Thursday, May 22, 2014

Is Darwinian Evolution Responsible for Racism?

In a recent article on the author actually wrote:

Modern racism had several different intellectual sources, and only with difficulty could one say which of these was most important. I will focus here on the “scientific” strand of racism, which drew its inspiration from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Several factors dictate this emphasis on Darwinian racism. First, Darwinist racism explicitly motivated Hitler and many other leading perpetrators of the Holocaust. Second, Darwin inspired the researchers, most notably in biology and anthropology, who gave racism its aura of scientific certainty.  Third, Darwinian thought may well have been more popular in Germany  than anywhere  else during these years, in part because Germany was the world’s leading center of biological research before World War I ..."
But can the claim really be made that Darwinian evolution by natural selection provided an “intellectual source” for modern racism? In fact I think not. No more than Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity (leading to the equation E = mc2 in one paper) could be said to be the “intellectual source” for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

My point is that Einstein was no more responsible for the atomic bomb than Darwin was responsible for modern racism. Scientists engaged in one manner or other of pure research cannot be held accountable for what others do to pervert or apply  their work, including how they distort and corrupt it – in the case of formulating doctrines of racial superiority.  It doesn’t matter here how or if Darwinian evolution “motivated Hitler” or anyone else. The brute fact of the matter is that Darwin’s evolution by natural selection was never intended to be extrapolated beyond the biological domain to the social one.

I also dispute (having taught Darwinian evolution while in Peace Corps) it is the “easiest to explain”. In fact not! The subtle basis for natural selection and how it manifests over vast eons is in fact extremely difficult to explain. One must use countless examples, integrate genetics where necessary and then rain dozens of diagrams down on students and hope that they have some grasp of the principles at the end of the day, or week. More often then not, they don’t.

On the other hand, perversions of Darwinian evolution – say to the realm of Social Darwinism, are easier to explain because they simplify the complex biological context to a simple sociological one.   The latter was concocted by British philosopher Herbert Spencer who actually coined the term “survival of the fittest” – it was never used by Darwin himself.

Spencer, without a scintilla of hard evidence, simply extrapolated Darwinian evolution to the human realm and claimed that humans consisted of assorted classes and sub-classes with the latter being the “unfit” whom natural selection bypassed. They were ill-adapted to their world and hence became dopers, bums and the chronic unemployed. They were useless because “natural selection” (from inferior genes in their families) left them without viable skills.

On account of this totally wrong-headed twist on evolution and natural selection Spencer was able to state in one of his tracts:

“If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well that they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best that they should die."

Right! So if natural selection as Spencer conceived it left the forlorn “less fit”  humans unable to live, then they ought to perish. What he meant is that they ought to be left with no government support at all, hence to sink or swim of their own accord. If they sank, too bad – to Spencer it meant we were rid of more of the unfit so the fittest could propagate. It doesn’t take a genius to grasp that a foul fanatic like Hitler would latch onto this like a fly onto dog shit.

It also doesn’t take a genius to grasp that any racist would latch onto it as well, for the same reasons, and exploit it to justify slavery, deny African-Americans equal educations, or keep them in low wage, menial jobs.

While acknowledging the existence of Social Darwinism as a separate and distorted strain, the author nonetheless harped on the wrong  aspects with the wrong emphasis. He claimed that “the most important idea may have been struggle- ’the notion that all relations between individuals and between nations were defined by a merciless battle for survival’ and then concluded:

Struggle followed inevitably from the laws of nature as discovered by Darwin, and therefore had no moral significance.  The Christian injunctions to “love your neighbor” and “love your enemies”  had no place in the animal  kingdom;  neither should they control the behavior  of human beings, who were not made  in the image of God,  but rather counted  as nothing more than an especially clever type of animal.”

