Social Darwinism

This lecture will be the fourth in my series on secular thought in Gilded Age America, from approximately the 1870’s to the end of World War I in 1918. I shall be extending the lecture into the 1970’s and into the present day due to the nature of the subject matter. My three previous lectures have glanced at Ingersoll and the Golden Age of Freethought, Atheism, Anarchism and Emma Goldman, and the Sex Radicals, Birth Control Advocates and their Enemy, Anthony Comstock.  The lectures can all be found at, with a link to the YouTube presentations. 

We have looked at unbelief in its various manifestations among many sectors of United States society.  Now I am going to turn to Social Darwinism, a sociological theory which claimed to be based on Charles Darwin’s work, Origin of Species, 1859, and his Descent of Man, 1871.  Darwin’s theory, however, was a relatively neutral scientific one, while Social Darwinism claimed to be an extension of Darwinian thought into the social sciences.

Social Darwinists believed they were building a viable social theory that would work for the betterment of British, American and other societies. They were quite sure they were using the best and most modern science to improve the commonwealth. But they made significant errors in their calculations by extrapolating a whole concept of society from a less than close reading of Darwin. Social Darwinists overreached, and at the same time, oversimplified Darwinian evolutionary theory.

 (Please see Evolution versus Creationism, Intelligent Design and the War between Science and Religion for more on Darwinian Theory.)

We shall be looking at Herbert Spencer, the British originator and proponent of Social Darwinism, and William Graham Sumner, the American sociologist who popularized the theory in the United States.  Then I shall turn to the extension of the theory of Social Darwinism into that of eugenics, which was a highly influential movement in our nation from about 1910 until the 1940’s and later.  Eventually, Social Darwinism lost its intellectual cache, and was critiqued and displaced by the Pragmatic philosophy of thinkers like William James and John Dewey. (For a more extensive discussion of Pragmatism, please see Naturalism – Pragmatism.)

But eugenics was popular for a much longer period than Social Darwinism, with many American states passing laws that forced the sterilization of people deemed unfit. Such draconian procedures violated citizens’ constitutional rights and treated people like objects or breeders, who were fit or unfit to propagate. Many liberal Protestant Churches and clergymen were exponents of and believers in eugenics, as were far too many secular thinkers. We shall be discussing the irrational embrace of this pseudoscientific doctrine in the United States. 

I shall be finishing the lecture with a glance at some contemporary social and psychological theories that are once again based on biology, such as evolutionary psychology, sociobiology and the genome project. There are many thinkers in the present day who are very concerned about a new and troubling tendency to return to some form of Social Darwinism.

They think there may be the possibility of the recurrence of the disgraced theory in slightly updated frameworks. Not all the sociological obfuscation has come from the social conservatives. There are liberals in the United States who have been lured by biological explanations for human behavior. Some of those explanations contain notions that are in danger of drifting into social engineering.

Social engineering sometimes carries with it the threat of an involvement with genetics. Full disclosure: I am a strong critic of Social Darwinism, eugenics and any type of sociological or psychological theory that puts an emphasis on biology at the expense of cultural factors when scrutinizing human behavior. Human behavior cannot be understood without taking into consideration both biology and cultural environment. It is necessary to have proper studies conducted and scrutinized before coming to conclusions about human biology or psychology. The United States must not succumb to fads and poorly carried out experiments again, as it has in the past.  We have seen the results of the failed attempts to fit people’s psyches and behavior into some sort of Procrustean bed of pseudo science. Not only eugenics and forced sterilization, but such egregious practices as male circumcision, lobotomies, electroshock therapy and so on have been the result. The harmful results of those practices, once done, cannot be undone. During this lecture, while categorizing Social Darwinism as a profound misreading of scientific Darwinism and detailing its most obvious and egregious tenets, I also hope to sound a cautionary note to our secular community.

Darwinism itself was enthusiastically embraced by many American thinkers. 

According to Richard Hofstadter, in the last three decades of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the United States was the Darwinian country.  As we saw in the earlier lectures about that era, America was experiencing social tensions, immigrations, and exponential industrial growth. But at the same time, the nation suffered several crippling recessions.  The working and living conditions for the lower classes were deplorable, and this state of affairs encompassed the immigrants who were arriving in America to find work.

The prevailing view of the American establishment during the last decades of the 19th Century was social conservatism. But unlike the social conservatism of the present day, it was a philosophy that sometimes resembled a secular religion or belief system rather than a religiously pious one. Social Darwinism’s first proponents expressed a secular outlook.  Its political and social philosophy of extreme individualism was embraced by captains of industry, scholars and other influential citizens.   Social Darwinists borrowed many phrases from their misreading of Darwin, but “survival of the fittest” stands out as the most misused and the most popular. Ironically, Darwin never used the expression, “survival of the fittest.” The phrase originated with the British thinker, Herbert Spencer, (1820-1903).

Social Darwinists maintained that just as evolution favored the fit and strong in nature, the same phenomenon could be observed in human society.  They claimed that people who rose to positions of power and wealth were those who were better adapted to do so.  Conversely, they held that people who were at the bottom rungs of society, who had failed, were less well-adapted. But Darwin’s theory was, as I have mentioned, much more neutral, and certainly more scientific.

For example, a Darwinian might say that organisms which had certain traits, such as brown feathers rather than white, had a better chance of survival in an environment without much snow because their brown color would blend in with the natural environment, thus evading predators.  The brown-feathered survivors would pass that trait down to some of their descendants who would propagate and thrive in that particular habitat.  White-feathered birds would survive much better in a snowy environment. Such adaptive traits as feather color are regarded by scientists as mechanisms or outcomes which favor survival.  Brown-feathered birds, for instance, are not superior to white ones.

