Darwin and the Great Eugenics Cover-up…?

Question from Yarov:
Darwinian Evolution, Darwin and the scientific community played a big role in eugenics.

Eugenics played a big role in America mainly because of the idea of natural selection and Darwinian evolution.

It was mainly conservative Christian groups who opposed eugenics.
These groups were mainly the one who ended eugenics.

Eugenics represented mainstream science, and many colleges like Harvard, Standford, Princeton, Columbia were affiliated with eugenics.

This part of America’s history is hidden from America’s society and scientific community.

– Why is this history hidden?

– How does an atheist respond to this if this is a big part of Darwinian evolution?

– If we go back to Darwin’s books we can see some morbid views on how the sick should be treated. Why did he have these views?

Answer by SmartLX:
Eugenics as practiced in the United States in the early 20th century was pioneered (and in fact the word “eugenics” was invented) by the Englishman Sir Francis Galton, Charles Darwin’s cousin, after he read Darwin’s book The Origin of Species. However, Galton’s jumping-off point was not Darwin’s actual theory of natural selection but rather the very first chapter on “variation under domestication”. The chapter contains descriptions of plant breeding and animal husbandry, in other words artificial selection, going right back to ancient Egypt. Galton’s idea was to use the same approach, which pre-dated Darwin by thousands of years, to breed better humans. He might have gotten the same idea from visiting any farm in Britain, but it happened to come to him after reading his cousin’s writings on the subject.

If it’s true that conservative Christian groups were at the forefront of the anti-eugenics movement, it’s hardly surprising.
– Firstly, once the Nazis started to practice eugenics it became widely unpopular anyway, and American Christian groups would have seen which way the wind was blowing – and it would have helped the image of Christianity as a whole to have an anti-eugenics faction, since the Nazis were ostensibly Catholic.
– Secondly, conservative Christian groups tend to oppose any area of scientific research which challenges the idea that only God can determine who we are and what we will become. At the moment, this opposition is aimed squarely at stem-cell research and genetic engineering.

Regardless, the history of eugenics is not hidden from the American public or any scientists. It’s all on Wikipedia, Galton’s work is freely available in the public domain and the major eugenics experiments which took place are very well documented in the peer-reviewed literature of the time. It’s no secret to anybody. You learned about it without much difficulty, I take it.

You may mean instead that the history of eugenics is not normally a part of educational material on Darwinian evolution. This is for two reasons.
1. Knowing the history of Darwin himself, let alone his cousin or other scientists who later claimed his work supported them, is not necessary for people to understand the theory of evolution by natural selection. It’s superfluous to the teaching of what is now established as scientific fact.
2. Eugenics grew out of the idea of artificial selection, not natural selection. It is fundamentally a craft to be practiced, not an explanation of existing organic structures and features. It is far removed from Darwin’s theory and not at all useful as teaching material, unless all you want to teach is that Darwin begat evil.

Finally, I think this is what you mean about Darwin’s views on treating the sick. It’s from Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed:

“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilized 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. Thus the weak members of civilized 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. Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”

Sounds pro-eugenics, right? That’s because it’s maliciously misquoted, quietly leaving out parts which completely change the meaning of the passage. Here it is in full, along with the following paragraph:

“With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized 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 civilized 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 anyone 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 originally acquired 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. Hence we must bear without complaining 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 the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage.

To summarise, Darwin discouraged restrictions on human breeding as contrary to human nature, except possibly when the whole human race is in dire peril from some “overwhelming present evil” which he did not define. The above, Yarov, shows how badly you have to mangle his words to make him sound like the monster which creationists, and Intelligent Design proponents (i.e. other creationists), make him out to be.

Becoming Human…Not

Question from Erica:
If evolution exists wouldn’t it still be going on today? Wouldn’t every animal species be evolving into humans since we are at the top of the food chain?

