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Galton on Darwin and Eugenics

Michael Flannery

I’ve read many defenders of Charles Darwin who try to distance him from the eugenics movement. While their efforts are patently false, I ran across this interesting quote from the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, in his autobiography Memories of My Life (1908). You may be familiar with it already, but it’s worth repeating:

The publication in 1859 of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin made a marked epoch in my own mental development, as it did in that of human thought generally. Its effect was to demolish a multitude of dogmatic barriers by a single stroke, and to arouse a spirit of rebellion against all ancient authorities whose positive and unauthenticated statements were contradicted by modern science. (p. 287)

Galton’s new “dogmatism” — the fruits of that rebellion — gave us bizarre human breeding efforts for the “fit,” forced sterilizations of the “unfit,” and nightmarish programs of racial hygiene. Whatever else may be said of eugenics, there can be little question about the crucial and seminal impact of Darwin’s work on the founder of the movement.
What Darwin himself may have thought of eugenics is far less important (though I think he was unquestionably a racist) than the impact his ideas had on generations of devoted readers. Can there really be any doubt that the eugenic program advocated by Darwin’s cousin was the application of Darwinian evolutionary theory to society?
Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.

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.