Monday, October 11, 2010

Darwin’s Legacy: Scientific Breakthrough or Breakdown?

The title to this article is the title of what is described as a "debate" to be held at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit on Thursday, October 28, 2010.   The four participants are supposed to engage in a discussion of what is described as "the link between scientific racism throughout history and the advancement of Darwinian evolution."

The debate (or "panel discussion" according to the Evolution News and Views website) is partially sponsored by the Discovery Institute, which has lent it their very own Dr. John West, whose PhD in government should give him valuable insights into population biology, or at least why Darwinism is at the root of practices that existed before evolutionary theory did.  The creation science community has donated, for the evening, Dr. Jerry Bergman, who apparently has taught every class having to do with science at Northwest State Community College in Archbold, OH -- and quite possibly, judging from his output at Answers in Genesis, has taught them that a grasp on reality causes Nazism.

Apparently representing the view that reality nonetheless ought to have some impact on our views of evolutionary theory will be Dr. Morris Goodman, distinguished professor with the Center for Molecular Medicine and Genetics at the Wayne State University School of Medicine.  And Dr. Damon Salesa, author and associate professor in the History Department, the Program in American Culture, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Michigan, will be on the panel, contributing, at the very least, a cool New Zealand accent (and I presume greater knowledge of evolutionary theory than certain other possessors of cool New Zealand accents).

The link between evolutionary theory and eugenics, as far as I can tell from reading about Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, is this: evolutionary theory implies that we are not perfect, finished products directly from the hand of a Creator.  This in turn Galton seemed to regard as reason to suppose that we might be improved, by his standards.  You can't reason directly from evolutionary theory to the idea that we ought to work for the betterment of the species: evolution doesn't have goals that we can work towards, and evolutionary theory describes changes in populations rather than prescribing moral or political policies.  Conversely, you don't need evolutionary theory to tell you that human could in principle be selectively bred (some creationists and ID proponents argue that various fields of science have been "evolutionized," having evolutionary theory stuffed into them when they function just fine without it: examples commonly cited are genetics and comparative anatomy.  But by the same token, eugenics has been "evolutionized;" the theory by itself doesn't justify the practice, nor does eugenics require common descent or natural selection (it is, after all, pretty clearly a case of artificial selection reflecting a distrust of the results or efficacy of natural selection).

One can mount a Darwinian case against eugenics: we don't know what traits now in the population might be useful in the future (Theodosius Dobzhansky advanced this argument), we don't know that a trait that is harmful in some circumstances might not be beneficial in others (why should widespread harmful traits exist, if they weren't useful in some circumstances or in combination with some other traits?), and that the trouble and expense of the whole process outweighs any benefits society might get from it ("society," after all, being the sum of the individuals whose lives you're interfering with in your quest to improve the breed).

The link between evolutionary theory and racism is this: as far as I can tell, evolutionary theory doesn't require that all human populations be equal, on average, in all intellectual and psychological traits (even that arch-anti-racist Stephen Gould insisted that human equality was a contingent, not a necessary, fact about humans -- though Gould, to be sure, was nearly as opposed to the idea that evolution had inevitable outcomes as he was to racism).   Note, though, that not everyone agrees on this; evolutionary psychology, for example, holds that human mental traits have been pretty well fixed since before H. sapiens sapiens spread out from Africa, and that there is no such thing as "general intelligence" (as one evo-psych proponent put it, "there's no such thing as a general problem-solving ability because there's no such thing as a general problem"): mental abilities are too complex and manifold to permit any sort of intelligible ranking of racial differences in them, even if such existed.

At least two points need to be raised here.  First, the differences between human regional populations, whatever their nature and significance, are instances of microevolution.  If one accepts the possibility of "change within kinds," one necessarily accepts as much difference among "races" as evolutionary theory allows.  Secondly, given that evolutionary theory has as one of its central principles that variation among individuals exist in all populations -- that there is no trait on which one could rest a claim of racial superiority or inferiority that is found in all members of one population but no members of other populations -- evolution would seem to be dubiously compatible with racism.  Indeed, one could argue (against Bergman, at least, if not West) that the sorts of curses on entire lineages that figure so prominently in Genesis are a far better basis for racism than anything evolutionary theory can provide (and of course the "curse of Ham" idea has played a large role in western racism).

The argument has been raised that, at least, under creationism, one has the obligation to treat one's fellow human beings as God would have you treat them, whereas evolutionary theory gives us no moral guidance and, in stronger formulations, denies the possibility of moral guidance.  Against that I can merely note that creationists have from time to time derived some rather .... unsavory ... moral guidance from what they regard as the word of God (e.g. biblical justifications for slavery and/or prohibition of interracial marriage and integration).


  1. I've offered a challenge occasionally to those who insist that Darwinism was a vital influence on or ally of Nazism. Using Darwinian concepts such as natural selection, descent with modification, etc, can one explain:

    1. What "inferiority" means in terms of human sub-populations ("races"), and how one such population could fall into such a condition through the process of evolution;
    2. Why the Jews would be considered inferior in those terms, and;
    3. Why the "superior race" has an obligation or interest in exterminating the "inferior race."

    I suppose the same challenge could be offered, substituting "Africans" for "Jews" in question 2 and "enslaved or oppressed" for "exterminated" in question 3.

  2. I took a peek at the Bergman article you linked to. In the first paragraph of the introduction, Bergman asserts that "Darwin’s theory, as modified by Haeckel, Chamberlain and others, clearly contributed to the death of over nine million people in concentration camps."

    By a strange coincidence, in the first paragraph of Houston Stewart Chamberlain's introduction to Foundations of the Twentieth Century (the work to which Bergman refers under "Chamberlain"), he declares that:

    The overwhelming majority of men with their display of ant-like activity are quite incapable of viewing things in such an original manner [as that of Goethe]. A manifestly unsound system like that of Darwin exercises a much more powerful influence . . . . And so we have seen the idea of evolution develop itself till it spread from biology and geology to all spheres of thought and investigation, and, intoxicated by its success, exercised such a tyranny that any one who did not swear by it was to be looked upon as a simpleton.

    My emphasis.

    I think we should also note Chamberlain's complaint about the "tyranny" of evolutionary thought. If we want to play the Hitler card, this looks like trumps: the most notable of proto-Nazis, the one author most solidly established as a direct influence on Hitler, when he talks about Darwin, sounds indistinguishable from a hundred similar rants from the Discovery Institute or AIG.

  3. I've never understood people who go "Darwin's Natural Selection means we must practice Artificial Selection".

    Steven, do you bother with CSE at all?

  4. I've never understood people who go "Darwin's Natural Selection means we must practice Artificial Selection".

    I've also never understood people who think Darwin was the first human to notice that carnivores kill prey to survive.