Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Blame it on Darwin?

Ken took part in a panel discussion recently about Nazi medicine and eugenics. The three participants on the panel were a lawyer who has done work on the legalities of torture, a historian of Nazi Germany, and Ken, a geneticist with interest in ethical issues. The discussion was led by a moderator, also a historian of Nazi Germany. This was in conjunction with a traveling exhibit, "Deadly Medicine," (logo at left) from the US National Holocaust Museum, that had been here at Penn State, and most of the attendees had seen the exhibit.

This was the third in a series of discussions of the importance of eugenics in Nazi Germany. Previous speakers had talked about the extermination programs that started, with the full cooperation of German physicians, with the elimination of mentally or physically disabled infants and children, and expanded to include many other members of society.  The latter part of the history is well-known to most of us, but the acquiescence of the medical system is less so.

This third evening started with a discussion of the history of eugenics and how it came to motivate the Nazis. Ken traced it back to Darwin, and the idea of survival of the fittest, which was quickly translated into the social arena (mainly not by Darwin but by others), reinforcing existing class-society ideas whereby the richest, smartest, most powerful are best for society, while having to maintain the poor and the ill is an endless resource burden on the stronger members of society. This burden not only seemed unfair (to the rich and smart and powerful), but the cost of support for the weak, ill, insane, or otherwise undesirables would be a permanent drag on a society that wished to be its best. Thus, in implementing government-driven eugenics (sterilization and eventually murdering the 'undesirables'), the Nazis believed -- or, rationalized -- that they were doing what was right for their country by culling the less fit. Germany would become the #1 country in the world. Deutschland uber alles!

Darwin's ideas, and a strict adherence to the view that human individual or 'racial' traits can be judged to have more or less value and, because of evolution, are inherent, led scientists to decide that whereas Nature had made those judgments in the past, we (the scientists) are the ones whose duty it is to make them in our scientific age. The historian on the panel agreed about the importance of the eugenics movement in Germany at the time, and added that for cultural reasons the medical system was especially well-situated (or unfortunately situated) to support the cleansing of society in this way. Doctors did a lot of the dirty work, signed off on even the worst horrors, and gave the stamp of respectability to much of what happened.  This history is well-known, but perhaps less so to the younger generation, which is why the 'Deadly Medicine' exhibit was brought to Penn State, and why there were three different events discussing its meaning.

In any event, the panel moderator finally noted that Darwin's name had been mentioned a number of times during the evening, and asked whether it was fair to conclude that Darwin should be blamed for the Holocaust. Darwinism is still used as a justification for making value judgments about human traits, including races, and for justifying inequality as a natural state of Nature. This is in fact an idea that has been widely promulgated by the extreme right wing in the US, and by Creationists. Ken's response was that blaming Darwin for what people did with his ideas would be like blaming Benjamin Franklin for the electric chair. This of course won't diminish the blame the right wing and religious fundamentalists bestow on Darwin for all of society's ills, because this is an ideological struggle, not one based on facts -- and of course Darwin's real sin was claiming that humans were not created by God in their present form.

But still, there are many lessons to be learned from the eugenic age for us in our own genetic age. Evolution, too, is an idea that is out there and can't be undone. We are not likely to repeat the same horrors of the original eugenics age, but new genetic data and the belief that genes determine your nature, can easily be misused in our own new ways, and there is no guarantee that those ways will all be benign. Our society will face the issues related to this, such as confidentiality of genetic data, the use of such data in governmental monitoring of citizens, in policies related to insurance and in many other ways. Many investigators are analyzing data on human variation in ways that are, perhaps unintentionally, almost identical to the categorical ways our species' variation was treated a century and more ago. Ken has a couple of papers in press that point this out.

So, whether remembering history actually discourages people from repeating it or not, we think it's incumbent upon practitioners of genetics and anthropology, which of course has its own entangled past with the Nazi regime, to know the history of their disciplines, and to be aware that it wasn't all pristine.


Holly Dunsworth said...

History, not religion, may be a bigger obstacle to getting people to accept evolution.

Ken Weiss said...

I'm not sure what your point is here. The issue is whether Darwin can properly be blamed for things done in his name, not whether people accept evolution.

The 19th century ushered in a belief in evolution, social, cultural, biological, and physical. One can go back to the classics, but in recent history it started with conflicts between Malthus, who defended social inequity, to the Utopians who believed that science could make society equitable and fair.

But there are always reasons for being unfair, and justifying whatever selfish things people want to hold on to. Once Darwin introduced the idea that evolution in the form of competition among unequals was a 'law' of Nature, it could be used to justify inequity.

But social thinkers, like Herbert Spencer, Malthus, and many others justified social inequity first on the ground of social 'laws', then extending Darwin to society. Even Marx believed that inequities were essential to the process that would eventually remove them.

