the ghosts of pseudo-science past

October 21, 2008

Would you believe that there are hundreds of bloggers, authors and people who have gone into the public eye and declared that evolution promotes eugenics through the concept of natural selection? Had the evil term never been coined or propagated, they say, Darwins half-cousin would never have come up with the idea that humans could steer their own evolution by purging their gene pools of lesser genes. They also point out that the concept was very popular in Victorian times and up to the Nazi movement among all sort of social luminaries and bigwigs. Some even go as far as calling Darwin a eugenicist.

eugenicsThis charge is the result a double dose of ignorance. For Francis Galton and all of his supporters, it’s the ignorance of what Darwin meant by natural selection and their insistence on fusing the various pseudo-scientific ideas at the time with the nascent science. For pundits attacking the theory of evolution, its the ignorance of the time and culture of the eugenicists as well as the same basic ignorance of what natural selection means.

First, lets start with the biology. When we talk about natural selection, what we really mean by it is that an animal lived long enough to pass on its genes. Most animals above cell level dont live long enough to do that. They die of disease, theyre eaten, they cant find enough food, etc. But if you lived long enough to mate and have offspring, youre naturally selected because you can survive and pass on the genetic makeup that helped you survive long enough to breed another generation. Congratulations. You were one of the fittest.

But eugenicists assume that there are good genes and bad genes according to their subjective assertion of what an ideal person should be. They then posit that people who exhibit the bad traits should be sterilized so their flaws dont enter the gene pool because they’re the ultimate blueprint for everything a person is and does. But it doesnt work that way. Genes do determine what you look like and how your body is built, but they wouldnt determine your IQ or any facet of your personality. You also never know whats inside your genome and how it could turn into a major advantage in the future. The bad genes of today could become the terrific genes of tomorrow. Like all Victorian pseudo-sciences, eugenics comes from the warped way in which many so-called intellectuals of the time accepted evolution.

Since the Victorians were very self-absorbed and very keen on complimenting themselves on their supposed civility and intellect, they took the idea that humans came from other creatures to mean that humanity was superior to all other life Earth. Drawing on Lamarck, they assumed that those who had evolved were somehow above, more advanced and all around better than all those who came before them. This ideology would eventually become the justification of Social Darwinism and allowed the Victorians to justify their abhorrent treatment of people they didnt like and refused to understand by calling them un-evolved savages. Perhaps this is why they accepted the theory of evolution despite the fact that the countless fossils and genetic evidence we have at our disposal today werent even dreamed off back in those days. It flattered them to think they were somehow the ultimate creature on the planet.

During their time, retellings of the popular occult mythologies like Theosophy incorporated the nascent evolutionary theory and focused on human “ascension” to some sort of transcendent form. This concept was so wildly popular, we still see it today in sci-fi shows featuring ancient aliens that become god-like beings of pure energy rather than simply continue to change with time. When combined with the racism and bigotry that was so fashionable and accepted at the time, it turned into a monstrous quest for perfection based on arrogance, willful ignorance and misguided energies of a condescending elite. Biology was selectively pillaged to back the ideas of those who fancied themselves as conduits for perfection is human evolution.

In his work Descent of Man, Darwin dismissed eugenics as an counter-beneficial construct and only after his death was eugenics promoted and unleashed into the world at large. He did write one passage which sounds somewhat supportive to some of his critics, but the ultimate take- away from chapter 5 is that he didnt really know what was hereditary or not past physical traits and would not endorse eugenics. Nevertheless, Galton plowed ahead with his idea. It would take the horrors of the Holocaust, Nazi sterilization programs and the total abject failure of all their experiments to breed the perfect human for the world at large to realize that frankly, Galton as well as adherents in America and Europe were full of crap.

Those who pin the blame on eugenics and what it had become on Darwins influence, havent learned enough about evolution themselves to know what was meant by natural selection and ironically, make the same mistake as Galton as they look for the underpinnings of eugenics in the evolutionary theory. The revolutionary ideas of Charles Darwin are not to blame for all the horrors and the sheer ugliness of Galtons hypothesis. The real culprits are human bigotry and arrogance coupled with the desire to cherrypick science for self-serving, self-congratulatory purposes. If you want to learn a lesson from eugenics experiments, here’s one. Ignorance and arrogance when it comes to science, can lead to horrifying results.

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