Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.
Oct 26, 2014
In the 19th century, evolutionary thinkers like Darwin portrayed Caucasians – meaning northern Europeans – as the world’s most civilized and advanced race. Caucasians, they proclaimed, arrived at their superiority by natural selection – i.e., they arrived at it through competitive means via the survival of the fittest. All this was happy and good – or so it seemed – if you were a northern European of suitable status. Science, according to these thinkers, showed that it was therefore acceptable – perhaps even necessary – to colonize, to bully, to militarize, to govern, and to direct the affairs of other peoples and races provided that you were British, French, German, or American of suitable racial ancestry. Advancement of the strong – these thinkers proclaimed – required it:
One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. ― Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species
But there was trouble brewing. And that trouble was degeneracy. Darwin again:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated … We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this … leads to the degeneration of a domestic race … ― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
Degeneracy came in different flavors, so it was thought. There were people with low intelligence (the concept of intelligence quotient was soon to be invented, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton again). There were people who were mentally degenerate due to insanity. There were those who were weak, deformed, physically disabled or crippled. And there were those who were deemed to be of an inferior race. These people were marrying and having children, often very many children. This posed, according to our evolutionary thinkers, grave dangers to the nation and its progress.
The Baha’i Point of View
In 1912, `Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith and eldest son of its prophet-founder, was invited by David Starr Jordan to speak at Stanford University. Jordan – the first president of Stanford – was a prominent American peace proponent and `Abdu’l-Baha made universal peace his theme. But Jordan was also a believer in the superiority of the “Nordic races,” a prominent proponent of eugenics, and on advocate of combating “degeneracy.” Here is how the Stanford Alumni Magazine characterizes his thought:
His most controversial legacy is his work in the field of eugenics, a then-accepted academic discipline that considered selective reproduction as a way to advance humankind. Although he thought the idea of creating a master race a waste of time, he strongly believed that “the germs of pauperism and crime” were biologically inherited. He believed certain state-sponsored measures could improve the human species as a whole—for example, forcibly segregating “feeble-minded” people to keep them from having children. He fretted over the immigration of “temperamental” races from Southern and Eastern Europe and felt that armed conflict was particularly detrimental to the health of the human race, because it removed the strongest individuals from the gene pool.
`Abdu’l-Baha addressed Jordan’s eugenics approach, it appears to me, not by confrontation but through subtext. In his widely attended talk, he first spoke of science as the “greatest attainment in the world of humanity.” Then he extolled “the extraordinary power of the mind.” It is the mind, he said, that distinguishes man (using the term in its its generic form) from the animal:
Man is the noblest of the creatures. In his physical organism he possesses the virtues of the mineral kingdom. Likewise, he embodies the augmentative virtue, or power of growth, which characterizes the kingdom of the vegetable. Furthermore, in his degree of physical existence he is qualified with functions and powers peculiar to the animal, beyond which lies the range of his distinctive human mental and spiritual endowment.
He then addresses – and very directly too – the issue of nature, the survival of the fittest, and our necessary relationship to nature and its processes:
In nature there is the law of the survival of the fittest…. The purpose and object of schools, colleges and universities is to educate man and thereby rescue and redeem him from the exigencies and defects of nature and to awaken within him the capability of controlling and appropriating nature’s bounties. … it is not intended that the world of humanity should be left to its natural state … the intended and especial function of man is to rescue and redeem himself from the inherent defects of nature and become qualified with the ideal virtues of Divinity. .. Shall he, then, remain its captive, even failing to qualify under the natural law which commands the survival of the fittest?
That is to say, shall he continue to live upon the level of the animal kingdom without distinction between them and himself in natural impulses and ferocious instincts? There is no lower degree nor greater debasement for man than this natural condition of animalism.
He then address theories of racial superiority, attributing their origins to “despots and conquerors”:
[Baha'u'llah] declared that all mankind is the one progeny of Adam and members of one great universal family. If the various races and distinct types of mankind had each proceeded from a different original paternity — in other words, if we had two or more Adams for our human fathers — there might be reasonable ground for difference and divergence in humanity today; but inasmuch as we belong to one progeny and one family, all names which seek to differentiate and distinguish mankind as Italian, German, French, Russian and so on are without significance and sanction.
Why, then, all these fallacious national and racial distinctions? These boundary lines and artificial barriers have been created by despots and conquerors who sought to attain dominion over mankind, thereby engendering patriotic feeling and rousing selfish devotion [and leading people to fight and die] at their command upon the field of battle, shedding their innocent blood for a delusion such as “we are Germans,” “our enemies are French,” etc.
You will find no support for eugenics or racism in `Abdu’l-Baha’s words – here or elsewhere. Rather, he urges us to recognize that mankind is one and that we are all members of the same family. Racism and eugenics are theories derived from the urgings of those who wish to divide and conquer.
19th Century Theories of Degeneracy and their Consequences
The change from optimistic reading of evolution to pessimistic concerns about evolutionary decline and decay in the later part of the 19th century provides a remarkable story – one that provides a precautionary lesson for those who view science as the source of social ideals.
