Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

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.