Saturday, July 21, 2007


Hate Speech Then and Now

This is an adaptation of a comment I left at Pharyngula, the subject of which is the latest mangling of reality by the Discovery Institute's favorite brain (removal) surgeon, Dr. Michael Egnor. The doctor's technique in this instance is to try to tar Darwin with the ugly racism and eugenics that was also, along with scant mention of evolution, a part of the book John Scopes supposedly taught from. As I have been giving a daily "update" on the Scopes trial the past 10 days, I suppose I should mention that Scopes probably didn't do the dirty deed, as far as evolution was concerned. As recounted in Ray Ginger's Six Days or Forever?, p. 180:

Scopes drove out to the edge of town [with a reporter] and parked the car. He said that he had been worried about something all through the trial. The fact was that he had not violated the law.

The reporter expressed confusion. Scopes explained that he had missed several hours of class, and the evolution lesson had been one of them. The boys who had testified against him could not remember whether they had studied evolution or not. And he had been afraid since the trial began that he might be put on the witness stand, where he would have had to admit his innocence.
In any event, as PZ points out well, there was blame enough for the deprecations of eugenics to go around. Certainly, there is no reason whatsoever to believe, as Egnor maintains, that the good people of Tennessee in 1925 were upset with the racism of G.W. Hunter's A Civic Biology though, to be fair, Bryan and other Fundamentalists had objected to eugenics. As usual for such things, the real history is such a tangle that propagandists (like Egnor) of all stripes can exploit it to "prove" just about any group guilty of something. One interesting aspect, however, is that the rise of the negative type of eugenics -- the sort we associate with injustice and cruelty -- occurred during the "Eclipse of Darwin" that began in earnest in the 1890s and lasted until the advent of the Modern Synthesis in the 1930s.

As Janet Browne points out in her most recent book, Darwin's Origin of Species: a Biography, the non-Darwinian doctrine of orthogenesis, which held there were intrinsic tendencies in evolutionary development over generations and even across species, played a large role in fostering negative eugenics. The advocates of orthogenesis (mostly paleontologists) argued that adaptive trends not only could, but almost always would, carry on beyond their usefulness. The huge antlers of the Irish elk, believed by orthogenesis advocates to have led to it extinction, was the canonical case cited. As Browne recounts the times:

Such straight-line evolutionary histories, with their subtexts of inbuilt senescence or death from over-specialization, lent authoritative support to increasingly pessimistic views about the human future. Primitive cultures could now be regarded as in the 'infancy' of their development. More advanced societies might be set on lines of development that led them through the heights of civilization to corruption or decay. Those who transgressed society's conventions, such as criminals, homosexuals or the mentally deranged, could be categorized as 'throwbacks' to some racial past. ...
Among the authors of the Modern Synthesis, R.A. Fisher was Galton Professor of eugenics at University College and an avid proponent. On the other hand, it was Theodosius Dobzhansky's demonstration that genetic variation is not only more plentiful in populations but more evenly distributed than envisioned in "classical" population genetics, instead of being bunched up at one end or the other of a statistical curve, that showed why eugenics could not possibly be successful. Marjorie Grene and David Depew point out, in their The Philosophy of Biology: An Episodic History, that eugenics is "bad biology, depending as it does on the false assumption that one can locate exceptionally bad and exceptionally good traits, and genes 'for them,' at the extreme ends of a 'normal' statistical distribution."

But also note what type of biology it is that eugenics is bad at: genetics. If anyone ought to be given blame for having come up with the ideas that led to eugenics, it should be that pious Moravian monk. If Darwin had been right about "pangenesis," Fleeming Jenkin's objection, that any trait selected for (naturally or artificially) would be "swamped out" of the population under "blending inheritance," would also have had to be true. Eugenicists then would have had to adopt a strong role for the inheritance of acquired traits, just as Darwin did for the later editions of the Origin. In short, any eugenics based on Darwin would have wound up arguing for such things as education, better nutrition and better health care as an answer to any "degeneracy" in society.

A major complaint from the anti-evolutionists about "darwinian" evolution is about the supposed "devolution" that would take place without intelligent intervention.

The eugenicists also believed that things would deteriorate without intelligent intervention.

This is not to draw any connection between anti-evolutionism and eugenics. Only to point out, once again, that the anti-evolutionists are being inconsistent.
I think that is an excellent point, which I will now adopt, giving credit, of course ... when I remember ...

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