In this, the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, much has been made of his contribution to science. Not much has been heard about his contribution to society. To follow up his seminal work, The Origin of Species, Darwin wrote The Descent of Man to outline his social science. He knew it was controversial enough to distract from his science, so he made the wise move to separate the two. As a result, 200 years later, we mistakenly think of him as a natural scientist only. The typical understanding is that his disciples misapplied his natural science to the social sciences, and all kinds of horrors resulted which are not applicable directly to Darwin.
Time magazine recently interviewed journalist Dennis Sewell about the social consequences of Darwin’s theory. The brief interview is revealing on a couple of different levels.
Q:Should we reassess Darwin's legacy?
A:Bicentennial celebrations have portrayed Darwin as a kindly old gentleman pottering around an English house and garden. What that misses is the way his ideas were abused in the 20th century and the way in which Darwin was wrong about certain key issues.
Sewell’s picture of Darwin appears to be a mixture of the man and the myth. The myth is that his “ideas were abused.” The true man “was wrong about certain key issues.” I’ll say. When a scientific luminary argues for a greater evolutionary gap between blacks and whites than between apes and blacks, I would say that is being wrong a certain key issue.
Q:You believe that Darwin should continue to be taught in schools. But how can we teach Darwin and also teach that humans are somehow exceptional in the natural world? Wasn't his great breakthrough to show that humans, like all animals, share a common origin?
A:I think we have to decide what status we are going to give to the human race. Most of the world's religions hold that human life is sacred and special in some way. In teaching our common descent with animals, we also have to examine what is special about human beings, and why they deserve to be treated differently and granted certain rights.
The Time interviewer turns out to be a fundamentalist true believer. Harrell (the Time reporter) can’t quite wrap himself around this embarrassing problem. But Sewell is exactly right! A bedrock problem with Darwin’s theory is that there is probably no significant difference between animals and humans. As a result, it is not the case that animals get raised to the level of human, but that humans get demoted to the rank of animal.
The most obvious and horrific results of Darwin’s own social views were the eugenics movements in the late 19th and early 20th centuries culminating with the Nazis.
Q:We understand now that eugenics was an illegitimate science, so why even worry about it today?
A:The thinking behind eugenics is still present. Many senior geneticists point to a genetically engineered future. As the technology for this falls into place, there has also been an explosion of the field of evolutionary psychology that tries to describe every element of human behavior as genetically determined. What we will begin to see is scientists arguing for the use of genetics to breed out certain behavioral traits from humanity.
What the Time reporter does not know is that eugenics is alive and well, just not under the epithet “eugenics.” Sewell is right to be wary of our technological capabilities and the possibility of breeding certain people out of the human race. Already, in the U.S., 90% of fetuses diagnosed with Down Syndrome are aborted. In Western Europe, 11-14% of fetuses with any diagnosed genetic defect are aborted. I have argued (very convincingly, might I add!) that all “population control” programs are eugenic by nature. The only demographic segments around the world not experiencing a demographic winter are the poorest, the religious, and minorities in western nations. China’s “one baby” population control policy has become an effective war against women.
But back to Darwin. The quote I have seen most often from The Descent of Man is telling.
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;…and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment….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 any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.