Answer by SmartLX:
Even if they were all doing that, it would be so gradual that you probably wouldn’t notice. You might be able to look at ancient paintings of animals and remark that today’s animals looked a teensy-weensy bit more humanoid, but you wouldn’t see any significant changes in the space of your own lifetime.

Evolution has no objective. It doesn’t try to push everything to the top of the food chain, or make every animal more intelligent. Evolution itself has no intelligence, because it is not an entity with any sort of will; it’s an emergent process resulting from the non-random selection of random mutations. In lieu of objectives it does have effects, such as increases in biological complexity (in nearly all cases) and improved survival and procreation mechanisms in persistent populations.

For humans and their immediate ancestors, becoming more able to survive did mean standing upright, growing smarter and using tools. For cheetahs, it meant growing faster, and therefore it meant the same thing for antelopes and gazelles. (Of the five fastest land animals in the world, two hunt the other three.) For some dogs and cats it meant becoming more “personable”, facilitating beneficial relationships with humans (though once that happened, humans began applying artificial selection to both animals). For a tree, it may simply mean growing taller, or poisoning the animals that try to eat its leaves.

Some species have pretty much given up on surviving reliably as individuals and put all their biological resources into procreation instead. Insects and rabbits breed like wildfire, so that even if most of them are killed some will remain. Grass grows back even if nearly all of it is eaten, poisoned or pulled up. And of course, some species have developed great methods of both surviving and procreating.

You’ll have heard the expression “survival of the fittest”. It means that those life forms that are best adapted to (or “fit for”) their surroundings will likely survive and pass on their genes to the most offspring. That suitability for staying alive long enough to reproduce is ultimately the only metric that matters in evolution. The advantages of being human are only one way of many to achieve that condition, so there’s no pressure on animals that get along perfectly well being different from us to become more like us.

Evolution is indeed going on today, slowly but surely. Just not like that.

Religion, Evolved

Question from Doug:
I was wondering. If evolution is responsible for everything that is, then what was (or is) the evolutionary advantage of belief in a deity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Belief in gods need not have had an evolutionary advantage in order to have resulted from our evolution. It could instead be a by-product of other psychological traits which do have direct advantages.

Two such traits are obvious candidates:
– Human beings see deliberate action (“agency”) everywhere, even sometimes when there is none. It’s a “better safe than sorry” reflex that encouraged our ancestors to avoid tall grass moving oddly rather than take the chance that a carnivorous beast was moving through it. By the same token, people see what Christians call “the hand of God” in all sorts of occurrences, most of which have perfectly good natural explanations (the rest are merely unexplained). Imagining powerful beings controlling all such things was a short leap to make.
– Children can learn from their parents and other guardians, long before they develop the capacity for critical thinking. The benefits of this are obvious; if kids didn’t accept instructions before they were seven or so they’d have a tough time surviving even that long (either in the ancient world of predators and bandits, or in the modern world of hot stoves and busy roads). When supernatural doctrine is taught to children, most of them accept it without question and retain the beliefs all their lives. Thus a religion can sustain itself even if it never recruits a single non-believing adult.

That’s my opinion of the evolutionary reasons for widespread religion. I don’t think it has a significant direct evolutionary benefit, especially since archaeological evidence suggests that we had already evolved to Homo sapiens before the first signs of religion emerged. As long as religion hasn’t literally endangered the human species (and as much death and destruction as it’s caused, it hasn’t been quite that catastrophic so far) its existence wouldn’t have been seriously threatened by natural selection alone.

Natural Selection

“So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist.”

Question from CLH:
Asking you a question about specifically about evolution might seem a bit off-topic in regard to atheism.
But as you probably know the majority of the scientific community (the majority of which are atheists) regard evolution as scientific fact.
And we’re talking the entire theory, not some watered down “micro-evolution” version.

I’ve recently read some books to increase my knowledge and understanding on the theory of evolution.
It is now abundantly clear to me that all living things on this earth have evolved (as opposed to having been “designed” in their present form).