But again, Darwin never applied the concept of “struggle”,  whereby a “most fit”  specimen “survived” to human evolution.  It was Spencer who did this.   Hence it was Spencer’s assumptions about struggle that justified (to him)  the argument that extreme social inequality was natural and permanent. The poor were poor because they were less fit than the rich.  (Spencer did allow charity to help the poor who couldn’t survive without it, but he rejected all government assistance)

More unsettling is how Spencer’s meme spread even to the Christian evangelicals in the person of Rev. Josiah Strong.  Like Spencer, Rev. Strong pooh-poohed services for the poor and disabled as encouraging a fundamental weakness in society which induced corruption, sloth and all the other vices. People needed to be put through a "caldron" and - if they survived- they'd find God, spiritual life and work for their own wealth instead of bleeding it off the state. We hear similar balderdash today from the Right wing nuts who get on their pedestals (like Cliven Bundy) and actually assert welfare is making slaves of people, or that people who accept government help as less godly folk.

The capper was tying the amassing of great wealth to Christian virtue. Thus, one's wealth immediately became a barometer for one's morality or spirituality. The Rev. Strong had accomplished what might have been deemed impossible in Jefferson's era: tying political motives, agendas to evangelical religious concepts.

Once that "dog" was let out, it began to increasingly infect more and more political venues- permeating them with its enticing belief system of the "exceptional America". For example, Sen. Albert T. Beveridge before the Senate in 1899, in his own words:

"God has not been preparing the English -speaking and Teutonic peoples for nothing but vain and idle self-admiration. No! He has made us the master organizers of the world to establish system where chaos reigns..He has made us adepts that we may administer government among savages and senile peoples "

Note the choice of words above: the "English" and "Teutonic peoples" - the latter a direct reference to Germans. Note also the words - GOD making them the "Master Organizers of the World". And further - "to administer government among savages and senile peoples". In other words, the blueprint was already being laid for mass genocide, ethnic cleansing and even the Holocaust. (Which idea Hitler, in his Mein Kampf, actually attributed to the American Eugenics movement in the 1920s, and the report of a California black man (in one of the German newspapers Hitler was allowed to read while in prison in the 1920s) killed in a gas chamber at San Quentin).

Sen. Beveridge’s barf spread through the culture like chemicals from a toxic dump as writers of popularized science ( and  many  biologists and anthropologists),  carefully  ranked  races and  nationalities from lowest  to  highest in value, whites always at the top, and among white people in numerous gradations. American elites generally agreed that among people of European descent, those who had emigrated to the United States from Northern and Western Europe— English, Germans, Scandinavians, and others—were born  with the highest intelligence, the strongest  work ethic, and the best of other moral qualities. In contrast, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe—Poles, Greeks,  Italians, Russian  Jews, and  so on—were said to be "markedly inferior", and  indeed  a potential threat  to the country’s “racial health.”

Alarmed by Beveridge’s  imagined  threat,  the U.S. Congress enacted an immigration law in 1924 that closed America’s borders to all but a limited number of immigrants from the “wrong” parts of Europe. Earlier laws had almost completely eliminated immigration from China and Japan, whose people, not even being white, were wholly unwanted.

The fallout from Spencer’s Social Darwinism remains with us today manifest for example, as:

-        supporting  a bias  toward violence  between nations,  and a glorification  of warfare. (“Superior” peoples had every right  to conquer, exploit, and even exterminate “inferior” ones. )

-        In international relations, might made right: by winning a war, the victor showed that he deserved his victory, because his people were more fit to survive than were the losers.

-        Limiting government support or donation to the less developed nations – “let them sink or swim”

-        Cut out food stamps, welfare for “unfit” Americans or put them to work in prison labor

 If you seriously want to blame racism and Hitler’s genocide on someone, or some idea, don’t blame Charles Darwin’s evolution by natural selection. Blame its perversion compliments of Herbert Spencer and the “good” Christian, Rev. Josiah Strong.

You can also blame the perverted economic principles of libertarianism in large measure on indiscriminately adopting much of Spencer's Social Darwinism. Heck, Ayn Rand's 'Virtue of Selfishness' itself  could easily have been penned by Herbert Spencer!


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