Evolution and Eugenics

It would be wrong to saddle Charles Darwin with responsibility for the eugenics movement, which was to blacken the 20th century leading up to its culmination at the Nuremberg Trials. Nevertheless, the concept of natural selection provided an intellectual underpinning which the godless commandeered to justify the movement. The idea that society would benefit by the eradication of the inferior and the imbecile had already been put into the air by Thomas Malthus (1766-1834), who held that the population must eventually outstrip resources. Even Darwin predicted that the civilised races would eventually eradicate the savage. This was soon to be fulfilled through the death of the last Tasmanian aboriginal in 1876.

Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”, although Darwin was to use it in his 1869 edition. The fittest did not mean the strongest but fittest for the prevailing conditions. And Spencer was anxious for action, calling for the theory to be turned into a political manifesto. Francis Galton, half-cousin to Darwin, and a brilliant scientist, was first to use the word “eugenic” following his detailed studies into the characteristics of inherited intelligence. He was to observe in his book, Heredity Genius (1869), the inferiority of the “lower races” compared with the European. Noting that the working classes had large families, he advocated a higher level of breeding among the intelligent.

While a casual and cruel attitude to-wards the “lower races” was endemic in British imperialism it was not until the turn of the 20th century that eugenics came to be considered a respectable and practical issue. Winston Churchill was strongly in favour, regarding the “multiplication of the feeble minded” as “a terrible danger to the human race”. He saw eugenics as a crusade for the future of civilisation. He was not alone: luminaries such as William Beveridge, H G Wells and G B Shaw were with him. Fortunately Parliament was not, and the call for the sterilisation of the “inferior” was rejected. Much of the rhetoric, presented as the rights of women and the remedy for illegal abortion, which resulted in the 1967 Abortion Act, found its origin in the eugenics movement.

The United States took up the banner with a will, and scientist Charles Davenport wrote his influential Heredity in Relation to Eugenics in 1911. He applied his expertise in animal biometrics to humans, studied racial characteristics in great detail, and, on the basis of statistics recorded by the Eugenic Records Office – which he had founded – became an ardent supporter of the movement. Its promotion was widespread and the Supreme Court’s favourable ruling in 1927 (Buck vs Bell) declared forcible sterilisation constitutional. Between 1907 and 1970 over 60,000 people in America had been victims. The last such sterilisation was reported from Oregon in 1981. Davenport contributed to German periodicals and institutions well into the Nazi era.

But the Germans hardly needed encouragement. Eugenics had been scientifically respectable since Fischer, Bauer and Lenz first published Foundations of Human Hereditary Teaching and Racial Hygiene in 1921. As Rector of Berlin University Eugen Fischer proclaimed in 1935 that “What Darwin was not able to do genetics has achieved. It has destroyed the theory of the equality of man.” By 1942 the German high command had decided on the Final Solution: that all Jews must be exterminated. Even to omit pockets of racial inferiority carried the danger of future revival. Of course many others who were ruled as inferior by Nazi standards went the same way.

Eugenics has become a dirty word, but the spirit lives on. The right to abort a disabled baby up to the time of birth is eugenics writ large. The procedure of permitting multiple embryos, so that only those without apparent defect will be permitted to survive, continues. It was not until 1976 that Sweden abolished laws promoting the sterilisation of women for openly eugenic reasons. I suspect that approval of eugenics remains deep within our society. It may not use the term, but eugenics by any other name will smell as foul.

Fundamentalist science leads logically from the survival of the fittest to the ultimate extermination of those who do not qualify. If man is no more than a highly evolved animal, with no special characteristics beyond an extended evolution of brain capacity, there is no reason, at least in principle, to hold back. Would not the world be a better place if we rid it of the mentally inferior, the severely disabled, the aged and incompetent and the underclass?

Julian Huxley, in his Galton Lecture of 1962, certainly agreed. Darwinian theory led him directly to advocating compulsory sterilisation for the underclass which, he claimed, had low IQ, little willpower and other genetic abnormalities – combined with an inveterate tendency to over-breed. 