When Social Darwinists reached the conclusion that organisms with adaptive traits were superior, they began to depart from the realm of true science. They were guilty of the naturalist fallacy, the notion that “is” means “ought.” The 18th Century British philosopher, David Hume, helped point out the significant flaws of is/ought thinking.  Applied to Social Darwinism, its error is glaring- it is an assumption that since those who were at the top of society had attained power and wealth, it was a demonstration that they had done it naturally by greater fitness and ability to struggle and survive. Therefore, Social Darwinists concluded, such a social arrangement was the proper structuring of society. “Is” had been transmuted into “ought.”

Despite being a secular social philosophy, Social Darwinism was an unfortunate departure from the humanism of freethinkers such as Thomas Paine (1737- 1809.) Social Darwinism is not only incorrect, it is also abhorrent.

Susan Jacoby argues that the Social Darwinism of Herbert Spencer can be traced forward to the unbridled individualism in the Objective philosophy of Ayn Rand, the 20th century author. (For a detailed discussion of Rand, please see Objectivism.)

Although Herbert Spencer and other Social Darwinists were complex and nuanced when they argued for their philosophy, many who embraced their notions were not. Such people took the basic misconception of the “survival of the fittest” idea one step further.  They decided that any assistance to the less advantaged ran counter to nature because it helped the unfit survive. They believed it would be contrary to nature to try to undo what nature was carrying out.  Some of these thinkers went so far as to state that it would be better in the long run to allow the unfit to perish, because when they were eliminated, the general biological fitness of the human race would gradually improve. We shall see how such thinking led to the eugenics movement which was so popular in the United States from around 1910 to the 1940’s and beyond.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was an English sociologist and philosopher who turned from civil engineering to political journalism. In 1853, an inheritance allowed him to pursue his writing and his philosophical research. Over the years, he had come into contact with such diverse influences as Thomas Carlyle, George Eliot, and Darwin’s advocate, T.H. Huxley.  They all influenced him, but he had great confidence in his own theories. Unfortunately his confidence co-existed with his stubbornness and unwillingness to read authors who disagreed with him. 

It is rather ironic that Spencer launched Social Darwinism, because he leaned much more in the direction of 19th Century Lamarckian evolutionary theory.  Lamarckian theory believes that individuals lose traits they do not require or use and develop characteristics which are useful.  These traits can be learned ones. Lamarckians thought that giraffes had long necks because they had to stretch their necks to reach the leaves in the trees, and that later generations of giraffes had inherited the trait of long necks.  But many mammals that eat green leaves and grass do not have longer necks.  Science today believes the long neck of giraffes was most likely due to random mutation.

Despite physical and particularly mental difficulty, Spencer, writing a few hours a day, produced a nine volume work, System of Synthetic Philosophy, from 1862 to 1893, which, he believed, provided a systematic account of biology, sociology, ethics and politics. According to William Sweet, this “synthetic philosophy brought together data from the various natural and social sciences, organized according to evolutionary theory.” I am gratefully indebted to William Sweet for the following statements concerning Spencer’s most important theories, the ones he discussed in the multi-volume work.

According to Sweet, Spencer held that organisms which are homogeneous are inherently unstable, that organisms develop from simple to complex forms and that “evolution constitutes a norm of progress.” Spencer referred to such a process as “the survival of the fittest.” Later he developed the idea that “there was a gradual specialization in things toward self-sufficiency and individuation. Individuation, he believed, was combined with a natural tendency to self-preservation, which in humans, led to rational self-interest.”

Spencer additionally held that one could deduce the character of human social life by observing the development of organisms and the laws of nature.  He thought that social institutions, including the economy, could function without much external control, just as the digestive system of a lower organism does.  He did not seem to see the difference between lower physical functions and higher social organization, which is very complex.

While progress, according to Spencer, was an inevitable characteristic of evolution, only the free exercise of human faculties could achieve it.  He believed in the individual ego, much as Ayn Rand did.  He maintained that law restricted liberty. Restriction of liberty was a great evil, he stated, and should only be used to guard a greater liberty.  Earlier 19th century utilitarian philosophers had argued that people had natural rights. They also justified the concepts of law and order. Spencer denied such claims. (Please see Utilitarianism under Naturalism.) He was for laissez-faire in economics and government.

Spencer maintained there were limits to human knowledge and one of these limits was being able to know what he called, “The Unknowable.” Whether such an “Unknowable” might be god, he argued, was impossible to determine. His agnosticism is inferred from such arguments.

But by around the 1890’s or so, many successful critiques of his work had been undertaken by unconvinced scholars, and his influence had declined significantly. Even though Spencer was nominated for the Nobel Prize in 1902, his philosophy was no longer considered consequential.

Pragmatism took hold in the United States, and the hegemony of Spencer’s work was consigned to the dustbin of history. Libertarians today sometimes quote him on the role of government and of individual rights. But in 1860’s and 1870’s America, his ideas had been considered on a par with Darwin’s and his erroneous theories wielded undue influence on United States social thought.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) was a fierce and influential advocate of Social Darwinism in America.  He was able to bring the concept of evolution, or rather, an adaptation of it, into conservative American thought.  He began his career as an Episcopalian minister, but early in life he converted to sociology and Social Darwinism.  He brought to Social Darwinism the religiosity that had earlier imbued his religious phase. Now that energy was converted into a secular piety. His ideas were a significant force in the spread of Social Darwinism throughout the United States. Richard Hofstadter states that “Sumner brought together three great traditions of Western capitalist culture: the Protestant ethic, the doctrine of classical economics, and Darwinian natural selection.”

Sumner propagated his philosophy in books and articles written in accessible language, rather than scholarly prose. He was the first sociology professor at Yale University, and he lost no time converting his post into a kind of Social Darwinist pulpit. He had come from a respectable working class background that he never forgot.  Along with the impact of his prodigious reading in political and economic philosophy, the character of his upright laborer father was a strong influence throughout his life.  In 1906, Sumner brought out his book, Folkways, a seminal sociology tract.

