Darwin and the Holocaust 3: eugenics

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.


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Nazis propaganda argument for eugenics was that mentally disabled people were a burden on the society. This had nothing to do with evolution.

By Roman Werpachowski (not verified) on 02 Sep 2006 #permalink

Correct, Roman. That was perhaps the most commonly used rationale that proponents of Nazi racial hygeine used. The "feebleminded" were often referred to "useless eaters" or "life unworthy of life," shown in the most pathetic circumstances possible in propaganda films and literature. One of the key rationales for eliminating them was the amount of resources that it took to support them, resources that, according to the Nazi Party, would be better used for the war effort. It was also often pointed out that caring for one such person would tie up "able-bodied Aryans," who might be better deployed either as soldiers or as armaments workers--or, if female, having babies to be raised into the next generation of Nazis.

This is really excellent, John. One of the best things of its kind I've seen on the internet.

One minor mistake:

Williams Jennings Bryan is not usually considered a 'religious figure.' He was populist politician, he did hate what he took to be evolutionary theory. he was a Christian, and a hero to many evangelicals (who back then tended to be on the left), but he was never a theologian, pastor, or preacher.

So far as Bryan's involvement in the eugenics debate is concerned, his rationale for opposing evolution was that his faith rejected (rather admirably) the treatment of people differently based on so-called "biological" traits. So his critique is religious and thus he is motivated by religion. I'll continue to call him a religious critic of eugenics.

Fair enough re Bryan. If I'm not entirely convinced, I'm at least cowed.

It is easy to argue that each race has its own different beneficial characteristics if you believe in evolution; to say that only one race is beneficial is simply selfinflated "bragging" that is seems is easy to accept for those of the same race.

However, relaxed survival conditions, such as a built up wellfare state, built up health care, surely should affect the population characteristics; for example if diabetic died before and now survives, then it is self evident that the diabetic trait will spread (ie if it doesn't matter whether or not one has diabetes then ultimately all will get diabetes). The same is true for other traits, such as getting an income from work, if you are on wellfare you can have as many children as if you had an income from work. Since traits are less likely genetically then not the trait (there are far more combinations of genes that do NOT have a trait, than there is for one specific trait) traits such as healthy non-diabetic or useful for working will decrease and the diabetic or non-useful in terms of worknig will increase in the populus.

Of course when such traits have increased to a point the wellfare state will collapse, and hard times will be valid again and the useful traits will increase in the populus again. (a cyclic scenario - when people are able again, another wellfare state will be establised, and so forth.)

Of course, another scenaria is the artifical selection that people can do with spearm banks. Or even designer babies. But that is for the future to decide.

ie if it doesn't matter whether or not one has diabetes then ultimately all will get diabetes

Think again, and you will see that this is nonsense. It might happen that in the end everyone carries the recessive gene for diabetes*, but that's not the same as developing the condition.

Always the same: ignorance produces fear, and fear produces problematic political ideas.

* "Gene for diabetes"! Ha! A vast simplification for the sake of an argument.

By David Marjanović (not verified) on 04 Sep 2006 #permalink


If you are going to get rid of Welfare because it alters 'survival conditions', are you also willing to get rid of agriculture, circulating currency, criminal and contract law, written language, electricity, police, and prisons? These institutions alter 'survival condition' a lot more than Welfare. They not only help people survive, but even allow some to prosper who otherwise might not live so long.

Clean public water supplies piped to indvidual homes and regular garbage collection influence mortality rates far more than diabetes medication. Are you against these things? Are you against penicillin?

Also, I'm confused about your notion of heritable biological traits. If a shiftless bum gets his life together and starts working hard, did he get new genes? Which behavior pattern gives us the prescient understanding of his true heredity--his former shiflessness, or his newfound vigor?

Finally, why did the ancient Roman Senate give free food to the poor? Why did the U.S. government historically provide cheap and even free Western land? Why, in fact, have all governments in the history of the world had some sort of welfare? Did they just not understand eugenics properly?

One thing to consider is that evolution loves diversity. When you push the human species toward culturally favored traits, you narrow the field. Being big and strong is nice in a culture where football heros are worshiped and there's plenty of food to go around. In times of famine, those folks die off. They're too expensive.

Or if some super plague erupts, we might have engineered away that "bad"
gene that would have helped us survive it. The Hopi Indians (I think they're the ones) are an example. Many have a "defective" gene that predisposes them to diabetes. But it's the same gene that helped them survive the feast/famine cycles in the environment of their ancestors.

