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Confessions of a "gentle Darwinian"

I was raised a Unitarian, among the "gentle Darwinians" Peter Quinn discusses in his excellent essay (available from the home page to subscribers).

Darwin, as well as Emerson and Schweitzer, were our triumvirate (I almost called them our Trinity, too ironic). Emerson was our prophet, the one who saw the common thread of truth in all religions. Schweitzer was our saint. And Darwin was our apologist, the one who helped us prove that the machinations of God, as many had suspected, were not set down exactly accurately in the Old Testament.

That Darwin's theory--and to some extent Darwin himself--helped promote the eugenics movement was something no one talked about in our old fellowship--and perhaps few even knew about. Nonetheless, there was much discussion about overpopulation during the 1960s--something my mother is still concerned with today in light of the stresses she contends that global warming will place on the world's population.

And there were discussions about "responsible reproduction," which meant that parents who knowingly carried certain genetic predispositions to disease had the moral obligation not to reproduce. It was the kindest thing to do, it was stressed, given that the child would suffer.

Abortion, not legal then, was not advocated (last time I visited, our fellowship was divided on this issue). Nor was mistreatment or extermination of the handicapped. There were nearly as many disaffected Jews as Christians who had ended up in our fellowship. The Holocaust was fresh in their memories.

So as I read Quinn's essay, I could not help formulating a Unitarian response to it, and it would go something like this:

Darwin uncovered something true about the way the God works, and it is as miraculous, awe-inspiring and ingenious as anything in the Bible. That Darwin may have wanted to apply his ideas to immoralities like eugenics does not detract from his discoveries any more than St. Jerome's bad temper detracts from the Herculean work he did to translate the Bible. The morality part is up to religion, and each man's conscience must wrestle with it.

Most of all the "gentle Darwinians" I know would have thanked Peter Quinn heartily for bringing this side of Darwin to their attention.

I made a copy of the essay to take to my mother on our next visit. And I know our conversation will be a lively one!



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This article by Peter Quinn is superb. It is thorough, well researched, substantial and objective. I can't say enough good things about it. He does rebuke some Gentle Darwinians who like to forget the eugenic errors while considering themselves superior to Christians. Rightly so. They believe that they alone walk the path of honesty and truth.Another Darwin misconception that men are "more couraeous and ...energetic than women" is smashingly proven wrong by his own wife who was a remarkable Christian, in courage and energy, who treated Darwin in his many ailments, as well as other people.So Darwin made sense with evolution but made terrible transitions into ethics which were used terribly by American courts to condemn the poor and weak. Too many of his followers cite him as an argument against Christianity while they ignore his advocacy of the survival of the fittest among humans. Quinn places all of this in perspective which is what a good writer and researcher should do.

Jean:I was interested in your Unitarian triad: Emerson, Schweitzer and Darwin. I don't know about the other two but I believe Emerson had been a Unitarian, but left. It is a tolerant group that can have as a guide or hero someone who left the group. As for eugenics, I knew that Galton had been an advocate, but I did not know that Darwin was. All the sociologists I knew thought, and had doubtless been taught, that Social Darwinism was a perversion of Darwinism. They also did not rank Herbert Spencer high as a sociologist. I did graduate work in philosophy and the only time Spencer's name was mentioned was in connection with William James: James had taken a dim view of Spencer on some point, perhaps on many points. Certainly no one I encountered thought Spencer was a "philosopher" worth reading.Thinking about it I see that Darwin perhaps ought to have favored eugenics in some form since it seems to be a sort of evolutionary imperative: struggle or die out, or something to that effect. I understand that since Darwin a great deal has been learned, especially about genetics, but does that mean that eugenics is a bad thing, period, or only that it ought to be practiced by players with a full deck of genetic information? Put it another way, is eugenics morally bad, or is it simply that as conceived and practiced earlier it was based on inadequate information?

