The naturalist is a secular saint yet he has left a legacy of mass sterilisation and murder, argues Dennis Sewell e have heard a great deal during this year’s bicentennial celebrations about Charles Darwin’s magnificent achievements, but very little about the great naturalist’s catastrophic errors. This is a shame, because anyone who gives their name to an –ism or becomes the centre of a personality cult should always have their intellectual legacy scrutinised in its entirety.
Although his work has inspired subsequent generations of scientists to make great strides in advancing our knowledge of the natural world, Darwin’s ideas have also fathered some of the most grotesque instances of man’s inhumanity to man.
Darwin’s decision to represent as a scientific fact that the several races of mankind had travelled different distances down the evolutionary path – that white Europeans were, in short, more highly evolved than Africans or Australian Aborigines – has had appalling consequences. Today, Darwin’s supporters frequently make light of his racial views, claiming that he was no more racist than the average upper-middle-class gentlemen of his day, and warning that we should not try to impose the politically correct attitudes of our own times on to the past. But Darwin’s racism was very different from that of his contemporaries. Though any Victorian Englishman might have regarded himself as socially superior to the lawless, savage tribes he encountered throughout the Empire, only Darwin – as the man who discovered evolution by natural selection – could provide an underpinning for racial superiority in biology and evolutionary science. Only Darwin could establish the notion of a hierarchy of races as a scientific orthodoxy that would prevail through much of the following century.
In the autumn of 1906 a group of the most eminent figures in American science decided to give the New York public an object lesson in human evolution. They put a 23-year-old African from the Congo on display in the monkey-house of the Bronx Zoo alongside an orang-utan and a gorilla, presenting the unfortunate young pygmy as the missing link between ape and human. I have found that many people are not in the least surprised to hear of this appalling violation of a person’s dignity, perhaps believing such outrages were common in the United States before the Civil Rights Movement of the Sixties. Yet black people had been entitled to vote in New York State for more than a century by the time this Congolese pygmy was put on such humiliating display.
The scientists responsible defended their actions in Darwinian terms. As a member of one of the “lower races” in the evolutionary scale, the pygmy was closer to a dog or a pig than to a white New Englander, therefore his life should be accorded a different value. Certainly the organisers of the exhibit felt no more compelled to ask for the pygmy’s consent than to obtain the permission of the orang-utan or the gorilla to their incarceration and display. In any case, Darwin had shown that human life was not qualitatively different from animal life, and Darwin’s theories, it was stressed, were “no more contestable than the multiplication tables”.
Truths that America’s founding fathers had held to be selfevident – that all men were created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights – were now scorned as gross sentimentalities that had been overtaken by Darwinian science. Within a decade the self-styled “scientific racialists” had begun to classify other groups as genetically inferior. Immigrants from Spain and Italy were held to be a threat to the quality of the American gene pool and spurious scientific evidence was adduced to “prove” that Jewish immigrants were near-imbeciles whose admission in large numbers might lead to a lowering of the average level of intelligence of the American people. In fact, this cohort of Jewish immigrants would go on to supply more Nobel Prize winners than any other immigrant group. But in the early Twenties it was the voice of the genetic-alarmists in the science establishment that prevailed and the US Congress imposed strict quotas on the admission of Jewish and south European immigrants. One unforeseen consequence of the quotas was that many Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution in the Thirties found the doors to the United States barred to them.
Nowhere were Charles Darwin’s teachings on racial evolutionary hierarchy taken up with more enthusiasm than in Nazi Germany itself, where they were used to support a taxonomy of an Aryan master race and expendable subhumans. Darwin was originally popularised in Germany through the efforts of his friend and collaborator Ernst Haeckel, whose slogan “politics is applied biology” became a founding principle of National Socialist ideology. Darwin’s racial theory may not be a sufficient condition in explaining the Holocaust (and the part played by Christian anti-Semitism should certainly not be ignored) but a strong case can be made that it was a necessary one. The part played by leading German geneticists in both the early growth of the Nazi Party and in pressing for the extermination of the Jews is one of the few underexplored areas in the history of the period.
Darwin’s second catastrophic error was to promote the view that the poorest sections of society were genetically inferior to the educated middle class and that most, if not all, the traits that led to pauperism were hereditary. Darwin’s analysis generated a fear that if the working class continued to breed faster than the middle class, then the society would continue down a spiral of genetic degeneration.
It was this fear that animated the eugenics movement, which in Britain was largely led by members of Darwin’s own family. His son, Leonard, became the chairman of the Eugenics Society, agitating for the establishment of flying squads of scientists with powers of arrest over the poorest third of the population. The plan was that anyone deemed “unfit” by these tribunals would be segregated in colonies or sterilised to prevent them breeding. Fortunately, the eugenicists did not get all they wanted in Britain. Nevertheless, they did succeed in getting measures passed by Parliament that led to the imprisonment without trial of more than 40,000 people. Many were detained for “moral imbecility” – having children out of wedlock, committing petty crimes, or displaying homosexual inclinations. Some would remain incarcerated for 20 years.
In the United States the eugenicists did succeed in getting compulsory sterilisation laws passed in 33 states. At least 60,000 Americans were forcibly sterilised and perhaps a further 100,000 bullied into consenting to the procedure. The last state to revoke its eugenic sterilisation statute did so in 1982.
Denied the powers they sought to sterilise large numbers of the British working class, our homegrown eugenicists turned to promoting contraception and abortion as alternative means to limit the fertility of those they and their supporters on the Fabian Left termed the “problem class” or “social residuum”. Marie Stopes was one of the most fanatical eugenicists. She obsessed over the slightest genetic imperfection and even disinherited her own son because he chose a bride who wore glasses. Her money and her clinics were left to the Eugenics Society instead.
The Abortion Law Reform Association (ALRA) was founded by three leading eugenicists, housed in the offices of the Eugenics Society, and funded by a cash grant from the society. David Steel has publicly acknowledged the crucial part played by the ALRA in the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act and has paid particular tribute to the contribution of Vera Houghton, who was a vice-president of the Eugenics Society in the year the Bill went through. Both of David Steel’s medical advisers also had long associations with the eugenics movement. But any Catholic caught pointing out these connections nowadays risks being labelled a conspiracy theorist.
Although many of today’s scientists admit Darwin did make some terrible mistakes, not all do. It would be a mistake to imagine that “scientific racialism” and eugenics have entirely gone away. The fierce controversy over alleged racial differences in IQ that came to a head with the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994 will seem tame compared to the coming furore – perhaps only a few years off – when evolutionary psychologists start claiming they have found racial differences in moral traits such as honesty, criminality, mendacity and so on. Meanwhile, genetic science has now progressed to the point where scientists are already predicting that before long they will be in a position to re-design humanity at will – not only in terms of physical constitution and appearance, but in terms of moral inclination and political outlook too.
What will it mean to be human then?
The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics by Dennis Sewell is published by Picador, £16.99