Eugenics: The Opposite of Natural Selection

by John MacBeath Watkins

Lately, I've heard a couple people try to connect Darwin's work with eugenics, and even environmentalism. While there have been advocates of eugenics who referred to Darwin, it should be blindingly obvious that eugenics is the opposite of natural selection, the mechanism that makes evolution function.

It is unnatural selection, and with its most notorious offspring, the German program for 'racial hygiene,' it is something more closely related to breeding purebred chiguaguas than the 'survival of the fittest.'

Natural selection is just that.  If you believe in it, you don't treat people like domesticated animals to be bred for characteristics you desire.  You let nature take its course.  It's like the difference between laying out all the pathways on a campus the way the experts think they should go, and letting desire paths emerge from the paths chosen by the students and staff as they walk about.  Desire paths work because they are designed from the way a campus is used, not from how a designer thinks it should be used.  And fitness emerges from the way creatures live, not the way experts think they should live.

William Jennings Bryan was one of those who connected Darwin to eugenics.  "...Darwinian theory represents man reaching his present perfection by the operation of the law of hate -- the merciless law by which the strong crowd out and kill off the weak. If this is the law of our development then, if there is any logic that can bind the human mind, we shall turn backward to the beast in proportion as we substitute the law of love. I choose to believe that love rather than hatred is the law of development," Bryan said in a 1905 speech.

Of course, that's a complete misrepresentation of how Darwin said natural selection worked.  In his famous example of the Galapagos finches, no finch had to kill another finch, or even be stronger, to be fitter to survive.  It had to adapt to eat the available food.  Hate and murder had nothing to do with natural selection in this case, eating and reproducing did.

Eugenics has been practiced at least since the time of Sparta, where each newborn was inspected by the city elders to determine whether it was strong enough to live. More boys than girls were exposed to the elements to die, so perhaps they needed stronger male than female citizens. Plato, in The Republic, advocated eugenics.  Yet despite the fact that the idea of eugenics predates the theory of natural selection by a couple of millennia, current commentators are more likely to connect the concept to Darwin than to Plato, who actually advocated it.

Eugenics combines a misinterpretation of natural selection with a Hobbesian view of the state of nature and that remnant of aristocracy, a reverence for breeding. Its moral consequence is to admire strength, economically expressed as wealth. It's linked with social Darwinism, another perversion of Darwin's thought. There is a school of thought that links social Darwinism with German militarism.

During World War I, Vernon Kellogg, an American naturalist whose pacifist and humanitarian leanings led him to take part in Belgian relief work, wrote Headquarter Nights, an account of his conversations with the German General Staff, published in 1917.  In it he recalls:

'Professor von Flussen is a Neo-Darwinian, as are most German biologists and natural philosophers.  The creed of the Allmacht ‘all might’ (or omnipotence) of a natural selection based on violent and competitive struggle is the gospel of the German intellectuals; all else is illusion and anathema.


'This struggle not only must go on, for that is the natural law, but it should go on so that this natural law may work out in its cruel, inevitable way the salvation of the human species. That human group which is in the most advanced evolutionary stage should win in the struggle for existence, and this struggle should occur precisely that the various types may be tested, and the best not only preserved, but put in position to impose its kind of social organization - its Kultur on the others, or, alternatively, to destroy and replace them.


'This is the disheartening kind of argument that I faced at Headquarters. Add the additional assumption that German social and political organization is the chosen type of human community life, and you have a wall of logic and conviction that you can break your head against but can never shatter - by headwork. You long for the muscles of Samson.’

The experience changed Kellogg, and he became an advocate of using all necessary force to crush German militarism. Like Petr Krapotkin, Kellogg was an entomologist. He was probably aware of Krapotkin's book on natural selection, Mutual Aid, a Factor of Evolution, in which Krapotkin argued that cooperation among animals, even of different species, played a key role in natural selection. Being aware of other interpretations of natural selection, he was better equipped than most to see through the rhetoric of social Darwinism.

Note that Kellogg states that most German biologists were Neo-Darwinists.  Scientists are not immune from junk science, because they are creatures of their own cultures, prone to all the bigotry available to others of their culture if they fail to examine their own motivations.  This is why science is only strong so long as it continues to engage in rigorous debate.  Intellectuals have two functions in society:  Finding the truth, and justifying things powerful people want to do. The former appeals to what's best in intellectual inquiry, the latter offers sponsorship by wealthy and powerful people.