Joseph, Unitarians don't pay much attention to doctrinal affiliation when selecting their heroes. Schweitzer was a Lutheran and Darwin an Anglican. Interesting question about eugenics. Are states that forbid cousins to marry applying eugenics? How about doctors who discourage women over 40 from having babies?When hemophiliacs--or those carrying the hemophilia gene--refrain from having children, are they practicing eugenics?I don't think so. I see a difference between purposely trying to "engineer" a child to have certain traits--or sterilizing those that have undesirable traits--and simply avoiding the likelihood of having a child with a serious disease or condition.That distinction sounds fairly simple, but it's really not. We might all agree it's a good thing not to have hemophiliac children, but what if depression, alcholism, obesity, high blood pressure, psoriasis or premature baldness runs in your family?I think the church solves this problem by saying that a valid marriage is one that is open to life. Period. If you don't want children or feel your genetic material isn't what it ought to be, don't get married.

Jean,I know what church teaching is, but I was thinking in more general terms. You are not likely to find many people who say that they favor eugenics. The word has a negative connotation. It's like no one is in favor of censorship and those who want to do it, want to call it something else. So I think there are people who want to practice something that seems to me rather clearly a form of eugenics--say, couples who want to design their offspring--but they would not call it eugenics. What's in a name? Sometimes a great deal.There is also the question of evolutionary ethics. True blue neo-Darwinians often want to explain all our ethical values as having evolutionary origins. So should we not want to practice "eugenics" if that is so? How could values evolve that undercut the struggle to survive? At least it's an interesting question.

Joseph, didn't mean to come off as preachy.Perhaps I made my point badly--or am trying to cover too many points.You noted that those who practice eugenics might not call it that. That reminded me of the Unitarians talking about "responsible reproduction." Was that simply a euphemism for eugenics? Certainly, I never knew any Unitarians who promoted the notion of actively and artificially breeding selectively to enhance certain traits and to artificially and selectively sterilize those whose traits you don't want in the gene pool.Could eugenics be more subtle? Certainly I knew many "gentle Darwinists" who believed that some people ought, on moral grounds, to opt out of the gene pool and should be ashamed if they brought children into the world who must "suffer needlessly."Is this what you mean when you say that true-blue neo-Darwinians want to explain ethical values as having evolutionary origins? That a "moral" person would see that it is wrong to have children who must struggle to survive?This is why I have such a hard time understanding the Catholic notion of "natural law." There is a whole other set of "natural laws" that apply if you're a Darwinian. And while they're very different, to both sets of believers they seem patently obvious. I hasten to add that my difficulty is a function of the very circuituous path I took to the Church, and thus just my personal problem.

Doesn't Quinn say that gentle Darwinians disavow (or ignore) Darwin on eugenics and think that it is wrong? But how they differ with Christians is that they feel the answers are in science?So they profess to be more humane and better than Christians who do terrible things.??

I'm not sure who's worse. The "gentle darwinians' who gloss over Darwin's views now considered repugnant or the biblical literalists and ID proponents who resort to outright fraud, distorion and legal coercion to supress or undermine the teaching of evolution.

Bill writes: Doesn't Quinn say that gentle Darwinians disavow (or ignore) Darwin on eugenics and think that it is wrong? But how they differ with Christians is that they feel the answers are in science?Jean says: Yes, that's what Quinn says, and that's how some of the Darwinians I know think about science. But this is to paint them with too broad a brush.Darwinianism isn't a doctrine. It's simpy a scientific theory. What the Darwinians I know extrapolate from that theory varies quite.In a similar way, Christians and Jews have the Bible (not a scientific theory, I realize, so the analogy doesn't hold there), but different sects extrapolate different dogma from it.Bill again: So they profess to be more humane and better than Christians who do terrible things.??Jean says: Some are self-righteous in this way, just like the Christians who think that because they believe "correctly" they are saved, regardless of their works. Again, this is painting the Darwinians I know with too broad a brush.Note to Antonio: I "Darwinian" parents and strict, Jerry-Falwell-loving Baptist in-laws. The Darwinians are the ones who would be happy to revise their opinions in light of new information. The Baptists don't believe there is any new information they could possibly learn. I'll let you decide which is more dangerous.

