10. From Evolutionary Theory to Eugenics

Especially, eugenicists interpreted “survival of the fittest” as survival of the strongest. If this strength refers to muscle power or strong cognitive capabilities is of minor importance. It is more important to recognize the underlying misunderstanding. It is not the stronger, whose genes prevail, but the one who is best adapted to the requirements of reproduction.


The following factors are crucial for the persistence of an individual’s line of a sexual reproducing species:

  • The survival time has to be long enough for reaching reproductive age
  • The individual must have opportunities to copulate (partner finding)
  • Copulation has to lead to successful pregnancies with birth of living, fertile offspring
  • The offspring (at least one offspring) need to overcome the same hurdles and procreate again, just like following generations need to procreate for the line to persist


Every individual of a sexual reproducing species has predecessors who where all (100%) evolutionary successful. Evolutionary success can be far away from what is commonly regarded as success. In Europe, nowadays, many well-educated people are regarded as “successful”. From an evolutionary point of view, many of these humans (including the author of this book) are heading into an offspringless dead-end street. With my death, a line of ancestors will come to an end, which was very successful before me, as without the reproductive success of all my genetic ancestors, I would not exist. A slightly comforting thought maybe the knowledge that preserving myself genetically over the generations it is not possible, anyway. For that I needed to clone myself thus reproducing asexually. As Homo sapiens reproduces sexually, my children would have 50% of my genome, my grandchildren 25% and my great grandchildren 12.5%. In the 4th generation of offspring 6.25% of my genome would be preserved and already in the 7th generation less than 1% of my genome would be found. We should however not neglect that lines of ancestors play an important role in organizing power in human societies. This is obvious in monarchies, but is also applicaple for modern (so called) democracies.


Eugenics became popular among scientists of the 20th century, who wanted to use the insights from evolutionary theory and use them for improving humans through breeding. From generation to generation, the proportion of “good genes” in the human population should increase (positive eugenics) and the the proportion of  “bad genes” decrease (negative eugenics).


The definition of “good genes” and “bad genes” certainly opened up a lot of room for ideologies. The crimes of the Nationalsocialists demonstrated the dangerous implications and contaminated the scientific debate about human evolution. This is, why looking at some ideas of representatives of evolution theory and eugenics-movements from the 19th and early 20th century is all the more important. Evolutionary biologists such as Darwin and Wallace should not be charged guilty for the crimes of the Nationalsocialists. This would mean mixing up neutral-sober sciences with fanatical immoral ideology. Due to the developing, foreseeable technical possibilities brought about by genetic engineering, eugenics becomes a topic that requires debate again. With the knowledge about the first eugenics movement and its consequences, we may now be better able to also appreciate the embeded dangers.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) – The Natural Geographer

Alexander von Humboldt is famous for his discovery voyages to South and Middle America. He did not leave behind a world-changing theory as Darwin’s evolutionary theory, but instead an abundancy of measurements and records on geography, plants, animals and their habitats. His methods of keeping records and contextualizing them into a bigger picture set standards back then and also inspired Darwin who kept his records in a similar way (84). Humboldts oeuvre could be seen as a predecessor of Darwin’s evolutionary theory.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) – The Founder of Evolutionary Theory

Darwins evolutionary theory itself is being covered in other chapters of this book. Here, we want to have a short look on Darwin’s life. Darwin was born in 1809 as the 5th of 6 children into a family with a certain affinity to science. Charles Darwins’ father was a physician and his grand-father was the physician and natural researcher Erasmus Darwin, who in his book „Zoonomia, or the Laws of Organic Life“ prepared some of Darwins’ ideas, such as the idea of ancestral lines reaching beyond species boundaries and mechanisms of sexual selection. Charles Darwin supplemented his solid school education with wanderings through nature, watching birds and collecting artefacts (mussels, bones, minerals). In 1825, he started his medical studies. Although he never finished them, they provided fruitful stimuli for his later thinkings. In particular, Robert Edmond Grant introduced him to Lamarckian thinking (evolution of traits during lifetime) and taught him how to make scientific drawings and keep good records. John Edmonstone, a former slave from British Guyana taught Darwin the arts of taxidermy (preparing and conservating dead bodies) and trained Darwin’s taxonomic thinkink (taxonomy is about classification systems for animals and plants). In 1828 Darwin abandoned his medical studie in Edinbourgh, in order to take up studies of theology in Cambridge. He studied with few enthusiasms, but at least successful. More important for him was the philosophical and natural-philosophical thinking and theories that was going along with his studies. William Paley, in his book “Natural Theology”, coined the famous watchmaker analogy, which is frequently used in debates about creation and evolution. According to this, the complexity of a watch, makes its emergence only possible through the work of an intelligend creator (designer). Paley also viewed the perfect adaptations of living creatures as a proof for an intelligent creator with an unchangeable (because already perfect) creation. Although Paleys conclusions do not seem valid from today’s point of view, they gave Darwin subject matter to challenge and develop his own insights on the matter. It is contradicting views that foster the developments of theories in discourse and debate. In decembre 1831, aged 22, Darwin set to sea on board of HMS Beagle for a world circumnavigation that should last for 5 years, brining him over the Atlantic, to the Canary Island, the Capverdian Islands, South America, around Cape Horn to the Pacific, the Galapagos Islands, New Zealand and Australia. Via the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, the Capverdian Islands, and the Azores he travelled back to England. Maybe Darwin benefited from the slowliness of travel. If the development of species was mainly driven by natural selection over generations, this process needs a lot of time. Also, his engagement with geological concepts may have enlarged Darwins perception of time in a way that, made evolutionary theory plausible and thinkable. On his voyage, Darwin found many fossils, which can be considered interfaces between (formerly) living nature – biology – and inanimate geology. On the Galapagos Islands, Darwin did, what he also loved doing as a child: watching birds. The natives had already noticed that the Galapagos-Finches differed from island to island.


