Major Leonard Darwin (1860–1943) was the fourth son and eighth child (out of ten) born to Charles Darwin (1809–82) and Charles’ first cousin, Emma Wedgewood (1808–96). Considering himself the least scientifically inclined of his male siblings (his three brothers George, Francis and Horace were all elected Fellows of the Royal Society). Nevertheless, he took a position with the Royal Engineers (1871–77) and then with the Intelligence Division of the Ministry of War (1877–82). He remained in the military until 1892, when he became an MP from the district of Staffordshire. He was elevated to the rank of Major in 1890. Despite his self-evaluation, Leonard Darwin was not uninterested in science, and through the Ministry of War went on two expeditions to observe the transits of Venus (1874 and 1882). Considered charitable, with his father’s sense of humour,1 Leonard Darwin is probably best remembered for his interest in human heredity and eugenics, serving as Chairman of the British Eugenics Education Society from 1911 to 1928 (in the latter year, its name was changed to the Eugenics Society) and as President of the First International Congress of Eugenics, held in London in 1912. He was also President of the Royal Geographical Society from 1908 to 1911. His interest in eugenics derived primarily from the influence of his half-cousin once removed, the statistician Francis Galton (1822–1911). The present article2 was published in 1916 during the early years of the eugenics movement, a socio-scientific reform effort that developed in western European countries and the USA in early decades of the 20th century. It was also written in the middle of World War I which, like earlier wars, was problematic in particular ways for eugenicists, since recruitment for the British army had revealed that large numbers of young men could not pass the physical examination. Eugenicists were convinced by these and other observations that the human population was degenerating physically and mentally, and that with the lower socioeconomic classes breeding faster than more affluent classes, the British Empire and with it all civilization would soon be overrun by mediocrity and ineptitude. The term ‘eugenics’, which means ‘well-born’, was coined by Galton in 1883, and as a movement aimed to increase the number of persons born ‘good in stock and hereditarily endowed with noble qualities’. Charles B Davenport (1866–1944), Galton’s American disciple, defined eugenics more succinctly as ‘the improvement of the human race by better breeding’. Agricultural analogies were rampant in eugenic literature; Davenport lamented that society did not take the same care in choosing the parents of the next generation as the farmer did in choosing the parents of the next generation of his herd or flock.3 Eugenics was a social reform movement that was originally based on approaching the science of heredity from a biostatistical or biometric point of view, as pioneered by Galton and his protégé Karl Pearson (1857–1936) in the late 19th and early 20th century. In 1900 it got a considerable jump-start, (especially in the USA) with the rediscovery of Mendel’s work and the founding of the new science of genetics. The biometric and Mendelian approaches are both valid ways to study heredity in humans as well as other organisms, but they are based on quite different concepts and methodologies. Biometrics approaches the study of inheritance at the population level, for example comparing height in a population of fathers compared with their sons. If there are strong correlations between the populations, and all environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle are held constant, this would be evidence for a hereditary component to height’ but it would not say anything about inheritance of height in any one individual family pair. Mendelian genetics, on the other hand, focuses on individuals and their family histories, for example inheritance of height from a single set of parents by their offspring, followed usually for two or more generations (sometimes referred to as the pedigree method). For eugenic purposes, the biometric approach only allows general conclusions about the degree to which a given trait appears to be inherited biologically. It deals with aggregate measurements of traits, such as height or egg-laying capacity. Mendelism, on the other hand, makes it at least feasible to predict the potential distribution of a given trait in future generations of a given family line, once the genetic make-up of the parents is known (that is, whether the trait is controlled by a dominant or recessive gene or whether they assort independently, are sex-linked, etc.). As will become apparent in reading Major Darwin’s article, his focus is more on the biometric than the Mendelian approach. Eugenicists’ main goal was to increase the proportion of people born with ‘good’ heredity (positive eugenics) and decrease the proportion of people born with ‘bad’ heredity (negative eugenics). At the time, ‘good’ heredity was largely identified by higher socioeconomic status or at least some form of professional or intellectual achievement. It was associated with general traits such as good health, sturdiness, honesty, trustworthiness, the Protestant work ethic and intelligence. ‘Bad’ heredity was identified with lower socioeconomic status, and associated with such traits as criminality, alcoholism, manic depressive insanity, pauperism, feeblemindedness (a term that lumped together congenital as well as truly hereditary mental deficiencies), ‘shiftlessness’ and other vaguely defined behaviour and personality traits. Most eugenicists believed that negative and positive traits of these sorts were hereditary and thus could not be changed by improving environmental conditions such as diet, medical treatment or education. Eugenicists were largely what we today would call ‘hard-line hereditarians’, that is those who claim that ‘nature’ prevails strongly over ‘nurture’ in the ‘nature-nurture’ debate (Galton coined these terms as well, to frame the two sides of the debate). Eugenicists included some of the major names in British and American scientific and political life: in Britain, George Bernard Shaw, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, J B S Haldane, John Maynard Keynes, Ronald A Fisher and Winston Churchill; in the USA, Charles Davenport, William E Castle, Herman J Muller, Gifford Pinchot, David Starr Jordan and Theodore Roosevelt. Many biologists were active in the movement in various ways, from carrying out research using family pedigree charts to proselytizing for eugenic reforms among the general public through writing textbooks for high schools and colleges, and through other venues such as novels, magazine articles, the lecture circuit, exhibits at agricultural fairs (this was particularly popular in the USA), museum displays and movies. A distinct subset of eugenicists were also active in developing and implementing legislative policies such as forced segregation, sterilization or immigration restriction applied to anyone deemed to be ‘genetically inferior’. Eugenicists in the USA were far more successful in the legislating arena than their counterparts in Britain. In the USA, between 1907 and 1935 some 30 states passed non-voluntary eugenic sterilization laws for those incarcerated in asylums, prisons, workhouses and reformatories. By the 1960s, when these laws had fallen into disrepute, some 65 000 people had been sterilized without their knowledge or permission. In 1924, with strong support from eugenicists, the USA passed a wide-ranging immigration restriction act (the Reed–Johnson Act) that severely limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe, the Balkans and those of Jewish descent, all of whom had been declared genetically defective. Indeed, the USA set the pace for eugenic sterilization laws ahead of all other countries, including Germany, which only implemented such policies after the Nazis came to power in 1933.4 By contrast, the only legislation the British movement was able to accomplish was the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, which allowed for, but did not require, institutional segregation of those considered to have serious mental problems. Leonard Darwin favoured passage of the Act and considered it a success for eugenicists, but his distant relative Josiah Wedgewood (1872–1943), a liberal Labour Party MP, strongly opposed it as a reflection of the thinking of ‘eugenic cranks’.5 As a reform movement, eugenics was juxtaposed to various traditional programmes for ‘social uplift’ which focused on environmental improvements for the poor and unfortunate, including increased educational opportunities, various welfare policies, and improved medical care, especially for women during pregnancy and during early childhood development. The ‘social uplift’ movement was led by social workers, educators and medical reformers who felt that societal problems were the result of people’s unfortunate economic and social circumstances, rather than their hereditary make-up. Eugenicists often saw social workers as sentimentalists who refused to consider heredity as a major factor in creating the problems of the lower classes or racial minorities. By contrast, eugenicists portrayed themselves as employing scientific and rational methods to solve the failed policies and programmes of the social work establishment. Leonard Darwin’s article2 addresses what he saw as an imbalance in the public perception of the nature-nurture controversy which seemed to place eugenics soley on the ‘nature’ side. His main message is that the dichotomy is a false one, and that eugenicists should not overemphasize the role of heredity to the apparent exclusion of environmental factors. For Leonard Darwin, there was both a substantive and a strategic reason for taking a more balanced approach. Substantively, he argues that no one can