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American Eugenics on the Eve of Nazi Expansion: The Darwin Connection

In the face of strong and convincing evidence linking Darwinism to the evolutionary ethic and “racial hygiene” of the Nazis (see Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic; see also the Nazi propaganda film “Upfer der Vergangenheit” [“Victims of the Past”]), Darwinian ideologues have typically reacted with denials and indignation. For example, in “Darwin’s Connection to Nazi Eugenics Exposed,” Eric Michael Johnson claims that it’s all a creationist plot.
“The Nazi policies enacted three-quarters of a century ago today were certainly bad enough,” Johnson indignantly complains, “we don’t need to spread the blame onto those who had no connection with them.” Johnson suggests that Darwin cannot be held responsible for the ideas of his cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), and furthermore the Nazis were alone and uniquely guilty in their “racial hygiene” program. Is this historically accurate? Unfortunately, the answer may be found closer to home and from the words of a leading eugenicist.
Germany was not the only nation captivated by a plan to give Darwinian evolution a proactive “helping hand.” As Harry Bruinius points out, from 1907 when Indiana passed the first eugenics law up until this darkly misguided movement finally spent itself in misery and shame, more than 65,000 American citizens were forcibly sterilized in an attempt to limit the propagation of what leading eugenic proponents saw as “undesirables” (Better for All the World, p. 10).
But Darwinism, we are assured, had nothing to do with it. Historian Peter Bowler insists, “In America genetics rather than Darwinism provided the central biological support for eugenics, with early enthusiasts such as C. B. Davenport insisting that there was a single gene for each identifiable character, including feeble-mindedness” (Evolution: The History of an Idea, p. 311). But genetic mechanism was simply an operative explanation for a larger contextual Darwinian framework. In this context it makes no sense to separate the two.
Steven Schafersman, in a letter to the editor of the Midland Reporter-Telegram, makes a similar error. After admitting some revulsion at the consequences of eugenics, he goes on to say somewhat disturbingly, “Early eugenicist motives were laudable and based on a modern understanding of genetics and heredity, not evolution.” Pointing out that these early eugenicists wanted to “improve” humanity by encouraging “families with the best genes” to have children and discouraging families with “defective genes” from propagating, Schafersman goes on to argue plaintively,

Unfortunately, these idealistic and beneficial goals degenerated first to biological determinism by zealous authorities, which obliged families to undergo forced sterilization, and finally to the Nazi medical and racial atrocities. Attributing this sorry social history to Darwin, evolution, and science is ludicrous and mendacious, since it was brought about by extreme social, political, and religious authoritarianism, not by science.

Really? Let’s take a closer look.
The connection of Darwinian evolution with eugenics was clear and explicit for Samuel J. Holmes (1868-1964), one of America’s leading eugenicists. Holmes was a zoologist and professor at the University of California, a state that in 1909 passed the nation’s most thoroughgoing and ambitious eugenic sterilization law.
Holmes was no minor player in the movement. He served on the founding board of the Human Betterment Foundation, a eugenics organization that promoted compulsory sterilization laws, and from 1938 to 1940 he served as president of the American Eugenics Society. So when Holmes addressed the Western Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on June 27, 1939, there was good reason to take notice. Here was one of America’s leading eugenicists addressing the country’s principal scientific body. His topic: “Darwinian Ethics and Its Practical Applications.”
Holmes was quite clear: “Darwin’s views on ethics are a logical outgrowth of his theory of the causes of evolution.” Darwin’s Descent of Man set

forth the evidence from morphology, embryology, etc., indicating the descent of man from animals resembling the apes, to show that the human intelligence differs from animal intelligence only in degree instead of in kind, and that morality, and even religion do not imply the possession of unique endowments but are outgrowths of man’s superior intellectual development and the social instincts and emotions which man shares to a certain extent with the higher mammals.

Holmes went on to dismiss theological considerations urging instead that “our progress toward rational understanding of the human animal has been among the most potent influences in humanizing man’s treatment of his fellow man.”
For Holmes,

Cruelty, selfishness, lust, cowardice and deceit are normal ingredients of human nature which have their useful role in the struggle for existence. Intrinsically they are all virtues. It is only their excess or their exercise under the wrong conditions that justly incurs our moral disapproval. For the Darwinian the categorical distinctions between good and bad take on new meaning

