2.24 Social Science and Pseudo-Science

Age of Progress?

Many Europeans regarded Darwinian theory as a proof of progress: nature itself ensured that the human species would improve over time. Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher, built on similar ideas of evolutionary fitness. While Darwin argued that the animal kingdom’s struggle for existence was shaped by the environment, Spencer applied the argument to society itself, stating (as Darwin himself articulated later) that the legal, political and economic privilege of white, European men in the 19th century naturally derived from being more highly-evolved than white women or people of color. Spencer argued that the “lower races” were far behind whites in intelligence and civilization. These ideas led to a school of Social Darwinism that developed its own theory of evolution in order to lobby for racist, sexist, and nationalist policies.

Spencer was a fierce proponent of free market economics and also began the process of defining human races in biological terms, rather than cultural or historical ones. In turn, the new movement led an explosion of pseudo-scientific apologetics for notions of racial hierarchy. Usually, Social Darwinists claimed that it was not just that non-white races were inherently inferior, it was that they had reached a certain stage of evolution but stopped, while the white race had continued to evolve. Illustrations of the evolutionary process in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century encyclopedias and dictionaries were replete with an evolutionary chain from small creatures through monkeys and apes and then on to non-white human races, culminating with the supposedly “fully evolved” European “race.”

In addition to non-white races, Social Darwinists targeted elements of their own societies for vilification, often lumping together various identities and behaviors as “unfit.” For Social Darwinists, the “unfit” included alcoholics, those who were promiscuous, unwed mothers, criminals, the developmentally disabled, and those with congenital disabilities. Social Darwinism’s prevailing theory was that charity or “artificial” checks on the exploitation of workers like trade unions would lead to the survival of the unfit, which would in turn cause the human species to decline. Likewise, charity, aid, and rehabilitation were misplaced, since they would supposedly lead to the survival of the unfit and thereby drag down the health of society overall. Thus, the best policy was to allow the “unfit” to die off if possible, and to try to impose limits on their breeding if not. Social Darwinism soon led to the field of eugenics, which advocated programs to sterilize the “unfit.” Ironically, even as Social Darwinism provided a pseudo-scientific foundation for racist and sexist cultural assumptions, these notions of race and culture also fed into the fear of degeneration mentioned above. In the midst of the squalor of working-class life, or in terms of the increasing rates of drug use and alcoholism, many people came to fear that certain destructive traits were not only flourishing in Europe, but were being passed on. There was thus a great fear that the masses of the weak and unintelligent could and would spread their weakness through high birth-rates, while the smart and capable were simply overwhelmed.


Exploration: Eugenics

"Winners of a Fitter Family Contest." c. 19th century.
“Winners of a Fitter Family Contest.” c. 19th century. Wikimedia. May 4, 2017.

Economic Reality

With the soaring population numbers and overcrowding of the cities in industrialized nations in the late 19th century came many reformers who looked for scientific solutions to the problems. Even the number of deaths as a result of the Crimean War, World War I, the pandemic flu (discussed in future modules), and many other epidemics and conflicts could not seem to adequately address the problem. Many reformers believed that improving the conditions in marriage would raise the quality of life and produce better children, rather than the pitiful dregs of society most believed the working class poor to be.

"Margaret Sanger and her sister." January 8, 1917.
“Margaret Sanger and her sister.” January 8, 1917. Wikimedia. October 22, 2011.

The “Science” of Eugenics

Many educated Europeans believed in a new “science” – the science of eugenics. The term eugenics was created by Sir Francis Galton. Galton was a cousin to Charles Darwin and he applied Darwin’s ideas of evolution and competition in the animal kingdom for survival to the human race itself. This is much more than Social Darwinism which says societies are superior through a process of competition, but instead looks at the quality of children’s genetic traits to decide who should be allowed to breed at all.

Margaret Sanger was a eugenicist. She was also a reformer pushing for the free availability of information on birth control for all people. She connected birth control to eugenics.

“Genetic Hygiene: A Divine Mission.” The New Masses: Part 3—Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914. 2013. Films on Demand. 4:41.

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“Margaret Sanger: Birth Control and Eugenics.” Margaret Sanger. 1997. Films on Demand. 4:10.

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The Consequences of Eugenics

By the time of Hitler rose to power, the theory of eugenics had been around for a number of decades. A number of great philanthropists, statesmen, scientists, inventors, politicians, and authors were advocates of eugenics. They all had one thing in common – an innate certainty that they were genetically superior to “lower” types of people. Classified amongst the “lower” types were individuals such as criminals, the disabled, and even the poor. In the 1930s, this scientific movement takes on horrifying consequences. While this video clip discusses racial theory and eugenics in the United States, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eugenics was equally embraced on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Scientific Racism.” The House We Live In: Race—The Power of an Illusion. 2003. Films on Demand. 2:26.

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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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