Sunday, February 3, 2008

Eugenic fallacies: bastardizing Darwin’s dream

….a glimpse into human delusions of superiority

Observing the variety of human faces one comes across, you will note a seemingly infinite variety of different features. There are oval, round, pear shaped, oblong, rectangular heads all with varying degrees and colors of curly, straight, knotted, and frizzled hair. Particular features such as noses and eyes come in a dizzying array of shapes and sizes. Indeed, the more you look, the more differences you may note.

However, if you take a step back and look at these faces from a distance, you will realize they are all basically very similar. From this viewpoint, the human species is not that different one from the other. This doesn’t seem to be so noteworthy on the surface; we are all just part of a grand family of humans. However, it’s these seemingly trivial differences –mostly irrelevant physical features- that have lied at the core of horrific wars, genocides, prejudices, and other countless horrors.

So it is that this subtle illusory separation between “him and me” also found fertile ground in the burgeoning world of nineteenth century physical anthropology. This was about the time when Darwin was completing his seminal journal “The voyage of the Beagle.” It was also a time when slavery had only just been abolished in England, and was still practiced and hotly debated around the world, including the United States.

It was a time were superficial morphological differences were literally associated with assumed biological differences between humans. With little or no knowledge of human origins and the biological sciences (i.e.; genetics, molecular biology, anthropology) it was a time where the vagaries of assumption, culture, and belief held even more sway than it does today. Humanity tended to be “classified” based on appearances- shades of which unfortunately are alive and well today.

An enlightening glimpse of Darwin’s views at the time can be seen in his work “Descent of Man” where he states “In regard to the amount of difference between the races, we must make some allowance for our nice powers of discrimination gained by long habit of observing ourselves” Even in an era of mainstream racism, he keyed into an old and chronic problem that would soon give rise to new strange and bizarre worldviews, usurping Darwin’s theories and bastardizing them with wholly unrelated and myopic biases. One such worldview was anthropological eugenics.

The bulk of these deep seeded prejudices go far back into the deep socio-cultural origins of humanity as well as the obvious and at the time inexplicable physical differences between humanity. However, the seeds of the “modern” eugenics movement can be seen growing among events in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

For example, Carl von Linnaeus while creating his great opus magnum- the binomial system of nomenclature (still in use today)- contributed to the concept of human sub speciation. He described subgroups such as afer (African), americanus (Native American), asiaticus (east Asian), europaeus (Euoropean), and monstrosus (an undefined loose group including other native peoples). This classification reflects on the general perception of the times- that peoples were considered different enough to be distinctly divided to this level.

Later, the concept of physical anthropology as a science crystallized with the work of Paul Broca, who studied craniometry in the nineteenth century as a means of classifying humans. He wrote an influential textbook that according to Spenger wells “served to galvanize the scientific community. Soon everybody wanted to measure skulls.”

An amateur scientist from England, Francis Galton (a “convert” of Brocas) funded a variety of research projects and eventually focused on measuring everything on the human body as Wells notes “in an effort to categorize human diversity scientifically.”

This mass of measurements had little coherence and could be interpreted in many ways opening the doors for nascent pseudoscience to creep into the picture. Here is where one thread of the eugenics story begins to take shape. Wells notes “This could have been dismissed as no more than an eccentric’s dabblings had his fascination with human classification not mixed with a misinterpretation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to produce a potent brew.”

Though Darwin himself believed humanity was essentially equal with respect to biology, the same could not be said for some of his supporters. It was Herbert Spencer, a philosopher who, among others, began to twist the original intent of natural selection beyond recognition to serve his own peculiar interests. He coined the term “survival of the fittest” and used it to justify the sharp social divisions in Britain.

This train of thought expanded towards attempting to “scientifically” justify differences in culture and perceived superiority of the time. As Wells notes “Combined with the Victorian obsession with classification, this leap from ‘might makes right’ to a belief that these cultural differences must be definable using scientific methods encouraged the growth of the eugenics movement.”

It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the eugenics movement really began to take hold. According to Wells “the reasons are complex and have to do with Victorian ideas of self-improvement, interest in new scientific fields such as genetics and the wealth of emerging data from physical anthropology.” The rest is history.

From the United States to Europe, varying strains of eugenic movements and philosophies sprouted “to improve the gene pool of humanity.” One of the darker versions was used partly as “justification” for the cult like Nazi party to proceed with the systematic extermination of millions of innocents.

The “modern” eugenics movement of the twentieth century was essentially based on an odd blending of old philosophies and delusions of grandeur mixed with ad hoc associations -flat wrong interpretations- of biology, statistics, and natural selection.

As these misguided and destructive movements faded from acceptance, their histories and sad details are slowly dissolving from much of public consciousness- this is not good. There are many today who confound and confuse bits and pieces of this pseudoscience with real science. These inaccuracies are again being “re-bastardized” into new false assumptions decrying the evils of a new “social” Darwinism completely ignoring how the story really began and perhaps missing a larger point. The fact is, evolution has never stopped tinkering with humans and there really is no “superior” version of humanity- just versions (and -so far- very slightly differing versions at that!).

Humanity is on the threshold of understanding the secrets of the genetic code and is close to stepping itno an era of unimagined potential and clear dangers. This makes it ever more critical that we shed the suffocating trappings of a "victorian ego-centrist" world view and move on. Not an easy task- but so worth the effort.


Wells, S. The journey of man. Random house. New York. 2003

No comments: