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Scientists and Society

Some Eugenic Ideas in Darwin, The Descent of Man,

1st ed., 1871 / 2nd ed., 1874.

I have already discussed Darwin's position with respect to Galton's Eugenics, in my 1996 book (see abstract) and 1998 paper (Darwinism and Ethics). And here are some of the most important passages in The Descent of Man.

Natural Selection as affecting civilized nations. ... But some remarks on the action of Natural Selection on civilized nations may be worth adding. This subject has been ably discussed by Mr W.R.Greg, and previously by Mr Wallace and Mr Galton. Most of my remarks are taken from these three authors. With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the mained, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (133-4/138-9; first page numbers to the 1st ed., second to the 2nd ed.)


The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; ... (134/139)

Great lawgivers, the founders of beneficent religions, great philosophers and discoverers in science, aid the progress of mankind in a far higher degree by their works than by leaving a numerous progeny. In the case of corporeal structures, it is the selection of the slightly better-endowed and the elimination of the slightly less well-endowed individuals, and not the preservation of strongly-marked and rare anomalies, that leads to the advancement of a species. So it will be with the intellectual faculties, since the somewhat abler men in each grade of society succeed rather better than the less able, and consequently increase in number, if not otherwise prevented. When in any nation the standard of intellect and the number of intellectual men have increased, we may expect from the law of deviation from an average, that prodigies of genius will, as shown by Mr Galton, appear somewhat more frequently than before. (136-7/141-2)

A most important obstacle in civilized countries to an increase in the number of men of a superior class has been strongly insisted on by Mr Greg and Mr Galton, namely, the fact that the very poor and reckless, who are often degreded by vice, almost invariably marry early, whilst the careful and frugal, who are generally otherwise virtuous, marry late in life, so that they may be able to support themselves, and their children in comfort. Those who marry early produce within a given period not only a greater number of generations, but, as shown by Dr Duncan, they produce many more children. The children, moreover, that are born by mothers during the prime of life are heavier and larger, and therefore probably more vigorous, than those born at other periods. Thus the reckless, degraded, and often vicious members of society, tend to increase at a quicker rate than the provident and generally virtuous members. Or as Mr Greg puts the case: 'The careless, squalid, unaspiring Irishman multiplies like rabbits: the frugal, foreseeing, self-respecting, ambitious Scot, stern in his morality, spiritual in his faith, sagacious and disciplined in his intelligence, passes his best years in struggle and in celibacy, marries late, and leaves few behind him. Given a land originally peopled by a thousand Saxons and a thousand Celts---and in a dozen generations five-sixths of the population would be Celts, but five-sixths of the property, of the power, of the intellect, would belong to the one-sizth of Saxons that remained. In the eternal "struggle for existence", it would be the inferior and less favoured race that had prevailed---and prevailed by virtue not of its good qualities but of its faults.' (138/143)

If the various checks specified in the two last paragraphs, and perhaps others as yet unknown, do not prevent the reckless, the vicious and otherwise inferior members of society from increasing at a quicker rate than the better class of men, the nation will retrograde, as has too often occurred in teh history of the world. We must remember that progress is no invariable rule. It is very difficult to say why one civilized nation rises, becomes more powerful, and spreads more widely, than another; or why the same nation progresses more quickly at one time than at another. We can only say that it depends on an increase in the actual number of the population, on the number of the men endowed with high intellectual and moral faculties, as well as on their standard of excellence. Corporeal structure appears to have little influence, except so far as vigour of body leads to vigour of mind. (140/145-6)

Obscure as is the problem of the advance of civilization, we can at least see that a nation which produced during a lengthened period the greatest number of highly intellectual, energetic, brave, patriotic, and benevolent men, would generally prevail over less favoured nations. (142/147)

With highly civilized nations continued progress depends in a subordinate degree on Natural Selection; for such nations do not supplant and exterminate one another as do savage tribes. Nevertheless the more intelligent members within the same community will succeed better in the long run than the inferior, and leave a more numerous progeny, and this is a form of Natural Selection. The more efficient causes of progress seem to consist of a good education during youth whilst the brain is impressible, and of a high standard of excellence, inculcated by the ablest and best men, embodied in the laws, customs, and traditions of the nation, and enforced by public opinion. It should, however, be borne in mind, that the enforcement of public opinion depends on our appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of others; and this appreciation is founded on our sympathy, which it can hardly be doubted was originally developed through Natural Selection as one of the most important elements on the social instincts. (143/148)

Notice that Darwin did not endorse eugenics, despite several sympathetic remarks, as you can see from the preceding quotations. At the same time, you can also see that eugenic ideas were "in the air" in Darwin's time, because major European nations (including the United States) were competing with each other in various fields. Such competitions were often likened to the "struggle for existence".

Last modified November 22, 1999. (c) Soshichi Uchii