After his return, Darwin did not publish his evolutionary theory, for which he would become famous later. He rather built a reputation for publishing zoological compendia and his impressive collection of artefacts, which he had collected during his 5-year journey around the world making him an outstanding naturalist of his times.


In „An Essay on the Principles of Population“ Thomas Robert Malthus had developed the basic principles of population demography and illustrated how the discrepancy between exponentially growing populations and linear growing food production could lead to famines and mass dyings. Darwin concluded from this that living beings compete for resources and only those survive (and reproduce), who are “fit” for their environment. Nature “selects” them.


No creator is needed anymore. The species are not fixed and a designer does not exist. All life emerges from older life and the traits of the individuals, who manage to reproduce during lifetime prevail. This insight, groundbreaking as it may have been, still spent some decennies locked away in Darwins drawer. Instead of publishing it, he married his cousin, to whom he read the manuscript, asking her to publish it in case of his death. The couple had 6 children and Darwin busied himself with all kind of things such as raising pigeons and studying barnacles. He talked to friends with scientific interests about evolutionary theory, but still did not want to publish it. A letter by Alfred Russel Wallace, from which Darwin concluded that Wallace must also have figured out the principles of evolution, made him reclaim his old manuscript. Firstly, Darwin and Wallace published a letter together in a London scientific journal. A year later Darwin published ”On the Origin of Species“.

Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913) – Darwins Brother in Spirit

In February 1858, between two bouts of malaria fever, Alfred Russel Wallace wrote a letter to Darwin in England from the Malay Archipel. In this letter, he explained understandable and brief, how natural selection works. This brief made Darwin publish “On the Origin of Species”. Some people claim, Darwin may have stolen the idea from Wallace. Maybe this discussion does not really matter. Insights that describe a natural phenomenon and which are made by several persons, may induce similar descriptions of the phenomenon and similar ideas. Or in other words: For natural scientists in the 19th century, the ideas on natural selection were in the air.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) – The liberal Social Darwinist

Herbert Spencer stood for universal validity of the natural selection principles and did not see humans ase exceptional cases. Spencer interpreted “Survival of the Fittest“ in the sense of “Survival of the Strongest” as a permanent competitive struggle for survival that also had to be applied to humans and human societies. He postulated a “Law of equal freedom“, according to which every human being has equal freedom as long as the freedom of other humans remains untouched. Consequently, he rejected every state-intervention. He was a strict opponent of social compensation measures of any kind and fought legislation that could ease class divide and even legislation to protect children against child labour. The individual has to be granted every freedom, however the concerns of the individual as such are meaningless, as the individual is nothing more than a unit of selection for the higher development of the society and of the human species. According to Spencer, struggle for survival was a normal manifestational form of natural selection, which was useful for the higher development of mankind. He is seen as a prominent mastermind of Social Darwinism with clear references to competition driven liberalism. Spencers ideas are probably more present in societal organisation, especially in meritocratic ideologies. The French presidents famous quote “There are people, who are successful and others, who are nothing” („gens qui réussissent et d’autres qui ne sont rien“) emerges from meritocratic schools of thinking with elements of Social Darwinism (56).