He had presented most of his philosophy in popular magazine articles before he published his well received books.  Here are some of his ideas.  Sumner asserted the first fact in life was the struggle for existence. He believed the most important step in the struggle was the invention of Capital, and he argued that advance in social progress came from men being spurred on to effort. If the fittest are to survive, he claimed, the captains of industry must be paid for their talent. It is they who enrich the society with their organizing talent, efficiency and lack of waste.

 He was a strong advocate for the principle of inherited wealth. He was certain that the wealthy had virtues that not only brought them personal rewards but also enriched their communities. He believed that the rich were motivated both by their desire to preserve wealth for their children, and by the wish to pass on their virtues. An attack on the wealthy, he argued, was an attack on the family and would end in reducing men to swine.

Sumner maintained that in the animal world, the struggle for superiority creates finer forms and the transmission of such traits to succeeding generations brings about progress. If there is liberty, the results of competitive struggle in human society will be that “courage, enterprise, good training, exercise and perseverance,” will come out on top.

In addition, Sumner embraced the notion that the principles of social evolution negated the American ideal of equality and natural rights. From an evolutionary point of view, equality was ridiculous and there were no natural rights in the jungle. 

He stated: “There can be no rights against nature except to get out of her whatever we can…” He found the democratic ideal a transient stage in social evolution.  He did not disapprove of it, but believed it was a charming superstition, unworkable and unintelligible.

Sumner inherited many of his ideas from Malthus and Ricardo, but his particular inspiration was Spencer.  He accepted Spencer’s social determinism whole. He used it to great effect when fighting against reformers. He dismissed Upton Sinclair and his fellow socialists, says Hofstadter, as “…puny meddlers and social quacks.” He stated that human progress was moral progress. Here are his own words: “Let every man be sober, industrious, prudent and wise, and bring up his children to be so likewise, and poverty will be abolished in a few generations.”  One reform he supported, not surprisingly, was free trade.  He was a formidable figure, despite the lack of complexity in his thinking.

Sumner was engaged in an attempt to contradict and replace the Enlightenment ideals and philosophic speculation of the 18th Century with the science of the 19th. He believed, and wanted to teach people, that there were no natural rights, that democracy and equality were not eternal verities but passing stages in the social evolution of man. Hofstadter states: “Like some latter day Calvin, he came to preach the predestination of the social order and the salvation of the economically elect through the survival of the fittest.”

Social Darwinism, particularly in the writings of Sumner, expresses a secular piety, as I have mentioned- its advocates wanted a nation where economic activity was also a molder of character.

A healthy economic life, they believed, offered rewards and inducements to men of character who worked hard, saved and were prudent.  It would punish, in Sumner’s words, people who were “negligent, shiftless, inefficient, silly and imprudent.”

Needless to say, while Darwin apparently had some respect for Spencer and interest in his ideas, he never endorsed either Social Darwinism, or its vicious child, eugenics. Here is a quote from a sarcastic and amusing letter Darwin wrote to Sir Charles Lyell.  If you will remember, Lyell was the geologist who saved geology from the Moses, or Biblical proponents, demonstrating how the world’s geology underwent gradual change rather than one violent flood.  Darwin said to Lyle: “I have received in a Manchester newspaper rather a good squib, showing that I have proved: “might is right,” and therefore that Napoleon is right and every cheating tradesman is also right.”

There were many formidable critics of Social Darwinism.  Peter Kropotkin, whom we studied in “Anarchism” at, wrote his Mutual Aid in 1902, which demonstrated how animals within their own species join together to cooperate in mutual projects. People who are interested in a comprehensive overview of the strong critics of Social Darwinism are encouraged to read Richard Hofstadter’s seminal text, Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1944, still one of the best volumes on the topic.

Pragmatism soon took the place of a waning and frequently ignored social Darwinism in 1910 and 1920 America. John Dewey and William James were two of its most influential proponents.

Pragmatism was experimental, interested in the manipulation of a society to create change, given to a sense of possibility and what could be done to bring about a healthier, creative way of life.

The Social Darwinists had adopted the concept of automatic progress through laissez-faire; they viewed the environment as a fixed norm.  They had no real grievance against the existing order. But the Pragmatists were very different. Hofstadter has this to say about the Pragmatists’ ultimate breakthrough into a social and philosophical theory.  Hofstadter maintains: “The development and spread of Pragmatism broke Spencer’s monopoly on evolution and showed that the intellectual uses of Darwinism were more complex than Spencer’s followers had thought. The pragmatists’ most vital contribution to the general background of social thought was to encourage a belief in the effectiveness of ideas and the possibility of novelties- a position necessary to any philosophically consistent theory of social reform.” Spencer believed in determinism and that man was controlled by the environment. The Pragmatists embraced freedom and man’s ultimate control of the environment.

Social Darwinism was effectively finished, as I have said, by about 1900, if not earlier. But it helped spawn a movement that was egregious and tragically misguided.  This movement was eugenics, which was a pseudo science whose followers had the notion that their distorted view of evolution would improve social conditions. The word, eugenics, was coined by the British scientist, Francis Galton, in 1883.  He was a cousin of Charles Darwin, who did not subscribe to Galton’s theories. Eugenics, in its most pernicious form, was the so-called science of breeding children with superior qualities- intelligence, physical attributes, character and so on.

Before I begin a discussion of eugenics, I would like to distinguish between the two types of the theory that disparate thinkers and social reformers subscribed to. If you recall my lecture on Sex Radicals, and Birth Control Advocates, which is at, there were many American reformers who were interested in a positive form of eugenics.  Their theory was wrong-headed as well, but it was taken up by them in a spirit of benevolence.  Many birth control advocates such as Margaret Sanger, Emma Goldman and others, were proponents of the belief that a wanted child, conceived with love, would have more positive physical, intellectual and moral qualities than an unwanted child. They had seen the brutal conditions American women and children of the working classes lived in and wanted to alleviate human suffering. 

