Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Eugenics and the Left

Novelist Jonathan Freedland pens an essay in The Guardian about what he calls "one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite, a skeleton that rattles especially loudly inside the closet of the left." The skeleton to which he alludes is the infatuation many prominent leftist intellectuals have historically had with eugenics and the lengths to which they were willing to go to purge undesirables from the human race.

Writes Freedland of the British intellectuals of the early 20th century:
[Eugenics is] the belief that society's fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and "moral worth" to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.

Such talk repels us now, but in the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day. Thus George Bernard Shaw could insist that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man", even suggesting, in a phrase that chills the blood, that defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber".

Such thinking was not alien to the great Liberal titan and mastermind of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood".

Indeed, a desire to limit the numbers of the inferior was written into modern notions of birth control from the start. That great pioneer of contraception, Marie Stopes – honoured with a postage stamp in 2008 – was a hardline eugenicist, determined that the "hordes of defectives" be reduced in number, thereby placing less of a burden on "the fit". Stopes later disinherited her son because he had married a short-sighted woman, thereby risking a less-than-perfect grandchild.

Yet what looks kooky or sinister in 2012 struck the prewar British left as solid and sensible. Harold Laski, stellar LSE professor, co-founder of the Left Book Club and one-time chairman of the Labour party, cautioned that: "The time is surely coming ... when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself." Meanwhile, J.B.S. Haldane, admired scientist and socialist, warned that: "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." That's Untermenschen in German.

I'm afraid even the Manchester Guardian was not immune. When a parliamentary report in 1934 backed voluntary sterilisation of the unfit, a Guardian editorial offered warm support, endorsing the sterilisation campaign "the eugenists soundly urge". If it's any comfort, the New Statesman was in the same camp.
Freedland is writing of the climate of opinion among leftist/progressive elites in Britain, but the same ideas were rampant on this side of the pond as well. Margaret Sanger founded Planned Parenthood largely as an organization to control the propagation of undesirables which especially included, in her mind, blacks.

Other like-minded American eugenicists included Alexander Graham Bell and most of the early Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt, Charles Davenport, H.G. Wells, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Woodrow Wilson, and a boatload of lesser lights. At the Nuremberg War Crimes trials the Nazis testified that they took their inspiration for the genocide of the Jews from American eugenicists.

Freedland goes on to say that,
The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and their ilk, were not attracted to eugenics because they briefly forgot their left-wing principles. The harder truth is that they were drawn to eugenics for what were then good, left-wing reasons.

They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak.

What was missing was any value placed on individual freedom, even the most basic freedom of a human being to have a child. The middle class and privileged felt quite ready to remove that right from those they deemed unworthy of it.

Progressives face a particular challenge, to cast off a mentality that can too easily regard people as means rather than ends. For in this respect a movement is just like a person: it never entirely escapes its roots.
This is a frightening thought given the power and influence progressives have in the American corridors of power today. The Nazis put the eugenic impulse in bad odor and drove it underground after WWII, but the desire to cull and regulate the human herd has not died out. It just doesn't get talked about much. How long that reticence will last in a progressive era like ours remains to be seen.

Anyone interested in reading the history of the flow of ideas from Darwin in the latter half of the 19th century through the progressive eugenicists of the first four decades of the 20th century, to the Nazis in the 30s and 40s might pick up a copy of Richard Weikert's book From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany or Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.

Randomness and Fitness

Darwinian evolution depends on the concept of biological fitness, but, to the degree that the notion avoids being a tautology, it's pretty much meaningless. There's no way to determine whether an organism is fit other than by seeing if it survives. But if survival is the measure by which we assess fitness then survival of the fittest equates to the vacuous claim that those organisms are fittest which survive and those which survive are fittest.

Stephen Talbot at The New Atlantis has a fine essay on the conceptual problems involved with the notion of Darwinian fitness. He starts out talking about the claim that evolutionary history is driven by random purposeless processes, a claim he finds untenable. He cites biologist Richard Dawkins and philosopher Daniel Dennett to make his point:
Dennett, in one of his characteristic remarks, assures us that “through the microscope of molecular biology, we get to witness the birth of agency, in the first macromolecules that have enough complexity to ‘do things.’ ... There is something alien and vaguely repellent about the quasi-agency we discover at this level — all that purposive hustle and bustle, and yet there’s nobody home.”

Then, after describing a marvelous bit of highly organized and seemingly meaningful biological activity, he concludes: "Love it or hate it, phenomena like this exhibit the heart of the power of the Darwinian idea. An impersonal, unreflective, robotic, mindless little scrap of molecular machinery is the ultimate basis of all the agency, and hence meaning, and hence consciousness, in the universe."
And we read this in Dawkins:
Wherever in nature there is a sufficiently powerful illusion of good design for some purpose, natural selection is the only known mechanism that can account for it.” And: “Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind’s eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all.
In other words, both Dawkins and Dennett hold that at bottom life is mindless, meaningless, and purposeless. Any indications to the contrary are illusions. Talbot, however, has serious problems with this view. If all the purposes and meanings in living things are just illusions, as Dawkins insists, then:
[W]hat is the difference between merely illusory purpose and the real thing? If Dawkins means that there is only illusion, then, if there is nothing for the illusion to be a convincing illusion of, it hardly makes sense to say it is an illusion at all, as opposed to being just what it seems to be.

On the other hand, if Dawkins admits that meaning and purpose actually exist as realities and are therefore available to be mimicked in an illusory way, what grounds does he have for claiming meaninglessness and purposelessness as fundamental to the world’s character?
Indeed. Talbot then goes on to reflect on the emptiness of the concept of survival of the fittest:
[F]irst, evolution can be explained by the fact that, on the whole, only the fitter organisms survive and achieve reproductive success; and second, what makes an organism fit is the fact that it survives and successfully reproduces. This is the long-running and much-debated claim that natural selection, as an explanation of the evolutionary origin of species, is tautological — it cannot be falsified because it attempts no real explanation. It tells us: the kinds of organisms that survive and reproduce are the kinds of organisms that survive and reproduce.

Stephen Jay Gould pointed out back in 1976, however, that Darwin and his successors hypothesized independent conditions — “engineering criteria,” as biologists like to say — for the assessment of fitness. These conditions may facilitate and explain reproductive success, but do not merely equate to it. In other words, the concept of fitness need not rely only on the concept of survival (or reproductive success).
The problem, though, is that there's no way to test these "engineering criteria." Talbot again:
To make the problem worse, evolutionary biologists are driven to arrive at scalar values for fitness — values enabling reasonable comparison of traits and organisms, so that we can determine which is the fittest. But how do you take all the infinitely wide-ranging and interwoven considerations that might bear on fitness and reduce them to a scalar value? It is a practical impossibility.

As a pair of philosophers put it in a 2002 article, “Suppose a certain species undertakes parental care, is resistant to malaria, and is somewhat weak but very quick. How do these fitness factors add up? We have no idea at all.”
His conclusion is that the claim that meaning and purpose are illusions, a claim which I would argue is certainly entailed by naturalism, is simply wrong and that the concept of survival of the fittest is hopelessly muddled. Of course, if a claim entailed by naturalism is wrong then naturalism must be wrong, but Talbot chooses not to explore this aspect of the argument.

At any rate, those with an interest in the biological sciences and/or the philosophy of biology will find his essay a rewarding and challenging read.