History Books and Modern Language

Current events sometimes collide with academic reading. I’m reading a book on the history of eugenics in Germany and how many eugenicists, as well as and Nietszchean philosophers and later the Nazi supporters used some of the language and ideas from Darwinism to promote a “science-based” ethic. I had just finished the chapters on the rise of moral relativism and ethics based on scientific language from Darwinian theory, when I turned to some current events in the bioethics world (For two good resources on current events in bioethics go to www.bioethics.com or Bioedge ). Two stories at the top of the list were on sex-selection. One was one multiple birth reduction. While the articles deal with very difficult topics, if you step back and read the articles, particularly the justifications given by the parents, the language is coated with medical and scientific justifications along with the notions of the healthiest or most fit or the ones that are more valued by societal norms as being worthy of survival.


The book I was reading is From Darwin to Hitler by Richard Weikart. Weikart is a historian and does not make the argument that Darwinism necessarily results in the atrocities of World War II. Rather, Weikart traces through the history of ideas in the German (and European) culture that lead up to the rise of Hitler. He does however note how many of the early eugenicists and the Nazis used Darwinian language of natural selection and survival of the fittest to justify deeming some members of society weaker and less valuable than others. I think one of the important take away points to this is how Darwinism as laid out in On the Origin of Species and in Descent of Man does not have the moral capacity to deem these actions wrong, or even deem them a mis-application of Darwinism, even though Darwin himself is reputed as being a gentle naturalist.


The problem is ethics drawn from Darwinism undercuts itself creating a morally devoid ethic of survival of the fittest and propagation of the species. In one sense this type of naturalistic ethic is relativistic because instincts are natural and therefore not morally wrong. This allows anything to be justifiable as long as it is instinctive. Darwin showed this in Descent of Man by looking at the animal kingdom and comparing animal instincts to human actions. In another sense, Darwinism removed the individual from a place of importance and elevated society or the good of the whole above the individual. In this second sense, death was deemed justifiable in instances where it would benefit society by weeding out the weaker. This was justified by using the language of natural selection and survival of the fittest.


So turning to the new technologies available in knowing the sex of your child early in pregnancy and technologies, such as those used by Microsort that allows a couple to select the sex of their child, the justification for this is either prevention of sex-linked disease or “family balancing.” Another article on sex selection was about China and how it was dealing with the inevitable ramifications of their population control policies (see here and here. Population control was one of justifications used by eugenicists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The last article I read (in an oddly similar vein) was about multiple birth reduction.


I think in future blog posts it might be interesting to trace through some of language used to justify controlling reproduction. There are some differences. The eugenics movement both in the U.S. and in Germany involved some people taking control of others reproduction by deeming some not worthy to reproduce. Today, it is seen more subtly in the form of parents wanting a certain type of child or a certain sex or a certain number, all of which are dictated by what society values. In the case of the United States, we value having many choices and personal autonomy. It is less subtle in China and India where many people value boys over girls. One of the doctors mentioned in the article who was at one time against reducing twins and has since changed his position, is quoted as saying that “[h]e became convinced that everyone carrying twins, through reproductive technology or not, should at least know that reduction was an option. ‘Ethics,’ he said, ‘evolve with technology.’ It seems that the ethic has not changed as much as one would think; it is the means to carry out that ethic that evolve with technology.

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