I am concerned that birth control and women’s rights aspirations might be jumbled together with the vicious policies and practices of the so-called positive eugenicists.  The positive eugenicists thought that many meritorious traits were inheritable. Because they were devoted to breeding superior children, they were in favor of encouraging people with desirable traits to have more children.  Conversely they wished to prevent those people whom they considered unfit from passing on to future generations what they believed were inherited, undesirable traits.  They wanted to prevent the so-called unfit from breeding by sterilizing them, without their consent, if need be. Such proponents of eugenics were racist and motivated by class and race hatred. Their policies endured until the 1960’s and early 1970’s.  The involuntary sterilization of American citizens is a long and tragic story. But it is a warning to atheists and agnostics against the beguilements of pseudo science.

The secular community can trace its intellectual and moral beginnings to the 18th Century Enlightenment, as I have mentioned, from Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, up to the humanists of the present day, such as the late Carl Sagan, the great cosmologist.  Theirs was a philosophy that embraced human flourishing, not human engineering.  We must hold fast to its principles and try to stop movements such as eugenics from becoming part of American social planning ever again.

Eugenics comes from the Greek, meaning “good birth.” It originated with Francis Galton and was supposed to describe the attempts to improve the human race by means of genetic policies. In the last twenty-five years of the 19th Century, people became increasingly worried that the biological quality of the Western nations’ citizens was in decline. Biological and social scientists explained that the decline was taking place due to scientific innovations and new inventions. They claimed that earlier civilizations had managed to achieve populations of the fittest because the unfit often suffered from reduced fertility and earlier deaths, thereby eliminating the continuation of their genes.  But improvements in medicine, in sanitation and in inventions such as eyeglasses, had negated many of the effects of natural selection. Some theorists felt it was only a matter of time before genetic deterioration set in; many believed it had already begun.

The obvious solution was to become able to control and even improve human and societal quality.  These social planners, thinkers and activists arrived at two solutions.  One idea was to promote the birth and education of children by parents the theorists considered superior. The second solution was to try to prevent the birth and rearing of children by those people they considered of inferior quality.

Galton himself tried to promote eugenics by establishing local genetics associations whose purpose was to advocate eugenic principles throughout their localities. He tried to further the pursuit of positive eugenics by promoting the effort to find families in each area who by superior intellect, health and character had made significant contributions to the social good.  He wanted his followers to try to persuade such persons of their duty to have more children so as to increase or maintain their future numbers.

Galton funded a research fellowship at University College in England in 1905, for the purpose of compiling the pedigrees of elite British families. But he also wanted to curb the birth rate of what was then referred to as the underclass, or undesirables.  He wrote several books on the topic of eugenics, but his recurring concern was an unhealthy focus on preventing the proliferation of what he and his followers called the undesirable classes.

Galton had read the detailed study of the American Jukes Family, written by Richard Dugdale in 1877.  Dugdale had discovered that the degenerate Jukes’, living in upstate New York, had produced seven generations of criminals, prostitutes, alcoholics and unemployables. But many thinkers and readers seemed to ignore Dugdale’s conclusions that the degeneration of the family was due to environmental factors as well as hereditary issues.  Dugdale additionally suggested that some of the Jukes’ undesirable traits might become heritable over time.  Arthur H. Estabrook, of the Eugenics Record Office in Cold Springs, New York, wrote a second volume, called The Jukes in 1915, in which he updated the family’s fortunes since 1877.  He found little change, but his excellent study attributed most of the difficulties of the family members to their terrible environment.

There were many facts in both studies of the Jukes family to point to environmental difficulties that persisted over many generations, as well as some hereditary factors. Galton, however, who had seen such families in England, was more impressed by the hereditary undesirable traits he thought he had detected in them. He wrote: “Such persons are exceptionally and unquestionably unfit to contribute offspring to the nation.” He stated: “…that stern compulsion ought to be exerted to prevent the free propagation of the stock of those who are seriously affected by lunacy, feeble-mindedness, habitual criminality and pauperism.” He was sure that Western democracies would ultimately refuse consent to the freedom of propagating permitted the under classes.

The rise of hereditarian science contributed to the trend of believing that many undesirable traits could be lessened or removed from society by restricting the propagation of those who carried them. Charles Davenport’s researches seemed to bear this notion out.  He was a chicken breeder but he also collected extensive family records in the genre of the “Jukes” studies.  He found albinism, deafness, insanity, pauperism, criminality, nomadism, epilepsy, alcoholism, manic depression and shiftlessness tended to run in families, which he believed established a hereditary cause. 

Mendel’s genetics and other studies of heredity were misinterpreted, although they disproved many mistaken notions of heredity.  For example, the classic experiment of excising mice’s tales and then having them breed demonstrated that the next generation of mice all had the original long tales of the parents before they were cut.

 Such studies were not properly understood, and the neo-Darwinian synthesis of Darwin’s evolutionary theory and Mendel’s genetics did not carry the weight that it should have at that particular period. Many erroneously thought that Darwin and Mendel’s ideas were at odds. Mendel’s genetics were comprehended by 1900 and when combined with T.M. Morgan’s chromosome theory of inheritance in 1915, formed the core of classical genetic theory.

But Galton’s pseudo science was quite satisfying to the vanity and pride of place of the upper classes, who could then justify their discrimination against the lower classes.  Disease and filth were associated with immorality and many believed immorality was inherited. People had the notion that blind people, deaf people, promiscuous women, people who lacked intelligence and lovers of the sea passed these so-called defects to their children. Genes and genetics were unknown in the 19th Century. There were large gaps in knowledge about the mechanism of inheritance and the transmission of disease.

The early 20th Century saw the establishment of the field of genetics. But it was another twenty years before researchers could demonstrate that selective breeding of humans could not rid society of communicable diseases, such as syphilis, or of many other conditions, such as alcoholism and mental illness. What well educated people would have known if they had looked at the hard facts and repeated outcomes of many experiments was that there was very little evidence for Galton’s theory. There was no excuse for the continuation of belief in eugenics during the middle years of the 20th Century.

