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Darwin’s Theory and Social Darwinism: There Is A Connection

Scientists and political activists during the past century have drawn on Darwinian theory to promote one utopian crusade after another, including forced sterilization, scientific racism, euthanasia, and an ever-expanding government justified in the name of the “evolving Constitution.” The typical response of Darwinists to this record of coercive “Social Darwinism” is to deny that it has any genuine connection to Darwin or his theory of evolution. But when one examines the historical record in detail, the effort to disentangle Darwinism from “Social Darwinism” is hard to maintain. This can be seen most clearly in the case of eugenics.

Eugenics was the science of human breeding, and it resulted in the compulsory sterilization of more than 60,000 presumed “defectives” in the United States by 1958, including many who probably would not be considered mentally deficient today.

The intellectual leaders of the eugenics crusade were largely university-trained biologists and doctors, and they pushed for eugenics because they thought it was fully justified by Darwinian biology. It should be stressed that eugenists represented mainstream evolutionary biology, not the fringe. They were affiliated with institutions like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford. They were leaders in America’s most prestigious scientific organizations. Biologist Edwin Conklin was president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The eugenists’ underlying fear was articulated by Charles Darwin himself in The Descent of Man, where he criticized modern society for undermining the natural “process of elimination” by building asylums for the mentally ill, homes for the handicapped, hospitals for the sick, and welfare programs for the poor. Darwin was even concerned about vaccinating people against small pox! “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man… hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

Darwin does goes on to indicate that we can’t follow the dictates of “hard reason” in such cases without undermining our “sympathy… the noblest part of our nature.” But such misgivings represented a lame objection at best. If Darwin truly believed that society’s efforts to help the impoverished and sickly “must be highly injurious to the race of man” (note the word “must”), then the price of preserving compassion in his view appeared to be the destruction of the human race. Framed in that manner, how many people could be expected to reject the teachings of “hard reason” and sacrifice the human race? Darwinan political theorist Larry Arnhart whitewashes history when he argues that Darwin was only concerned about “good eugenics” such as banning incestuous marriages. If this were the case, why did Darwin warn of the dangers to the human race of helping the poor, caring for the mentally ill, saving the sick, and even inoculating people against smallpox? Darwin clearly supplied a logical rationale for eugenics in The Descent of Man, even if his personal scruples made him ambivalent about pressing his concerns to a logical conclusion. His followers, of course, were not so squeamish.

Those who insist that eugenics was somehow a distortion of Darwinian biology must account for the fact that the vast majority of leading Darwinian biologists for several decades clearly thought otherwise. Indeed, they promoted the tenets of eugenics as “strict corollaries” of “the theory of organic evolution.” They had a point.

If one truly believes that human progress is dependent on a vigorous struggle for existence, then any diminishment of natural selection in human society will raise legitimate concerns, and efforts to reinstate selection through eugenics may well appear rational. Indeed, once one understands the evolving nature of “human nature,” it is difficult to see any in principle objection to all sorts of efforts to transform human nature through bioengineering.

Larry Arnhart attempts to outline a Darwinian argument against radical human bioengineering, but his argument is less than persuasive. “Our desires have been formed by natural selection over evolutionary history to promote survival and reproduction,” he writes. “Knowing this should make us cautious about using biotechnology to radically change our evolved nature.” But why?

Natural selection is a messy, hit-or-miss process of dead-ends and false starts. Why shouldn’t human beings use their reason to direct their evolution in order to produce a new kind of human being? What is so sacrosanct about existing human dispositions and capacities, since they were produced by such an imperfect and purposeless process? Arnhart seems to want to clothe human nature with a kind of sacred awe that will restrain human beings from tinkering with it. But such awe is alien to the Darwinian mindset. In his autobiography, Darwin recounted how he had once had such feelings, but they had evaporated. He lamented: “I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body; but now the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind.” In the Darwinian framework, there is nothing intrinsically right about the current capacities of human beings, so there can be nothing intrinsically wrong about trying to alter them. Indeed, “human nature” in its traditional sense is a non-sequitor in Darwinian terms.

In the end, Arnhart’s main arguments against radical human bioengineering are his prediction that it may not be technically feasible and his hope that it may be restrained by certain deeply-ingrained human desires. Let’s certainly hope so, but Darwinism itself provides little or no barrier against such schemes. As Carson Holloway points out in The Right Darwin, the Darwinian account of morality all but invites “wholesale biological engineering.” (p. 185)

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.