Until you understand that these changes have occurred slowly over billions of years it is kind of hard to grasp the concept of evolution. Even then it is mind-boggling to thing that we could get from a single-celled organism to where we are today.

But the facts are indisputable in that regard. But while evolution doesn’t fit well with the story of creation as told in the bible, it doesn’t
completely rule out intelligent or conscious design at point in the evolutionary process.

In my reading about evolution the authors do a great job of explaining how evolution consists of the natural selection of random mutations.
It seems confusing to people at first (which is it…”random” or “selection”?), but I get now the basic concept. But the part that I don’t understand
is this. They make it clear that neither random mutations or natural selection is a “conscious” process.
This suggests to me that there is no needs assessment or analysis taking place. But without such a needs assessment or analysis taking place, how
are we to believe that the natural selection process could have any direction or insight in determining which random mutations are actually beneficial and should therefore be selected?

Consider the evolution case study “How Beach Life Favors Blond Mice”

The basis of the study is that beach life survival favors mice with blonde as opposed to dark colored hair. The understanding is that flying predators
can more easily see and located the contrast of dark colored mice against the white sand background as opposed to blond colored mice. Makes perfect sense
and I believe that has actually been proven in some scientific experiments. But here is what I don’t get. Without a conscious assessment of someone or something
to make the observation that being blonde is more beneficial how does the natural selection go about making the right selection that we’re giving it credit for?
It would be one thing if you had a group of mice that were gathered behind a rock and saw a couple of their buddies (one blond and one dark) run
out onto the sandy beach and make the observation that time and time again the predator preys on the dark colored mouse. It that observation (conscious knowledge) were somehow
transferred and converted to their DNA for future generations to make use of in the natural selection process then that might make sense.
But once again we’re told that natural selection is in no way a conscious process. So that being the case, one has to wonder what basis natural selection
has for doing the needs assessment and making the right selection? That seems to leave open the possibility that intelligent design might be interceding at some point. Not necessarily a theist “God” mind you, but some form of intelligent (conscious) design. Or perhaps the scientists are just wrong about natural selection not being a conscious process?

On a side note, I’m wondering if there is a more common sense explanation for the blond mice case study such as the following:
As more dark mouse die off there are less and less of their dark mouse DNA to contribute to the future generation gene pool resulting in the future breading and reproduction cycle of more and more blond and less and less dark colored mice.

Answer by Andrea:
I see that your critical thinking skills are well-honed, since you basically came up with the answer as to why evolution is not a conscious process in your last paragraph.
My religiously conservative dad once took a tour through Grand Canyon and when the guide told him that the squirrels had changed through natural selection my dad laughed, “Isn’t that silly, squirrels choosing each other?” I tried to stifle my own laugh while I explained they don’t consciously choose each other, it’s that the squirrels best adapted to their environment (in your example mice being blond and less visible to predators) live longer and therefore produce more offspring. Their offspring that carry those adaptive genes will also live longer, which allows them to also carry forth those genes to a greater extent than those not carrying the beneficial genes until they become commonplace in the population. The version of the gene with less adaptive properties then often becomes recessive or eventually it loses its function due to disuse.
With respect to mutations, a lot of religionists will say that mutations are bad, and it’s ridiculous to think they could generate a whole new species. But what they don’t understand, or perhaps want to know, is that our genes mutate all the time throughout our lives for many different reasons, and most of those mutations are neither harmful nor beneficial. When harmful mutations arise, they are typically not spread widely since their carriers are not as fit for the environment and typically don’t live as long or as healthily.
Darwin termed this “natural” selection, which is selection guided nonconsciously by environmental cues. This is compared to the selection he saw by pigeon and dog owners, who guided the selection “unnaturally” by selectively breeding their animals to produce the desired genetic mix.
So just because the religious don’t understand it, doesn’t mean evolution doesn’t exist. In fact, it takes a far greater “leap of faith” to believe that an intelligent designer zapped everything into existence — for example, who zapped the intelligent designer into existence? And if that creator has always been around, why not just believe the universe has always been around in different form, for which there is much more evidence? It’s much more logical to believe that since only four out of 118 or so elements needed to produce life — oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon (albeit under the right conditions). There is fossil, genetic, chemical and empirical evidence for evolution, yet there is absolutely none for the intelligent design, also known as the creationist, point of view.
Creationists will admit there may be evidence for evolution but assert that this is only on the microevolutionary scale, such as with regard to bacteria and viruses. Although they deny that macroevolution occurs, we have already seen it with other quickly-producing organisms such as birds, fish and small rodents to the extent that they can no longer interbreed — one step at which they are considered a new species. There is also plenty of scientific evidence in the form of fossils, and there are transition species for almost all of the major transitions, including from water to land (see Tiktaalik, discovered in 2006).

