In the name of darwin

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In the name of darwin

  1. 1. Some supporters of Darwins theory of evolution have misapplied the biologicalprinciples of natural selection -- "survival of the fittest" -- to the social, political, andeconomic realms.The idea of "social Darwinism" originated in the class stratification of England, and hasoften been used as a general term for any evolutionary argument about the biologicalbasis of human differences. Drawing on social Darwinism, supporters of the 20th-century eugenics movement sought to "improve" human genetic stock, much as farmersdo in agriculture.This essay examines the history of eugenics and considers modern genetic research inthe same light, so that the lessons of history are not forgotten.Daniel J. Kevles, a historian of science and society, is the Stanley Woodward Professorof History at Yale University. He has written extensively about the social and politicalrelations of science. His works include In the Name of Eugenics (1995), The Physicists:The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (1995), and The BaltimoreCase: A Trial of Politics, Science, and Character (2000).Adapted with permission of Harvard University Press from the 1995 Preface to In theName of Eugenics, Daniel Kevles, ix-xiii. Copyright © 1995 by Daniel J. Kevles.(Boldface added.)
  2. 2. The specter of eugenics hovers over virtually all contemporary developments in human genetics. Eugenics was rooted in the social Darwinism of the late 19th century, a period in which notions of fitness, competition, and biological rationalizations of inequality were popular. At the time, a growing number of theorists introduced Darwinian analogies of "survival of the fittest" into socialCharles argument. Many social Darwinists insisted that biologyDarwins was destiny, at least for the unfit, and that a broadtheories spectrum of socially deleterious traits, ranging fromwere "pauperism" to mental illness, resulted from heredity.adapted byothers and The word "eugenics" was coined in 1883 by the Englishapplied to scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, tosocial promote the ideal of perfecting the human race by, as heissues. put it, getting rid of its "undesirables" while multiplying its "desirables" -- that is, by encouraging the procreation of the social Darwinian fit and discouraging Francis that of the unfit. In Galtons day, the science of genetics Galton was not yet understood. Nevertheless, Darwins theory of launched a evolution taught that species did change as a result of movement natural selection, and it was well known that by artificial for eugenics, selection a farmer could obtain permanent breeds of plants a and animals strong in particular characteristics. Galton "science" of wondered, "Could not the race of men be similarly improving improved?" human stock. Heyday of eugenicsEugenicsjournal,1929 Eugenics took popular hold after the turn of the 20th century, flourishing for several decades. During its heyday, social prejudice suffused human genetics, often attributing to genetics social differences that were actually rooted in race and class. After World War II, however, biologists in the United States and Britain fought -- by and large successfully -- to emancipate human genetics from such biases in order to establish it as a solid field of science that
  3. 3. would explain the complexities of human heredity and assist medicine by illuminating the relationship of genetics to disease. Genetic inheritance chart for eye color trait During the past 50 years, molecular geneticists have located, isolated, manipulated, and analyzed thousands of human genes, including many implicated in diseases and other conditions. Their work has been greatly accelerated by the Human Genome Project, which began in the late 1980s and which in 2001 completed a first draft of the entire sequence of DNA in the human genome. In the long run, human genetic knowledge will very likely lead to therapies and cures for many diseases. But some fear that the techniques of gene therapy, embryo selection, and the engineering of sperm could all become tools of a kind of human genetic manipulation that would be offensive to humane and egalitarian values. The manipulation could discriminate against socially costly or devalued groups and individuals. The Bell Curve sparks controversy These anxieties are rooted in the social tensions that beset contemporary society. They were heightened by the recent renewal of assertions -- notably in The Bell Curve, Charles Murray and the late Richard J. Herrnsteins widely discussed book of 1994 -- that racial groups differThe Bell from each other in their innate mental capacities. MurrayCurve made and Herrnstein reported that the principal difference liescontroversial between whites on the one side, and Latinos and,assertions especially, blacks on the other. Blacks on average scoreabout 15 points lower than whites on IQ tests. Herrnstein anddifferences Murray concluded that therefore blacks as a group arebetween less intelligent than whites. They held that genes placeblacks and blacks, along with whites of comparable test performance,whites. disproportionately in poverty, in prison, on the welfare rolls, and in the statistics of illegitimate births. They insisted that the high maternity rate of low-income groups is fostering "dysgenics," the increase of inadequate genes in the population.
  4. 4. Such claims are not new. They formed part of the core ofthe eugenics movement that swept through the Anglo-American world and many other countries during the firstthird of the 20th century. In the United States, however,the biological distinctions that mainly obsessed Immigranteugenicists were not those between whites and blacks, families werebut those then believed to divide whites -- differences targets ofbetween the old-stock white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant eugenicsmajority and the numerous Catholic and Jewish supporters.immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe.Eugenicists, who were themselves predominantly ofthe old majority, considered scholastic intelligence --the kind indicated in IQ tests -- a paramount measureof human merit, ignoring other abilities such asbusiness acumen and artistic creativity that such testsdid not capture. To them, IQ tests appeared to determinethat the newer immigrants were innately endowed withlow intelligence, while their high birth rates seemed toindicate that they were spreading inferior genes into thepopulation at a rapid rate. In the interest of reducing theproportion of the "less fit" in society, eugenicists in theUnited States helped restrict immigration fromEastern and Southern Europe. They promoted thepassage of eugenic sterilization laws thatdisproportionately threatened lower-income groups. Thelaws and programs they fostered supplied a model for theNazis, who sterilized several hundred thousand peopleand, brandishing their research into the genetics ofindividual and racial differences, claimed scientificjustifications for the Holocaust.
  5. 5. Distinctions of "race" discredited The Nazi horrors discredited eugenics as a social program. Studies in social and biological science repudiated its stigmatizing theories of human difference, showing that what it took to be distinctions of race were actually those of ethnicity. In the United States, the social policies that reduced discrimination and expanded opportunity worked with the passage of time to produce their salubrious effects among theDr. Martin newer immigrants and their descendants, including socioeconomicLuther King improvement and, eventually, par performance on IQ tests. BetweenJr. the 1930s and the 1980s, whites scores on such tests rose some 14brought civil points. Blacks scores rose, too, though not as much. Still, along withrights to the the change in whites scores, the increase indicates that test results arefore of not rigidly fixed by genes, but are also sensitive to changes inAmerican education, opportunity, and scholastic ambition.consciousness. Blacks have resided on the American continent for the better part of four centuries; nevertheless, it is mainly since World War II -- but even more so since the 1960s -- that they have passed on their migration to freedom from a United States that was legally segregated and in countless ways racially oppressive to the contemporary nation, where, although racism continues its poisonous work, new standards of law and tolerance better protect dignity and beckon ambition. In a sense, blacks as a community have only just embarked on the journey that many white immigrant groups took several generations to complete. It is not unreasonable to conceive that, as it was for those white minorities, so it will be -- given enough time and good will -- for nonwhite minorities, including the flood of recent newcomers to the United States. The roots of human behaviors and capacities are complicated. Attempts to probe them for the role of genes may try to allow for contemporary environmental differences, but they tend to be blind to the cultural and psychological impact of past experience. They rely on measures that fail to capture attitudes, aspirations, expectations, and, above all, social hope. In short, they can be blind to the legacy of history.

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