Rewriting History: Museum Fails to Disclose Own Role in Social Darwinism - Evolution News & Views

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Rewriting History: Museum Fails to Disclose Own Role in Social Darwinism

There is biting irony in the sanitized history of Social Darwinism presented by the new Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). As blogged previously, the Museum's exhibit completely suppresses Darwin's own views about social applications of his theory. But Darwin's views aren't the only things being suppressed at the exhibit. The AMNH also doesn't acknowledge its own shameful legacy as one of the chief scientific boosters for eugenics, including the hosting of an extensive pro-eugenics museum exhibit in the 1930s.

The Museum's current exhibit glancingly mentions eugenics as an aberration, but this so-called aberration was supported by most of America's elite universities and scientists for several decades. In 1932, for example, the AMNH itself played official host for a scientific meeting titled the "Third International Congress of Eugenics," and in conjunction with that meeting the Museum mounted an extensive public exhibition uncritically extolling the "science" of eugenics (much in the same way the current exhibit uncritically extolls neo-Darwinism).

The papers presented at the 1932 scientific conference and photos of its public exhibit (which featured prominent busts of Charles Darwin and Francis Galton to honor their contributions to eugenics) were published in a volume titled A Decade of Progress in Eugenics: Scientific Papers of the Third International Congress of Eugenics held at American Museum of Natural History, New York, August 21-23, 1932 (Baltimore: Williams and Wilkins Co., 1934).

The "scientific" papers presented at the conference included such gems as "Virginia's Effort to Preserve Racial Integrity," and "Selective Sterilization for Race Culture." The latter paper championed sterilization as a solution to the unemployment problem during the Great Depression, which the author (Theodore Robie) blamed in part on unlimited procreation by "defectives." He argued that the "present picture of millions of unemployed" provided evidence for the idea that "our population has already attained a greater number than is necessary for efficient functioning of the race as a whole." He further suggested that "a major portion of this vast army of unemployed are social inadequates, and in many cases mental defectives, who might have been spared the misery they are now facing if they had never been born." Indeed, "it would certainly be understandable" if such people "prefer[red] not to have been born, if they could have known what was in store for them on this earth where the struggle for existence and the urge toward the survival of the fittest makes it necessary for all those who would survive to possess a native endowment of at least average intelligence."

Another paper presenter at the conference was doctor Lena Sadler from Illinois. She piled on the lurid metaphors, vilifying presumed mental defectives as a "viper of degeneracy," a "monster [that] will grow to such hideous proportions that it will strike us down," and "an army of the unfit [that] will increase to such numbers that they will overwhelm the posterity of superior humans and eventually wipe out... civilization...."

The current Museum, of course, is no longer a champion of eugenics, but its spirit of boosterism for Darwinism seems eerily the same. In the place of critical analysis and genuine scientific inquiry, it offers dogmatism and propaganda in favor of the current majority view. The Washington Post has reported that the exhibit doesn't even cover the scientific debates currently taking place among evolutionists:

But in its eagerness to declare the grand evolutionary questions settled, the show takes its lone stumble.

Only four decades ago, most paleontologists rejected the theory, now broadly accepted, that comets and volcanic eruptions delivered mass extinctions and so played a key role in speeding evolution. Nor are scientists clear on the mechanism by which one species evolves into another; curator Eldredge and the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould crafted the once heretical theory of punctuated equilibrium, which holds that species sometimes evolve in grand leaps.

And the well-known Cambridge scientist Simon Conway Morris has taken to arguing that even very distant species share structural similarities and journey toward inevitable complexity. This suggests to him that evolution adheres to an architecture.

Which, after a nervous fashion, loops back to the God question.

Ask Eldredge about this and he shrugs. He has a practical scientist's appreciation for Charles Darwin and a theory that, in its broad outlines, grows only stronger.

As the 1932 exhibition attests, presenting propaganda in the guise of science is apparently a historic practice at the Museum.


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