Consider the Holocaust, the most notorious application of eugenics.  The first recorded pogrom in Germany and France took place in 1096.  The first such incident recorded in England was about a century later.  Antisemitic riots took place in most of the places Jews lived, even Cordoba, Spain, under Muslim rule that was usually tolerant of Jews.

Pogroms spread through Europe in the wake of the Black Plague, as people exposed to a disaster they could not understand looked for a scapegoat.  So when Germany suffered her worst defeat in war in 1918, followed by the misery of the Depression, it didn't take long for someone to look to the Jews for a scapegoat.

And it didn't take long to find intellectuals willing to manufacture justifications for the policy.  Traditionally, religion fueled antisemitism.  Martin Luther was among those who advocated burning Jews' places of worship and sacred books.

Europe was by the 1930s becoming increasingly secular, so instead of looking to religion for the raw materials for manufacturing these justifications, the complicit intellectuals looked to science.

How would the situation of the Jews look in terms of the actual theory of natural selection?  In the late 19th century and early 20th century, their population was increasing faster than the rest of the German population, and increasing assimilation and the economic opportunities it opened was allowing them to achieve greater wealth than they had enjoyed before.  In other words, the average Jew was out-competing the average German.  In natural selection terms, they were doing quite well.

But the old prejudice had not died, and the success Jews achieved when freed from some of the bars that had prevented them from participating in the economy engendered envy.  And the old prejudice, the old willingness to use violence against an identifiable minority, clothed itself in the 'science' of eugenics to commit mass murder on a scale those who participated in the old pogroms could only have dreamed of, done in the modern style on an industrial scale.

Comments

  1. When you select a mate it is in part a decision based on their traits/phenotype of their genes. natural selection is a slow process of improving genes hence eugenic by nature.

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  2. That's a very peculiar notion of what's natural and what isn't. Eugenics is a social phenomenon, a made thing. It takes away the choice of mate, and requires breeding with whoever the wise men of society say you should. It has also been associated with taking some individuals out of the gene pool, making their selection impossible, because the wise men of society have judged that their genes should not be continued, regardless of who might wish to select them for a mate.

    To say that people who mate with whoever they find attractive are engaging in eugenics removes all meaning from the term. If the term "eugenics" does mean something, it means something other than natural selection.

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    Replies
    1. "That's a very peculiar notion of what's natural and what isn't."

      "Natural" and "unnatural" are reductionist categories used to make convenient descriptions of reality within a pragmatic mindset.

      YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL, YOU ARE NOT A MAGICAL CARTESIAN AGENT USING HIS MAGICAL FREE WILL AND MAGICAL SOCIAL CONSTRUCTS TO DISTORT NATURE!!!

      YOU ARE A PRODUCT OF EVOLUTION, ANCIENT MECHANISMS ARE INSIDIOUSLY TICKING AWAY INSIDE YOU, EVERY DECISION YOU MAKE IS A NOTE IN THE MUSICAL COMPOSITION THAT IS THE BIOSPHERE, ITSELF BEING A PART OF AN EVEN GREATER COMPOSITION!!!

      We (think we) are pragmatic creatures, strategies for survival are conditionally effective to the goals they are meant to achieve, yet the conditions, effectiveness and goals we could assign to our behaviour are all ploys of evolution.
      COMPETITIVE MARKETS, GENDERISM, RACIALISM, ALTURISM, EVERY POSSIBLE THOUGHT YOU HAVE AND WILL HAVE IS A PRODUCT OF NATURE.








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    2. Man has a dual nature, part animal, part symbolic. The strange, symbolic world we live in is what I mean by cultural, and it is very different from the world any other animal lives in.

      I've written a good deal on this subject under the label The Strangeness of being human. Here's the first post in the series, and a listicle that takes in most of the posts on this topic: http://booksellersvsbestsellers.blogspot.com/2011/06/to-read-is-to-become-stolen-child.html

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  3. Greetings! Do you somehow test if your personal content is exclusive around the web and no other blogger is using it without letting you know about it?

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    Replies
    1. No, although occasionally I become aware of it. Why, did you see someone plagiarizing me?

      Delete

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