Why do we continue to support and preserve Aids victims in sub-Saharan Africa when to leave them to die would eventually eradicate the disease? Every action which enables some population to survive is a fist in the face of Nature. We became homo sapiens only through the survival of the fittest; surely we should not use our ingenuity to defeat the very principle which brought us into existence.

Before we pat ourselves on the back for rejecting these views we must be honest enough to ask ourselves whether we retain any traces of eugenic thinking. And we must be prepared to remember that there was a time when we believed that the persecution of the unfit – those who rejected Catholic Christianity – was virtuous. There is blood on our hands too, and some of it is Jewish.

Do you think that eugenics inevitably arise from Darwinism? Is it fair to judge Darwinism by its abuse? Do we not all have a duty to improve human stock? There is good scientific evidence that, albeit at an unconscious level, we tend to pick partners, either through physical features or the recognition of different but complementary immune systems, in order to have healthy children. So eugenics are natural. Tell us what you think.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Evolution and Eugenics

  1. Frank says:

    It has always struck me as strange that the Nazis should have thought the Jews ‘inferior’. I don’t know the actual figures but I think it is true to say that half of all the Nobel prizes for physics and chemistry at the time Hitler came to power had been won by German Jews. Further, German Jewish musicians made up the bulk of German orchestras. It is a paradox that a race that can lay claim to such great gifts has so often been reviled.

  2. RMBlaber says:

    Having visited Yad Vashem, I have seen for myself, albeit at secondhand, the consequences of the Nazis’ ‘endlosung der Europaischen Judenfrage’. Sylvia Plath’s phrase, ‘bright as a Nazi lampshade’ is shocking enough – it is even more shocking after you have seen one.
    Yes, we do have blood on our hands – but that was not a matter of eugenics, but of theology.
    As far as eugenics is concerned, it one thing to attempt to obtain the best stock through breeding, as farmers and horticulturalists have been trying to do with differing degrees of success for generations, or to try and obtain the best partner one can in a marriage – which might result in healthy and intelligent offspring, or might not – it is another thing entirely to try and eradicate whole classes of people on the grounds that they are ‘inferior’.
    You are very sold on Darwinism (or the ‘Neo-Darwinian synthesis’), Quentin – I think wrongly. I accept that speciation is evolutionary, and that evolution operates by the mechanism of natural selection.
    The fossil record would appear to show, however, that evolution is non-gradual. Furthermore, I do not accept that natural selection, meaning success or failure in adaptation to changing environmental conditions, operates in conjunction with purely random mutations. If they are purely random, there is no room for God. There is only, to quote the title of a famous book by the atheist French biologist, Jacques Monod, ‘Chance and Necessity’.
    So, evolution, yes. Natural selection: yes. Mutations: yes. Random mutations, no. As for eugenics, and the ‘survival of the fittest’: it was Tennyson, in ‘In Memoriam’, who bewailed ‘nature red in tooth and claw’. We are better than nature, and God expects us to be better than nature. He made us in His image. We do not let handicapped children die. We do not kill them. They, too, are made in His image.
    Unfortunately, such protection is not extended to handicapped foetuses in the womb – even if the only handicap they suffer is a cleft palate and hare lip, which can be surgically repaired without difficulty. They can be disposed of at our convenience, apparently.
    People justify this wholesale slaughter of the innocent on the grounds that foetuses aren’t human, which is nonsense, and that handicapped foetuses are even less so.
    God will demand an accounting from us all for every one of them, and nor can we escape our collective responsibility for their murders.

  3. As ever, RMBlaber presents me with a challenge. First, a preliminary comment. It is certainly true that the course of evolution is by no means always one of steady progression. For example, a major change in habitat may well lead to accelerated evolution, if a population is to survive. The disaster to the dinosaurs, and many other species, left plenty of new niches in which small mammals could evolve relatively quickly. The notion of “punctuated evolution” (that there are long periods of evolutionary inactivity followed by periods of rapid activity) finds less favour nowadays as the gaps in the fossil record are gradually being filled. But it still has its champions.
    Behind the problem of reconciling random mutation with the known creative activity of God is the much deeper one concerned with the way that God works. For instance RMBlaber exists – loved, chosen and intended-from-the-beginning by God. Yet behind him (as behind all of us) lies a sequence of myriads of random matings of which he is the end product. Solve that, and the question of random mutation becomes insignificant.

