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Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 3

In this the third installment on Himmelfarb’s analysis of Darwin’s evolutionary theory, its rise to an ideological ism, its social application, and the nature of the so-called “Darwinian revolution” are discussed. Those interested in the earlier posts should refer to 12/14 for part 1 and 12/15 for part 2.

Himmelfarb’s chapter on Darwinism opens by observing that when applied to a variety of social contexts it could have a “free and loose” translation which provided the added advantage of giving it “license to a variety of social gospels” (p. 412). Applied to many social issues, Darwinism was ambiguous. Darwinism, for example, could argue against slavery, the greatest endorsement of which came from Darwin himself who was an outspoken critic of this “peculiar institution.” Recently Adrian Desmond and James Moore elevated this to a motivating factor for Darwin’s theory in their Darwin’s Sacred Cause. The thesis is plausible, after all, Darwin’s Origin was written and published when the slavery controversy (which the British Empire had abolished earlier in 1833) raged in America.  But as Himmelfarb points out the implications of Darwin’s evolutionary theory could be taken in other ways:

It was not necessary . . . to confute the Origin in order to justify the South. It was only necessary to re-interpret it. For there were features of Darwin’s theory that could easily give comfort to the proponents of slavery and racism. Although Darwin derived all races, like all species, from a single historic ancestor, he by no means denied the reality of separate races and species in the present. He did not dissolve all species into an indistinguished mass of individuals; he did not even suggest, as anti-racist theorists often do, that individuals constitute a spectrum in which each differs from his neighbor so slightly that only artificially, statistically, can varieties, races, or species be distinguished. Indeed, the purpose of his doctrine was precisely to account for the reality of species, to explain not only how species evolved but also how they became stabilized and fixed in form, sometimes for very long periods (sometimes–and it was one of Darwin’s main tasks to account for this–for all recorded history). Nor did he deny that under certain conditions it was desirable to maintain, as far as possible, the purity of races. The Origin did declare that crosses between varieties tended to increase the number, size, and vigor of the offspring. But this was true only in special cases: where, for example, the crossed varieties had previously been exposed to fluctuating conditions and thus were especially hardy. Otherwise, such a cross might prove fatal to both varieties.

It was this argument against the crossing of races that first impressed itself upon some of the readers of the Origin. One month after its publication, on the occasion of John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, the Times gave warning that the abolitionists would turn the population of the South into a “mixed race.” The lesson of modern times, it said, was that such a mixture of races “tends not to the elevation of the black, but to the degradation of the white man.” Reading this, a secretary at the American legation in London observed: “This is bold doctrine for an English journal and is one of the results of reflection on mixed races, aided by light from Mr. Darwin’s book, and his theory of ’Natural Selection’.”

 The subtitle of the Origin also made a convenient motto for racists: “The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.” Darwin, of course, took “races” to mean varieties or species; but it was no violation of his meaning to extend it to human races, these being as much subject to the struggle for existence and survival of the fittest as plant and animal varieties. Darwin himself, in spite of his aversion to slavery, was not averse to the idea that some races were more fit than others and that this fitness was demonstrated in human history (pp. 415-416).

Indeed even Desmond and Moore admit as much. When Darwin’s friend Charles Kingsley, whose family had been financially ruined when West Indies slaves were emancipated under British law, suggested that the “lowly races” were doomed and that the white race was destined to domination he was expressing common belief in Victorian England. “Even Darwin,” confess Desmond and Moore, “agreed to the gruesome prospect: ‘It is very true what you say about the higher races of men, when high enough, will have spread & exterminated whole nations.’ There was a fatalism to the statement. While slavery demanded one’s active participation,” they add, “racial genocide was now normalized by natural selection and rationalized as nature’s way of producing ‘superior’ races. Darwin ended up calibrating human ‘rank’ no differently from the rest of his society” (Darwin’s Sacred Cause, p. 318). So much for Darwin’s “sacred cause”!

From the 2nd International Congress of Eugenics, 1921

From the 2nd International Congress of Eugenics, 1921

It was rationalized in another context as well: “From [Darwin's] . . . ‘preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life,’ it was a short step,” Himmelfarb points out, “to the preservation of favored individuals, classes, or nations–from their preservation to their glorification” (p. 416). And conversely even from the “most favored’s” preservation to the least favored’s elimination. “Recent [Himmelfarb is writing in 1959] expressions of this philosophy, such as Mein Kampf, are, unhappily, too familiar to require exposition here. And it is by an obvious process of analogy and deduction that they are said to derive from Darwinism” (p. 417). (More recently historian Richard Weikart has thoroughly explicated the connection in From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic).

While the Nazi program to eliminate the “unfit” is an indelible stain on human history, it should be remembered that it was but a specific (albeit especially horrific) exercise of eugenics being applied less dramatically elsewhere, and nowhere more enthusiastically than in the U.S. Described by its leading American apostle Charles Davenport as  “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding,” eugenics could be applied (as this definition implies) “positively” by encouraging “better” marriages and family unions but also negatively as in the culling of the “unfit.” It was on this basis that more than 65,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized in the early decades of the 20thcentury. With Indiana passing the first sterilization law in 1907, California’s law of 1909 surpassed all others in efficiency, sterilizing more than 2,500 in ten years (for details see Harry Bruinius, Better for All the World: The Secret History of Forced Sterilization and America’s Quest for Racial Purity, 2006).

