Social Darwinism

August 28, 2008 in Eugenics, Evolution, Francis Galton, Social Darwinism, St. Anne's

“We civilized men . . . 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 . . . . 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. . . . [Nevertheless, our instinct of sympathy moves us to provide such care.] Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of 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 an overwhelming present evil.” Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man.

Rarely in the consideration of Darwinism today do we reckon with the societal implications of the theory. Endeavoring to restrict the theory to mere science, we overlook the larger philosophical questions that are raised by it. If, for instance, we have all evolved from some lesser developed creature into a more sophisticated one, why not apply this within the human race? Could it not be that some portions of humanity have evolved more than others and that, for the good of the race, those weaker members should be eliminated? Darwin himself didn’t shrink from such questions, as the above quotation makes clear. He felt it imperative to address these issues because he was advocating, not just a scientific theory, but an entire worldview–a way to view politics, social relationships, and science. He was convinced that evolutionary theory was the key which would unlock the full potential of the human race.

The vision for societal transformation which emerged from Darwin’s theory was coined Social Darwinism. In light of its abuses in this century, it has been abandoned by those who otherwise praise Darwin’s work. Social Darwinism is the skeleton in the evolutionary closet–and evolutionists are careful to bar the door with a nervous smile whenever Christians try to get a peek inside. But their smiles don’t fool us here at St. Anne’s. Let us shove the evolutionists aside and take an honest look at Social Darwinism in the life of one of its most zealous advocates–Sir Francis Galton, cousin of the famous Charles Darwin. I am Stuart Bryan and this is Ancient Biography.

Sir Francis Galton was a highly regarded pioneer of evolutionary research in the late 1800s. Knighted in 1909 for his achievements, he openly acknowledged the way in which his theories depended upon Darwin’s book The Origin of Species and was praised by Darwin himself for his work. Not surprisingly Galton’s “science” turned out to be more personal prejudice than scientific inquiry.

The blue ribbon for Galton’s most absurd theories goes to his“Beauty map” of England. Convinced that heredity had drastically affected the physical appearances of ladies in different counties, Galton studied the women in the streets and inns of all England. As he traveled, he rated the women he saw according to their level of beauty, “attractive, indifferent, or repellent.” Galton remarked that he “found London to rank highest for beauty; Aberdeen lowest.” Such pontificating seems absurd today. Yet this is an example of the “scientific” observations common in Social Darwinism. Unfortunately the men in Aberdeen didn’t find Galton ogling at the lasses and give him a reward for his impudence.

Predictably Galton’s prejudices pressed themselves into more serious realms than Miss Universe pageants. The most serious of these was Galton’s application of evolution to what he called the “science” of Eugenics.

What is Eugenics you ask? Well, eugenics is a sophisticated name for the selective breeding of the human race. The “science” of Eugenics purported to study human breeding to determine which elements of the race should be permitted to reproduce just like a breeder of poodles selects the best stock to continue the poodle family tree. In his Autobiography Galton wrote:

“I cannot doubt that our democracy will ultimately refuse consent to that liberty of propagating children which is now allowed to the undesirable classes, . . . . A democracy cannot endure unless it be composed of able citizens; therefore it must in self-defence withstand the free introduction of degenerate stock.”

This degenerate stock included such “weaker” races as the negroes and the aborigines and such “weaker” elements of society as the poor, the lame, criminals, and the mentally ill.

Galton shied away, somewhat inconsistently, from the use of force in the accomplishment of this goal.; however, the early part of the 20th century witnessed the consistent application of his philosophy in Nazi Germany, a self-professed Darwinist state. Applying the views of Galton in a logically consistent manner, the Nazi’s argued that they were doing the human race a favor by eliminating the weaker stock–Jews especially–from the gene pool. Dr. John Hunt remarks that

“within a year of coming to power, the Nazis had started some 250 eugenic courts whose function was to decide who was worthy to procreate. These eugenic courts took applications from social workers and physicians urging sterilizations, taking decision-making from tens of thousands of individuals. The purpose of Nazi use of eugenics courts and forced or pressured sterilizations was to keep the “unfit” from reproducing.”

With this quote in mind, meditate upon Galton’s remarks on Eugenics in his Autobiography:

“I take Eugenics very seriously, feeling that its principles ought to become one of the dominant motives in a civilised nation, much as if they were one of its religious tenets. . . Individuals appear to me as partial detachments from the infinite ocean of Being, and this world as a stage on which Evolution takes place, principally hitherto by means of Natural Selection, which achieves the good of the whole with scant regard to that of the individual. Man is gifted with pity and other kindly feelings; he has also the power of preventing many kinds of suffering. I conceive it to fall well within his province to replace Natural Selection by other processes that are more merciful and not less effective. This is precisely the aim of Eugenics. Its first object is to check the birth-rate of the Unfit, instead of allowing them to come into being. . . . The second object is the improvement of the race by furthering the productivity of the Fit by early marriages and healthful rearing of their children. Natural Selection rests upon excessive production and wholesale destruction; Eugenics on bringing no more individuals into the world than can be properly cared for, and those only of the best stock.”

Note then Galton’s assertion: Eugenics is the merciful replacement of Natural Selection. Truly the Nazi’s did mankind a favor and we should be grateful for their endeavors. They purified the race; made the world safer for the rest of us. That is, if we are part of the strong stock. But who gets to define the strong? Ah, that is the nagging question.