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The Darwinian Basis for Eugenics

Darwin Day in America

By John G. West

Publisher: ISI Books

Pages: 395 pages

Price: $28

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the 17th century.

The title of this book comes from recent efforts to turn February 12 into “Darwin Day” in American schools. John G. West, senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, reveals here to what extent scientific materialism has become the foundation for much of American politics and culture, and how dangerous this is for democracy.

After a brief survey of scientific materialists from antiquity to the 18th century, West launches into an in-depth analysis of Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871), showing how this work laid the groundwork for contemporary scientific materialism. West says that Darwin found “no fundamental difference between man and the higher mammals in their mental faculties” and claimed that traits considered uniquely human — such as abstract thought and self-consciousness — were also found in animals.

Secondly, Darwin claimed that our moral faculties were based on social instincts rooted in our biology, and that these social instincts were no stronger than anti-social instincts like self-preservation and lust. Thus, Darwin offered no permanent basis for ethics. Later, in The Descent, he declared that the first human beings were probably polygamous or serially monogamous and that marriage was the result of the struggle for survival. And so, mankind had no “superior form of sexual relations” and no sacred form of family life.

Thirdly, Darwin prepared the way for eugenics. Indeed, his immediate family would soon be involved in that movement — his sons George and Leonard became active in promoting it (Leonard serving as “president of the Eugenics Education Society, the main eugenics group in Great Britain”), and his cousin Francis Galton became the founder of the “eugenics crusade.” Evidently, Darwin was sympathetic to eugenics: West quotes him as vowing “to cut off communication” with his disciple Mivart when the latter “criticized an article by Darwin’s son George that advocated eugenics.”

Darwinists are always trying to set a distance between the theory of evolution and the eugenics movement, but West cites Darwin, in The Descent, as approving of how “the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated” among “savages,” and disapproving of how civilized men “build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick,” with the result that “the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind.” Then, comparing man to livestock, Darwin added, “no one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” After this statement, he gave lip service to compassion for the weak, but the implication remained that such compassion undercut the survival of the human race. Darwin again complained about how “the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members.” He would return to this point in his last conversations with Alfred Russel Wallace, speaking “very gloomily on the future of humanity” because “in our modern civilization natural selection had no play, and the fittest did not survive.” (Although Herbert Spencer coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” Darwin readily appropriated it as an “accurate” description of natural selection.) The Darwinian basis for eugenics is often down­played, West observes, yet it is a fact that eugenicists drew their “inspiration” directly from Darwinian biology. A number of the chief eugenicists of the early 20th century declared that natural selection was the “law” they followed to improve the race. Moreover, the American leaders in eugenics, who were “largely university-trained biologists and doctors” affiliated with places like Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stan­ford, and the Museum of Natural History, presented eugenics as biologically “justified.” Between 1920 and 1939, West shows, Darwin’s theory was constantly used in high-school biology textbooks to support eugenics, something that shows how much mainstream science accepted this form of population control. The book that Darwinist schoolteacher John Scopes was using in his Tennessee high-school classroom before his infamous “Monkey Trial” was G.W. Hunter’s Civil Biology (1914), which followed the trend of advocating eugenics on Darwinian grounds. There Hunter spoke of “parasites” in society who, if they “were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading.”

Scholars today place the blame for the eugenics debacle on politicians, but West finds it more accurate to describe the movement as “an effort by scientists to dictate government social policy based on their presumed scientific expertise.” This was the first time they used science “to expand the power of the state over social matters.”

Scholars also turn a blind eye to the argument for racism that eugenicists drew from The Descent. Darwin there claimed that the break between apes and man in evolution fell “between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.” West argues that Darwin’s allegation about blacks belonging to “a more primitive stage of human evolution” soon became a powerful scientific rationale for racist public policies, including laws against miscegenation.

The effect of Darwinian materialism on criminal law was deadly too. In 1876, Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso argued that criminals were a “throwback to earlier stages of Darwinian evolution,” and in 1924 Clar­ence Darrow argued (in defense of Leopold and Loeb) that criminals were “programmed for crime by material forces over which they had no control.” Since eugenicists believed that criminal tendencies were inherited, they strove to curtail the breeding of groups that produced criminals. By the early 1930s, thirty states in the U.S. had sterilization laws, and by 1958, around 60,000 Americans had been sterilized, many by coercion. When Oliver Wendell Holmes, a Supreme Court Justice, approved of Virginia’s forced-sterilization law, he said it was the way to “build a race.” Later, when Nazis forcibly sterilized the “unfit” in the 1930s, they claimed to be acting, like us, on “biological principles.” Hitler even declared that he had studied the laws of several American states for the sterilization of people whose breeding was “injurious to the racial stock.”

After eugenics was discredited by Nazi use, leading American eugenicists turned to contraception and abortion for population control. In 1953 they issued a document entitled “Freedom of Choice for Parenthood: A Program of Positive Eugenics,” in which they linked so-called “voluntary parenthood” to natural selection. The tactics were new, the principles the same: West cites Alexander Sanger, grandson of Margaret, as making a Darwinian defense of abortion in 2004, asserting that “abortion is good,” and “we must become proud that we have taken control of our reproduction. This has been a major factor in advancing human evolution and survival.”

Darwin’s scientific materialism, West demonstrates, has infiltrated both political theory and sexual mores. Marx and Engels took up Darwin’s theory as the “basis in natural science for the historical class struggle,” and it was worked into the official Soviet doctrine of dialectical materialism. Woodrow Wilson remarked in 1912 that the U.S. Founders’ view of the Constitution was too static or Newtonian, and since government was now “account­able to Darwin, not to Newton,” the Constitution should henceforth be interpreted “according to the Darwinian principle.” We know where that led. As for sexual mores, Darwin’s account of “human mating practices” as part of “mammalian biology” in The Descent led to sex-education programs supported by SIECUS (Sexuality Information and Education Council of the U.S.) and Planned Parenthood, in which children of five years of age could be taught that masturbation and homosexuality were faultless choices.

The hostility shown to scientists who express doubt concerning Darwin’s theory “is hard to overstate,” West remarks. Even those who base their caveats on science are labeled “Taliban” and are said to be waging war on science. Some teachers have been intimidated and silenced for sharing with students published scientific criticisms of Darwinism, as in the case of Roger DeHart, who showed his students an article by Stephen Jay Gould about how biology textbooks still used the pseudoscientific diagrams of Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. These diagrams depict the unborn child as going through a “recapitulation” of evolution from fish to mammal, and were used to defend abortion. So “obsessed” are Darwinians with “denouncing their opponents as dangerous zealots,” West adds, that states have had to pass laws to protect the right of teachers to “teach scientific criticisms of Darwin’s theory.”

Not long ago, mainstream scientists who shaped social policy were Darwinian materialists who favored eugenics for population control. These “experts” are now utterly discredited. Today, mainstream scientists who shape social policy are still Darwinian materialists, only they favor different varieties of (and names for) population control. These experts fully expect to stand above public scrutiny because it is thought, West notes, “that scientists know best and thus politicians and the public should blindly accept the policy views of scientists.” The danger is that if they avoid public scrutiny we may soon be living in a technocracy instead of a democracy. Talk about a dystopia — to have scientific materialists who regard the rest of us as no better than a herd in a stockyard presiding over us as our infallible and unelected masters!

Darwin Day in America is a thoroughly documented book (with almost 100 pages of endnotes) written in an easy, fluent style. It is much to be recommended.

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