An additional note on the evolution-eugenics historiography

I’ve just read through Michael Egnor’s two blog posts (Dec 20 and 21) directed at me written over the weekend.  I’m going to largely leave off on the various issues of character that he seems convinced of, (for example: that my name is “Alan,” that I’m a “Darwinist”, and curiously, that I’m English) but will point out that he seems to assume that anyone who writes about a person, concept, or event in the past and doesn’t immediately decry it must therefore be apologizing for it or somehow supporting it.  To me, this suggests that that Egnor’s primary interest is not historical.  History’s not really about sorting out who was ultimately an saint and who a demon.  It’s about figuring out what happened, how and why, regardless of whether or not it should have happened that way.

In pointing out, for example, that some African-Americans reacted negatively to what they perceived as the white supremacy of supporters of Tennessee’s antievolution bill — and particularly to William Jennings Bryan work to undermine an anti-KKK platform resolution in the Democratic party in 1924 — I’m simply quoting the argument given by a historian who has looked quite closely at the available evidence, publications and correspondence from the era.  I think it’s inappropriate to tell people how they ought to have reacted to events (especially when it comes to lecturing to African Americans about whether they are targets of racism.)  The point was that this reaction actually existed, regardless of whether later commentators like Egnor think that they shouldn’t.  Likewise, with his claim that Darwin/1859/evolution must have inspired eugenics, which might make sense to intuition, but requires more evidence to support as a historical claim.

When Egnor isn’t casting personal aspersions and when he’s not simply invoking his intuition to counter historical evidence, Egnor does raise some interesting historical points, and I welcome that.  The history of nineteenth and twentieth century biology is complex and there’s a lot of different influences inside and outsides sciences themselves that contribute to how it unfolds.  And the broader history of the biological and social underpinnings of eugenic policies is still a matter of some historical debate.

That’s not the question that was originally raised, and in his second post, especially, Egnor seems to have left those off entirely.  The original questions concerned whether or not 1) John Scopes was racist or performed a racist action for teaching from George Hunter’s Civic Biology and 2) whether that textbook taught something that could be characterized as “eugenic racism” or “racist eugenics”.

In responding to those questions, based on my own research, I argued that,

• the textbook itself treats evolution and eugenics as distinct topics, covered in separate, non-consecutive chapters

• it’s consequently unlikely that John Scopes covered both of these topics as a short term substitute for the biology teacher.

• the textbook presents eugenics as an application of heredity, not of evolution.

• the textbook does not discuss racial differences or supremacy in connection to eugenics.  I provided extensive evidence, quoting specific pages of the Civic Biology to support these arguments.

• No one during the debate over Butler’s law or during the Scopes trial made the claim that Darwinism was racism, and given the racial attitudes of some of the supporters of the antievolution law, that comes as no surprise.

• The idea that antievolutionists in the 1920s were motivated by their opposition to eugenics is not historically warranted (I wrote about this back in March.) But that historical claim that seems to have been popularized a generation ago by Stephen Jay Gould – which might help explain why it informs our intuitions today.

Referring to the textbook as teaching “eugenic racism” is like like calling William Jennings Bryan an inflationary prohibitionist.  He supported currency policies that promoted inflation.  And he supported the prohibition of alcohol.  But to claim that he opposed the gold standard because he was against alcohol, or vice versa, requires more than loose association.

That was really the historical point which it was always my intention to emphasize: that calling Scopes a racist is unwarranted, and if the claim of his racism has to do with what he purportedly used in the classroom then we need a much better understanding of what that book actually says.  Not to ratify our intuitions, but to better understand which of them are grounded in facts.  It distracts us from finding  real sources of racism in our culture and society.

There’s a broader question that Egnor has started asking about the relationship between racism and eugenics, and I agree that this is an interesting historical question (but also that it’s different than the question of what Hunter wrote in 1914 or what Scopes taught in 1925).  My sense from some of the primary evidence that the use of eugenic policies in the US to sterilize people became increasingly racialized in later years.  For example, from 1929-1936, North Carolina sterilized 277 Whites and 55 Negros (as they are classified in the biennial reports of the state Eugenics Board).  By 1964-65 those numbers were 64 Whites and 131 Negros.  (The biennial reports are all here.)

