Why Eugenics? Maybe Something Happened in 1859? - Evolution News & Views

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Why Eugenics? Maybe Something Happened in 1859?

In the view of Darwinist historian Alan Shapiro, those of us who observe that eugenics is critically dependent on the Darwinian view of human origins are mistaken. Shapiro argues that eugenics didn't have much to do with evolution, and was really an offshoot of the science of genetics/heredity. 

Shapiro makes his point, commenting on my observation that the science of genetics wasn't even founded until a year after the Station for Experimental Evolution -- our nation's center for eugenics research, opened at Cold Spring Harbor:

Egnor takes note that "The Center for Experimental Evolution -- the center for eugenics, that is -- opened in Cold Spring Harbor in 1904. The word 'genetics' was coined in 1905." This seeming gotcha moment is actually pretty well discredited by the History page on Cold Spring Harbor's own website:

1904: Genetics research begins 

Soon, another mission was established: research in genetics. This grew out of two events: the appointment, in 1898, of Charles Davenport, professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, as director of the Laboratory, and the rediscovery in 1900 of Gregor Mendel's work, carried out 35 years earlier. Mendel's Laws provided explanations for the variability that underlies evolution, and his work opened new possibilities for experimentation in biology. 

Davenport approached the Carnegie Institute of Washington and proposed that it establish a genetics research program at the Cold Spring Harbor site. In June 1904, the Carnegie Institute's Station for Experimental Evolution, later renamed the Department of Genetics, was formally opened with a commerative speech given by Hugo de Vries, one of the three re-discoverers of Mendel's work. 

From its founding in the 1890s, Cold Spring Harbor was a place where "biologists and naturalists of that time worked out the consequences of Darwin's theory of evolution." However, in 1904, Davenport was brought there for "another mission" First called the "Center for Experimental Evolution" it began some of the research that led to the coinage of the word "genetics." What Egnor's actually pointed us to is the fact that whatever eugenics was in Galton's day (an extension of heredity) by the middle of the first decade of the 20th century: it was applied genetics. More interesting, it was seen as distinct enough from "Darwin's theory of evolution" that it required the founding of a separate center.

I'll deal with the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's "history" webpage in an ensuing post (it's quite amusing).

The amusement for the moment is Shapiro's assertion that eugenics was a sub-discipline of genetics, applied genetics actually. An odd assertion, I point out, given that genetics wasn't a science until 1905 at the earliest, and eugenics dates to 1869, only a decade after the publication of Darwin's Origin. A field of science cannot be a subdiscipline of a science that it precedes.

Oh, insists Shapiro, there's been a silly little misunderstanding:

[T]his claim of anachronism is utterly useless in responding to the historical claim that eugenics was considered an application of the biological concept of heredity. Of course, if Egnor wanted to rebut that claim, he probably wouldn't have mentioned in his very next sentence: "The science of eugenics began in 1869, when Francis Galton, Charles Darwin's cousin, published his landmark Hereditary Genius." The first word of the title of that book might be a bit of a giveaway that Egnor's historical analysis is flawed.

Shapiro insists that eugenics was originally a subdisclipline of heredity, not genetics. The science of heredity was a bit of a mish-mash before the rediscovery of Mendel's work in 1900 (when it became the science of genetics, which was not a mish-mash). Heredity, of course, has been investigated by man for countless millennia. Farmers and shepherds have been breeding livestock, according to principles of heredity, since the dawn of civilization. So while eugenics can't be the spawn of genetics, which it preceded, it certainly might be the spawn of heredity, which was going full steam when Galton found his eugenic muse in 1869.

So far, so good. But here's the problem: what took the eugenicists so long? After all, their putative "parent science" -- heredity -- had been around as long as there were human beings, yet eugenicists only thought to apply the principles of breeding their livestock to breeding the Smith family next door in 1869?

How come the million-year gap between heredity and eugenics? What happened circa 1869 A.D., rather than 1869 B.C or 111,869 B.C., that stirred Galton's muse from her ages of eugenic slumber?

In 1869, at the birth of eugenics, heredity was an old -- old -- science. Genetics didn't exist, and wouldn't exist for 36 years.

This is a problem with Shapiro's "heredity" hypothesis: heredity is just too old, and genetics is just too new, to account for eugenics.

So was there any scientific sea change that occurred, say a decade before 1869, that awakened the eugenic muse? What would have triggered eugenics, at the end of the 7th decade of the 19th century A.D., of all the unlikely times?

Perhaps eugenics was triggered by a theory that man was an animal, without remainder, evolved by a process of violent natural selection, rendered genetically weak by domestication, in need of directed evolution to preserve the species.

Question for Dr. Shapiro, historian of science: was there something that happened in 1859 that might have changed the way scientists understood man?