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Was Darwin a Eugenicist?

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Aiden Tamasauskas

Charles Darwin is often cited as one the most pivotal contributors to the human understanding of evolution. His magnum opus On The Origins of Species, documents his groundbreaking observations and theories from his voyage on the HMS Beagle. Darwin's work on natural selection lead to the view of evolution as being a process of deviations, the degree to which stems from an original organism. The varieties of organisms that have survived over time have done so because of their specific aptness for their environment, and nothing else. Essentially Darwin helped introduce the theory of survival of the fittest-in other words, chance, as a central feature of biological development. At the time Darwin released his theories, the notion of chance was hugely controversial, and lead to questions concerning the very sanctity and precariousness of animal life. It was not until the publishing of The Descent of Man that Darwin dealt explicitly with the subject of the evolution of humans. Darwin decisively concludes that humans are descendants of less complex life forms and that the particular ways in which they have adapted to their environment is the paramount feature of their survival. Some scientists took from Darwin the theory of natural selection, and sought to synthesize it or manipulate it. The field of eugenics essentially claims that by genetic intervention the human race can be improved. There are some who would claim that by making humans less essential-or important-biological figures, and by putting their destiny in the hands of chance, Darwin somehow advocates for a type of eugenics or a genetic intervention or modification in the process of human life. This paper will demonstrate through an analysis of The Descent of Man, that Darwin was emphatically not a eugenicist. This will be argued by contrasting the claim that Darwin was a eugenicist with an in-depth examination of Darwin's understanding of human sociality desire, sympathy, and natural and sexual selection.

To begin, Darwin's treatment of how society and societal values contributed to anthropogenesis shows an initial incongruence between Darwin and eugenicists. Darwin claims, "man is a social being. We see this in his dislike of solitude, and in his wish for society beyond that of his own family." (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,529). Already, we can see that Darwin wants to highlight the way in which society is a product of both an aversion to isolation and a calculated decision to stay amongst others. But why? There are sets of values (whether they be morals or behavioural norms) that at some point the ancestors of humans developed and began performing. Darwin clarifies, saying, "although man, as he now exists, has few special instincts, […] this is no reason why he should not have retained from an extremely remote period some degree of distinctive love and sympathy for his fellows." (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,530). This quote explains that man has acquired a sense of obedience and love for his community, but by chance. This uncertainty of how these senses of love and obedience came about should be read as an embracing or acknowledging of the unknown processes of deep time and natural selection, not a call to learn how to synthesis and produce genetic changes to these sensations. In other words, "if one tribe included […] a great number of courageous, sympathetic and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, to aid and defend each other, this tribe would without a doubt succeed best and conquer the other" (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,535). Here Darwin shows that sentiments that were beneficial to tribes were often used to the advantage of the most successful tribes, which shows that the group mentality of society has come about by virtue of both instinctual sentiments and the adopting of qualities that increase the success and decrease the difficulty of survival. Ultimately survival is a product of battling and adapting to one's environment.

What sets human community apart from that of lower animals is the sensation of regret they feel when having not acted in accordance with certain moral conduct. This is an appeal to humanity's concern with mental contents. If a human enacts, Darwin says, "any desire or instinct, leading to an action opposed to the good of others, […] he will feel no keen regret at having followed it; but he will be conscious that if his conduct were known to his fellows, it would meet with their disapprobation; and few are so destitute of sympathy as not to feel discomfort when this is realized." (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,532). This is essentially what structures human morality. This conclusion "agrees well with the belief that the so-called moral sense is aboriginally derived from the social instincts, for both relate at first exclusively to the community." (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,532) This is to say that humans have a certain predisposition to acting in accordance with past impressions (this includes acting nobly and acting out of pure desire) whereas other animals act instinctually without a moment of remembrance, regret, sympathy or empathy. Darwin also thinks that "primeval man, at a very remote period, was influenced by the praise and blame of his fellows", meaning that "he highly values mental charm and virtues" (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,537, 559). Whether acting as a society in response to their environment (natural selection) or choosing a mate (sexual selection) Darwin believes that humans have a special concern for each other that is not possible to foster through eugenics. What is of the utmost importance to this discussion is the way in which Darwin believes that this predisposition accumulated over the long span of anthropogenesis-it has no intrinsic or necessary meaning other than its haphazardness.

Darwin's most notorious development, natural selection, is a theory that arguably serves as the antithesis of eugenics. Darwin explicitly explains that all the "social qualities, […] were no doubt acquired by the progenitors of man in a similar manner, namely, through natural selection, aided by inherited habit." (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,535). Besides instinctual habit-based decision making, social attributes in humans are a product of natural selection; that is, sociality has been 'selected' as the most beneficial arrangement for human life's survival against it's environment. It is an intellectual fallacy to equate the work done on the theory of natural selection to a secularized teleology, or blueprint of nature. Rather, natural selection is the unpredictable work of nature, not an objective plan. It is a law that is as random as it is inevitable. As opposed to being the law of a god, "natural selection follows from the struggle for existence; and this from a rapid rate of increase […] had he not been subjected to natural selection, assuredly he would never had attained to the rank of manhood." (Darwin, Descent of Man, Carroll,540). In the same way that humans construct their society and its value judgments, natural selection is a process created by the struggle for life. This means that natural selection is a process that requires life to exist. A eugenicist would seek to intervene in the making of life in order to produce a life that is better. And thus, eugenics strives to prevent the very life that makes conceivable natural selection-the possibility for evolution-from ever coming about. It is obvious that Charles Darwin, the father of natural selection, would never endorse a means to intervene in the highly conditional, random work of natural selection.

In conclusion, at his time, many were outraged by Darwin's theories. But what the most extreme misinterpretations of Darwin conclude about his theory of evolution is that he would ever endorse a preemptive intervention in the unraveling of life. That is, Darwin cannot be read as ever endorsing a eugenics program, as natural selection is literally the process of pre-established life fighting and adapting with its unpredictable environment. Darwin's conclusion is that man descended from a lower form of life, and is marked by a difference in degree not kind from other species. This is not to insist upon the interference in the progression or evolving of humans as a species, but rather privledges the role that chance places in the struggle for life. By paying close attention to some of the tenants of his thought, this paper has shown that Darwin's Descent of Man is a work that in no way advocates eugenics. In fact, his work resists any call to planned or calculated interference in human life.


Darwin, Charles. "Descent of Man." Ed. Joseph Carroll. On the Origin of Species. Broadview Press, 520-600. Print.

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