Moral Darwinism 2

One objection to the link I posited between Darwin’s theory of evolution and the massacres and brutality of the Nazi regimes is that massacre and brutality have always been a feature of human society long before Darwin. As Rich, one of the commentators to this blog points out, the Spartans in ancient Greece were doing it long before the Nazis in order to maintain their physical and military dominance as a herrenvolk over their conquered Messenian helots. Evil people will always use any doctrine as a pretext to support their brutality, so the horror of the shoah is not necessarily a product of Darwin’s theory.

Now I entirely agree with ability of humans to corrupt any institution, however noble. The great German theologian, Paul Tillich, dealt with this in his book Moral Man in Immoral Society, explaining the corruption and complicity in horror and brutality of the church through the all-too human corruption and brutality of its members, not through its doctrines. However, in the case of Darwinism the link between the atrocities of the Nazis to Darwin’s own theories come from those theories themselves, not from the Nazis reading their own twisted desires into them.

Firstly, while the destruction and sterilisation of those held to be unfit by society is indeed artificial selection, the eugenicists took it over from what they believed was occurring in nature. Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, coined the term ‘eugenics’ and was the first president of the Eugenics Society. In the 20th century, Darwin’s grandson also served as president of that society. The whole point of my original article was that the supposed difference between Nazi attitudes towards eugenics and racial science really wasn’t that far from established, mainstream scientific attitudes based on the ideas of Darwin himself, regardless of how much later anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have tried to distance themselves from the ideologies of the Fascist regimes.

Now not all eugenicists were Fascists by any means. Interest in eugenics and demands for selective breeding to control the human stock went right across the political spectrum. The geneticist Hermann J. Muller, who in 1912 advocated support for eugenics, was a politically progressive idealist who tried to emigrate to the USSR in the 1930s as part of his desire to build a better world. 1 The eugenics theories on which the Holocaust was based received enthusiastic support from German geneticists, anthropologists, psychiatrists and other members of the medical profession. 2 Indeed, while eugenics in Britain and America was dominated by people from the humanities and statisticians, in Germany it was dominated by doctors. 3 The Nazis themselves boasted that they were doing nothing that had not already been put into law or advocated by scientists elsewhere in Europe and America. ‘It is important to realize that the Nazis drew directly on eugenic arguments and programs developed by scientists and politicians in Great Britain and the United States. They just made these policies more inclusive and implemented them more decisively than British and American geneticists may have intended.’ 4 As early as 1897 the Michigan legislature considered and defeated a bill to sterilise those with ‘bad heredity’. In 1899 Dr. Harry Sharp began to perform involuntary vasectomies on convicts he considered to be ‘hereditary criminals’ at the Indiana State Reformatory at Jeffersonville. The Pennsylvania legislature in 1905 passed a bill providing for the compulsory sterilisation of ‘idiots and imbecile children’, though this was vetoed by Governor Samuel Pennypacker as illogical and immoral. 5 The first state to pass such legislation successfully in the US was Indiana. 6 The Swedes set up an Institute for Racial Biology in 1921, and made compulsory sterilisation legal in 1934. Although these sterilisations were in priniciple voluntary unless the subject was so retarded that they could not understand what was being done to them, there were considerable social pressures that forced unwilling Swedes to undergo the operation. Over the next thirty or so years, one per cent of the Swedish population – 63,000 people – were sterilised. 7 In 1923 a chair of Rassenhygiene – racial hygiene – was set up in Munich, occupied by Fritz Lenz, a supporter of Hitler’s NSDAP. 8 By 1931, 30 American states had enacted laws for the compulsory sterilisation of those they considered unfit, mostly aimed at the insane or ‘feeble-minded’. These laws were also occasionally extended to include sexual perverts, drug addicts, drunks, epileptics and others considered ill or degenerate. These laws remained mercifully unenforced, but by January 1935 20,000 people in the US, mostly in California, had been sterilised. 9