  4. Superview says:

    As only an occasional reader of the CH I would normally hesitate to share my views as a less than full member of the club – it does have a distinctive, if sometimes ambiguous, tone which is probably more to the ‘Right’ in Catholic politics than I would position myself. But you do have an engaging style in your column and make a serious attempt to approach contemporary issues in a reasoned way, so here goes.
    The history you give of eugenics is part science asking legitimate questions (and often getting the answers wrong) and part the social history of class and racism siezing tools to use to implement their agendas. Today it is morally unacceptable to employ these tools – which could be more efficiently employed than at any time in history – on grounds of class or race, but the designation of an unborn child as ‘unwanted’ has created a new category which has, consciously or unconsciously, and at the level of the individual woman exercising her choice I think it clearly is unconsciously, secreted eugenics into active use.
    But there are areas where science must still ask similar rational questions and try and find ethically acceptable answers. Is there anyone who wouldn’t wish, given the choice of an ethical option, to avoid congenital disabilities? For example, is there anyone who thinks that the sound medical advice that pregnancies in older women increase the risk of Down’s Syndrome is eugenics in action, rather than statistically true and capable of influencing behaviour and outcomes in a wholly moral way? Or that counselling of couples with a high risk of gentically related problems is wrong? Of course, the science itself opens up a host of possibilities, but that is where as moral beings we have to deal with the implications and consequences. Unfortunately I am not sure that the Church has such a great record of getting the morality or the actions right.

  5. tim says:

    A club should make visitors welcome.

    Knowledge is power – and good in itself. It may bring temptations to misuse it. There may also be temptations to obtain it in unethical ways. The knowledge that older women are at greater risk of having children with Down’s syndrome is good in itself, but the question is what is done with that knowledge. If on that basis you encourage all pregnant women over 35 to have a test in order to give them the opportunity to abort the child if it’s positive, that is misuse – even putting aside a test that in itself carries a significant risk of miscarriage with a false positive rate so high that substantial numbers of healthy babies are killed. Science is not to be blamed for facts – scientists and others may be to blame if they draw false moral conclusions using the facts as a minor premise. None of this is to deny that such facts may raise difficult questions. The Church’s record on such questions may need to be examined case by case – starting, perhaps, from a rather stronger presumption of correctness than is implied above.

  6. RMBlaber says:

    I must thank Quentin for his, as ever, courteous reply to my comment. I have just one point to make in response. He says that I exist, and am loved, chosen and intended-from-the-beginning-by-God (I am happy to agree with him about that!), yet behind me lie myriads of random matings, of which I am the end product.
    None of these allegedly ‘random’ matings were random to those who participated. No sequence of causally related intentional acts should ever be regarded as random. An intentional act is the opposite of a random event. It entails conscious choice, a degree of rationality, and moral responsibility.
    The difference between me and a proponent of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, such as Professor Richard Dawkins, au fond, is that he believes in ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ (to quote the title of one of his books) – in other words, in the evolution of species by means of natural selection of _random_ mutations, with no place for intention – and no place for an intender, thus removing the ideas of design and a Designer from their place in the living world. As an atheist, he wants to do that.
    We, however, are theists – and Catholics. If I must reduce the argument to a soundbite, it would be: ‘Choice, or chance – not both.’ That more or less summarises the one point I have been trying to make.
    Quentin wants to keep God as Creator, but accept random mutations, a ‘both/and’, when he’s confronted with an ‘either/or’. God either created and designed living things, and all the rest of Creation, or He didn’t. Accept the random mutation mechanism, and you are saying He didn’t.
    So, Quentin: is the Watchmaker blind, or can He see?

  7. RMBlaber poses one of the most difficult problems But first let me clear a detail point. His lineage stretches back a very long time. In fact to the first single celled life which learnt to reproduce sexually (probably triggered by bacteria). In only the very last fraction of the millions of years involved was his first human ancestor able to make conscious choices. Thus random mutation, and all the other random elements of evolution have been involved.
    He challenges me to plump for choice or chance. I respond by saying that this is a false dichotomy. We all understand the paradigm of chance (though we may argue about aspects) because it is within human ken. But choice, here, means God’s choice. And that requires a shift to a new paradigm which in the nature of the case we cannot understand. We use human language of course – we have no other. But we make a category error if we think we have thereby described how God works. We simply don’t know what it is to create. We have no true concept of how God works. As Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher/theologian, said (I paraphrase) the more we recognise the utter impenetratrability of the Divine Nature, the closer we are to its reality. So I can hold to the truth of scientific understanding of how humans evolved through investigation of the evidence, and also hold to the truth of creation through faith. The two truths do not collide for they exist in infinitely different paradigms.

  8. RMBlaber says:

    No, Quentin – random mutation _wasn’t_ involved, not even at the unicellular level. The conscious actor involved at the time, nearly 4 billion years ago, was God.
    I said in my earlier posting, ‘No sequence of causally related intentional acts should ever be described as random’. (The phrase ‘intentional act’ is a tautology, but I used it for clarity.) The chains of events that led to you and me and every other person and thing on this planet alive today were not random, like someone throwing pairs of dice, but planned – willed – intended. A tiger is not the product of random mutations, anymore than a human being is – it was designed, by God.
    What of extinct species? The trilobites and the dinosaurs, the woolly mammoths and our own ancestors, such as H. erectus, were first created, and then destroyed, by God.
    Why? Well, you quote Rabbi Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204) on the impenetrability and unfathomability of God’s nature. That is why Stephen Hawking’s claim that we shall one day be able to know the mind of God is blasphemous.
    If the dinosaurs had not become extinct, the mammals would probably not have been able to escape from their marmoreal niche. The Chicxulub Asteroid impact, 65 mya, can be regarded as providential. Even knowing this, and knowing that some extinctions, such as those of the dodo and the Tasmanian tiger, are down to us, that still leaves plenty of room for the _mysterium tremendum_. That is as it should be.
    I believe that God is the Creator and Designer of everything I see around me. He designed the daisies and the buttercups, the sparrows and the earthworms.
    No set of random events could ever produce such wonder and such beauty. The idea that it could is utterly ridiculous. It is also intrinsically and _necessarily_ atheistic. The neo-Darwinian idea is a specific denial that an actor is involved in the creation and evolution of life, either on Earth or anywhere else in the Universe; the actor being God. Intention has no part to play.
    That is why I have been so insistent that it is either choice or chance. The dichotomy is not a false one, Quentin. If Richard Dawkins can see that, why can’t you?

  9. Because Richard Dawkins is weak on theology.

  10. RMBlaber says:

    He may be a better theologian than you realise, Quentin! In ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ he starts out from Paley’s Design Argument (about which Oxford undergraduates used to be questioned when they were subject to compulsory examination in Divinity), and contra-poses the neo-Darwinian idea of natural selection of random mutations.
    It seems clear to me that we need to define what a ‘random event’, such as a random mutation, is. I would argue that an event is a random event if, and only if, it is (a) not a willed, deliberate act of a conscious agent; and (b) if it is not mathematically predictable.
    Some events, such as lunar and solar eclipses, are deterministic, and can be predicted years – even centuries – in advance, with considerable precision. Most classes of events, however, are rather less deterministic.
    Two examples are sufficient, and quite familiar – one being the weather, which is the paradigm case of a chaotic (or ‘non-linear dynamic’) system – and the other being the wave-particles of quantum mechanics, which are subject to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.
    Random mutations _do_ occur. Exposure to ionising radiation, for example, even environmental background radiation, can result in damage to the DNA in our cells, which can lead to cancer, or other genetic diseases.
    An important point arises in relation to harmful random mutations and the theodicy question. What responsibility, if any, does God have for them? If they are not His deliberate act, they are, at least, permitted by Him: but why should God allow something that might do us harm?
    The same question, of course, arises in relation to natural disasters. If we are not to adopt the Muslim approach, and say that everything is ‘Inshallah’ – i.e., that everything that occurs is God’s deliberate act, and there are no random events, we must say that God does not will them, but permits them. In either case, we are left asking, ‘why?’ I believe the answer to this mystery lies in the Fall.
    It is conceivable that, out of many millions, or even billions or trillions, of harmful random mutations, there might be one or two that were beneficial to an organism, and would be selected for preferentially under the impact of environmental pressures. However, to assume from this that this is _the_ mechanism of evolutionary speciation is a logical step too far.
    There has simply not been sufficient time for such a mechanism to produce the complexity and multiplicity of life that we see on Earth today. I look at the richness and diversity of life, and at the marvellous design of life, and I see the work of a master Craftsman, an Artificer – not the work of a blind process of chance.
    That there is so much randomness in the Universe, it seems to me, is a product of the Fall, an act of wilful disobedience of God which introduced a moral chaos into the heart of things, which we see reflected in physical reality. It will disappear at the eschaton. It is not fundamental to reality, and should not be taken as such.

