Saturday, November 6, 2010

John G. West Discusses Racism, Eugenics, and "Darwinism"

In an earlier post I mentioned the debate scheduled at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History between Intelligent Design proponents and scientists who actually do science.  The debate has since been held, and John G. West, one of the participants from the Discovery Institute, has provided his own report.  West describes the proceedings as "serious, thoughtful, and civil."

West notes that he has never claimed that Darwin invented racism, or was the worst racist who ever lived, but that his theory contributed to racism by providing a scientific rationale for it:
Despite his personal opposition to slavery, Darwin clearly believed that natural selection working on different populations produced "higher" and "lower" races with different mental capacities. Hence, according to Darwinian theory, one should expect to find races with unequal capacities. This expectation of Darwinian theory helped fuel scientific racism for decades and provided a research agenda for a number of leading evolutionary biologists, most notably National Academy of Sciences' member Charles Davenport, one of the founding fathers of modern genetics.
Now, West's analysis misses a few points.  First, given that "Darwinian theory" is notable in part for replacing the Lamarckian evolutionary ladder with an evolutionary tree, why should we expect it to yield a prediction of "higher" and "lower" races?  Given that there are no universally fit traits, how would one decide which suite of traits was "higher" rather than merely "different," and fit for a different environment?  Second, how does one get the prediction that races should differ in mental capacities?  Certainly, as far as I can tell, they might, but why ought a "Darwinian" expect such a thing?

The answer, of course, is that evolutionary theory did not prohibit such differences in mental capacities, and Darwin's contemporaries examined race expecting to find racial differences in mental traits and prepared (by a history of colonialism and slavery that had preceded Darwin's birth, to say nothing of his theory) to evaluate them as "higher" or "lower."  They assumed that their own race was smarter than others (an idea that had originated as a justification for slavery) and set out to prove it, and to fit their findings, or supposed findings, into an evolutionary framework.

West goes on:
The Darwinian connection to the eugenics movement was even more direct. Darwin thought that human beings and their capacities only arose through a merciless process of natural selection that ruthlessly exterminated the weak and the inferior. But according to Darwin, civilized societies did their best to counteract natural selection and preserve those nature would have killed off. Darwin thought that this counteracting of natural selection had serious negative consequences for the future of the human race.
I assume by "more direct" he means "less direct."  And one might suppose that if a "merciless process of natural selection" exterminated the weak and inferior, then those "savage societies" that lacked the medical means to counteract this ruthless process would end up with superior races.  That would be on average, of course: an implication of evolutionary theory is that variation exists in all populations, than new variation arises all the time (even if Darwin himself had vague and inaccurate ideas of how this happened), and that there could be no trait, on which one could base a claim of racial superiority or inferiority, that would be present in all members of one race and no members of others.  But West's argument that "Darwinism" supported eugenics would not seem to comport all that well with his argument that it implied that less technologically advanced races were "inferior" in body and/or mind.

Now, it seems to me that Darwin was subtly wrong, on his own terms, in his worries about the effects of medicine and vaccination on the overall fitness of civilized society.  By his own theory, fitness is relative to a particular environment, not an absolute, and if the environment changes, then what is "fittest" must change with it.  Vaccination, charity, etc. alter the criteria for fitness rather than cause some objective decline in it.  Here Darwin's moral intuitions (that refusing aid to "the weak" went against "the noblest part of our natures") arguably served him better than his first deductions from his own theory.

Darwin wasn't always right.  And his contemporaries, of course, were aware of this and at times eager to remind him of it.  Early evolutionists challenged Darwin on the primacy of natural selection, on Darwin's view that only minute variations were relevant to selection (rather than large-scale "saltational" changes), on his view that humans had evolved in Africa rather than in Asia, etc.  "Darwin's theory" didn't simply emerge into an intellectual vacuum and sweep all before it on the force of his own scientific authority.  People had their own ideas about human biology and anthropology, and modified evolutionary theory to fit them as often as the reverse.  The illustration accompanying this article was produced in 1857, by an author who held (at the time) to multiple independent creations of human beings, and who argued that the gap between whites and blacks was on a par with the gap between black humans and chimpanzees.  People didn't deduce from evolutionary theory that human inequality existed; they already assumed such inequality and sought new justifications for it in new theories.

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