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Women, Wallace, Evolution, and Eugenics

From Eve to Evolution.jpegOne of Charles Darwin’s contemporaries who didn’t think much of sexual selection in nature was Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913), famed co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection. In her book From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America (University of Chicago), which I have been reviewing for ENV (see here), Kimberly Hamlin correctly notes Wallace’s dismissal of Darwin’s sexual selection as a force in nature, but also correctly points out that he held "female choice" in high regard and was a champion of women’s rights. For Wallace, women needed to be free from the artificial economic constraints that forced marital choices upon them. Only in a society of fully emancipated and free women could "truly natural selection" arise "spontaneously" under "free selection in marriage" (see his Social Environment and Moral Progress, pp. 147-153).

Many of Wallace’s feminist colleagues agreed, but this highlights something that Hamlin fails to appreciate. Hamlin’s insists that Darwin’s human-animal continuity suggested a naturalism that appealed to many "freethinking" women of the period. Wallace thought otherwise. Believing that man and beast were separated by an unbridgeable divide, he argued strongly for a teleological worldview and intelligent evolution. This was profoundly unDarwinian. Hamlin awkwardly acknowledges this fact, but winds up playing fast and loose with her own feminists’ views on the issue.

For example, speaking of Antoinette Brown Blackwell (1825-1921), Hamlin admits that Blackwell, like Wallace, believed in human distinctiveness but proceeds to ignore this inconvenient fact in relation to her larger Darwin-based thesis (p. 104). "But if we are akin to all inferior sentient beings," declared Blackwell, "we are almost infinitely removed from them all, by the possession of powers which must make us kindred also with even Deity himself!" According to her biographer, Elizabeth Cazden, Blackwell "reaffirmed the unique place of humanity in the Divine scheme" (Antoinette Brown Blackwell: A Biography, p. 147) This is about as thoroughly unDarwinian and one can get!

Similarly, Hamlin confesses that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was "hardly a strict Darwinian" and that she called upon a "telic force" in the development of evolutionary progress (p. 120). Whatever one may think of these assertions, they do not coincide withDarwin’s reliance upon a materialist worldview hidebound to methodological naturalism as evidenced in his Descent. These examples point up Hamlin’s failure to distinguish between different forms of evolutionary theory and the metaphysical assumptions that underpin them.

One final example illustrates Hamlin’s imprecision. She notes, as mentioned earlier, that Wallace insisted that women needed "free choice" in marriage; this would permit natural selection to "cleanse society of the unfit." On this basis she admits that while he objected to any state-sponsored or coercive eugenics policy, his view of female choice "depended on his acceptance of eugenic ideas" (p. 142). Here Hamlin is too loose with the term eugenics. As Francis Galton, who coined the word in 1883, explained, this meant much more than "proper" marriage. For Galton, eugenics expressed "the science of improving stock, which is by no means confined to questions of judicious mating, but which, especially in the case of man, takes cognizance of all influences that tend in however remote a degree to give to the more suitable races or strains of blood a better chance of prevailing over the less suitable than they otherwise would have had" (Inquiries into Human Faculty and Its Development, p. 25).

Eugenics was an inherently race-based scheme emphasizing nature over nurture. It was, in fact, drawn from Galton’s captivation with Darwin’s examples of domestic livestock breeding outlined in the Origin of Species. Wallace emphatically rejected all of this. He thought Darwin’s domestic breeding examples unconvincing and inappropriate as illustrations of natural selection in action. More importantly, he found "no marked superiority in any race or country" (Social Environment and Moral Progress, p. 43). When it came to the nature-nurture debate, Wallace was quite clear: "Leave heredity alone until we have made the environment of every child from conception to death the best possible for its full and free development, and then we can begin to think about the influences of heredity, which may be small." Noting that between nature and nurture that the latter’s influence on development was paramount, Wallace told his biographer James Marchant that "it was unmitigated humbug to talk about hereditary class distinctions being rooted in Nature. An individual is, of course, a product of nature and nurture, but it is one-tenth the former and nine-tenths the latter" (Birth-Rate and Empire, p. 101). Hamlin cannot simply key in on words like "cleanse" and "unfit" as prima facie evidence of eugenics.