  11. tim says:

    I’ve asked this question before – how do you tell whether something is random or not? What test do you apply? Is there such a thing as absolute randomness, or are things only random when measured against certain criteria? Given that God is infinite and omnipotent, why do you so willingly accept that what looks to Professor Dawkins completely random is in fact so? I wish to argue that nothing is completely random:everything is either intended by God or allowed by Him. I don’t deny that He makes a great deal look random: no doubt for sufficient reason.

  12. Tim, thanks for posing an issue which I had the misfortune to read before retiring for the night. Here are some bleary thoughts.
    I think we need first to exclude quantum randomness. “God does not play dice” said Einstein. But neither we, for anyone else, knows the answer to this
    At the more mundane level we could take the proxy example of a die. Assuming that the die is perfectly formed, the thrower has no control over the starting position of the die, and the surface is smooth, we would agree that the chance of any one number turning up on a single throw is 1/6. We would bet on that. Nevertheless there remain a number of unmeasurables. If we were to take all the causalities into account we would accept that the actual outcome of that throw is not random but inevitable. From our point view however the result is random. God, we must assume, knows all the causalities so it is not random to him. But I don’t think that we can blame the scientist from speaking from the human knowledge standpoint, and declaring randomness. That’s the tool he has to work with.
    An additional factor to be considered is free will. Are we to argue that there is no such thing and that all the decisions we make are the outcome of causalities? I am content to accept that God knows all our decisions, but that cannot make them less free. (He can of course take free will decisions into account.) You might for instance decide to send me a virus by email which my system doe not detect. I am affected by a sequence of actions in which your uncaused choice is a link. How does that affect your claim? Your choice may not be random to you, but it is certainly random to me.
    I wonder whether randomness can be regarded as an objective quality, or whether it is always subjective. That does not make it useless any more than the square root of -1, which is needed by mathematicians as a tool despite being necessarily non-existent.

  13. Horace says:

    Looking through a book “Cybernetics” by Norbert Wiener which I bought in the early ’50s, I find the following interesting statement:
    “Darwinian evolution is thus a mechanism by which a more or less fortuitous variability is combined into a rather definite pattern.”

  14. Trident says:

    If one defines pattern as a formative characteristic linking different entities, then survival of the fittest occurring in species linked by imperfect sexual inheritance would seem to fit the Wiener quote.

  15. tim says:

    Quentin, thanks for your response to my question, and apologies for some delay in acknowledging it. Free will must be accommodated, I agree (hence ‘intended or allowed’ in my previous formulation). Your example of the computer virus does unsettle me. I will try to evade the issue in two (possibly inconsistent) ways. First, I say that God may have a whole series of contingency plans for the choices I make, all of which He (contingently) intends; secondly, that since He knows what choice I am going to make (seeing it as I make it) He doesn’t need any contingency plans!

    But I think I favour your speculation that randomness is not an objective quality, but depends on the observer (like the passage of time in the theory of relativity).

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