The Great Depression of 1929 that took place in the United States demonstrated that many of the rich, the so-called fittest people in the society, had suddenly become poor.  The idea that they were superior in terms of survival did not hold, just as their money and investments had not. People began to realize that pauperism was not inherited.  Sometimes it was just the result of bad luck. When knowledge of the vicious compulsory sterilization programs carried out by Nazi Germany emerged after the end of World War II, many Americans became disgusted with eugenic practices. Social Darwinism became not only a discarded theory, but a discredited one.   However, due to racism and other factors, involuntary sterilization laws were not rescinded in our nation until about 1972, with the last of them being repealed in 1979.

The Progressive Era in the United States overlapped the Gilded Age, running from the 1890’s until the 1920’s.  It was a time of social and political reform in America. There was emphasis placed on scientific management, which included the goal of running business and government efficiently, but there were also social concerns.  Two of its major proponents were Theodore Roosevelt and William Jennings Bryan, both conservative in religious beliefs.

Some Progressive Age goals were excellent, such as curbing unprincipled business growth and supporting women’s suffrage. There was general backing for reforms in medicine, politics and other areas. But in order to break some of the power of the big city bosses and their political machines, politicians bowed to the pressure of religious and social conservatives about alcohol, and Prohibition was passed in 1920.  Repeal of the law did not take place until 1933. The Progressive Era was also the time of widening support for eugenics.

Despite the new scientific knowledge about the inheritance of traits, eugenics became exceedingly popular in an America which had begun entertaining the notion of social engineering.

From many sources, I have ascertained that Francis Galton, who had given up organized religion in the 1860’s, came to consider his eugenics program as a kind of secular religion. He is quoted as stating: “…that the Constitution of the living Universe is a pure theism.” He speculated about eugenics as religion with these words: “I see no impossibility in eugenics becoming a religious dogma among mankind.”

I shall be discussing the role that many liberal Protestant churches played in the so-called “science of genetics” shortly. The most liberal and progressive Protestant ministers, Reform Jewish rabbis, and even a few Catholic priests embraced eugenics.  Religion and science are usually at war, but the junk science of eugenics captured religion just as it captured the enthusiasm of the American public and many thinkers.  Religion is already dedicated to falsehood and enthroned mistaken ideas, so it was not a giant leap for some churches and ministers to embrace the nonsensical science of eugenics.

While involuntary sterilization is only one expression of the many ideas grouped into what we today understand as eugenics, it is of interest because the egregious practice endured in America for as long as the 1970’s. Paul A. Lombardo states that is also “generated legal and administrative records of use as the raw material of much historical study.”

By 1913, twelve states in America had passed involuntary sterilization laws; by 1931, the number of states who had adopted such laws had risen to above thirty. 

The laws had extensive implementation. Scholars have estimated that the legislation was responsible for twenty thousand sterilizations performed in the United States by 1935, and that by 1970, the number of people involuntarily sterilized rose to about 65,000 or more. About half of these people were mentally retarded and half were both retarded and criminal.  Vasectomies performed on criminal males were common.

All told, the United States carried out close to about 70,000 involuntary sterilizations before the practice began to decline. Many other nations took up the practice, as well, such as Sweden, Alberta, Canada, Germany, Norway and Finland. Sweden’s sterilization program amounted to about 60,000 people between 1934 and 1976, which was, according to Anthony Flew, roughly “the same proportion of the population that was sterilized in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1939.

But in America, sterilizing men in prisons and mental hospitals was not the whole story.  Many researchers believe that by 1940, the emphasis on involuntary sterilization had shifted to women rather than men.  Poor women, prostitutes and women who were promiscuous became the targets of the establishment figures that authorized such involuntary sterilizations. Most mental illness is not hereditary, nor is criminality, prostitution, promiscuity or pauperism.  The practice of involuntary sterilization did nothing to improve the social fabric of the United States. 

A charter member of the American Breeders Association, the aforementioned Charles Davenport, was the guiding light in American eugenics. He was the founder of the Eugenics Record Office.

 Indiana was the first state in America to pass compulsory sterilization in 1907. Three men were primarily responsible: Oscar McCullough (1843-91), David Stark Jordan (1851-1931), and Henry Clay Sharp (1871-1940.) Oscar McCullough was a minister who had tried to work with a wandering tribe who called themselves the Tribe of Ishmael. They claimed descent from English tinkers, Indians, Negroes and so on, and clung to their nomadic life style. McCullough was unable to reform them and began to view the Ishmael Tribe as “devil grass,” a term for weeds that had to be uprooted to be controlled. David Stark Jordan, who had joined McCullough’s church, was a biologist and he confirmed his minister’s conclusions.

Henry Clay Stark was influenced by McCullough’s and Jordan’s writings, and as a physician, was in a position to impact eugenic legislation. He believed in vasectomies. At meetings of the American Medical Society, Sharp persuaded many doctors to lobby their legislatures to pass involuntary sterilization laws for sex offenders, habitual criminals, people who were epileptic, feeble-minded or who had hereditary defects.

Eugenicists also needed a way to ensure their laws would not be struck down by the higher courts. A man called Harry Laughlin designed a model sterilization act, which was meant to survive a constitutional challenge. His model act was adopted by the state of Virginia in 1924 and challenged in the case of Buck vs Bell.

 Carrie Buck was the child of an alleged feeble-minded mother.  She had been placed in an institution after becoming pregnant with an illegitimate child and being pronounced incorrigible. The truth was that she had been raped by a male relative of her adoptive family who wanted to hide the scandal.

Her case was lost and she was sterilized against her will. The United States Supreme Court upheld the law with an eight justice majority.  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ conclusions are on the record. He stated: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.” After being released from the institution, Carrie Buck became a domestic servant.  She was an avid reader until her death.  Until her child’s death from measles’ complications, the little girl did well in school, even making the honor roll.  Were they imbeciles?  Common sense denies such charges.

