Saturday, September 2, 2017

Darwin and Eugenics

From The Spectator:
This is a story that has often been told, including the carefully stage-managed meeting of the Linnean Society in 1858 when Darwin’s theory was announced alongside that of Alfred Russel Wallace, who had independently come up with a very similar idea and effectively bounced Darwin into claiming it for himself. What Wilson brings to this sequence is a clear-eyed understanding of the ruthless ambition behind Darwin’s gentlemanly pose. For whether or not other living creatures sought personal advantage, Darwin certainly did everything he could to ensure that his theory would elbow its way to the top: a theory that allowed the growing Victorian middle class to convince themselves that their success in life was simply part of the natural order, as inevitable as a dog’s urge to rip apart a nest of rats. 

The picture of Darwin that emerges from this biography is a mixed one. On the one hand, he spent most of his adult life as a martyr to symptoms that ranged from eczema to flatulence, and he was patiently looked after by his wife Emma, or ‘Mammy’ as he liked to call her, as if she hadn’t so much married him as adopted him. On the other hand, he assumed that men like him were naturally superior, not only because of their wealth (an immensely rich father and marriage into the Wedgwood family meant that Darwin never had to earn a living) but also because of their race, expressing his relief that ‘civilised nations are everywhere supplanting barbarous nations’. He was an unsentimental believer in Malthus’s theory of populations regulating themselves through famine and disease, but was devastated when his ten-year old daughter Annie died of tuberculosis. And as his religious faith slowly slipped away, so he developed a theory that would later become a substitute religion for many.  (Read more.)

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