Bruce Chapman is right

The Discovery Institute's head uses the James Watson controversy to make a good point about the legacy of eugenics and the dangers it poses for the future. But the role of religion in that history shouldn't be given a free pass.
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James Watson, co-discoverer of DNA. (National Institutes of Health)

The Discovery Institute's head uses the James Watson controversy to make a good point about the legacy of eugenics and the dangers it poses for the future. But the role of religion in that history shouldn't be given a free pass.

Bruce Chapman, a Darwinist doubter and champion of intelligent design as head of Seattle's Discovery Institute, sees good news in the public embarrassment of Nobel Prize winner James Watson, who was forced to resign as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory because of his racist comments about the inferiority of blacks and Africans. On the Discovery Institute's Evolution News and View blog, Chapman writes:

The mainstream media in the United States – and some of the conservative press, for that matter – are loathe to own up to the racist and anti-Semitic history, and the anti-individual rights posture, of applied Darwinism. They want people to think that eugenics is not really traceable to Darwin, or to think that if some (many) of Darwin's kin undeniably were leading early eugenicists, there no longer is support for their kinds of ideas among today's Darwinists.

Chapman believes Watson's comments expose a dirty little secret: that the eugenics movement is alive and well in the hearts and minds of some scientists and that "applied Darwinism" is still a threat. He also praises a piece in Britain's Guardian newspaper by genetics professor Johnjoe McFadden that uses the Watson case to summarize the appalling history of using science to justify racial and genetic purification projects.

I don't agree with Chapman often, but he's absolutely right that such thinking continues in scientific (and I would add corporate) circles. Despite our collective horror about the Holocaust – the extreme Nazi expression of eugenics – there is a general unwillingness to own up to the sorry legacy of eugenics in America and Europe, where hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly sterilized, lobotomized, and institutionalized to "sanitize" society of the poor, disabled, gay, mentally ill, etc. A general sense of amnesia or an attitude that nothing we did was as bad as what Hitler did seems to pervade.

The states and provinces of the Pacific Northwest were early adopters of eugenics laws, among them Washington, Oregon, Idaho, British Columbia, and Alberta. Today, technological advances in things like cloning, genetic engineering, and sterilization offer a whole new playground for neo-eugenicists. This playground is more dangerous to the extent that people refuse to take the legacy of eugenics seriously. Chapman is right: Eugenics is not just yesterday's bad. (For a look at the dilemmas posed by science, values, and genetic engineering, I strongly recommend Bill McKibben's 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age.)

But the dangers of applied Darwinism weren't only found in the scientific community or among secular reformers. Eugenics boosters covered the entire ideological spectrum, from free-market capitalists to right-wing racialists to liberal social reformers. As McFadden points out in his Guardian commentary, "Browse through the Eugenics Society's membership list and you find lords, ladies, bishops, academics, writers, doctors, artists and politicians from all sides."

There is one notable category missing from McFadden's list: clerics and religious leaders. In America, some of the biggest cheerleaders of eugenics were the clergy, Christians and Jews. Many in the religious mainstream – especially Protestants – saw applied Darwinism as a means to do the Lord's work on earth, cleansing mankind just as God smote Sodom and Gomorrah.

One of the most popular preachers of his era was American Baptist minister (and a member of the American Eugenics Society) Harry Emerson Fosdick, whose 1920s broadcasts reached millions. He saw the cause as "a humanitarian desire to take advantage of this scientific control of life so as to change social conditions that mankind may be relieved from crushing handicaps which now oppress it." In other words, science was a tool of religion to free and perfect mankind.

Another minister sermonized, "No matter how we word our creeds, or whether we are Liberals or Fundamentalists, I am convinced that the Christian must be guided by the eugenic ideal." A great account of religion's role in pushing eugenics is Preaching Eugenics: Religious Leaders and the American Eugenics Movement by Christine Rosen.

Chapman's post also touts a new book by Discovery Institute senior fellow John West called Darwin Day in America, which "tells the story of how American politics and culture have been corrupted by scientistic ideology." It sounds interesting and provocative, but it's good to keep in mind that people have committed terrible acts in the name of both religion and science. Both have been used to justify the wrongheaded ideas and acts of the other. That said, the value of looking at the future of eugenics with a memory of its terrible past cannot be overstated.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.