Henry Clay Sharp went on to become a practicing physician for the Veteran’s Administration after World War I, and abandoned his work in eugenics.  The Journal of Heredity interviewed him in 1937, as the Nazi sterilization laws were becoming state policy on a large scale.  Sharp merely said: “We did not know enough about science then.” He never said a word about the immorality of the practice he helped legalize.  Carlson states that “the notion that those individuals they described as “unfit to reproduce would rapidly spread their defects to an innocent population was and is simply false.”

Not only was the practice of compulsory sterilization immoral, it was ineffective. I am quoting Paul A. Lombardo, the author of the 2011 A Century of Genetics in America. “The causes of mental retardation and psychosis did not fit a typical Mendelian pattern; to the degree that hereditary components existed, they were not passed on in an obvious like-for-like transmission. As a result, sterilizing someone who exhibited negative traits would have a limited effect on curbing the incidence of unexpressed, recessive factors carried by healthy people.”

I mentioned the Great Depression earlier.  The number of poor, homeless and disabled people wandering outside of institutions, “the unfit,” multiplied, even though compulsory sterilization was being carried out at the same time. As I have already pointed out, the economic disaster laid low many professionals erstwhile considered superior, those who had succeeded in law, finance, banking and so on. There was widespread deprivation. The notion of the fit and unfit began to be queried. The Roosevelt Administration of 1933 focused its efforts on relief and recovery. Those two practices became the concentrated purpose of the government, rather than prevention and sterilization.

In 1926, the incorporation of the American Eugenics Society, the AES, was successfully completed. The AES, besides sponsoring lectures and conferences, also aided smaller local eugenics groups, such as The Race Betterment Foundation in Battle Creek, Michigan.  This organization was begun in 1911 by John Harvey Kellogg, who was an outspoken racist and segregationist, in cooperation with Charles Davenport.  Kellogg was very religious and advocated circumcision for both girls and boys, to stop their masturbatory habits. He was most effective in helping to spread the egregious and unnecessary practice of circumcising male children in the United States. His Race Betterment Foundation sponsored a series of conferences at the Kellogg sanitarium in 1914, 1915 and 1928. He and his brother founded the Kellogg Cereal Company.

The AES was very similar to the Galton Society in England.  Its stated goals were attempting to achieve racial betterment, eugenic health and genetic education through lectures and exhibits. The group promoted the “Fitter Family” Contests at State Fairs across the United States.

In order to enroll in such contests, contestants frequently had to provide their family’s eugenic history, and take medical exams and intelligence tests.

The AES considered immigration restriction one of its goals, as well.  Some of the members, including the secretary of the organization in 1937, sponsored a talk by a medical doctor who had traveled to Germany and had toured its compulsory sterilization facilities. The doctor told the AES that it was apparent that the Nazi sterilization program was an excellent one. Many eminent people belonged to the AES in its heyday, including Margaret Sanger, the birth control advocate.  Gamble, from the Proctor and Gamble family, was a contributor to the eugenics movement. There were many wealthy people who were affiliates of the AES or related associations. For those who are interested in the identities of the upper class members or advocates of eugenics, the volume, A Century of Eugenics in America, is an excellent place to begin. A quick web search will also yield many names.

In 1930, the AES had 1260 members, most of them wealthy and prominent citizens of the United States, but not scientists.  In 1960, the number of members dropped to about 400, but consisted exclusively of people in science and medicine.  It changed its name in 1972 to “The Society for the Study of Social Biology.” It was now made up of medical and scientific professionals and claimed its interests were “the trends of human evolution and the biological, medical and social forces that determine these trends.” I think it is reasonable for those who oppose eugenics to believe that leopards do not change their spots. 

They merely change the size and shape of the spots as they evolve and alter. But they retain both their spots and their predatory natures.

Another area affected by the American eugenics movement was its assault against immigrants and black people. But in the area of eugenic policies against blacks, the history is ambiguous.  Many black leaders assailed the racist policies of eugenics, but some of them embraced the notion that (a) humans could be sorted into relatively fit and unfit categories and (b) society as a whole could be improved by ensuring the propagation of the fit and reducing propagation of the unfit.  Even W.B. Dubois (1868-1963), the famous black historian, sociologist and activist subscribed to a nuanced concept of racial elitism.  Dubois was active against racist eugenic science, but he urged the black elite to rise and pull “all that were worth saving up to their vantage ground.” 

Backed by leaders such as Dubois and Thomas Watt Turner, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP, began to sponsor black baby contests between 1924 and 1934.  The black contests mirrored the “Better Baby” and “Fitter Family” contests that were sweeping the white mainstream. Gregory Paul Dorr explains that the contests helped raise money for the NAACP to fund its battle against the lynching of blacks.  But they also promulgated assimilationist eugenics, the kind advocated by Dubois and Turner. 

Dubois was interested in a certain amount of assimilation of black people into the white elite. However, he and other black leaders seemed to promote an attempt to eugenically improve the black community from within. Dubois named this movement The Tenth Crusade- a phrase replete with Christian imagery.

He was known as a freethinker, but there are scholars who believe he was more involved in religion or spirituality than is generally acknowledged. For those with more interest in this topic, please see the Lombardo volume, A Century of Eugenics in America, 2011, listed in the Bibliography at the end of the written lecture at

I would now like to turn to the churches in the United States and their endorsement of eugenics. I have spoken about how Galton and others attempted to make a secular religion of eugenics. But according to Christine Rosen, most eugenic proponents shrewdly tried to insert eugenics into theology instead. Her 2004 volume, Preaching Eugenics, is a well-researched and well-regarded history of how religion in the United States, particularly the liberal Protestant wing, embraced eugenics.

