr. Egnor’s newfound historical knowledge doesn’t go down well at all with his new friends at the Discovery Institute. John West, in particular, appears unhappy that Dr. Egnor has admitted that Dr. Egnor has in essence admitted that eugenics is not natural selection, even while being forced to admit it himself. (Never mind that Darwin himself rejected West’s claimed rationale that Darwinism implies letting the sick die in his book The Descent of Man.)

Careful, Dr. Egnor. Your newfound buddies will turn on you in an instant if you stray too far from the script. Then, not only would you have destroyed your reputation, but you’d have destroyed it and then been abandoned for doing it.

Just a friendly word of warning from a fellow surgeon.

ADDENDUM: John Pieret has an excellent commentary on how John West selectively quotes Darwin to justify the Discovery Institute lie that eugenics naturally follows from Darwinism. Moreover, he shows that even Darwin realized that the presumed “contingent benefit” of a eugenics artificial selection program would be uncertain at best and not worth the “deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”

Comments

  1. #1 Bronze Dog
    April 20, 2007

    Yeah, those Spartans who abandoned sickly babies out in the wild were all upons Darwin.

    Also, didn’t Hitler think he was Intelligently Designed to wipe out the plague of Jews, blacks, and homosexuals?

    Wait, plague? Does that mean that the germ theory of disease is responsible for the Holocaust? Does Egnor therefore reject germ theory?

    “When He [Jesus] found it necessary He drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God; because then, as always, they used religion as a means of advancing their commercial interests. But at that time Christ was nailed to the Cross for his attitude towards the Jews; whereas our modern Christians enter into party politics and when elections are being held they debase themselves to beg for Jewish votes. They even enter into political intrigues with the atheistic Jewish parties against the interests of their own Christian nation.” -Adolph Hitler

    More on Hitler’s Creationism.

  2. #2 tim gueguen
    April 20, 2007

    Trying to tar your opponents with the eugenics brush is dangerous, as its hard to find a group in society that didn’t advocate the idea in some form in the early decades of the 20th Century.

  3. #3 Doc Bill
    April 20, 2007

    And, regarding eugenics in general, I have to say “so what?”

    You ask a high school student about “eugenics” and he’ll say either that the lead singer was Bono or Annie Lennox.

  4. #4 Mr. G
    April 20, 2007

    The basis for eugenics was philosophical materialism, which denied the inherent dignity and sanctity of every human life.

    On behalf of philosophical materialism, I would note that the basis for nuclear weapons is theoretical physics.

  5. #5 Blake Stacey
    April 20, 2007

    Careful, Dr. Egnor. Your newfound buddies will turn on you in an instant if you stray too far from the script. Then, not only would you have destroyed your reputation, but you’d have destroyed it and then been abandoned for doing it.

    Oooh, pass the popcorn. This ought to be sweet.

  6. #6 Bronze Dog
    April 20, 2007

    The basis for life-saving vaccines is materialism.
    The basis for germ theory of disease is materialism.
    The basis for my kicking [hiney] today in Armored Core 4 is materialism.
    The basis for the Internet is materialism.
    The basis for cooking food is materialism.
    The basis for painting is materialism.

    Pretty much everything we do successfully is based on materialism. It’s what and why we do things that’s the question, and pretending that materialism says one thing or another on that issue just sounds crazy to me.

  7. #7 daedalus2u
    April 20, 2007

    Actually, eugenics as it is practiced today lets everyone police the gene pool. If you think that someone is unfit to reproduce, DON’T REPRODUCE WITH THEM!

  8. #8 Mike
    April 20, 2007

    Do you think that Egnor’s turn around may have been due to William Dembski’s post at Uncommon Descent where he says “DIRECTED EVOLUTION IS NON-DARWINIAN. DARWINIAN EVOLUTION IS NON-DIRECTED” (capitalisation his)? Eugenics is “directed evolution” and thus Intelligent Design, not Darwinism! Or at least it is temporarily when required for an argument.

  9. #9 Mr. G
    April 20, 2007

    DON’T REPRODUCE WITH THEM!

    We live in a free market paradise.

  10. #10 natural cynic
    April 20, 2007

    Lesson #1 in BS detection is to do the numbers.

    Egnor:in the early 20th century when eugenics was a very important part of the practice of medicine in this country and many other countries…
    and eugenics was central to American medicine. 60,000 people were sterilized against their wills in the early 20th century…

    Hmmm. There must have been at least 60 million adults in the US at any one time during the early 20th century and more than 100 million total adults during the eugenics period – more than 100 million possible candidates for forced sterilization. So, far fewer than 1 in 1000 were sterilized. Not what I would call an *important part* of american medicine. It was a tragedy for those who were forcably sterilized, but in the perspective of the whole population, it was a minor blip.

  11. #11 itchy
    April 20, 2007

    You ask a high school student about “eugenics” and he’ll say either that the lead singer was Bono or Annie Lennox.

    Doc Bill, you are *so* VH-1 Classic.

    High school students today would have been born between 1989 and 1994. Eurythmics might as well be The Carpenters for all they know.

  12. #12 chris
    April 21, 2007

    Actually, eugenics as it is practiced today lets everyone police the gene pool. If you think that someone is unfit to reproduce, DON’T REPRODUCE WITH THEM!

    Too bad it doesn’t work in reverse. I have encountered many individuals I found to be excellently “fit” for reproduction. But when I tried to choose them, they, apparently, didn’t choose me.

    Ah, c’est la vie.

  13. #13 Lyc
    April 21, 2007

    It’s like watching a clown ride a unicycle on a tightrope over a pool of piranhas.

    If he leans to far one way he will fall off the rope and real biologists, hospital admins/surgeons, etc will rip him to pieces. If it’s too far the other way the IDiots and creationists will tear him apart. The sensible thing would be not to get on the unicycle and start pedaling, but for whatever reason he did.

    And now the unicycle riding clown has started juggling his arguments….

    I wonder if he realises yet that his new adoring ‘friends’ at DI will happily flush him down the toilet like a used condom once he becomes expendable?

  14. #14 Prometheus
    April 21, 2007

    As usual, Dr. Egnor has it completely backwards.

    “Darwinism” (i.e. evolution), does not require eugenics to exist. And eugenics – although it may have been “inspired” by the theory of evolution (probably all that “survival of the fittest” nonsense that non-biologists attribute to evolution) – doesn’t need evolution to “work” (to the extent that it does “work”).

    Eugenics – as described by its proponents – requires only simple Mendelian genetics. In fact, it really only makes “sense” if your understanding of genetics stops at Brother Mendel’s pea plants. If your understanding of genetics extends to population genetics, variable penetrance, molecular genetics, mutation, hybrid vigor….etc., then eugenics is shown for what it really is – a futile and counterproductive endeavor.

    Much like “Intelligent Design”.

    Dr. Egnor is “hung up” on eugenics because it is the best argument he has against evolution. The fact that it isn’t an argument against evolution merely underscores the poverty of his reasoning.

    At best (worst), the specter of “eugenics” (Boo!) is a cautionary tale of how some people will twist and distort science to further their own social agendas. The fact that this is a warning best directed at the proponents of “Intelligent Design” is apparently lost on Dr. Egnor.

    Prometheus

  15. #15 dzd
    April 21, 2007

    The basis for eugenics was philosophical materialism, which denied the inherent dignity and sanctity of every human life.

    As opposed to religion, which only denies the inherent dignity and sanctity of human lives when those human lives belong to different religions. Big improvement.

  16. #16 moioci
    April 25, 2007

    I always thought eugenics was inspired by animal husbandry, which predates Mendel and Darwin.