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The Dark Side of Darwinism

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Between 1934 and 1939, in the interests of evolutionary hygiene, the eugenic program in Nazi Germany forcibly sterilized about 400,000 people. The victims were men and women suffering from hereditary and mental illnesses along with the deaf, the blind, alcoholics and others judged unfit to reproduce. At the time, another government was also busy sterilizing citizens it deemed racially unhygienic. Measured for eugenic enthusiasm, this other state entity ran second to Germany worldwide. And what state was that?

Why, the United States, but in particular the state of California. In the first half of the 20th century, the U.S. sterilized 60,000 Americans, to which California contributed a very robust 20,000. One of the more haunting features of an excellent new cable documentary coming out this summer, What Hath Darwin Wrought?, is the setting where many of its interviews with scholars were conducted: the grounds of the old Stockton State Hospital in Stockton, California.

A leading center for coerced sterilization in that dark era, the hospital today looks quite picturesque as the backdrop to conversations with my Discovery Institute colleagues, political scientist John West and historian Richard Weikart (who teaches at the Cal State University campus of which the state hospital building is now a part). Along with philosopher and mathematician David Berlinski, another Discovery fellow, they do a remarkably lucid and informative job of sketching a side of 20th-century history -- the malign cultural and moral influence of Darwinian evolutionary thinking -- that tends to get overlooked.

Or willfully suppressed? Huffington Post regular Steven Newton, of the National Center for Science Education, scolded me here the other day for writing about such a sinister side to Darwin. Steve would do well to check out this documentary. It can be seen on FamilyNet Televison, which reaches 15 million households nationwide. For airdates and times, visit the website.

While barbarism has been going on for as long as there have been human beings, there was something different about the 20th century. The world had never seen anything quite like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Pol Pot. And it was not only a matter of the technology available to them. Treating people as vermin to be exterminated was a new thing under the sun. Eugenics programs in United States and later Germany were warm-up acts for the mass slaughters that were to come.

Hitler's ideas, Dr. Berlinski carefully notes, "came from many different sources but no honest account will omit Darwin." A reading of Mein Kampf makes that clear. Certainly, Berlinski says, the men who formulated Nazi ideology "weren't reading the Gospels."

Darwin elaborated a picture of how the world works, how creatures war with each other for survival thus selecting out the fittest specimens and advancing the species. In this portrait of animal life, man is no exception. Any animal that strives to preserve the weak, as man does, is committing racial suicide. "Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind," Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, a policy "highly injurious to the race of man."

Hitler did nothing more than translate the competition of species into obsessively racial terms. John West reminds us that while it's true that Darwin himself was by all accounts a kind and gentle man, he was "better than his [own] principles." The outline of a campaign of extermination -- of whatever groups might be deemed unfit -- is right there in the notorious fifth chapter of the Descent. Darwin assured readers that human sympathy would prevent such a horror, but his own concept of morality was itself an evolutionary one. Moral ideas evolved along with the species. There is nothing transcendentally compelling about our "sympathy."

Darwinism was itself a major agent of dispelling sympathetic sentiments. Evolutionary thinking inspired modern scientific racism. For Darwin, evolution explained the phenomenon -- so he saw it -- of racial inferiority. Some races were farther up the evolutionary tree than others. Thus, in his view, Africans were just a step above gorillas.

In the hands of American racists, such observations came to justify not only eugenics but ugly restrictive immigration legislation like the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, authored by a congressman from Washington State, Albert Johnson. He was inspired by the bestselling eugenics advocate of the time, Madison Grant, whose influential book The Passing of the Great Race sold more than a million and a half copies. The Johnson-Reed law, which excluded Asians from immigrating to the United States, was one of the irritants in U.S.-Japanese relations that led ultimately to the Pacific side of World War II.

"Ideas have consequences" -- that is the often repeated mantra of this meaty documentary. Which is, come to think of it, another fact of history that tends to get lost, or suppressed, in discussions of Darwinism.

A picture of how the world works carries implications about how the world should work, must work. If morality is stitched into the fabric of reality rather than being merely a useful fiction, then here is no observation about reality that has no moral consequences. That much the victims of moral Darwinism, over the past century and a half, have found out to their sorrow.