So in this context belief in evolution was one of humans' endless rationales for justifying what they want. So in that sense getting people to accept evolution was easy if you told them it was in their self-interest, etc.

The religious objections are, in my mind, a somewhat separate set of contentions.

Anne Buchanan said...

I agree with you, Holly, if what you're talking about is the conflation of Darwin, the Holocaust and evolution, where Darwin's descriptions of race and conflict are read as inventing them. But, I think the religious objections are also tied up in this -- to my mind, this usually right-wing reading of Darwin is yet another justification for denying that humans have evolved.

Ken Weiss said...

It's interesting that one of the rationales for the takeover of Soviet genetics by Lysenko (Lamarckian evolution) was that Marxism was about human improvement, and that was in a sense antithetical to Darwin, for which competition and inequity were always and inevitable.

Stalin also objected to western science's Darwinian genetic inherency arguments, by which eugenecists and then the Nazis persecuted the 'unfit'. By that Darwinian logic, people were what their genes made them, and not improvable. Stalin used the fact that the Soviets felt surrounded by German racism and Darwinism, as a rallying or justifying reason for his repressions.

So even anti-Darwinism led to great human tragedies.

Holly Dunsworth said...

All I'll say is, the sooner we have more Dalai Lamas to take over as characters in this story, the better.

Ken Weiss said...

I wouldn't argue about Lamas, Dalai or Andean. I do think I may have misunderstood your first comment on this post. If you meant that the rightwingers in our country say that history shows that Darwinism leads to bad things, and therefore they don't believe in it, then that certainly seems to be one of their arguments.

And of course it's quite a stupid view. Lightning kills people, too, but that doesn't mean I don't believe in weather.

Unless....one were to argue that Darwinism places far too much stress on inequality than is the actual case, and hence it has been not just used for evil purposes, but also mis-used by people who don't care to pay attention to evolution's subtleties.

Jennifer said...

I think that before Darwin every came around, there were social classes and social justification for such, including eliminating the undesireables. Using Darwin's name for such just gives such people another excuse, but certainly has nothing to do with Darwin or his ideas. Those so inclined will be inclined anyway.

Ken Weiss said...

There's no doubt about your main point. But one can question whether we have an obligation not to hand a ready-made excuse, in the guise of supposed 'true' laws of Nature, to those who abuse such things.

Holly Dunsworth said...

@Ken, yeah. Except it's not just right wingers that feel that way -- Many sensitive people, regardless of political or religious views, put up walls (purposefully or not) against evolutionary biology because of social darwinism and eugenics.

Holly Dunsworth said...

P.S. While observing the gorillas at the zoo, a group of teenage boys on a field trip stopped to watch for a bit and I heard one say, "I wish we lived in a social darwinistic world where only the strong survived."

Anne Buchanan said...

So, if we believe that ethical scientists should consider the ways in which their work can be used and ill-used, should Darwin have done differently? He was concerned about the effect his ideas would have on religion, but should he have been more worried about potential abuses like eugenics and social darwinism? Jennifer's right of course that even without Darwin, racism and social stratification and so on happen, so blaming it on him is inaccurate and unfortunately conflated with truths about biology.

Ken Weiss said...

It's all so true. Darwin basically said that, like it or not, this is how he saw nature (red in tooth and claw), and this is just how it was. Darwin then softened in a sense, saying that culture (modern states) buffered us from wild nature.

Others who don't like that, because it goes against their religion, ethics, worldview, or wishful thinking, resist Darwinism and see it as dangerous.

That's why Dennet called his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Some, on the strident-atheistic left (or right, whichever it is) like to confront believers with this raw, existentialistic truth.

They usually don't do anything about it, but in the past darwinism was used in public policy.

So, the question is not new: are there areas in which science should simply not go? And even if one felt there were, can it be stopped? Scientists, of course, fiercely resist any constraints.

Beyond eugenics, these same discussions have been held about the development of nuclear weapons.

James Goetz said...

I think that one of the biggest ironies of social Darwinism in Nazi Germany was that (if I'm correct) Hitler never would have admitted that he had a common ancestor with chimpanzees and even perhaps Jesse Owens.

Ken Weiss said...

Good point. I'm sure his views on that aspect of evolution are well known, but not to me. I don't know whether he would have invoked a religious separate-creation argument, or what else he could have said. But the view at the time (I'm have two articles in press on this issue) was that humans were partitioned into separate pure races, and persons admixed among them. In science, at least, this was a purely evolutionary rather than separate-creation argument.

Hitler would have subscribed to that, without asking how the pure races came about it the first place. But he could discriminate against dangerous race mixing without worrying about origins