Good job analyzing.

How is Evolution Incompatible with Christianity?

“If God created evolution by natural selection as many liberal Christians believe, He set up a mechanism which rendered Him completely superfluous from that point onward.”

Question from Richard:
I have been debating back and forth with my sister who is a devout Christian. I know that it is almost pointless to argue with a theist being that they have mysticism of religion to fall back on once things are not going well for them. One thing my sister seems to do is acknowledge the validity of evolution, but states that god created evolution and just let it run its course. It is really hard to comeback with something to say. This is one of those things that makes perfect sense in my head but it is hard to communicate with her why this dual belief is incorrect. Can you please help.

If God created evolution by natural selection as many liberal Christians believe, He set up a mechanism which rendered Him completely superfluous from that point onward. If God guided natural selection along the way, then it wasn’t natural selection.

The Darwinian/neo-Darwinian theory of evolution (the main difference between the two is genetics, which Darwin didn’t know about) holds that as soon as there was a self-replicating organism which tended to make imperfect copies, the variations created by random mutation are all the raw material that was required for natural selection to encourage the progress and diversification which produced all current life. No designer was required, even if there was one available.

Natural selection isn’t really an algorithm you can design or impose. It’s an emergent phenomenon, which means it simply tends to happen when different life forms are competing for resources. It’s like how when a container of stones and sand of different sizes is agitated, the smaller particles sift lower in the pile. There’s no universal rule in place which guides each stone to its proper place in the pile; everything just falls into the available spaces, and a certain amount of order emerges. Likewise, if every life form survives or dies by being better or worse at something than its competitors, which is often self-evident, then each generation will have “fitter” creatures than the one before it. It’s not something which has to be dictated beforehand in order to happen.

As I said, many liberal Christians believe what your sister believes, including prominent evolutionary biologists such as Ken Miller and Francis Collins. The issue is that when they’re called upon to justify this, they invariably do it by arguing for the inadequacy of scientific explanations. They pick an amazing physical feature such as the human brain and say that either natural selection needed a guiding hand to achieve it or, in Collins’ view, that natural selection is rigged to inevitably achieve it. That’s artificial selection, not natural selection, and it has nothing to do with Darwinian evolution. It’s very close to the position of Intelligent Design proponent Michael Behe, who in his last book argued that God is responsible for beneficial mutations.

Alternatively they go back to before the beginning of evolution proper and say that the building blocks of life could not have assembled in the first place without help. This is a denial of the entire study of abiogenesis, which has made a great deal of progress in recent years despite not actually replicating the phenomenon completely. (You’d hear about it if it did, trust me.) This claim by itself isn’t even saying that God made evolution; it’s saying that God made life and then evolution simply happened. It’s still a case of biologists attacking biology, which is sad to see.

Your sister’s position is superficially tenable; it’s possible that both God exists and evolution happened, and even that one had something to do with the other. However, as I’ve argued above, this idea has implications which weaken both the idea of evolution and the idea of God. It’s the price one has to pay to accommodate both.