Rosen states that the religious leaders who became involved in eugenics included Protestants of nearly every denomination, Jewish rabbis and a few Catholics, although they overwhelmingly represented the liberal wings of their respective faiths. However, the Catholic Church was a vehement opponent of eugenics.  It tended to be liberal Protestant ministers who embraced eugenics. Many of them were dedicated to reform. They had been inspired by modern science and had been troubled, but accepting, of the new historical criticism of the Bible. They were eager to reconcile what they believed were the enduring aspects of Christianity, states Rosen, with the vagaries of modern experience and culture. Some of their more liberal parishioners were not quite believing Christians. But on one point both clergy and parishioners agreed: they did believe in finding a better way to believe.

In the 1880’s United States and Great Britain, the rise of the Social Gospel among liberal Protestants had as its goal the establishment of a kingdom of god on earth through Christian social service.  Since they were interested in improving society, many of them, such as the famous Reverend Harry Emerson Fosdick (1868-1963), fell under the spell of eugenics.  I do not want to sugar coat religious goals, however.  The majority of the clergy who were reformers ascribed to the belief that the Anglo-American strain was the superior one. There were frequent sermons and some books written by these clergymen that warned that the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were introducing “alien strains of blood into American Society.” They were united in the hope of ushering in the new world of Christianity on earth, an American one, of pure blood, however.

Reform Rabbis, although to a much lesser extent than the Protestant clergy, accepted eugenics.  Under the guidance of Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, (1819-1900), the reform movement was largely, according to Rosen, an affiliation of Jews of German descent who had settled in America in the 19th Century, assimilated and prospered. They were worried that the newer uneducated and poor Jewish immigrants arriving in the United States would not be capable of assimilation.

Despite having to fend off periodic attacks from eugenicists who made vicious claims that Jews were more susceptible to mental illness, idiocy and physical defects than other people, many Jewish rabbis were a significant presence in the eugenics movement, particularly in the 1920’s.

Some very important rabbis, such as Rabbi Joseph Silverman, were members of the American Genetics Society; other rabbis who were not members nevertheless sponsored lectures by eugenicists at their temples and some of them also spoke for the eugenics cause.

By the 1920’s, the American Eugenics Society began to sponsor sermon contests for the clergy, with prizes of $500, $200 and $100 for first, second and third place winners. The contestant ministers had to preach their sermons to “regular” congregations in churches or synagogues.  The sermon theme and title assigned to each clergyman was usually “Religion and Eugenics: Does the church have any responsibility for improving the human stock?”  The goal of the AES was to reach thousands of people in the United States with the eugenics message and the sermon contests were one of its ploys. The eugenics sermons were replete with social rather than scientific eugenic detail.  The ministers often emphasized the compatibility of religion and science. A strong dedication to the eugenics movement, many ministers claimed, might help the various denominations to come together, transcending their individual differences in doctrine.

The pastors did not ignore the central role of Scripture when emphasizing the truth of eugenics. They regaled the faithful with passages from the Jesus Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Talents. But a few clergymen were more inventive. Some of the adventurous ones explained that the Bible’s Old Testament used severe methods to maintain the purity of the human race. They cited Noah’s Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah to prevent “a race, reeking with corruption, from propagating a vicious progeny.”

The secular community is unfortunately all too well aware how frequently the Christian Bible, a flawed and false document itself, is used to justify cruel and egregious practices.  That it was used to support the false science of eugenics will be of no surprise to atheists and agnostics.

After World War Two ended and the full revelation of Nazi Germany’s compulsory sterilization program was exposed, the American clergy was as chastened and rejecting of eugenics as were the intellectual and social planners of the United States. Many religions have apologized in print or in sermons, such as the Unitarian Church, which has admitted its advocacy of eugenics in the past and formally apologizes for it.

By the 1960’s, the enthusiasm for eugenics suffered a steep decline. Many eugenics societies went into voluntary liquidation and many rebranded themselves. Their journals underwent name changes.  For example, the American Eugenics Society ended its journal, named Eugenics Quarterly, and replaced it with a new name, Social Biology. When Mark Haller, Kenneth Ludmerer and Daniel Kevles published strong critiques of the eugenics movement, extracts from their books were reprinted in the New Yorker Magazine and the New York Times praised their publication.

Is the pseudoscience of eugenics over in America? The eugenic movement of the past is passé, shameful and repudiated. But the last few decades in the United States has seen a resurgence of social, psychological and anthropological theories that are once again biologically based; and once again there is little evidence to justify acceptance of their premises.

I have provided critiques of evolutionary psychology in the lecture, “Atheist Psychologies- Evolutionary Psychology,” at and criticized anthropological explanations that claim religion is adaptive in “Atheist Anthropologies” at

Now Nicholas Wade, who has written about the adaptive qualities of religion, has come out with a new book, A Troublesome Inheritance, 2012, that attempts to explain why differences among peoples, including violence, poverty, trust and innovative ability, are due to the independent evolution of the five major races. H. Allen Orr has reviewed Wade’s volume extensively in the New York Review of Books (which is cited in the Bibliography at the end of this lecture at and dismisses most of Wade’s arguments. Why? Because Orr states that Wade does not offer any proof from the new science of genomics.  Orr argues that Wade’s hard evidence for such racial claims in nearly non-existent.

Pseudoscience, faux sociology, and fraudulent psychology are not dead, nor the popularity of their specious claims. The new, milder Social Darwinists have put their fallacious theories forward once again and once again, they have found adherents in the United States. Some secular people have been drawn to evolutionary psychology’s specious claims. Our atheist community must rigorously question that discipline’s attempt to explain present day human behavior from a biological and evolutionary standpoint. Evolutionary psychologists claim that contemporary cultural patterns originated in the Stone Age and have not had time to evolve. They offer very little evidence for such speculation. Atheists, who have rejected the nonsense of religion, also need to evaluate so-called scientific claims with suspicion.

 If we atheists and agnostics need hard evidence for the existence of god and of other transcendent claims, should we not also demand evidence for scientific claims? Let the new Social Darwinists produce salient facts and then we shall agree with them.  As of this writing, no strong evidence has been forthcoming.