As before, we follow Richard Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. For a short and readable overview, we recommend the British Library’s excellent Post Darwin: Social Darwinism, Degeneration, Eugenics. Here is how the Library sets the scene:
Darwin’s evolutionary ideas helped many Victorians to imagine a dynamic world of progress. It seemed to fit perfectly, for a period of time at least, an image of Britain at the forefront of an industrialised and wealthy modern world in which man had definitively tamed nature for his own ends.
Towards the end of the 19th century, however, theories of evolution were the basis of fears of social, racial and cultural degeneration and decline. Evolution was countered by frightening examples of ‘devolution’. Some of the most popular fiction of this period – including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) – explored scenarios of frightening devolution.
Some of the reasons for these fears were improved data collection that highlighted issues that previously were easily ignored. Other reasons were social problems created by the industrial revolution and rapid population growth – the rise of urban slums and urban unrest. Olson characterizes these as follows:
The growing collection of social statistics seemed to suggest that insanity, alcoholism, prostitution, and criminality were all increasing dramatically. Such increases were certainly in some part artifacts of increasing sophistication in diagnosing and recording conditions that were simply invisible previously; but they were also partly the real consequences of rapidly growing urban poverty.
Also, the problem was caused by the “biologicalization” and the “evolutionization” of these problems by such thought leaders as the psychiatrist Henry Maudsley. Again, Olson:
Darwinian psychiatry, as practiced by cultural leaders such as Henry Maudsley in Britain, Benedict Morel in France, and Cesare Lombroso in Italy, began to see these trends as the consequence of the pressures of industrial society working on less-fit segments of the population. … these men all developed theories of “degeneration,” according to which atavistic tendencies accelerated over time. Such views seemed consistent with the second law of thermodynamics, which suggested that in the long run chaos must triumph over order.
Maudsley claimed that “inherited weakness” or another “debilitating cause” made some people “unequal to the struggle for life” through “degeneration.” These people were “waste thrown up by the silent but strong current of progress; they are the weak crushed out by the strong in the mortal struggle for development; they are examples of decaying reason thrown off by vigorous mental growth.” Evolution, he claimed, was being inverted:
All the moral and intellectual acquisitions of culture which the race has been slowly putting on by organized inheritance of the accumulated experience of countless generations of men are now rapidly put off in a few generations, until the lowest human and animal elements only are left.
In many ways, the problem of degeneration was an invented problem – a consequence of the replacement of Christian and European Enlightenment theories that held everyone to be equal. The evolutionary theories that were their replacement looked at the health (or lack-thereof) of individuals and the consequence for the societies they were a part of as due to lack of biological fitness – and to racial mixing with people from non-Caucasian racial backgrounds..
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the notion of degeneration became increasingly powerful, because it seemed that poverty, criminality, alcoholism, immorality, and insanity were becoming ever more pervasive features of life in the most civilized portions of the world. Degeneration became a dominant literary theme, and fear of degeneration gave rise to a series of social movements, from the temperance movement through the nudist movement to the race-hygiene movement, aimed at reversing degenerative trends.
The central feature of all such movements was that they tended to see degeneration, not as a primarily economic or ethical or religious or philosophical problem, but as a problem that had its roots in medical and biological facts and that thus had to be addressed through medical and biological interventions.
Eugenics – and racial hygiene – emerged from this way of thinking.
We’ve already seen (Books on Science and Religion #20: Social Darwinism and Scientific Racism) how racism had been “scientized” in Germany. In the United States:
Racial mixture subsequently came to be seen as a critical cause of degeneracy, and anti-miscegenation legislation was passed in a number of states. Even those few authors who thought that there might be some evidence for increasing mental ability by mixing breeds that were close to one another in the racial hierarchy, for example, Italians and the Irish, were convinced that mixing whites and blacks led to physical and moral degeneration.
In Germany, the concept of race-hygiene was introduced
By the end of the 20th century, social Darwinism and the fear of degeneration, Olson tells us, led to race-hygiene, temperance, and eugenics movements that became especially important in Germany and the United States well into the 20th century. They also created a new anti-scientific mood. Olson concludes:
The century that began in Western Europe with such high hopes that scientific knowledge of society might help to identify features of the good life and to procure them for all humans thus ended with a growing sense that science could do neither.
My own conclusion is that 19th century evolution theorists and social Darwinists made proposals about the roles of evolutionary mechanisms in the social world we live in that were highly speculative, based on unproven theories, and lacking in empircal support. And some of them lead to great harm. Today, the risk is still present. There is much that is purely speculative and not backed by empirical research that claims evolutionary theory as its support. As in the 19th century, we too often put our faith in bad science.
In the next blog we review the eugenics movement in Germany – which culminated in programs of mass sterilization and the first uses of gas chambers, paving the way for the “final solution” – and in tthe United States – where anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting marriages between blacks and non-blacks were widely enforced, forced sterilization was carried out, and immigration from countries deemed racially unhealthy was restricted.
This is the 21st in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.