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The Talk.Origins Archive: Exploring the Creation/Evolution Controversy

Evolutionists Against Eugenics

Post of the Month: November 2000

by John Wilkins

Article 1

Subject:    Early Critics of Eugenics
Date:       November 23, 2000

Andy Schafly has asked if evolutionists criticised eugenics. I am assuming this means before 1945.

According to Kevles, there were critics of the eugenics program from within the scientific community. One such was RC Punnett (Kevles 1995: 165), a geneticist who has given his name to the Punnett Square method of presenting fitness values of alleles
<> and

In 1917, Punnett calculated how many generations it would take to reduce "feeblemindedness" if all were sterilised in each generation. He worked out that to reduce the frequency from 1/100 to 1/1,000 would require 22 generations, to 1/10,000 90 generations and 1/1,000,000 700 generations! To give an idea of the magnitude of this, 22 generations takes us back to before the Black Death reached Europe. A debate ensued in which RA Fisher was taken to task in his attack on Punnett's work by Herbert Jennings. By 1932, these criticisms had reached the New York Times.

By the mid-30s, Lionel Penrose
<> was attacking the term "feebleminded" as covering a range of conditions. Note that he was a eugenicist.

George Bernard Shaw
<> attacked eugenic sterilisation on the grounds that he would not have been born. Shaw was an evolutionist, though not a Darwinian.

Kevles, D. (1995). In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the uses of human heredity. Cambridge, Mass, Harvard University Press.

Dobzhansky wrote an attack on eugenics in 1937 in his classic book that helped found the evolutionary synthesis:

"The eugenical Jeremiahs keep constantly before our eyes the nightmare of human populations accumulating recessive genes that produce pathological effects when homozygous. These prophets of doom seem to be unaware of the fact that wild species in the state of nature fare in this respect no better than man does with all the artificiality of his surroundings, and yet life has not come to an end on this planet. The eschatological cries proclaiming the failure of natural selection to operate in human populations have more to do with political beliefs than with scientific findings." (Quoted in <>)

Possible anti-evolutionary articles or sources by possible evolutionists in the period from the beginnings of the synthesis (1930) to the end of the second world war. I know Boaz was an evolutionist - the others we'd have to check. Culled from <>

Boas, Franz. "The Question of Racial Purity" 3 American Mercury 163 (1924)

Cox, Ignatius W. "The Folly of Human Sterilization" The Scientific American 188 (October 1934)

Frazier, Edward F. "The Pathology of Race Prejudice" 77 Forum 856 (1927)

Holmes, Samuel J. "The Oppostition to Eugenics" 89 Science 351 (1939)

Popenoe, Paul. "A Debate on Sterilization: Intelligent Eugenics" The Forum 26 (July 1935)

The Readers Digest. "Pro and Con: Sterilize the Feeble-Minded?" The Readers Digest 97 (May 1938)

Science News Letter. "Biology-Physiology: Eugenics Program Declared Impracticable at Present" Science News Letter 22 (9 July 1938)

Stern, Curt. "Selection and Eugenics" 110 Science 201 (1949)

Thomalla, C. "The Sterilization Law in Germany" The Scientific American 126 (September 1934)

TIME. ________. "Sterilization and Heredity" TIME 73 (15 April 1957)

________. "Improving the Breed" TIME 62 (17 January 1955)

________. "Furor About Sterilization" TIME 59 (22 November 1954)

________. "Castration and the Court" TIME 51 (5 May 1952)

________. "Sterilization Cry" TIME 43 (17 December 1945)

________. "Eugenics for Democracy" TIME 34 (9 September 1940)

________. "Crime: Finishing Schools" TIME 15 (8 November 1937)

________. "Sterilization Flayed" TIME 80 (16 November 1936)

________. "$500,000 Operation" TIME 42 (20 January 1936)

________. "Germany: Meanest Mother" and "Praise for Nazis" TIME 20 (9 September 1935)

Ward, Harold. "The Dilemma of Eugenics" The New Republic (24 April 1935)

Some URLS:

Brittannica article on eugenics
<,5716,120936+8+111157,00.h tml>

GeneLetter article

An excellent article on eugenics in the US, including some dissent

Phillip Rushton and sociobiology

A history of eugenics with a good annotated bibliography (even if that isn't what a biologist would do :-) is

and another:

A book review in which the author shows that the British Eugenics Society aimed to reverse evolution: "The ``assumed inheritance'' of negative qualities made it seem to the Eugenics Society that ``if the prolific breeding of this class were not controlled, pauperism and its associated undesirable qualities must necessarily keep on increasing until the direction of evolution of the human race was reversed,''" <>

That said, it must be accepted as historical fact that a large number of evolutionary biologists, leading a mong them, Julian Huxley, Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher, were enthusiastic eugenicists in that period. Charles Davenport established what was to become the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory as a eugenics institute, the Eugenics Record Office <>, closed in 1940. Dobzhansky joined the society after the war but was unenthusiastic and argued against eugenics of the kind proposed in the US.

Sewall Wright corresponded with the Internal Commission on Eugenics in 1921 <>, but I don't know the content of that correspondence. If anyone would object to it on genetic grounds, it would be him.


