From Church & State: Autumn 2007, No. 90

Darwin's Eugenics

Joe Keenan submitted the following letter to the Times Literary Supplement over three months ago. It has yet to be published.

Ms Richardson states in her review of George Levine's 'Darwin Loves You' (TLS, July 27, 2007) that "It is too easy to see Darwin as anti-feminist". Her subsequent assertion of others' reworking of Darwinism does nothing to clear Darwin of the charge, not just of being anti-feminist but of being anti-women. This is his view as he stated it in Chapter 19 of the 'Descent of Man'.

"The chief distinction in the intellectual power of the two sexes is shewn by man's attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman, whether requiring deep thought, reason or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on Hereditary Genius, that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman…"

Darwin's approval of Galton in that passage extends to Galton's work on eugenics. Ms Richardson's selective quotation from Chapter 5 of the 'Descent of Man' has to be put in context and drawn out to give the full flavour of Darwin's views on the science of breeding:

"This subject has been ably discussed by Mr. W.R. Greg, and previously by Mr. Wallace and Mr. Galton. Most of my remarks are taken from these three authors. With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination:we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed…

"The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy,which was originallyacquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must thereforebear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely that the weaker and inferior members of society do not marry so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage, thoughthis is more to be hoped for than expected…"

I think that gives rather a different, and more accurate, picture of Darwin's real views as stated by himself than the somewhat misleading account presented in Ms. Richardson's review of Mr. Levine's book. Darwin was not opposed in principle to eugenics. In fact, in principle, he was in favour of it. He just did not think political society was ready for quite so much good science.

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