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Friday, October 27, 2006


Darwin and eugenics

posted by Aziz P. at Friday, October 27, 2006 permalink View blog reactions
At RedState, Leon has a lengthy post about eugenics, a topic on which he and I are in large agreement upon. However, he introduces the topic by quoting Charles Darwin, and in so doing leaves out critical context. The complete context is as follows (courtesy of Darwin Online):

Natural Selection as affecting Civilised Nations.

In the last and present chapters I have considered the advancement of man from a former semi-human condition to his present state as a barbarian. But some remarks on the agency of natural selection on civilised nations may be here worth adding. This subject has been ably discussed by Mr. W. R. Greg, and previously by Mr. Wallace and Mr. Galton. Most of my remarks are taken from these three authors. With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.

The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, if so urged by hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with a certain and great present evil. Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage.

emphasis mine. Leon protested that he did not accuse Darwin of wanting to end humanitarianism, but the omission is highly misleading. In an essay whose thesis is the evils of eugenics, it is relevant that Darwin himself considered it evil.

In fact a very good argument - moral and scientific - could be made against Eugenics, and invoking Darwin on the side of the angels here would lend such an argument immense rigour. Leaving out the quote however tends to imply that eugenics is a logical extension of Darwin's theory of evolution (note: not abiogeneis!). That is a conclusion many readers at RedState might be predisposed towards.

It is also worth noting that Darwin considered marriage an instrument of eugenics that was permissible and non-evil. In one sense there is a continuum of eugenics, with deliberate choice between adults at one end (ie, marriage selection) and outright withholding of humanitarian aid at the other. The middle area is more difficult. Into it fall questions like "designer babies" and the entire abortion debate. There is a vast landscape of debate between tehse extremes, in other words, and Darwin is planted solidly at one end - the end that I myself and Leon both occupy. It is a shame that Darwin's work on evolutionary theory has predisposed social conservatives against him, since in many ways Darwin would be a great ally indeed.

It is also worth noting that Leon invokes the topic as a critique against stem cell research, but frankly I think that the relevance of stem cells to eugenics is poor. There is no culling of certain embryos on the basis of their genetic properties, and no consideration of race whatsoever.


You misread me... the site is down right now, but as it happens I have a word copy of this document. I expressly note that stem cell research has nothing to do with Eugenics:

The latest modernistic attempt to improve the human race does not involve eugenics at all, but deserves mention in this article because it may yet be the most insidious. I am talking, of course, about the destruction of human embryos for the harvesting of Embryonic Stem Cells, which we are constantly assured will provide the cure for Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, paralysis, cancer, heart disease, and maybe hemorrhoids. The potential efficacy of the science is beyond the purview of this article – the implications of the policy itself are not. Like eugenics, this particular foray into the improvement of the human species involves killing some humans in the hope of making the human race better. However, unlike eugenics, the humans who are chosen for elimination are not chosen on the basis of some supposed genetic defect, but rather solely on the basis of being unwanted.

The point of the article is not to argue against Eugenics per se, but rather against all efforts to improve the human race through the involuntary sacrifice of human lives - a movement of which Eugenics is a (very important) subset.

Again, the point of the article was not Darwin - sometimes a quote is included in a story because of it intrinsic value in stating a point, irrespective of its author, so it was with this quote. I felt that I included an adequate disclaimer in the story - if you feel compelled to point out (as you have done here) that Darwin was also opposed to Eugenics, then God bless. I'd prefer not to get into a discussion of Darwin, as he's not really relevant to the debate.


I see that you're not neccessarily saying eugenics and stem cells are directly related. But I still just don't accept that both are "improve the human race" kind of movements. Eugenics, which I abhor, is indeed a monstrous thing when practiced in the context of refusal of care to the "unfit". But stem cell research (embryonic) is a medical issue, not to "improve" the human race. Now, there are valid ethical questions about stem cells, which I am not attempting to deny. But the proponents of stem cell research are after humanitarianism in te grandest sense, and the propoenets of eugenics are diametrically opposed.

Yes, I realize that you are extremely prolife and thus for you ESC represents a tragic waste of human life. I respect that. However if you seek to represent the view of tose who support ESC as intrinsically monstrous in intent, rather than outcome, then that is simply wrong. No one promotes ESC because they have a deficit of humanity, as those who support eugenics do.

as for the Darwin quote, what was the point whose stating had intrinsic value? as far as I can tell, the point of Darwin's remarks is completely flipped depending on whether you include teh context I provided or you do not.


"It is a shame that Darwin's work on evolutionary theory has predisposed social conservatives against him, since in many ways Darwin would be a great ally indeed."

Indeed. Evolution is doing a great job explaining the benefits of capitalism (see allocation of resources and comparative advantage among men), traditional family values, the whole stem cell research/abortion/homosexuality conflict and so on.


Eugenics, which I abhor, is indeed a monstrous thing when practiced in the context of refusal of care to the "unfit".

yes, when. there is a distinction between positive and negative eugenics. the latter was more prevelant in the american and german contexts, restriction of the unfit from reproducing, but the former more emphasized in the british tradition. consider that darwin and r.a. fisher, the two great british evolutionists par excellence had large families.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.