Francis Galton (1822-1911) – The Universal Schoolar

Francis Galton, a half cousin of Darwin, was a versatile scientist, who was involved in working out fundamental insights in several disciplines, such as meteorology (he drew one of the first weather maps), geography, psychology and especially statistics (which is needed in numerous other scientific disciplines). He was an active member of several scientific societies, among which the “British Association for the Advancement of Science“. Today, Galton is mainly remembered as the founder of Eugenics, pointing out that the human genepool can and should be improved over generations by targetedly regulating reproduction (who should have children with whom and who should not?).


Galton postulated that differences between living beings were primarily biological with no imprinting through environment and experience in life. For his socialdarwinistic illustrations, Galton in “Hereditary Genius“ chose a somewhat strange criterion: Eminence. He argued that the offspring of eminently outstanding men were usually less eminent as they were procreated with a less eminent woman. He collected information on eminent British personalities and their offspring to proof his point that the eminence of the offspring declined.


Knowing that Francis Galton contributed a lot of outstanding scientific accomplishments, I allow myself the remark that these do not belong to them. Possibly, the considerations and (erroneous conclusions) in the book “Hereditary Genius“ found so many proponents due to Galtons reputation. Maybe, they simply were, what some people wanted to hear. Certainly, the probability of two smart parents having smart children is higher. What I want to critisice is, the almost diletantic approach to chose a group of “eminent persons” for their eminence and then assert that they are more eminent than their offspring (for whom he did not look along the criterion “eminence”). When I chose objects and individuals due to their distinguishing trait (e.g. height) and then compare their average height with that of the general population or of the average height of people standing by, I should not be surprised if the average height of the individuals who were chosen for being tall lies above that of the comparsion group.


Galton elaborated in his book on such a detection-selection bias. (A phenomenon you find again and again in life guide books that explain based on the behaviour of rich people, how to behave to become rich). In spite of this methotodological shortcomings, the book “Hereditary Genius” became a very influential book of its time that radiates into our time. Galton coined the nature vs. nurture contrast, which entails the debate if the development of a human being rather depends on genetics (“nature”) or on education (“nurture”). Monocygotic twins were considered as good objects for studying this contrast, as their genetic make-up is identical, so that all differences must be due to environmental factors and education. For Galton monocygotic twins, who grew up separately were of particular interest.


As mentioned above, Galton also worked on statistics and captured the seize distribution of peas. The size of peas led to a normal disctribution, which made Galton conclude that human traits likewise had to be normally distributed, which means in the long run that traits, such as intelligence or moral eminence always tend to the stale middle and thus get “thinned out” in a population. Galton considered the high fertility of lower classes as a problem and pointed out that Victorian offspring from a noble family background marry late and get fewer children than humans from poorer families. Consequently, he propagated a population policy that would give incentives to reproduce to well deserved high-capacity families


Charles Davenport (1866-1944) – Head of the American Eugenic Movement

Charles Davenport in his mid-thirties visited the allround scientist and quantiser Francis Galton, who inspired Davenport with regards to eugenics in America. Galton coined the term eugenics and Davenport took the newly gained insight back to America, that natural selection does not work well in modern societies. For improving society and the humans living in it, scientists should intervene and breed better human beings. Reproduction of humans with good properties (especially health and intelligence) should be supported, while the “feeble minded” and the sick and the frail should not reproduce, also to diminish sickness, suffering and infirmity in the world. Davenport wanted to create an institution, which did not only deal with natural selection, but that would go even further, and pursue “experimental evolution”, meaning to research and implement eugenics in plants, animals and humans. Davenports eugenics institute became one of the most eminent and famous research centres of the world:  The Cold Spring Harbour Laboratories.

Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) – The Feminist

Sanger coined the term “birth control”. Nowadays, we associated measures to quantitatively reduce births, in order to reduce population growth, such as family planning councelling and contraceptives. Sangers birth control intentions were clearly of a eugenic nature wanting to control who reproduces. She opened the first birth control clinic in 1916 and founded the American Birth Control League, which informed about abortions and contraception. With regards to an overpopulated planet, the overuse of natural ressources and potential destruction of our habitats during the 6th mass-extinction of complex species due to the expansion of Homo sapiens, birth control as such seems to be worth considering.


