Kara Rogers: Beyond Darwin ... Eugenics, Social Darwinism, and the Social Theory of the Natural Selection of Humans

[Kara Rogers is Britannica’s life sciences editor. She holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology from the University of Arizona, where her research focused on understanding the role of antioxidants in mitochondria. Rogers has written for various publications on topics ranging from current medical research and eugenics to parasitic and vector-borne diseases.]

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and concept of the “struggle for existence,” presented in his On the Origin of Species in 1859, captivated the minds of biologists. But Darwin’s ideas also played to the dangerously receptive imaginations of certain members of Victorian society, who threw caution to the wind and hastily carried Darwinian ideals beyond the realm of basic science.

Darwin, likely having realized the problems—scientific and social—arising from the study of natural selection in humans, remained decidedly focused on plants and animals, at least publicly. But his cousin Francis Galton (pictured right), who by the 1860s was an established explorer and anthropologist, found the question of natural selection in humans an irresistible topic of study. So too did British philosopher Herbert Spencer, who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest” just five years after Darwin’s publication.

Galton introduced his own controversial idea—the theory of eugenics—in 1883. At the time, Galton was probably thinking simply in terms of science, using his theory to describe selective breeding in humans as a means to improve the fitness of the human race. However, when his theory was united with Spencer’s socially inclined concept of survival, the result was social Darwinism, a gripping theory about competition for survival among human races and social classes.

During Galton’s era—the Victorian Age in Britain—eugenics and social Darwinism seemed reasonable. The notion that filth and disease were associated with immorality was widespread. Furthermore, those who viewed themselves as superior, usually members of the upper classes of society, found that they could rely upon the theories put forth by Galton and Spencer to justify their discrimination against the lower classes.

But while social Darwinism and eugenics flourished in popularity in the late 19th century, there was little evidence that solidified eugenics as anything more than a preferred theory of the morally elite. Support for the fundamental principles of eugenics relied on demonstrating that certain disadvantageous traits, such as disease and lack of intelligence, were inherited and that selecting against these traits would benefit society. Of course, the word gene and the field of genetics didn’t exist in the 19th century.

The gaps in knowledge concerning the mechanisms of inheritance as well as disease transmission made it impossible to tackle the basic scientific questions posed by eugenics. Even after the field of genetics was established in the early 1900s, another two decades passed before researchers finally demonstrated that selective breeding among humans could not rid society of transmittable diseases such as syphilis, nor could it eliminate conditions, such as alcoholism and mental illness.

Between 1900 and 1930 in the United States, support for eugenics continued to grow. The fallacy of selective breeding in humans was only realized when the wealthy were suddenly poor, and the reality of genocide had demonstrated the extreme end of eugenics—in other words, with the shock of the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, which ushered in the Holocaust. But the dissolution of eugenics in the United States was a slow process, because racial discrimination persisted. Involuntary sterilization laws, enacted in the early 1900s, were finally repealed in 1979.

The lasting impacts of the deceit and flawed science associated with eugenics have been tremendous. The claims made by eugenicists were erroneous exaggerations drawn from Darwin’s work that ultimately endorsed racism and blatant acts of discrimination. Furthermore, because eugenics was so deeply intertwined with genetics, it is a constant companion among the hurdles associated with the advancement of genetic testing and gene therapy.

Today, our decisions about genetic testing and how to act on the results of these tests are personal—they are not dictated by laws, there are no imposed pressures. As a result, our freedom of choice, among the most fundamental of our privileges, determines the “natural selection” of the human species.

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