deny that improved environmental conditions—education, changes in diet, medical care—are important for the progress of any society, both for the individual and for their descendants. Improved education, for example, can make a wider segment of the population aware of the importance for eugenic reforms, and whereas it is a short-term change, it can have long-term effects on the hereditary future of the population. Darwin is clear that he is not making a neo-Lamarckian argument here, that is he is not claiming that better education for the present generation will improve the inherent (biological) mental abilities of future generations. He is only emphasizing that education of the present generation as to the importance of controlling breeding will, indeed, bring about an improvement in the biological quality of future generations. Clearly, he notes, eugenicists do not want to appear to deny the importance of societal reforms as having value in their own right. From a strategic point of view, Darwin urges his fellow eugencists not to appear to take a hard line, hereditarian view that would seem to be harsh and unfeeling, and thus drive away more moderate followers. This would end up leaving the movement in the hands of unreasonable, fringe elements, the very ‘eugenic cranks’ to which his relative, Josiah Wedgewood, referred. As Darwin put it, ‘We [as eugenicists] can, in fact, hardly hope to develop a regard for the welfare of posterity if at the same time we advocate a deaf ear being turned to the cries of our neighbours’.2 In other words, eugenicists should not appear to approach complex social issues from a simplistic and cold-hearted perspective. A visible humanitarianism should be part of the eugenic public image. To illustrate the point that eugenicists need to be concerned about both the environmental and hereditarian aspects of societal reform, Darwin introduced a naval analogy (how appropriately British) toward the end of the article. Any shipping enterprise, commercial or military, has two concerns in keeping its operations functioning. One is to maintain the current fleet of ships in the best condition possible, which means maintenance and upkeep of the vessels as currently designed. This side of the operation is analogous to attending to current environmental improvements. The other concern, however, is to design better ships for the future, to engineer changes that will allow for faster, safer and more efficient transport. This side of the operation is analogous to concern for improving the inherent ‘design’ of future generations, i.e. their heredity. No naval enterprise would be considered wise or profitable if it tended to only one of these two aspects of the operation and neglected the other. Make no mistake, however, Darwin was no egalitarian, and he thought the ‘social uplift’ movement would have only temporary and limited effects. Like most eugenicists, he was a strong hereditarian, believing that most aspects of human mental and social development were genetically determined, a result of an individual’s ancestry. In the current article, he makes this quite clear: ‘A century ago it was widely held that all men [sic] were equal in the sense of their having been given the same start in life by nature … This fundamental error had to be combated before social progress could be made by any methods other than those dependent on immediate changes in environment’. Further on he reinforces this view: ‘We must keep harping on the inequality of men as regards their inborn qualities, and we must keep repudiating environmental reform as a practical method of ensuring racial progress in the future’. These claims—the inherent (biological) inequality of people and a view of heredity as a fixed quality of the individual—permeated the eugenics movement in both Europe and the USA. In reading Major Darwin’s article, there are several contextual points to keep in mind. The first is that it was delivered as an address to the Eugenics Education Society in Britain, of which he was then President. It is not written to persuade the audience/reader of the value of eugenic reform; rather, it is aimed at the already convinced eugenicist, in order to counter the extreme hereditarianism common among some members of the movement. Second, Darwin’s argument bears the distinct imprint of the British orientation to eugenics. The lengthy (and somewhat obtuse) discussion of correlation coefficients reflects the influence of the biometric work of Galton and Pearson on British eugenics. It was they who, probably more than any others in the late 19th and early 20th century, promoted a statistical approach to biological problems, especially heredity and evolution. Leonard Darwin was much swayed by this approach. It is also no accident that he became a mentor and strong supporter of one of the luminaries of the next generation of British statisticians, Ronald A Fisher (1890–62), one of the founders of population genetics and