Linda McCabe and Edward R.B. McCabe ask some penetrating questions in the volume, A Century of Eugenics in America. Their article asks, “Are We Entering a Perfect Storm for the Resurgence of Genetics?” Time does not permit a complete discussion of the possibility of a dangerous recrudescence of eugenics in the 21st century.  The public does not understand the Human Genome Project, which has achieved iconic status.  Americans, when asked, expect the Project to bring about eventual cures for diabetes and cancer, heart disease and birth defects.  Horace Freeland Judson explains that we do not have one human genome, but billions.  He states that the people with the Project knew from the start the Project would never be complete. But it has been packaged as though there were no variants. “At the level of genes,” Judson states, “the Project promises a useful consensus, but at the level of sequences of nucleotides, variability is great and important.” It has merely been packaged as a definite and singular project with a fixed end point.” He goes on to explain: “Genes act in concert with each other- collectively with the environment,” and “for ourselves, for the general public, what we require is to get more fully and precisely into the language of genetics.”

Unfortunately, according to Judson, James Watson, one of the people who deduced the structure of DNA, decided to sell the Human Genome Project to Americans and gain funding from Congress.

 He made statements such as this one to Time magazine in 1989: “We used to believe our destiny was in the stars; now we know in large measure our fate is in our genes.”  This claim is not true- since the individual genome is determined at fertilization and the sequences set at that moment, the McCabes argue that a person’s fate would then be immutable, but that is not the case.

They explain the sequence as written is not as important as how it is read.  “Environmental influences effect changes in the DNA to silence certain genes which will not be read.  They may remain silenced for the life of the individual, and possibly beyond–into future generations. Professors and scientists of human genetics have emphasized that our knowledge of human genes and their actions is slight, that we cannot bring about correct human breeding.  They believe many of us are under the misunderstanding created by the gene myth- the view that our nature (and even our fate) is in the genes, that genes determine behavior like a puppeteer his puppets.”

Some of the American public is taken in by the claims of the new so-called scientists- they are not apprised of the truth of genetic discrimination, determinism, and economic considerations. There is a plethora of ideas such as procreative beneficence (having the best child you can by assisted reproductive technologies (ARTs), and prenatal genetic diagnosis, which sometimes is used to produce “savior babies,” who are genetically manipulated to provide matching stems cells for a brother or sister carrying a defective gene. There is currently a market for organs and tissues, commercialization of genetic testing and commerce in reproductive technologies. I have barely skimmed the surface of the problems raised by the infant technology of genetic manipulation. 

I embrace science, and I do not believe all of the above practices are wrong; I am simply advocating caution in the face of the enthusiasm about genetic manipulation, particularly since most Americans do not have a proper grasp of the subject.

Here are the McCabes’ general prescriptions to ensure against a resurgence of eugenics. They maintain: (1) We must recognize the illegitimacy of genetic discrimination and support genetic nondiscrimination legislation; (2) respect personal autonomy and reproductive freedom; (3) recognize and resist the corrosive nature of commodification of body parts, including genes and gametes, on social structure, (4) guard against policies from organized medicine, governments and corporations that could enshrine eugenic practices; (5)and educate opinion leaders and populace regarding the risks of overpromising genetics, genomics and the consequences of determinism and eugenics.”

I would like to ask members of our secular community to remain true to our humanist roots, which came to us through the 18th Century Enlightenment, through our American Founders, and through men like Robert Green Ingersoll and Carl Sagan. I would like to urge all of us to follow humanist morality and ethics. We need to insist that those who promise to provide humanity with a brilliant flourishing through biological manipulation of genes and other methods must provide salient proof for their expectations and promises. If they do not offer us scientific evidence, we have the right to refuse to accept their speculations; that is the way to avoid what happened when Americans listened to the pied pipers of eugenics in the past.

We may not have godlike foresight, but we are able to listen to critics, debate legal proposals, and to adopt a cautious approach when we are urged to endorse so-called scientific approaches to social and moral problems. Science will not explain all of our human past, nor provide for all human flourishing in the future.  Let us adopt caution and think of human dignity. We are secular humanists and many of us are skeptics.  Let us cling to those life stances and they will see us safely through an impressive future riddled with breathtaking expectancy and uncertainty on all sides. It is exigent that we make that future safe for our children, for our beliefs and for future generations.

Video of Lecture: Social Darwinism

Lecture: Social Darwinism

Video of Discussion: Social Darwinism

Discussion: Social Darwinism


Carlson, Elof Akel. “The Hoosier Connection: Compulsory Sterilization as Moral Hygiene.” In Paul A. Lombardo, Ed. A Century of Genetics in America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011.  11-25.

Cooke, Bill. “Eugenics.” In Bill Cooke. Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism and Humanism.  Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006. 174.

_______. “Herbert Spencer.” In Bill Cooke. Dictionary of Atheism, Skepticism and Humanism. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2006. 501.

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Dorr, Gregory Michael. “Quality, Not Mere Quantity Counts: Black Eugenics and the NAACP Baby Contests.” In Paul A. Lombardo, Ed. A Century of Genetics in America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011.  68-92.

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McCabe, Linda L. and Edward R.B. McCabe. “Are We Entering a ‘Perfect Storm’ for a Resurgence of Eugenics? Science, Medicine and Their Social Contexts.”  In Paul A. Lombardo, Ed. A Century of Genetics in America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011.  193-218.

Mehlman, Maxwell J. “Modern Eugenics and the Law.” In Paul A. Lombardo, Ed. A Century of Genetics in America. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2011.  219-240.

Orr, H. Allen. “Stretch Genes,” A Review of “A Troublesome Inheritance” by Nicholas Wade. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. In the New York Review of Books. June 5, 2014. Vol. LXI, no. 10. 18-20.

Rosen, Christine. Preaching Genetics: Religious Leaders and The American Eugenics Movement. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Sweet, William. “Herbert Spencer.” In Tom Flynn, Ed. The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2007. 729-730.