Wednesday, January 18, 2006


The American Eugenics Movement -- Learning from History

We hear quite often from old school proponents of creationism and their more cutting-edge cousins, the intelligent design "theorists," that Neo-Darwinism, by which they mean the scientific understanding of the common ancestry of all living species, is single-handedly responsible for the ills of Western Civilization.

Dr. Richard Weikart, a fellow at the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, and the author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, for example, argues that the theory of evolution has played a key role not only in the rise of eugenics, but also in euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination, all ultimately embraced by the Nazis.

In an exchange of views published on Red State Rabble, Weikart furthermore maintains that a direct link between Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution, and social Darwinism has been conclusively proven.

"It is dismaying to see such opinions being passed off as results of scholarly research," says Sander Gliboff, of the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at Indiana University, in a review of Weikart's book.

"The book's few merits only deepen the dismay because they suggest that Weikart knows better," continues Gliboff. "His book is rich in primary material, thoroughly documented, and clearly and concisely written... Unfortunately, Weikart only repeats their most outrageous stances on ethics and human evolution and omits their criticisms of the still-Christian (despite Darwin) societies in which they lived. In short, he does not strive for a contextual understanding of the selected writers any more than for an explanation of Hitler. They are only characters in a contrived, cautionary tale against religious apostasy, Darwinism, and free inquiry into the foundations of ethics."

Fortunately, contextual understanding is provided by the Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement, an enormously informative interactive website hosted by the Dolan DNA Learning Center at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. The site has recently added upgraded search features, enhanced cross referencing, and interactive images, including 2,500 photographs, letters, articles, and scientific reports related to the eugenics movement.

RSR spent a good part of last night exploring the site, and we strongly recommend it to those who want to learn more about the sad history of eugenics in this country.

We find highly ironic that opponents of evolution on the religious right continue to condemn science for its supposed connection with the eugenics movement in the early part of the last century, even as many of those same high-minded critics of science remain locked in an ugly embrace with latter day social Darwinism, now re-branded as self-reliance, rugged individualism, and the ownership society.

The anti-gay frenzy so much in vogue on the religious right today, held up as a defense of marriage, is but another holdover from the eugenics movement of the early part of the last century.

Real opposition to eugenics these days comes not from creationists or intelligent design proponents on the religious right, but from scientists at places such as the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, and from organizations such as the American Medical Association, which, in association with the U.S. Holocaust Museum sponsored a lecture series, and a special exhibition, "Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race," at the museum in 2005.

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement reflects an attempt to come to grips with the legacy of the eugenics movement in a serious way. Truly understanding our past, rather than some tendentious charicature offered by those, such as Weikart, who are in thrall to a right-wing religious ideolgy, is an important step in the right direction.

It is no accident that Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is taking a hard look at the past, now. Today, the laboratory is playing an important role in the Human Genome Project. It once served as the Eugenics Record Office during the early part of the last century. As we gain a deeper understanding of the human genome, difficult ethical issues are sure to present themselves. It is crucial that we avoid the mistakes of the past. The Image Archive on the American Eugenics Movement is one such effort to do just that.

Readers may also want to take a look at, "The Eugenics Movement, and its Relevance Today," by Jim Regan, in The Christian Science Monitor.


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