When you play the eugenics game, you're playing to a rather narrow set of cultural values favoring traits that appear beneficial in this particular time and place. But do we know if these valued traits will be optimal in future times and places? No. We can't. That's why evolution hedges its bets with diversity. Eugenics, it seems to me, tends to be eggs-in-one-basket style betting. And in terms of evolutionary history, it's a recipe for extinction.

David Marjanović,
Diabetes is basically a lack of a functioning gene that produces insulin throughout life. How else can it spread? It is the lack of traits that spread with relaxed survival conditions, not the traits; they only spread if they are successful in terms of survival. For example, every farmer know this, if you sow wheat that have been improved by breeding, that improvement is gone in 5 generations if you use the harvest to sow next year. This is not strange since there are far more combinations of genetic material for non-traits than there are for specific traits.

You are freely extrapolating! I have not said the solution is to get rid of wellfare. I have neither not said the solution is eugenics. I believe neither is the solution. However I still think I have the right to point to a potential problem of the future! Of couse I do not believe everything is in the genes, some is nurture, not heridity. For example a recent study showed that morals is not heridity but nurture; however it has also been shown that some aggressiveness is heriditary. So it is not so easy. One should not say that all human traits are heriditary; however one should not neither say that none are.

See above; I really find eugenics and designer babies awkward (I do not like them), but I still think I have a valid point as far as we might have a potential problem in the future. Don't you see that relaxed survival condition will automatically mean diversity into non-traits. Eugenics is a dangerous road to travel; look at the broken breeded dogs. So what I want to say, is that I agree, eugenics should be avoided. I really think this even though I did not make it clear in the first post; this since I found a priority in pointing to possible future problems with a modern life conditions.


I fully agree with your point, but wish to emphasise that "modern life" is not an absolute ecological condition unde rwhich we will find ourselves, even if it were the case that the late-20th century version of American suburban life was the right set of conditions to measure the fitness of these "deleterious" alleles.

Basically there is no guarantee or absolute measure of the fitness of a genetic variant. None. You can't say (as the Hopi example highlights) even that diabetes is an absolute fitness-lowering gene in all environments. So the idea that we can "breed healthy genomes" is arrant nonsense. There's no single set of genes that are always healthy.

There might, though, be a number of individual genes that are always unhealthy. Perhaps, if we know this for a fact, and know that people without those alleles are healthy, we might strive to eliminate the genes. For example, the standard metabolic single base mutations. That is not exactly eugenics in the sense were are discussing, and I would suggest that this should be done with gene therapy when it becomes possible (i.e., a long way down the track), and by voluntary genetic counselling.

Comments on Mr Wilkins post,
"Modern life", I agree, is not an absolute ecological condition, since "modern life conditions" is spread out conditions across the populus, so it is hard to define what life conditions are valid for all of us.

I agree that there is no absolute measure of the fitness of a gene. However there exist a absolute measure of the specific molecular function of a gene. For example, if a specific protein is the function of a gene, then one can say that "the heamoglobin gene produces heamoglobin" (althogh I know there is a spread of functioning produced heamoglobin proteins across the populus). I agree we cannot breed healthy genomes, since we cannot define what is absolute healthy; specific healthy is a relative concept. Of course you can define healthy broadly, as "survives", as in natural selection, so then breeding is irrelevant anyway.

Although some genes might always be unhealthy, I think it is more relevant to say the lack of certain protein producing genes can be always unhealthy. Unhealthy traits is ususlly lack of beneficial genes, although sometimes, a certain beneficial gene may have negative side effects in some other aspect, so sometimes a unhealthy trait is due to a certain gene. But of course, there is a possibility that a gene can produce a harmful protein, but this is rathter unlikely; most proteims have no effect; few are beneficiary; few are harmful.

Volontary genetic counselling; in my opinion, not bad at all.

>relaxed survival condition will automatically mean diversity into non-traits. (Per)

I see your point but, potentially, a few of these non-traits might be useful in some future environment.

>voluntary genetic counselling.

Agreed, but can we keep the genie in the bottle? Might parents be tempted to give their children an edge? This could potentially lead emphasizing a narrow set of traits prized by a given society.

Nice post John. One thing that recently occurred to me (I don't know why it took so long) is that creationists who blame Darwin for eugenics do not actually oppose the parts of Darwin's theory that supposedly led to eugenics. They generally say that they have no problem with "microevolution", changes within species, it's just larger scale "macroevolutionary" change that they oppose.

Taking this into consideration, it doesn't even make sense for them to denigrate evolutionary theory on these grounds. There is absolutely no contradiction between creationism and the parts of evolutionary theory that (according to the creationists) led to the Holocaust. The idea that man descended from apes, which is the true cause of creationist opposition, has never been intimated as a source of eugenics as far as I know.