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New TV Documentary Poses the Moral Challenge to Darwinism

A new documentary for cable television, What Hath Darwin Wrought?, offers an excellent, meaty introduction to the moral consequences of Darwinism. Discovery fellows David Berlinski, John West, and Richard Weikart, interviewed by TV personality Todd Friel, are all lucid and informative, sketching the relevant history from Darwin to Galton to modern "scientific" racism, to American and German eugenics, Hitler, and the rise of a revived eugenics in our own time.

Many of these themes have been discussed in this space before, but one new thought occurred to me -- something I hadn't quite grasped before watching this film. (It can, by the way, be purchased on DVD at the website, and will be showing on cable this fall.)

I've sometimes wondered about the appropriateness of applying the word "eugenics" to modern practices of selective reproduction or euthanasia. True, some sickos even in the shadow of Nazi horrors along the same lines have argued for the application of old fashioned eugenics for the supposed benefit of the human race. James Watson, Nobel Prize-winner, is one. But for the most part, things like "selective abortion," "embryo selection," and "designer babies" -- sickly familiar today -- are motivated not by any thoughts about human beings as a whole but simply by the convenience or pleasure of individual parents or other family members. Ninety percent of pregnant women in the U.S. who learn they are carrying a Down syndrome baby choose to abort. But that is not because there's some kind of sinister government program seeking to erase such people from the globe to advance evolutionary goals.

How then does Darwin contribute to the "new eugenics"? A comment by the host of What Hath Darwin Wrought? caught my attention. It's in the context of John West's discussion of the eugenic thinking of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood. Her truly outrageous style of expression on the subject did in fact survive past World War II. Favoring the sterilization of the unfit -- that would be your lower classes, the poor and minorities -- she regretted the "increasing race of morons," the "dead weight of human waste." (Those two charming comments come respectively from a 1926 radio address on "Racial Betterment" and her 1922 manifesto The Pivot of Civilization.)

At that point host Todd Friel makes an interesting observation about the "language of the day," before eugenics became a naughty word. Back in that dark time, calling other people "imbeciles," "morons," "unfit," "human waste" was accepted as routine. "Three generations of imbeciles is enough," as Oliver Wendell Holmes memorably put it.

It is, I think, the attitude to unwanted human beings that had its seed in Darwin and that lives on today despite that fact that almost nobody talks openly of eugenics. People are animals, nothing more, goes this way of thinking, and just as no one sensible gets outraged about excess, unwanted, or unhealthy dogs and cats being put down at the local pound or the veterinarian, so too it's now common to think of people in such terms. In Darwin's world picture, vast slaughter is the engine of life's development from simple to complex. Why would anyone shed a tear over it?

The film cites a recent book by Mrs. Sanger's own grandson, Alexander Sanger, Beyond Choice, that argues for abortion not as a practice to be excused and accommodated but as a positive moral good. "We cannot repeal the laws of natural selection," he writes. "Humanity uniquely, and to its benefit, can exercise some dominion over this process." He's talking about abortion.

This is just a tidy, clean way of talking about the disposal of human waste. Not only Mrs. Sanger's name, but her chilling picture of the world, lives on. This too is Darwin's legacy.