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Darwin and eugenics

Darwin was indeed a ‘Social Darwinist’


Photo Wikipedia.org picture of Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin in 1880

Poor old Darwin. So misunderstood by his followers. He was actually a nice old chap with fairly tame ideas, but his extremist disciples took his thoughts a bit too far. At least that is the spin being put out by many Darwinists and atheists today.

While more sober minds see a clear line between Darwin’s ideas and many of the horrible social experiments of the twentieth century, including Nazism, defenders of Darwin argue that at best there is no connection, or at worst any such episodes are aberrations or perversions of what Darwin believed.

But is that the case? Most people are not even aware of the full title of his 1859 masterwork: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. That last half of the title, often overlooked, sounds like it could come straight out of a Ku Klux Klan manual. [Ed. note added July 2014: In the Origin subtitle, Darwin would have primarily intended the word ‘races’ to refer to groupings of plants and animals. However, he did indicate his belief that man was essentially just one more animal by writing in it of “the differences between the races of man, which are so strongly marked” (in the context of variation and selection). Though this hints at the racist implications of his theory applied to humans, these only became truly explicit in his later book, The Descent of Man, as highlighted in this article.]

A very interesting article appeared lately in the decidedly liberal religious journal Commonweal, taking on this notion of the ‘gentle Darwin’.1 The anti-creationist Peter Quinn argues in that Darwin was not quite so squeaky clean when it comes to dangerous social implications of his theory.

Quinn argues that Darwin’s biological theory had very real ramifications for social theory. Says Quinn:

‘Adrian Desmond and James Moore in their 1991 biography, Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, make clear that natural selection was intended as more than a theory of life’s origins. “‘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,” they write. “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 invented to explain human society.”’

Indeed, the whole ugly world of eugenics needs to be seen for what it really is: very much an outgrowth of Darwinian thought. As Quinn notes:

‘Darwin played a prime role in bringing about a fateful confusion between cultural and racial differences, conferring new scientific authority and intellectual legitimacy on theories of human inferiority central to eugenics, the most destructive medical movement in history.’

Indeed, ‘by the time Darwin published the second edition of The Descent of Man in 1874, he had added Francis Galton’s eugenic theories and Herbert Spencer’s “survival of the fittest” social philosophy to the mix, calling Hereditary Genius, Galton’s treatise on the biological nature of intelligence and moral character, “remarkable” and Spencer “our greatest philosopher”.’ Note that Galton, the Father of Eugenics, was Darwin’s first cousin, and indebted to his theories.

He continues:

‘Darwin’s work is filled with references to the work of those involved in creating a radical new “scientific” justification for labeling races, classes, and individuals as “inferior”. … Darwin writes in The Descent of Man that “a most important obstacle in civilized countries to an increase in the number of men of a superior class” is the tendency of society’s “very poor and reckless”, who are “often degraded by vice”, to increase faster than “the provident and generally virtuous members”.’

Writing in a manner in which even Hitler would be proud, Darwin made it quite clear that certain races are to be preferred over others. Says Quinn:

‘All races, as it turns out, descend from the same ancestor but some are more descended than others. “I do not think that the Rev. Mr. Zincke takes an exaggerated view,” Darwin declares, “when he says: ‘All other series of events—as that which resulted in the culture of mind in Greece, and that which resulted in the empire of Rome—only appear to have purpose and value when viewed in connection with, or rather as subsidiary to … the great stream of Anglo-Saxon emigration to the west.’”’

Photo Wikipedia.org pictire of Francis Galton
Francis Galton in 1850s or early 1860s

‘Sounding more like Colonel Blimp than Lieutenant Columbo, Darwin envisions a far grimmer future for races or sub-species less fit than the Anglo-Saxon. “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world,” he predicts. “At the same time the anthropological apes … will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state … even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”’

‘Darwin is cavalier about the extermination of lesser breeds. He estimates that minimal force will be required, for “when civilized nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race.”’

His followers were quite happy to run with such ideas, and Darwin would not seem to disapprove. Consider his son:

‘In 1912, in his presidential address to the First International Congress of Eugenics, a landmark gathering in London of racial biologists from Germany, the United States, and other parts of the world, Major Leonard Darwin, Charles Darwin’s son, trumpeted the spread of eugenics and evolution. As described by Nicholas Wright Gillham in his A Life of Francis Galton, Major Darwin foresaw the day when “eugenics would become not only a grail, a substitute for religion, as Galton had hoped, but a ‘paramount duty’ whose tenets would presumably become enforceable.” The major repeated his father’s admonition that, though the crudest workings of natural selection must be mitigated by “the spirit of civilization”, society must encourage breeding among the best stock and prevent it among the worst “without further delay”.’

Concludes Quinn:

‘Educated at the best schools, winners in a global competition that has driven anonymous millions to the wall, the Gentle Darwinians’ effort to turn Charles Darwin into the sainted founder of a humanist creed undoubtedly reflects their own high position in today’s world order. But unlike their Victorian predecessors, they prefer a Darwin devoid of his social theories and his role in linking evolution with rank prejudice.’

It is time Darwin is taken off his pedestal and treated to rigorous and penetrating scrutiny. Numerous works have been penned on this subject. Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany would be a good place to begin for those who are really interested in such matters. The truth is, bad ideas have bad consequences, and Darwin had his fair share of them.

First published: 18 May 2007
Re-featured on homepage: 18 March 2009


  1. Quinn, P., The Gentle Darwinians: What Darwin’s champions won’t mention, Commonweal 134(5), 9 March 2007. Return to Text