Margaret Sanger’s motivation, however, was less ecologically, but rather eugenically. In her monthly newsletter “The Woman Rebel“  she combined radical-feminist with eugenic content. However, we should admit that some of the activities that we would consider racist from a modern point of view, were compatible with the zeitgeist back then and the scientific mainstream, according to which the white-caucasia race was superior to other races. To prevent misunderstandings: The British Sanger Institute for Genome Research was not named after Margaret Sanger, but Frederick Sanger.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) – Darwins Bulldog

To what extent the abolishment of god made the evolution theory possible, may not be our topic here, now. Maybe it is enough to state that god was simply not needed anymore. One of the strongest proponents of agnosticism was Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin (1809-1882) and grandfather of the Huxley brothers, who were famous in the 20th century. Julian Huxley was UNESCO founder and secretary general, Aldous Huxley was author of Brave New World and Andrew Huxley did pioneering research in neurobiology. Thomas Huxley was one of the strongest proponents of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and defended it against oponents. Using travel reports of Alfred Russel Wallace, he introduced the “Wallace Line” into evolutionary geography, which separated Asian animal species that are still found on Borneo and Java and Australoasian animal species found on Sulawesis and southwards (6). In line with his gift to spread knowledge and to animate scientific debate, he founded the journal “Nature“.

Julian Huxley (1887-1975) –Humanist and First UNESCO-Secretary General

The evolution biologist Julian Huxley was a driving force behind the foundation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and became the first secretary general of the UNESCO. He was a leading member of the British Eugenics Society (today Galton Institute), where he even was on the board of directors from 1937-1944 and 1959-1962. Building on Darwins evolutionary theory, he developed what is being called evolutionary humanism.


In Germany the Giordano Bruno foundation is devoted to evolutionary humanism. Yuval Harari in his book „Sapiens“ decribed a different perception of evolutionary humanism, than the Giordano Bruno foundation would support . According to Harari, the ideology of the National Socialists with their application of evolutionary thinking and their human-breeding intentions, could be regarded as a very consequent form of evolutionary humanism. Humans were subject to the same evolutionary mechanisms as all other animals, but as a species were of higher value. Homo sapiens can genetically develop or genetically degenerate. The higher development of the species was the declared objective of the Nazis, and they wanted to put it into reality through brutal murderous selection. When perceiving the word “evolutionary” and “humanism” in their closest literal sense, Hararis interpretation of the term has to be regarded as valid. The difference between Harari and the Giordano Bruno foundation ist the layout of the term humanism. Harari stresses the implicit higher value of humans over other living beings. Such a superelevation of Homo sapiens is also a deprecative discrimination of other species, a form of “speciescism”. The Giordano Bruno foundation uses the term humanism along the meaning it gained in common understanding in our societies: Good and considerate (human) behaviour towards other fellow human beings (and animals) are usually associated with humanism. Hararis literal (speciescistic) interpretation of the term humanism is contrary to the Giordano Bruno foundation (85).


Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) – the Visionary Writer (Brave New World)

The brother of Julian Huxley, Aldous Huxley, in his dystopic novel “Brave New World”, described a fictitious society, which is structured by genetic classes. The contentedness with the own class is also genetically anchored and is being tightened through indoctrination in “sleep schools”. This makes humans unfree, but content. In Huxley’s novel the class traits are controled chemically during embryonic development in tubes. One of the main characters is Bernard Marx, an alpha, meaning a member of the genetically privileged class. Within his class, however he is an outsider, due to his small size (for an alpha) and his strange non-conformistic social behaviour. To the reader he is introduced as a system-critical, non-conformistic thinker. If Bernard Marx was a well build, socially fully integrated alpha, his attitude would maybe be less critical towards the society. Thanks to the “Wild Man” from the reservation for indigenous people, whose children have a mother and a father, Bernard Marx finds himself in the centre of attention in London’s high society. This unfamiliar popularity even brings him dates with attractive women, but also flattens out his critical spirit.


Huxleys’ Brave New World is often compared to Orwells‘ dystopian novel 1984, which describes a totalitarian surveillance state. If you know both novels, you certainly ask yourself, which scenario is closer to the 2020 reality of nowadays pseudo-democracies (86). Neil Postman compared the two novels and favoured Huxleys „Brave New World“:


“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture.”

(Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business)

Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919)

Haeckel was a strong proponent of evolution theory and played an important role for establishing Darwinism in Germany. Like scientists in other countries (e.g. Francis Galton in England) he also drew conclusions for humans making him a forerunner of eugenics and racial hygiene in Germany. The National Socialists took his work as a fundamental for their morderous racial ideology, something you clearly can not blame on Ernst Haeckel, who died 1919, which was 14 years before the power grip of the National Socialists. Haeckel himself was a pacifist, supported the peace movement and would certainly not have supported the aggressive wars of Nazi-Germany. Zoological books of Haeckel contain wonderful hand-drawn illustrations. Without the murderous National Socialists refering to him, her surely would have a similar honoured place in collective memory as Alexander von Humboldt.