Now a comment on what counts as eugenics.

There are a range of views that get called eugenics from time to time. They often include attempts to encourage the "fit" to breed more - usually this meant the educated classes like the eugenicist himself (but occasionally herself). Then there were those who argued for the discouragement of voluntary marriage by those who carried a bad gene (such as phenylketonuria). Then there were those who argued for the restriction to be imposed on those who were "unfit" such as the "feebleminded". Finally, of course, there are the attempts at ethnic genocide - which is the elimination of an entire ethnic group, such as occurred in Nazi Europe to the Jews, gypsies and Slavs, and in Bosnia and elsewhere at the hands of Serbs.

Now if we draw up a table in three dimensions we will get a better idea of these alternatives. The dimensions are

"Positive eugenics" to "negative eugenics" (Kevles' terms. Positive is not enforced, negative is)

Eugenic selection on traits, through to eugenic selection on groups.

And finally, eugenics practised by the individual and eugenics practised by some Collective, such as a state, ethnic group or ideology.

          |          +ve            |        -ve
Trait     |     A. Collective       |       C. Collective
          |     B. Individual       |       D. Individual
Group     |     E. Collective       |       G. Collective
          |     F. Individual       |       H. Individual

Now, when discussing someone's eugenic program, such as Fisher's, it would pay to identify what kind of eugenics he had in mind (B, C and D if I remember correctly), as opposed to Hitler (E and G). This definition table enables us to locate, for example, genetic engineering and therapy: it is B and D. Older forms of state-sanctioned eugenics range from A and B to E and G. Not all eugenics are equal (and some more equal than others).

John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production, The Walter and Eliza Hall
Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, Australia
Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

Article 2

Subject:    Re: Bryan foresaw eugenics brutality
Date:       November 7, 2000

Neil W Rickert <> wrote:

> writes:
> >From MONKEY BUSINESS : What really happened in Tennessee.
> >Commonweal, Oct 8, 1999 v126 i17 p9, Vitullo-Martin, Julia

> >"William Jennings Bryan, one of the prosecutors in the Scopes trial and
> >a man portrayed as a buffoon in the play Inherit the Wind, believed
> >that World War I had in part been caused by Darwinian thinking. Many
> >years before Hitler, Bryan railed about the brutality of eugenics,
> >whose ugly implications were as important as biological Darwinism to
> >the intellectual context of the Scopes trial."
> I can't speak for "Darwinian thinking." In my opinion, eugenics is
> contrary to proper evolutionary thinking.

As was noted by Thomas Henry Huxley many years before Bryan's epiphany. In 1894, in the Prolegomena to his lecture Evolution and Ethics, Huxley talked explicitly about eugenics (section VII) comparing it to a social administrator, a gardener weeding out the diseased, weak or undesirable, on evolutionary grounds. He then made the obvious point (section VIII, p22-23):

"Of the more thoroughgoing of the multitudinous attempts to apply the principles of cosmic evolution [Huxley's term for a universal Darwinism], or what are supposed to be such, to social and political problems, which have appeared of late years, a considerable proportion appear to me to be based upon the notion that human society is competent to furnish, from its own resources, an administrator of the kind I have imagined. The pigeons, in short, are to be their own Sir John Sebright.[1] A despotic government, whether individual or collective, is to be endowed with the preternatural intelligence, and with what, I am afraid, many will consider the preternatural ruthlessness, required for the purpose of carrying out the principle of improvement by selection, with the somewhat drastic thoroughness upon which the success of the method depends. Experience certainly does not justify us in limiting the ruthlessness of individual 'saviours of society'; and on the well-known grounds of the aphorism that denies both body and soul to corporations, it seems probable (indeed the belief is not without support in history) that a collective despotism, a mob got to believe in its own divine right by demagogic missionaries, would be capable of more thorough work in this direction than any single tyrant, puffed up with the same illusion, has ever achieved. But intelligence is another matter. The fact that 'saviours of society' take to that trade is evidence that they have none to spare...."

The footnote [1] reads: "Not that the conception of such a society is necessarily based upon the idea of evolution. The Platonic state [in Plato's The Republic] testifies to the contrary."

If Huxley had a sketch before him of the history and theory of Nazism, he could not have been more prophetic. What Bryan was saying had been said before and more presciently by others, anti-evolutionists as well as evolutionists, and Huxley also correctly observed that the error did not depend upon evolution (i.e., selection) but could be got a number of ways. Popper, in his justifiably reputation-making The Poverty of Historicism (Vol 1, 1944) made exactly the same point, in much more detail, about Platonism.

But Huxley was a Darwinian. Something must be wrong here. Surely Bryan's argument must be that biological Darwinism leads to social Darwinism - that is, eugenics? Well, actually, no. The influence on the German industrialists and militarists of the first World War was from a form of philosophy that owed everything to Herbert Spencer and the German Romantics, and literally nothing at all to biological Darwinism, and Huxley saw this more clearly than anyone even before it happened. What is does not make what ought to be. He knew it, and so did those German Spencerians.

John Wilkins at home

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