This kind of statistical evidence along with the anecdotal evidence that people like Galton seem to be more concerned with degeneration within a race rather than some hierarchical conflict between races suggests that the relationship between race and eugenics is more complicated.  That it more explicitly became a tool of systemic racism later on, and that its origins were more connected to issues of class than of race.  (Of course those are deeply connected – as systemic racism contributed to poverty, but it seems that a poor, uneducated white woman in North Carolina was much less likely to be deemed “feebleminded” and made the victim of eugenic sterilization in the 1960s than the 20s.)  The evidence seems to suggest that the racism comes later: does this mean that scientists were informed by their own racism, or that their research attracted popularization, implementation, or funding from people with racist agendas to pursue?

So evidence of individuals like Stoddard are interesting.  His Harvard PhD thesis appears to have been in history—not in evolution, biology, anthropology, or any science.  And the version which was published upon its completion in 1914 makes no mention of evolution or eugenics, but it does speak of a “world-wide struggle between the primary races of mankind —the ‘conflict of color,’ as it has been happily termed.”  It seems like he was a race warrior first and only came to make use of scientific arguments afterwards, and without any training in the sciences.  Egnor hasn’t suggested that Stoddard had any direct influence over the Scopes trial, and given that Hunter’s book was out the same year Stoddard’s PhD was completed, it clearly had no effect on the textbook.

And yet, I think Egnor’s right to say that at least some people were making use of eugenics to promote racism in the 1920s.  Whether that represented much of biology, or a “consensus” is another question altogether.  In his book on American biology in this period, the historian Philip Pauly gave evidence that “the most popular twentieth-century American book on eugenics was [Luther] Burbank’s engagingly titled Training of the Human Plant, which argued for the inheritance of acquired characteristics and the positive value of racial hybridization.”  Pauly also made a strong case that “a biology-based eugenics… was an enterprise that never really cohered.” (page 216)  Pauly also observed that “initially, [Davenport] hoped to investigate variation, mutation, and selection to uncover ‘the laws of evolution of organic beings,’ but he soon came to focus on Hugo DeVries’s mutation theory and on the Mendelian ‘laws of inheritance of characteristics.’” (page 221) This fits in with my earlier statement that biologists did regard heredity and evolution as distinct areas of inquiry, and that this was true even of Davenport himself.

So in answer to Egnor’s question to me.  There were several new theories of heredity developed in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The discovery of the chromosome, to cite just one example, was probably a lot more important to discussions of biological eugenics than Darwin. It seems like a variety of developments in biology in the nineteenth century may have contributed to the advent of eugenic policies, but it’s hard to see why Darwin’s formulation of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution would be the most important key to that.

I think there’s a worthwhile conversation to be had about this broader history, but it has to be based on more than misdirected moral indignation and unfounded assertions in the face of evidence.   My interest isn’t to exonerate eugenics, apologize for racism, or advocate for some vague notion of Darwinism.  My interest is in understanding the history of ideas and the people who communicate them.  My feeling is that Egnor (and the Discovery Institute) undermine their own credibility when they refuse to acknowledge that people who disagree with them get things right at least some of the time and.  Similarly, I think that the advocates of Intelligent Design sometimes raise some (metaphysical, epistemological and theological) questions that deserve some honest and open conversation, and that the insistence on being classified a science prevents that discussion from taking place.

For me at least, that conversation will have to resume next year.  I’m going to enjoy my holiday, catch up on course preparation and my own research, and when I do get back to this blog there are other topics I want to give some time to.  Happy New Year, everyone.

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One thought on “An additional note on the evolution-eugenics historiography

  1. Thanks for visiting and following my blog. It’s wonderful to find others who share similar interests. Your writing is lucid and a pleasure to read. I look forward to reading future posts.

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