Jean asked: Is this what you mean when you say that true-blue neo-Darwinians want to explain ethical values as having evolutionary origins? That a "moral" person would see that it is wrong to have children who must struggle to survive?That is not quite what I meant. Some Darwinians think our fundamental beliefs and values must have, or at least have once had, evolutionary value, i.e., that must have contributed to the survival of our ancestors. After all evolution is about passing on your genes successfully. From that perspective a tendency in a society or cultural group not to reproduce sufficiently for that society or group to survive would seem to be counter-evolutionary. How would such a tendency arise?

Joseph, would declining birthrates in Europe be an example of the "counter-evolutionary" attitude toward reproduction you suggest? If so, I think the Darwinians I know would argue that curtailing population IS necessary for survival, that there are so many people that reproduction must be managed if we're not going to starve, use up resources needed for future generations or create more pollution. They might also argue that fewer children means that the ones who are born can have more material comforts and health care, and therefore be in a better position to carry on the culture and have healthy children.Whether that is moral or logical is open to debate, of course. Some countries are now looking at whether they have gone too far in promoting smaller families. My South Korean students say that three kids per family is now being promoted as the patriotic thing to do.Perhaps all discussions about reproduction are essentially Darwinian; as humans, worrying about the future of the species and whether it can best be preserved by many people or fewer seems to be a topic that is hard-wired into our heads.

Pace Stepen Quinn: With regard to darwinism, Stephen J. Gould was a level-headed voice for moderation and common sense that I miss. His take on the issue can be found in a two-installment article in the New York Review of books. in which he wrote:".....given history's tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland the uncompromising ideology ... of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett."The initial instalment can be found at This may be behind a paywall.

Jean,The demographers say that an average of 2.1 children per woman is needed for group maintenance. When there is markedly less than that, as there is in some European countries, it is only a matter of time before the group dies out. It is difficult to explain such behavior in evolutionary terms. It is not prudence or moderation but ultimately group suicide.

With some trepidation, and after reading and rereading several times the first paragraph of the article, I am at odds with the easy dismissal of Einstein and Freud as being secondary characters of twentieth century science. I say this not as a scientist, but I hope, an educated person.Einstein's influence goes far beyond a few subatomic or particle scientists in helping us understand the enormous complexity and interelationships of our worlds. Freud is felt every day in all the spin we encounter, all the manipulation that surrounds us.Each, as with Darwin, had problems as well but all three, I'd submit. stand as giants in scientific advance, even if not for the totality of their expression.

Joseph, maybe we're talking at cross purposes here; I see dwindling population among industrialized nations as a function of materialism, disconnection with "natural" life (infertility rates are often high in the industrialized world) and other sinister things that have nothing to do with eugenics.In the long view, however, what has happened throughout history is that when one ethnic group dwindles, another will move in and subsume it.Ethnicity and culture have always been mutable. My family is from Wales, which was settled by north Africans via Spain, then Celts, then Anglo-Saxons. This ebb and flow of people usually works to their advantage. When groups become isolated, their gene pool shrinks, and that's why some conditions (cystic fibrosis, sickle-cell anemia, Tay-Sachs) can be traced to certain ethnic groups or global regions.Varying the population enlarges the gene pool and makes people healthier eventually.That stands almost in opposition to eugenics, which usually encourages in-breeding within class, ethnicity and race.