In America there was also a racist aspect to the eugenics programme. There was a concern about the quality of the new immigrants from Ireland, Italy and Eastern Europe, seen by many WASP Americans, such as the racist author Madison Grant, as ‘the sweepings of gaols and asylums’. 10 Charles Davenport, the Harvard biologist who became the director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor in Long Island, shared these racist concerns and perceptions. The Irish, for example, were considered to be drunk and feckless, while Slavs were ‘dimwitted’. He was a friend of the racist academic and Nazi supporter, Eugen Fischer, one of the architects of the Nazi eugenics policies in Germany. Fischer specialised in the study of mixed-race children, and in 1929 Davenport invited him to chair a commission on the subject under the supervision of the International Federation of Eugenics Organisations. Through the introduction of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, developed by Davenport’s fellow eugenicist, Henry Goddard, from the IQ test produced for the French government by Alfred Binet, administered in English to the new immigrants, who largely spoke no English, it was concluded that over half of these immigrants were mentally defective. Thus legislation was passed to prevent further immigration into America. Application of the same test to recruits to the US armed forces concluded that a large proportion of them were similarly ‘feeble-minded’, especially Blacks and those of eastern European stock. 11 Virginia suffered particularly from the excesses of the American eugenics programme. Whole families on welfare were rounded up, and large numbers of women and girls were sterilised. The architects of this odious policy were consciously concerned with outdoing the Nazis. In 1934 Dr. Joseph De Jarnette, one of the most vociferous advocates of mass sterilisation in the US, complained that ‘the Germans are beating us at our own game.’ 12 Evolutionary biologists and supporters of eugenics in Britain held similar views. Julian Huxley, the son of T.H. Huxley and the author of Neo-Darwinism – the Modern Synthesis, ridiculed the notion of the ideal Teuton in 1935 as being as ‘blond as Hitler, as tall as Goebbels, as slim as Goering, as dolichocephalic as Rosenberg and as manly as Streicher’. 13 Nevertheless, in a 1941 article, ‘The Vital Importance of Eugenics’ Huxley complained that it was ‘very difficult to envisage mehtods for putting even a limited constructive program [of eugencis] into effect .. due as much to difficulties in our present socioeconomic organization as to our ignorance of human heredity, and most of all to the absence of a eugenic sense in the public at large. 14 The eugenics legislation itself remained on the books until long after the Nazi era in those nations in which it had been passed. The Department of Race Genetics at the University of Uppsala was only closed down in 1975, and the Swedish eugenics legislation repealed in 1976. 15 The eugenics laws in California were repealed three years later in 1979, but by 1985 at least 19 states still retained eugenics legislation – Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montan, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia, according to the physician and lawyer Phillip Reilly. 16 There was even advocacy of euthanasia for the mentally subnormal amongst some, though mercifully this was never enacted. 17 James Watson, whose remarks last year on the supposed mental inferiority of Blacks caused such controversy, was working at the biological institute at Cold Spring Harbor at the time, although this institution no longer supports eugenics and made great pains to distance itself from his comments. Watson’s co-discoverer of DNA, James Crick, has also been an advocate of eugenics.

Now there’s no question that eugenics is a pseudo-science, and its shortcomings were exposed in America by the geneticist Thomas Hunt Moran and in Britain by Lionel Penrose, who occupied the chair at the Galton Laboratory. Penrose was a Quaker, who believed that a compassionate society should look after its supposed genetic defectives, rather than mutilate them. He also recognised that mental deficiency and indeed intelligence was not a simple Mendelian characteristic, but was the product of a number of factors and influenced by external circumstances. 18 Goddard himself became convinced on genetic scientific grounds that he was wrong, and publicly renounced his previous advocacy of eugenics. 19

Despite this, what emerges from this picture is that large sections of the European evolutionary and genetic scientific establishment believed in eugenics, following the arguments of Darwin and Galton, and that the Nazis’ genocidal regime was only the most extreme extension of these doctrines. The point of my original post was that Fascist extremists like Sir Oswald Mosley based their racial policies on Darwin and the pronouncements of respected and entirely respectable mainstream scientists. Rather than being something the Nazis read into Darwin, or distorted simply to justify their own brutal regime, Nazism was the product of Darwin’s evolutionary theories, albeit an extreme example that would have shocked Darwin himself. During the scandal over Watson’s comments, Sue Blackmore, the British psychologist and Sceptic, published a piece decrying what she saw as an attempt to silence scientists in the on-line section of the British liberal newspaper, the Guardian. Considering the staunch advocacy of eugenics by large sections of the scientific establishment, I strongly believe that scientists should be held to account for their views, and subject to criticism when these do seem to support brutality and racism.


1. Ruth Hubbard and Elijah Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth: How Genetic Information is Produced and Manipulated by Scientists, Physicians, Employers, Insurance Companies, Educators and Law Enforcers (Boston, Beacon Press 1997), p. 15.

2. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 17.

3. Walter Gratzer, The Undergrowth of Science: Delusion, Self-Deception and Human Frailty (Oxford, OUP 2000), p. 293.

4. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, pp. 17-18.

5. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, pp. 19-20.

6. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 20; Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 289.

7. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, pp. 290-1.

8. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 293.

9. Hubbard and Wald, Exploding the Gene Myth, p. 21.

10. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 286.

11. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 287.

12. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, pp. 289-90.

13. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 301.

14. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 16.

15. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 291.

16. Hubbard and Wald, Gene Myth, p. 21.

17. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 290.

18. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 292.

19. Gratzer, Undergrowth of Science, p. 290.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: