North Carolina is all over the news this week as it deals with the shameful legacy of its eugenics program that forcibly sterilized minorities, the poor, and others well into the 1970s. Ironically, this same week Hollywood is releasing on DVD the film Alleged, a new feature-length movie that dramatizes the personal impact of forced sterilization in the American South.
The main focus of Alleged is the infamous Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1920s Tennessee, but a key subplot depicts the attempt to sterilize a mixed-race girl who is wrongly labeled feeble-minded based on her family history and IQ tests. The subplot is fictional, but it draws on the actual history of forced sterilization at the time.
The movie correctly shows how many doctors and scientists in America embraced forced sterilization because of the so-called science of eugenics, which sought to breed better human beings by applying Darwinian principles. Darwin himself helped provide the inspiration for eugenics in Chapter 5 of his book The Descent of Man, where he argued that civilized societies were degrading the human race by inoculating people against smallpox, helping the poor, and saving the sick. According to Darwin, by preserving defective people that natural selection would have killed off, we were ruining the human race: “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.”
Darwin was ambivalent about what to do about this problem, one time writing that human sympathy wouldn’t allow us to go back to the law of the jungle, and other times insisting that if man “is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle.” Darwin’s followers were not so double-minded. Like Darwin, they thought that simply reinstating natural selection would be cruel, and so they suggested that a more humane approach would be to re-institute selection by sterilizing or segregating those natural selection would have killed off. Thus, the “science” of eugenics was born. Although eugenics involved artificial selection rather than natural selection, it was based fully on Darwinian ideology. Indeed, the whole reason we needed to apply artificial selection according to eugenists was because we had abandoned natural selection. We had to reinstate something equivalent to natural selection in human society or we were doomed.
Eugenics is typically regarded today as an example of fringe science from the past. In reality, it was the consensus view of the scientific community for decades, and it was embraced in particular by the leading evolutionary biologists at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford, and the University of Chicago. Refreshingly, Alleged accurately conveys both the pervasiveness of eugenics in scientific and medical circles of the 1920s, and its ideological connection to Darwinism.