also a committed eugenicist. It is also noteworthy that there is little mention of Mendelian genetics—just one direct reference, even though the Mendelian paradigm and its support from cytological study of chromosome behaviour were becoming well established in biological circles. However, in the first decade of the 20th century a bitter feud between the early promoters of Mendelism, especially William Bateson (1861–1926) and various biometricians, followers of Galton and Pearson, created a rift whose effects persisted until the 1930s. Leonard Darwin did not reject Mendelism, but he supported, and employed in his own thinking the biometrical approach more fully. A third feature of Darwin’s argument that is more akin to the British than to the American eugenics movement in particular, was his lack of support for coercive political measures to change reproductive practices. As he noted, ‘We cannot kill the weak and the wicked. On the contrary, we are bound to aid them’; nor did he support planned breeding practices separate from marriage, as some eugenicists (such as George Bernard Shaw and other advocates of the ‘free love’ movement at the time) proposed. It is important to recognize that whereas eugenics had a clearly visible following in the early 20th century, it was not without its critics. Not only social workers and liberal politicians and writers, but also a number of biologists, including geneticists, took exception to the hereditarian claims of eugenicists. Some, such as Hermann J Muller (1890–1968), attacked the racism and xenophobia rampant in much of the eugenic literature, even though he himself supported the basic idea of eugenics. In Britain, John Burdon Sanderson Haldane (1892–1964), like Muller, had sympathies for the long-term aims of eugenics but criticized it for its lack of scientific rigor and its class-based bias. Thomas Hunt Morgan (1866–1945), the first Nobel laureate in genetics (1933), criticized eugenic arguments on both scientific and pragmatic grounds. He argued that the definitions eugenicists used were often vague and their use of family pedigrees to argue for genetic inheritance ill-conceived and sloppy.6 From the practical point of view, Morgan noted that even if the eugenicists’ views of genetics were sound, breeding for specific human characteristics would generally be less effective than environmental reforms. As an example, he cited preventing diseases such as cholera by breeding for greater resistance would be much less effective and take much more time than instituting public sanitation measures: ‘It would be extravagant at the present time to recommend such a procedure … here, the genetic method [eugenics] is far less efficient than the curative or preventive procedure’, that is, cleaning up the environment through improved sanitation.7 Eventually increasing criticism from geneticists, as well as decreased funding support and the Nazi use of eugenics, led to a decline in the movement from the 1930s through the 1940s and ‘50s. Although various forms of eugenic thinking still persist in many quarters today,8,9 the movement in its older form—particularly in advocating a coercive role for the state—has largely been replaced by more subtle pressures such as social and medical costs of caring for individuals with disabilities, or through pre-birth genetic counselling. References 1 Keith A. Major Leonard Darwin . Nature 1943 ; 151 : 442 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS 2 Darwin L. Heredity and environment: A warning to eugenists . Eugen Rev 1916 ; 8 : 93 – 122 . Google Scholar PubMed 3 Allen GE . Chevaux de course et chevaux de trait: Metaphores et analogies agricoles dans l'eugenisme Americain, 1910-1940. In: Fischer J_L , Schneider W (eds). Historie de la Genetique: Pratiques, Techniques, et Théorie . Paris : Palais de decouverte, 1990 . 4 Allen GE. The ideology of elimination: American and German eugenics, 1900-1945. In: Nicosia FR , Heuner J (eds). Medicine and Medical Ethics in Nazi Germany, Origins, Practices, Legacies . New York, NY : Berghan Books , 2002 . 5 Kevles DJ. In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity . New York, NY : Alfred A Knopf , 1985 . 6 Allen GE. ‘ Eugenics and modern biology: critiques of eugenics, 1910-1945 . Ann Hum Genet 2011 ; 75 : 314 – 25 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS PubMed 7 Morgan TH The Scientific Basis of Evolution . New York, NY : W.W. Norton , 1932 . 8 Allen GE. Is a new eugenics afoot? Science 2011 ; 294 : 59 – 61 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS 9 Duster T. Backdoor to Eugenics . 2nd edn. New York, NY : Routledge ,. 2003 . Google Scholar CrossRef Search ADS © The Author 2017; all rights reserved. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the International Epidemiological Association
International Journal of Epidemiology – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 11, 2017
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