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.