In either case the connection with Darwinism is clear. Darwin insisted in his Descent of Man that humankind differed from animals in degree not in kind. If species are directed by the blind forces of natural selection, then why not give nature a “helping hand” by moving it along a “better” and perhaps more direct path to improvement? Many eugenicists reasoned that Darwin’s own examples to pigeon breeders merely proved the point. Such ideas were promulgated by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton. He coined the very term eugenics, meaning eu (good or well in Greek) genes (born or birth). Nevertheless, as indicated above, it was not England that would adopt these ideas programmatically. With America leading the way under the missionary zeal of Charles Davenport and Harry Laughlin, Hitler need go no further than Laughlin’s “Model Law” as an example in framing his “Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring” in which more than 150,000 Germans were sterilized as “unfit.” No wonder then that the University of Heidelberg awarded Laughlin an honorary doctorate for his pioneer work in “racial hygiene” in 1936.

How different was the view of natural selection’s co-discoverer, Alfred Russel Wallace! Wallace was adamantly opposed to eugenics.  In the last book that he would write, Social Environment and Moral Progress (1913),  Wallace referred to eugenic proposals for the “segregation of the feeble-minded,” “sterilization of the unfit,” and “destruction of deformed infants,” suggestions “in every way dangerous and detestable,” and efforts to interfere “with the freedom of marriage . . . not only totally unnecessary, but . . . a much greater source of danger to morals and to the well-being of humanity than the mere temporary evils it seeks to cure” (pp. 142-143).  Wallace further explained (as indeed he had in his World of Life, [1910]) that natural selection, which determined with law-like severity the brutal struggle of species, was no longer applicable to man:

From the moment when the first skin was used as a covering, when the first rude spear was formed to assist him in the chase, when fire was first used to cook his food, when the first seed was sown or shoot planted, a grand revolution was effected in Nature–a revolution which in all previous ages of the earth’s history had had no parallel. A being had arisen who was no longer subject to bodily change with changes of the physical universe–a being who was in some degree superior to Nature, inasmuch as he knew how to control and regulate her action, and could keep himself in harmony with her. Not through any change in his body, but by means of his vast superiority of mind (Social Evironment and Moral Progress, p. 110).

How this happened Wallace termed “the Divine influx,” a point in time when by purposeful action “some portion of the spirit of the Deity, man became a ‘living soul’” (p. 102). By limiting natural selection to the principle of utility first eninuciated by Darwin himself, Wallace was able to discern discrete examples of intentional design in nature (the most stunning being the human mind) to counter Darwin’s naturalistically bound biological processes to incorporate genuine theism in a teleologically liberated intelligent evolution (for details see Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution).

This idea was completely rejected by Darwin and his followers. Instead, as seen in part 2, Darwin and his disciples speculated on theories of pangenesis and sexual selection. Darwinians will plead that Mendel rescued their evolutionary theory, a curious position given the fact that, whatever the respective merits of the two men’s ideas, Mendel himself opposed it and specifically argued against Darwin’s Origin. (For details see the instructive article by B. E. Bishop, “Mendel’s Opposition to Evolution and Darwin,” Journal of Heredity 87.3 (1996): 205-213.)

So what are we to make of Darwin’s contribution to the broad history of ideas and to society at large? Himmelfarb concludes her study with a review of the Darwinian revolution. Some, like Ernst Mayr (see his “Darwin’s Impact on Modern Thought”) and more recently Peter Bowler (see his “Darwin’s Originality”) believe Darwin to have effected a thorough and sweeping revolution of historic proportions. If one is to measure it by the effect it has had on ethics, morality, and the general secularizing of society it’s revolutionary impacts seem undeniable. But revolutions don’t necessarily imply progress and advance. Here Himmelfarb points out that Darwin was the leader of a distinctly conservative revolution. Oswald Spengler thought the Origin “reeked of the atmosphere of the British factory” (p. 418). The modernity to which Darwin brought the world was built upon foundations long preceding him. Surely the ideas of René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes had cleared the ground for the scientistic edifice that Darwin erected– after all, Darwinian theory is if nothing else the gospel of bellum omnium contra omnes–“the war of all against all”– that epitomized Hobbes’ charicterization of human existence. And we know that Darwin was familiar with the skepticism of David Hume and the positivism of Auguste Comte. In this sense Himmelfarb is quite correct: “Darwin, dramatizing and bringing to a climax the ideas, sentiments, and conjectures of his age, may be thought of as a hero of a conservative revolution” (p. 447).

In the end, Gertrude Himmelfarb presents a complete and honest portrayal of Darwin and his theory, and her points are compelling:

  • Darwin’s “logic of possibility” stood logic on its head by turning conjectural possibilities into alleged scientific probabilities.
  • In meeting objections to his evolutionary theory by suggesting we simply didn’t know enough about the operations of nature, Darwin really developed little more than an argument from ignorance.
  • Darwin’s natural selection proved, even for him, inadequate to explain the most important features of human evolution.
  • Darwin attempted to fill in the gaps by increasing reliance upon two subsidiary theories: pangenesis and sexual selection (both of which have been subsequently shown to be without scientific merit).
  • Because Darwinian evolution attempted to explain virtually everything, it could be given a wide range of social applications; its role in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century is unmistakable.
  • Darwin effected a revolution, but a distinctly conservative one that built upon previous secular and humanistic ideas and one that ratified England’s industrial revolution “red in tooth and claw.”

If the Darwinian faithful cannot abide the less than ideal portrait that emerges they have only their Down House hero to blame.

In the fourth and final posting in this series, Himmelfarb’s more recent comments regarding Darwinian evolution and ID will be examined.

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One Response to Himmelfarb on Darwin: An Enduring Perspective After 50 Years, Part 3

  1. Off topic, but Ray Solomonoff, the guy who discovered “Kolmogorov complexity” has died:


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