Archive for January, 2012

The focus of this semester of Chance, Purpose and Progress in Evolution and Religion is the controversial topic of eugenics. To begin our introduction to the topic we had guest speaker Diane B Paul, a historian and preeminent voice in the study of eugenics. The focus of this meeting was to address Darwin, and his thoughts on eugenics or “social Darwinism”. The main reading was one of Dr. Paul’s papers entitled “Darwin, social Darwinism and eugenics”. The meeting was divided into two sections; a presentation by Diane and then a discussion of the topics.

The first part of the presentation addressed if Darwin was a hereditarian, meaning the belief that traits can be passed from generation to generation through a mechanism other than environment (genes, acquired characteristics, etc). This is important as one cannot be a eugenicist if they are not a hereditarian. To understand Darwin’s view, we looked at a series of both his contemporaries and positions on related debates.

Francis Galton, who has sometimes been credited for the phrase “nature vs. nurture”, believed that there were different quality humans. He also thought that natural selection was spoiling instead of improving the human race as those who were better educated or otherwise prudent waited until later in life to have children or had fewer children while the reckless, impoverished and uneducated began reproducing young and had many children. Galton also defined the idea of positive eugenics (philanthropic rewards for good marriages) and negative eugenics (discouraging ‘bad’ reproduction). Darwin generally agreed with Galton and often praised his work publicly.

John Stuart Mill was another of Darwin’s contemporaries. If Galton supported ‘nature’ as the main source of human variation then Mill would have prominently supported ‘nurture’. At this point in history there was a debate over “The Irish problem”. This ‘problem’ was primarily a belief that Irish peasants were lazy, stupid and otherwise lesser humans. Mill believed this was not because of an innate predisposition to these behaviors but were instead a product of their own degraded peasant status. Darwin disagreed with Mill on this, instead finding the Irish problem to be based in race, not environment.

In addition to the Irish problem, another race based debate was the debate over slavery in the West Indies. Slaves had recently been freed, but after a series of riots and civil discourse there was polarization over the ex-slaves remaining free. Thomas Carlyle was a very outspoken writer and historian who suggested that slavery kept individuals who would otherwise be lazy or violent working. He thought slavery should never have been abolished and those who had been freed should be returned to slavery. He also supported Edward Eyre, a governor who had violently suppressed a rebellion, and Carlyle helped establish a committee to defend Eyre when he was prosecuted. Meanwhile, both Mill and Darwin worked to secure his conviction.

Mill and Darwin’s opinions deviated again on the subject of women. Mill thought that the state of women, and their subjugation, was a result of how they were treated as lesser humans and were not educated. He believed that if they were treated similarly as men they would perform similarly. Darwin, however, thought that natural selection had led to women being more nurturing, caring and good at domestic duties while men were more bold, innovative and intelligent. He thought that women could not actually compete intellectually with men and were therefore limited to their current status.

And finally, Darwin worried a great deal about first cousin marriages. He knew from animal breeding that closely related animals could produce weak or ill offspring. Despite this, he married his first cousin but felt exceptional guilt that three of his children did not survive childhood. Worried that he may be to blame he sent his son to study first cousin marriages across many families. His son found no strong evidence that first cousin marriages had deleterious effects, though Darwin was not convinced.

Despite his anti-slavery stance, we can summarize Darwin was a hereditarian because he:

1)Agreed with Galton that natural selection was weakening the human race
2)Disagreed with Mill who thought the Irish problem was environmental, not racial
3)Thought women were intellectually inferior because of natural selection
4)Worried about the offspring of first cousin marriages.

But where did Darwin stand on eugenics?

Despite the inferences that can be made from his position on many topics, Darwin did not take a clear stance on eugenics. He did make the observation that the weak were propagating the land and that was bad for the race of man, that war had the similar effect because it killed the strongest and most able men out of the population which is ‘counter-selective’.

However Darwin also thought that we should cherish our ‘noblest impulses’ (altruism), meaning we should continue to care for the weak, sick, and otherwise unable. He also seemed to think that despite this, natural selection would still work- that the insane were institutionalized, the violent were locked up, and the promiscuous were diseased and sterile. Thus they would not be reproducing and would not contribute to the degradation of the human species. Importantly, Darwin was a Whig, meaning he thought state intervention should be minimal to non-existent and should play no role in trying to control who was having children.

To summarize the presentation:

1)Darwin was a hereditarian
2)However, he did not see a solution to be readily available because suggestions for controlling reproduction were impractical:
a.The reckless will still breed
b.The gifted wouldn’t care for incentives to marry well
c.Action would suppress our noble impulses (altruism)
d.The state should not intervene
e.Education was the most likely to help

With the remaining time, we began a discussion of Darwin and eugenics. At first we clarified that race did not equate to class, which was perhaps why Charles Dickens and other surprising figures (who seemed to be sympathetic to the impoverished in other contexts) supported Eyre during his prosecution and appeared to be pro-slavery in the West Indies. Next we discussed a definition of eugenics. What is eugenics? As it stands, there is no real agreed upon definition for the word. While many equate eugenics with what Galton called negative eugenics, or discouraging the reproduction of those deemed of poorer quality, positive eugenics was also suggested by many of Darwin’s contemporaries.

While Darwin seems to consider all of these points, he does not ever seem to explicitly suggest action of any sort. This may have been because he was simply making observations on the trends he was seeing in society and how they fit into his view of natural selection. It is also possible that while he was concerned about the perceived direction he saw the human race going, he did not see a solution that was viable.

We then briefly touched upon the evolution of morality. Multilevel selection can allow for altruism to have both strong negative and positive selective forces acting upon it. At an individual level, altruism requires the actor to benefit the receiver at a cost to themselves. This can be selected for if there is some counter-balancing force such as the potential for reciprocal altruism, sexual selection for it, an increase in status, or assisting close kin. However, at a population level, group selection can allow for altruistic groups to out compete a completely selfish group. It was asked if morality is also a Lamarckian trait. As we use and disuse certain standards of behavior and cultural ideals do our morals evolve? For more discussion of morality, see the blog for the meeting on
The Mating Mind.

We concluded this discussion by asking why Darwin never addressed any of these issues in The Origin of Species. Given what is known about Darwin, it is possibly he simply did not want to invite that kind of controversy. He may never have addressed the topic at all if Alfred Wallace, who had originally caused him to quickly publish The Origin of Species had not commented in another publication that he did not think natural selection applied to humans. Darwin was fearful that if he did not respond this sentiment would be connected to his theory. He therefore was forced to publicly disagree with Wallace and state that selection did, in fact, apply to humans as well.

Post contributed by SB.


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