Novel scientific theories first setout to explain one anomalous phenomenon which the old theory cannot. Whether it’s explaining the production of heat, the formation of the earth, or how society stays intact, the same current of development can be seen working below the surface. Kuhn has developed a theory to explain this commonality over the course of his career, and instead of asking this same question, let’s look at how society first adapts to novelty in science. Darwin’s theory of natural selection and its contribution as a mechanism of evolution opened up a new understanding of development which permitted not only the realization that man is no more a static species than any other but also that there can be a scientific rationale for our social hierarchy. As public ‘knowledge’ far outstripped the spread of scientific understanding, a eugenics movement developed which proposed to fix social woes through selective breeding of the population.

The Darwinian mechanism of natural and artificial selection provided a theoretical means to improve populations in general and society in particular. As society found technological solutions to a wide range of economic, engineering, and national problems, the stagnation of social development became more acute of an issue. Technologic solutions to social ills did not become manifest through advancement as other national issues had, so solutions in the biological sciences were sought instead. In the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin illustrates the potential to affect change through selective breeding of desirable organisms within the population. The narrative offered by this mechanism of selection proved potential enough to eschew the ethics of the individual in favor of the greater good. The application of Darwinian mechanisms upon society at large is best analyzed in two fragments: the application of scientific principles and the remission of ethical conduct.

Charles Darwin, in the first chapter of the Origins of Species, sets out numerous examples wherein humans had effected a slow yet steady change in various domesticated species. Consider the case of the “whole body of English racehorses” which “have come to surpass in fleetness and size the parent Arab stock” (Darwin) through the pressure of selective breeding. This ‘powerful’ force, Darwin argues, can lead to truly impressive results even under the tutelage of uncivilized This begs to question how selection within human populations may be leveraged for the benefit to all.

By momentarily accepting the assumption that traits such as idiocy, poverty, and laziness are genetic and inheritable, how does Darwinian mechanisms offer to cure these problems? Two paths present themselves immediately: repress the reproduction of the lower minority or promote the reproduction of the superior majority. One method utilized to effectively promote the number of superior citizens was to strictly screen immigrants and to accept only those deemed beneficial for society. This was realized through the quota system which strove to turn away ‘imbeciles’. The other option offered was to limit the reproduction of the lower one-tenth[1]. This option was actualized as soon as safe surgeries were developed which lessened the moral burden since harm to the individual was minimized. This led to a wave of sterilization for inmates and state dependents. At best, criteria for sterilization were weak as demonstrated by the case of Carrie Buck who was deemed “feeble-minded” (Gould) with little to no evidence. Since it was argued that her condition was inheritable, she was sterilized under the Virginian sterilization law of 1924. Laughlin, the prime advocate of eugenics, said of the case:

Generally feeble-mindedness is caused by the inheritance of degenerate qualities; but sometimes it might be caused by environmental factors which are not hereditary. In the case given, the evidence points strongly toward the feeble-mindedness and moral delinquency of Carrie Buck being due, primarily, to inheritance and not to environment.

Not only was the molecular basis of genetic inheritance still being developed, the evidence cited here was less than kind and certainly not kin to any objective basis.[2]

The second aspect of the eugenics movement, which supported the application of Darwinian mechanisms in order to solve social ills, was to reframe the debate such that morals actually mandated the action. By restructuring the concept of sterilization and eugenics, popular support fell behind the science of artificial selection. When discussing the possibility of improving the human race by “preventing the propagation of those deemed biologically unfit and encouraging procreation among the supposedly worthy” (Gould), the facts often became misshapen and the language manipulative. Harry Laughlin wrote that America should “prevent the procreation of persons socially inadequate… by authorizing and providing for eugenical sterilization of certain potential parents carrying degenerate hereditary qualities” (Gould) and thereby improve the human stock. Notice the oratory leveraged in claiming that socially inadequacy is a result of degenerate hereditary qualities. In fact the eugenics movement was often backed by logical arguments such as: if “the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives” to protect the country, should it not also call upon citizens to ‘sacrifice’ the potential for children? (Gould). All of this rhetoric for immigration quotas and sterilization rest upon one assumption: an assumption that misses the scientific mark.

Just as the science was silent about the ethics, the ethics were silent about the science. These social ills which so plagued the public were assumed to be inheritable—as inheritable as eye color or “the expressive nose of [your] grandfather” (Johannsen). As it turns out, these sorts of social traits are not traits in the genetic sense at all, but rather a result of the society itself. Furthermore, the time scale envisioned by the ‘ethics’ people was well divergent from that of the ‘science’ people. Darwin had claimed that change by even the best breeders is “slow and insensible” of a kind which “could never be recognized unless actual measurements had been made long ago”, whereas Laughlin hoped “to eliminate in two generations the genes of what he called the ‘submerged tenth’” (Gould).

While I shall not frame any hypothesis of where these damning traits come from, one thing is certain: you are not going to purge society of its ailments genetically. This cultural reaction to Darwin’s ideas is not completely surprising since it is much easier to segregate the ethics and the science to promote action than to accept inaction. The desire and drive to improve humanity is quite compelling and ennobling; yet if “action without reflection risks despair and reflection without action risks irrelevance”[3], how can society seek to improve itself?

[1] Why one-tenth? Unsure – probably just a clear and arbitrary minority of society. The number was picked by Laughlin.

[2] Hamlet.

[3] 4Boston Mission Statement.