Darwin’s Theory, Darwinism, and Eugenics

Michael Egnor

My friend and colleague John West wrote an essay recently commenting on my post about the link between Darwinism and eugenics. He raised some very important points, with which I agree, and I’d like to clarify my view and clarify our fundamental agreement.

I have pointed out that Darwin’s theory is really a theory of the natural non-purposeful origin of biological complexity. The artificial manipulation of living things, such as breeding, biotechnology, experimental design in microbiology, recombinant DNA research, etc. aren’t related in any meaningful way to Darwin’s theory of natural origins. Everyone knows, and has always known, that living things can be altered by intentionally selecting some living things for breeding and by not breeding others. Illiterate herdsmen in the 10th millennium B.C. had that worked out. Human beings have always known that you can change living things on purpose.
Darwin made a radical claim: that all natural functional biological complexity arose without purpose. He proposed that differential reproduction of organisms that varied accidentally could entirely account for functional biological complexity, such as the structure of the eye, etc.
In the age of molecular biology, the genetic code, and the discovery of molecular machines inside cells, the theory that everything in biology arose without purpose or design is, well, teetering.
Darwinists, recognizing that Darwin’s theory was a bit “evidence lite,” have always tried to inflate the application of Darwin’s actual scientific assertion, which dealt only with natural complexity. They have asserted that all sorts of things–the biotechnology industry, experimental microbiology, antibiotic resistance in bacteria, etc.–are indebted to Darwin’s theory. As examples of purposeful alterations of bacteria or of their environment, these human interventions obviously are not an example of Darwin’s actual scientific assertion about the non-purposeful emergence of all natural biological complexity.
Modern eugenics was another example of the application of Darwin’s theory to purposeful breeding of living things: people. Modern eugenics was almost entirely a Darwinist project; virtually all the major eugenicists were, and are, Darwinists. The moral and philosophical link between Darwinism and eugenics is tight. The artificial manipulation of the human population obviously isn’t a direct application of Darwin’s scientific theory of natural selection, but Darwinism entails a materialistic ideology in which eugenics emerges naturally.
Dr. West notes that the linkage between Darwinism and eugenics isn’t just philosophical and moral. It’s logical. Darwin proposed that Caucasian Europeans (like himself) were the pinnacle of human evolution, and that they emerged by a struggle for survival. Altruism degraded the process by which the human race could advance. Darwin famously wrote in the 5th chapter of Descent of Man that the smallpox vaccine had regrettably allowed weak human beings to survive, and “excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
Ironically, Darwinists saw eugenics (a term coined by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton) as the humane solution to the altruism-driven degeneration of the human race. Rather than exterminate the weak, they reasoned that it would be better to take control of evolution and prevent the weak.
As philosopher Benjamin Wiker has pointed out, every major scientific theory necessarily entails a view of morality and of the world. Darwin’s theory profoundly altered our view of human beings. If we’re just animals without transcendent souls and without transcendent worth, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be bred like animals, especially if it’s for our own good. In the Darwinian worldview, eugenics was a (relatively) humane approach to promoting the excellence of the human race, with “excellence” understood as being an intelligent healthy Caucasian of European descent, and presumably one holding to the Darwinian worldview. Eugenic programs fostered the procreation of people whose racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and philosophical characteristics were the same as those of the Darwinists themselves.
Eugenics is the moral, philosophical, and logical application of Darwin’s scientific theory to human beings. It is a part of the degradation that Darwinism wrought.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.