Archive for the ‘Darwin and class’ Category

Charles Darwin’s eugenic worries

July 25, 2011

…a most important obstacle in civilized countries to an increase in the number of men of a superior class” is the tendency of society’s “very poor and reckless,” who are “often degraded by vice,” to increase faster than “the provident and generally virtuous members.”

Darwin in The Descent of Man, quoted by Peter Quinn

Those vice-ridden lower class (‘poor’) people breeding away eh Charles? Ought to be stopped eh? Ah yes, that’s where eugenics sprang up!

Quinn’s judgement is worth quoting in full:

Sounding more like Colonel Blimp than Lieutenant Columbo, Darwin envisions a far grimmer future for races or sub-species less fit than the Anglo-Saxon. “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world,” he predicts. “At the same time the anthropological apes…will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilized state…even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of now between the Negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

Darwin is cavalier about the extermination of lesser breeds. He estimates that minimal force will be required, for “when civilized nations come into contact with barbarians the struggle is short, except where a deadly climate gives its aid to the native race.” Even here, in Darwin’s view, only civilized races could “resist with impunity the greatest diversities of climate and other changes,” a truth nowhere better displayed than in Britain’s imperial reach. In contrast, the “wilder races” showed the same lack of adaptability as their “nearest allies, the anthropoid apes, which have never survived long, when removed from their native country.”

It is difficult to find amid this imperialist cant and racial mumbo jumbo the poet and humanist apotheosized by Gopnik. More often than not, instead of “humanism, in flight,” Darwin’s views are grounded in a faux impartiality meant to mask upper-class presumptions about the poor deserving their fate and colonialist indifference to the destruction of the “sub-species” occupying the space between Anglo-Saxons and apes.