Calling humans “sublimated simians,” Holmes admitted that we have been unable to keep pace with the rapid development of complex civilization and have become maladapted to these new conditions of life. “For the proper solution of these problems, therefore,” he pleaded, “a really scientific understanding of human nature will become more and more imperative.”
Holmes rejected moral decisions based upon religious authority and praised the Darwinian paradigm that now allowed moral decisions to be made according to a reductionist notion of “human welfare.” “In making the preservation and perpetuation of life the true function of morals, as it is a function of life itself,” Holmes argued, “Darwinism affiliates ethics more closely with the biological sciences. Moral life is the expression in human conduct of true and effective living. Through being moral we have life, and have it more abundantly.”
For Holmes, a practical application of Darwinian principles would, among other things, “emphasize the importance of eugenics, both positive and negative, and all measures that make for beautiful and wholesome life and the improvement of its adjustment to its environing condition, material and social.”
Holmes was aware that many found Darwinian ethics repugnant and even frightful. But he assuaged these fears by saying that “nothing very dire would happen” if society “proceeded to order conduct in accordance with its dictates” because the virtues of “honesty, courage, loyalty and benevolence” are instinctively ours already. “It is only imperfectly so, however,” he added, “and I venture to suggest that current moral practice might be considerably improved if it became more consciously and definitely regulated in terms of the Darwinian standard.” His address was published in Science on August 11, 1939. That was just weeks before Hitler’s invasion of Poland, as the Nazi expansionist “racial hygiene” program went goose-stepping across Europe in a quest for global dominance.
Of course this is not to suggest that Holmes was a proponent of Nazi atrocities. Neither were the vast majority of his American colleagues. But certain affinities should not be ignored, and American eugenicists should not be held blameless.
For example, Harry Laughlin (1880-1943) helped create a “Model Sterilization Law” that was vindicated in the Buck v. Bell decision (1927). In Germany, one of the first legislative acts of Hitler’s National Socialist government was to pass in the summer of 1933 a “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” modeled upon this American precedent. It was the influential American physician George Dock (1860-1951) who translated the German document for the Human Betterment Foundation.
“I think the reference to the California work [in the German law], and the work of the Foundation is a very significant thing,” exclaimed Dock. “The matter,” he added, “has given me a much better opinion of Mr. Hitler than I had before” (Better for All the Word, p. 273). Likewise, Laughlin, noted with some pride, “To one versed in the history of eugenical sterilization in America, the text of the German statute reads almost like the ‘American model sterilization law.'” No wonder that in 1936 the Nazi regime awarded Laughlin, under the aegis of the University of Heidelberg, an honorary doctorate for his contributions to “racial hygiene” (Better for All the World, p. 17).
Thus, there remains something unnerving in Holmes’s sanguine hopes for Darwinian ethics. His call for such a thoroughly biology-based ethic seems the basis for the disconcerting pride felt by Foundation leaders in hailing the Third Reich’s legislation; this includes the researchers they supported and funded like California eugenicist Paul Popenoe who approved Hitler’s advocacy of “racial betterment through eugenic measures” and praised Mein Kampf for the author’s “hopes of national regeneration solidly on the application of biological principles to human society” (Darwin Day in America, p. 150).
John West has pointed out how misleading the notion is that eugenics was simply an abuse of science by untutored politicians. Holmes and his colleagues demonstrate that most eugenicists knew their science and were convinced that the theory first laid out by Darwin was merely a logical extension and application of its principles.
We need to be quite clear here. The problem wasn’t with evolution per se, but with an evolutionary theory that conflated humankind with animals and subsumed everything in a deterministic and materialistic reductionism. That was Darwin’s “special” contribution. The co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), broke with the Down House patriarch over just this point.
For Wallace the “human animal” referred to by Holmes, who was simply following Darwin, was an oxymoron. Wallace was a vehement opponent of eugenics. The danger was not merely a matter of inept and confused government officials, but rather a group of misguided scientists who had the ear of politicians ready, willing, and able to implement their eugenic policies. Wallace fixed the problem squarely when he declared, “Eugenics is simply the meddlesome interference of an arrogant scientific priestcraft” (James Marchant, Alfred Russel Wallace: Letters and Reminiscences, 1916, p. 467).
While much of the American eugenicists’s infatuation with Germany’s racial hygiene program was born of ignorance at several levels, the problem seems inherent in any ethical system that relies on the principle of utility and mere survival advantage as its barometer of action. Perhaps their misguided approval of eugenic “improvements” would have been checked by a moral compass more firmly pointed toward concepts of genuine good and evil.
One thing is sure: Holmes knew and understood two things very well — he understood eugenics and he understood its inextricable link to Darwinism. The revulsion commonly and justly felt today at the “practical application” of Darwinian ethics is a response not to a mere technical misapplication or misuse of Darwin’s theory. It is, in fact, a response to a program that placed people into racial hierarchies and then manipulated and coerced them to serve a larger biological imperative, a program whose morality could ultimately point only to a Nature “red in tooth and claw” based upon chance and necessity. Darwin’s “preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life” was interesting when applied to pigeons but monstrous when foisted upon human beings.

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.



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