Nonetheless, eugenics has haunted the history of the feminist movement. Hamlin confesses the racial arguments of many Gilded Age activists and in some cases their endorsement of active — even proactive — eugenics. None have been more prominent than Margaret Sanger. Here Hamlin dances around the issue, suggesting that Sanger "was never accepted by the leading eugenicists" (p. 161), but at the same time admitting she praised and supported the forced sterilization of Carrie Buck in the infamous Buck v. Bellcase of 1927. This is anything but liberating. In fact, it is tacit endorsement of an agenda explicitly directed against women as stated by America’s most notorious eugenicist of the twentieth century, Harry Laughlin:

[In] the case of domestic animals of less value, having mongrel and homeless strains, such as the dog and the cat, the cutting off of their supply is largely effected through the destruction or the unsexing of the females. As a rule the tax on a female dog is two or three times greater than that on a male dog. Such a difference in taxation is not made because of difference in individual menace, but rather because of a more direct responsibility for reproduction. [Quoted in Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World, p. 213]

Laughlin’s message was clear: if man and animal were one and Darwin’s theories were correct, then the manipulative breeding of "better stock," whether in bedroom or barnyard, would have to be borne by the female. Although some feminists supported eugenics, it is little wonder that in the end it failed since the two were working at cross-purposes. (For more on this, see Mary Ziegler’s "Eugenic Feminism").

A False Dichotomy and Troubling Questions

Hamlin’s tries to distance her radical, freethinking feminists from these objectionable policies by splitting the Christian suffragists from the group, suggesting that they allied themselves with social Darwinism against Darwinian theory (pp. 42-43). This is surely a false dichotomy. Social Darwinism was simply applied Darwinism; it is inaccurate to treat the two severally. (See, for example, "Did Darwinism Give Birth to Social Darwinism?") Even otherwise staunch Darwinian supporters like Adrian Desmond and James Moore admit as much: "’Social Darwinism’ is often taken to be something extraneous, an ugly concretion added to the pure Darwinian corpus after the event, tarnishing Darwin’s image. But his notebooks make plain that competition, free trade, imperialism, racial extermination, and sexual inequality were written into the equation from the start — ‘Darwinism’ was always intended to explain human society" (Darwin, p. xxi).

One wonders how and why Kimberly Hamlin chose this subject. If she thought it told the story of how women were liberated by "science" through Darwin’s Descent of Man, it surely missed the mark. Far from finding secular salvation in Darwinian science, the animal-human continuity thesis only bred the eugenic notions of Galton and Laughlin. Indeed, whether Darwin himself was a eugenicist himself or not, his chapter in Origin, "Variation under Domestication" with its companion ideas in Descent, found their logical expression in eugenics.This resulted in a situation in which by Carrie Buck’s death in 1983, "more than 65,000 Americans citizens [mostly women] had been officially sterilized and forgotten" (Better for All the World, p. 76).

Hamlin’s account raises serious questions. Given the particular teleological views of Blackwell and Gilman, for example, do they even belong in this narrative? In addition, has Hamlin really given the Judeo-Christian faith community its due in the women’s movement? Having singled out feminist "freethinkers," she leaves any alternative views unaddressed and virtually dismissed out of hand. Theologian Krister Stendahl observed nearly 45 years ago:

The patriarchal structure of society is not a Jewish or a Christian invention, but the Bible and the Church have come to enforce it in many ways. And yet there has always existed that undercurrent of equal value before God: the eternal soul of all human beings, the Spirit speaking and acting through both male and female prophets, the role of Mary as the human being closest to God, could not be totally forgotten. The eschatological vision of a new humanity in Christ — neither slave nor free, neither Jew nor Gentile — reaches its highest intensity in the transcending of distinction between male and female. ["Women in the Churches: No Special Pleading," Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal v. 53, n. 4 (Winter 1970): 374-378]

It is not presentist to ask why the women in Hamlin’s book didn’t address the role of religion and faith more sympathetically. Every argument offered by Stendahl in 1970 was available in 1870. Neither is it nitpicking to point out that some of her favored feminists may not quite fit very well into her overall thesis. I don’t think that Hamlin is being disingenuous; I think she is genuinely confused.

The half-truths, distortions, and conflations of which there are many in this book all emanate from Hamlin’s confusions about evolution, Darwinism, social Darwinism, and eugenics. In the end, the story she intended to tell actually reminds us that attempts to enlist Darwinism on behalf of women’s rights and equality only ended up allowing women to be objectified as servants to notions of "racial betterment." Women under Darwinism everywhere have paid a horrific price. Though a small but vocal minority may have courted the things that would oppress them under the guise of "science," all history shows that between women’s laudable goals and objectives and Darwinian theory there has always been a great divide.

A Personal Reflection

I closed this book wondering how such a work could pass through peer review. The most obvious answer is that it said what its academic readers wanted and expected it to say. For well over twenty years a veritable forest of honest, critical scholarship has sprung up amidst the weeds of scientism and Darwin’s materialistic "tree of life." However, as I’ve pointed out earlier, Darwinism survives "not on its empirical evidence or even its scientific utility but upon its power within the larger culture it serves." The hegemonic culture believes it because it wants to believe it. This book epitomizes that conclusion.

We could rest on our laurels and say that after all these years we’ll let that "forest" speak for itself. But so long as the press keeps issuing well-intentioned but misguided books like this, we can only heed Robert Frost’s urging:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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.