John Wilkins on eugenics and Darwin

John Wilkins over at Evolving Thoughts has posted an excellent brief summary of the history of the eugenics movement. In the process, he makes a strong argument that it was genetics far more than evolution that influenced eugenecists and that the entire eugenics movement was based on the concept that evolution was being thwarted by human society and thus needed “help” (a process that is far more like “intelligent design” than natural evolution). Moreover, he gives examples of scientists who pointed out that, for example, weeding out eugenics through selective sterilization was totally impractical:

Many geneticists, as well as numerous religious figures (including William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes trial), however, objected to the eugenics program. According to Kevles, there were critics of the eugenics program from within the scientific community. One such was RC Punnett (Kevles 1995: 165), a geneticist who has given his name to the Punnett Square method of presenting fitness values of alleles. In 1917, Punnett calculated how many generations it would take to reduce “feeblemindedness” if all were sterilised in each generation. He worked out that to reduce the frequency from 1/100 to 1/1000 would require 22 generations, to 1/10000 90 generations and 1/1000000 700 generations! To give an idea of the magnitude of this, 22 generations takes us back to before the Black Death reached Europe. A debate ensued in which R. A. Fisher was taken to task in his attack on Punnett’s work by Herbert Jennings. By 1932, these criticisms had reached the New York Times.

Indeed.

One thing that John left out that is pertinent to the racial hygiene movement in Nazi Germany (racial hygiene was in essence eugenics with a strong emphasis on “preserving the vigor” of the German volk or race) is that appeals to evolution weren’t even the primary rationale given by many advocates of racial hygiene in Nazi Germany, although he correctly points out that no appeal to evolution was needed for Nazi programs, given that selective breeding to produce new strains and weed out undesirable traits had been known and practiced by farmers for millennia.

No, the most common argument, and one hammered home again and again in Nazi propaganda, was that the “feebleminded” were a drain on the volk. The mentally ill, retarded, or those with cerebral palsy were often referred to “useless eaters” or “life unworthy of life” and portrayed in the most pathetic circumstances possible in propaganda films and literature. One of the key rationales for eliminating them was the amount of resources that it took to support them. For example, look at this poster:

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This poster is from the 1930’s, and promotes the Nazi monthly Neues Volk (New People}, the organ of the party’s racial office. The poster reads: “This genetically ill person will cost our people’s community 60,000 marks over his lifetime. Citizens, that is your money. Read Neues Volk, the monthly of the racial policy office of the NSDAP.”

Indeed, one of the main arguments for the T4 euthanasia program according to the Nazi Party, would be better used for the war effort. People with severe disabilities, even if sterilized, still needed institutional care, occupying beds that would soon be needed for wounded soldiers, using medicines that could be used to treat soldiers and able-bodied civilians, and consuming food that was needed to feed soldiers at the front and armaments workers at home. They took up the time of doctors and nurses who could be “better” used treating wounded soldiers. There was also a twisted Darwinian element to it, in that eugenecists argued that the “best and strongest” were being killed at the front, causing the loss of the “best” genes and leaving behind the “worst” genes to proliferate. As a leading Nazi doctor, Dr. Hermann Pfannmüller, put it, “The idea is unbearable to me that the best, the flower of our youth must lose its life at the front in order that feebleminded and irresponsible asocial elements can have a secure existence in the asylum.” Of course, it never occurred to the regime that a far better way to prevent this perceived “loss” of the “best” genes would be not to go to war in the first place.

Finally, John puts it very well when he points out:

On evolutionary grounds, if a hereditary type is better at reproduction than another type in a population, that type is fitter than the other, by definition. Fitness in evolution is the average rate of reproduction of the gene or type. If you put the genes into a novel environment, like modern medicine, and that permits the “bad” gene to reproduce more rapidly, then in that environment, it is fitter. To deny this is to deny the fundamental point of Darwinian evolutionary theory. If Darwin himself, his son, Fisher or anyone else made that mistake, it remains a mistake.

And it behoves us to remember that the use of breeding principles on humans is ancient. That does not rely on evolutionary theory, as there was none before the mid-18th century, and the supposedly “evolutionary” views held by some Greeks were not held by Plato or the Spartans who advocated the use of breeding techniques on humans at that time.

The pathetic attempts of anti-evolution zealots to claim that Darwinism spawned Nazi racial hygiene principles remain nothing more than an obvious attempt to smear evolution with argumentum ad Nazium.