Hello Jean (and all),Again I am arriving late into the conversation, but this time I have something of an excuse. I have been drafting an article these past ten days and this is the first time over that span I have broken off for some rest, mail, and other recreation. By remarkable coincidence the article I am writing is directly relevant to the present discussion."This is why I have such a hard time understanding the Catholic notion of "natural law." There is a whole other set of "natural laws" that apply if you're a Darwinian. And while they're very different, to both sets of believers they seem patently obvious."Many years ago as an undergraduate at Loyola Marymount University, I had great difficulty understanding the Catholic notion of natural law, and perhaps for reasons similar to yours. (Later I concluded I had ill luck in some of my professors in those days, who taught Catholic natural law without clearly understanding it.)The source of my early confusion (and many that of others) is that natural law arguments of many stripes, not only Catholic, are frequently presented as having the following form:(1) X is natural (or we naturally tend to do X). Consequently, we should encourage X (or make it a requirement that we do X). While this is the argument form I was first taught in my classes that discussed Catholic natural law without additional development, even as a newcomer to philosophy I suspected that this was a faulty argument. And it is, unless one is clearly using "natural" (or "naturally send to do") is a particular way. Years later when I became a philosophy instructor in my own right and started teaching Catholic natural law as a part of my ethics classes, I had to reconstruct the basics of Catholic natural law for myself, with the aid of primary sources and some comentary. These days, I understand the use of "natural" in the Catholic natural law tradition as follows: "X is natural" means in this context "X contributes to our ultimate good" (or "we naturally tend to do X" means "we do X when we are our best selves"). On this understanding, the argument (1) goes through if we assume Aquinas' first axiom of the moral law, which in short says "Do good, and avoid evil.".But on many other understanding of "natural" that are common in everyday usage, the argument is simply bogus. Here are examples (that unfortunately gets taught to many students and get presented in what I'll call "pop-philosophy"): "X is natural" is to be read "People can't help but do X a lot of the time." or "Most people tend to do X.". On either of these understandings, we would get the following ridiculous special case of (1):Acting selfishly is natural. So we should encourage acting selfishly. (An argument sometimes attributed to Ayn Rand and her followers.) Now an evolutionary variant of this is to read "X is natural." as "Evolution (be it biological evolution or cultural evolution) tends to favor X to the exclusion of alternatives." Almost as soon as Darwin established biological evolution as an important new part of that science, fallacious versions of (1) based on this understanding of "X is natural." started to appear. Henry Sidgwick, Darwin's contemporary and the greatest of the 19th century moral philosophers, addressed this evolutionary version of (1) already in the 1870s and pointed out that it is fallacious. Sadly, fallacious arguments have staying power.

Hello Again All,(Sorry if I got too carried away in my earlier post - think of what my students have to put up with!)On a somewhat different matter, a small but distinguished tradition in moral philosophy accepts view that morals are the product of cultural (not biological) evolution, even if we don't understand the mechanics of this process very well. (This isn't my personal position, but I do a fair amount of research in this tradition.) However, if you are such an evolutionary ethicist, it does not follow that you recommend that society take steps to reduce the number of vulnerable people (such as those with severe disabilities), nor does it follow that you believe that it is inevitable that society will take such steps. This is an extremely common misunderstanding that even Darwin seems to have fallen into, given what I have learned from Peter Quinn's fine article.In fact, if one assumes that morals come from cultural evolution, it's possible for society to evolve so that its norms gradually become more protective of the vulnerable in society. The reason this can happen is simple: A society can gradually increase its requirements so that I have obligations to care for vulnerable people, including the most severely disabled, as a prerequisite for my receiving the cooperation of others, especially in the eventuality that I someday become vulnerable. (I might meet such obligations by paying higher taxes to support better care for the vulnerable.) (This is what I have been writing on so recently.)In short, while there are a number of good objection against evolutionary ethics, evolutionary ethics is not guilty of the charge that it leads to neglect, mistreatment or even killing of the vulnerable in society.

Peter, thank you so much for the posts above, especially the mini-lesson in natural law.I can't think of a Unitarian fellowship or church I've ever attended that wouldn't fall all over itself to get someone like you in to speak!

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