Did Darwinism lead inevitably to the Holocaust? part 1 – Eugenics

Over at my main blog site, I have posted quite a lengthy response to what I feel is a rather irrational article by Bryan Appleyard in The Times (For God’s sake, have Charles Darwin’s theories made any difference to our lives?). While it could be argued that much of his article is intended as reportage rather than comment (and indeed Appleyard does just that at his blog), towards the end of the article he veers off into what seem to me to be rather over the top assertions about the consequences of Darwinism-induced loss of religious belief on public morality, and even asserts that the Nazi racial program and the Holocaust in particular are directly due to Darwinist influences:

Almost from its first appearance, the Darwinian idea has been used to justify appalling behaviour. Herbert Spencer, the Victorian philosopher, seized on “survival of the fittest” as scientific evidence that there was a moral injunction for the fit to defeat the unfit. From this, many thinkers drew the idea that we could help evolution along by eliminating or allowing the death of “inferior” races or individuals. [in other word, eugenics – Grumpy Bob]

This reached its deathly climax, via the work of the German biologist Ernst Haeckel, in Hitler’s statement of intent, Mein Kampf. From there it was but a short step to the Holocaust, which, among other things, was an attempt to aid evolution. Any hopes that we have escaped that dreadful phase are vain. How many times did the masters of turbo-capitalism of the past 20 years plead evolution and survival of the fittest as the justification for their cult of greed and cultural destruction? THE question nobody can really answer is: outside science, what difference did Darwin make? It is reasonable to answer: none whatsoever. Religion is as powerful a force in the world as it ever was, perhaps more powerful. Our rape of nature, our one true home, has accelerated. In the 20th century, technology extended our capacity for slaughter beyond imagination. Man still thinks he can be the master of nature, yet the one thing Darwinism shows more clearly than anything else is that we are its servants.

This is an accusation that is frequently made by the creationist lobby (linking evolution to atheism to eugenics and the Holocaust). But is there actually any evidence to support it? And indeed, can a scientific theory be held responsible for those who willfully misinterpret it?  In part 1 of this article, I’ll discuss eugenics, and I hope to show that, while many of the practitioners and theoreticians did indeed base their actions on evolutionary and genetic principles, this was based on methodological and theoretical flaws; in part 2, I’ll look into the motivations of those who perpetrated the Holocaust.


Eugenics was indeed a misapplication of selectionist intentions, underpinned both by poor understanding of both population genetics and complex traits. One might actually add to this that eugenicists were particularly enthusiastic in attributing characteristics to genetic causes with little or no evidence to support the attribution.

Elof Axel Carlson’s The Unfit: a history of a bad idea provides an excellent overview of eugenics, and sets it in the context of earlier institutional attitudes to the less fortuntate in society.  As an aside, this book is published by the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press – interestingly, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory hosts the Eugenics archive (it’s a bit flash heavy, but there’s an html-only version as well), the USA having implemented eugenic policies on a greater scale than most others.  I strongly recommend looking at that site, it provides a clear description of how and why eugenics was implemented in the USA, setting it in the social context of the times.

What is Eugenics?

The term “eugenics” was coined by Francis Galton in 1883, as the study of all agencies under human control which can improve or impair the racial quality of future generations. This kind of definition is slightly archaic – one wouldn’t generally refer to concepts such as “racial quality” nowadays.  In implementation, this meant action to prevent those considered to be “defective” in some way from contributing to the gene pool of future generations, usually by sterilisation or other more severe measures (negative eugenics), or by encouraging those with traits considered favourable to have more children (positive eugenics).

Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive article on the subject of Eugenics, with copious onward links.


A wide variety of traits appear to have been of interest to eugenicists, intelligence, physical deformity, even musical or other abilities.  To a modern geneticist’s eye, many of the claims for heritability of such traits are nothing short of absurd – now there’s a greater appreciation of the complexity of traits, and that many are not particularly heritable. The image below is of a pedigree showing “musical ability” from the Cold Spring Harbor Eugenics archive (link to image and supplementary text)

Student study of inheritance of musical ability, including pedigree
Student study of inheritance of musical ability, including pedigree

You can see that individuals are classified as to whether they are “highly musically talented”, “musically inclined”, or, though this is unspecified in the diagram “musically inept” (as I am).  Now, I don’t know whether musical ability was ever the subject of eugenic intervention (and I certainly suspect that it wasn’t), but we can look on this pedigree as an illustration of the problems in attempting to deduce a genetic explanation for behavioural characteristics.  The notes on pages 2 and 3 of the exhibit (you’ll need to follow the link above the pedigree) indicate the sort of criteria used to classify individuals.  For example, individual II 11 (generation 2, number 11) played several instruments, and in an orchestra, so she is classified as “highly musically talented”.  If we look at II 7, who is male, and classed as “musically inclined”, we can see from the notes the basis of this classification: was born blind and never learned to play any instrument. Loved music very much.  All rather dubious evidence for a genetic basis for musical ability, I think.

Similarly, pedigrees for “shiftlessness”, which obviously to middle class eyes at the time led to poverty and penury could be shown to run in pedigrees.  Why, you might ask ,did it not occur that environment was the cause – that children raised in poverty might tend to an impoverished life due to social and environmental conditioning? The naivety of these “genetic” studies, is certainly astonishing to modern eyes.

Eugenics in the USA

While the perhaps most widely known case of institutionalised eugenic practices is that of Nazi Germany, on which more below, in fact the USA had a particularly active eugenics movement.  In 1907, Indiana became the first state to legislate in favour of compulsory sterilisation.  Ultimately, 30 states took this step (see table below).  That eugenics was widely acceptable at that time is evident from its acceptance by public figures from the President down, most of whom undoubtedly were of religious tendency.

of sterilizations done in state institutions under state laws up to and including the year 1940
Table: of sterilizations done in state institutions under state laws up to and including the year 1940

The table makes for unhappy reading – note that California (a state I always equate, from across the Atlantic, with more liberal politics) was particularly active in the years up to 1940.  Almost unbelievably, the final curtain was not pulled until Oregon repealed its forced sterilization law in 1983, with the last known forced sterilization having been conducted about 5 years earlier.

European eugenics

In Britain, I am glad to relate, eugenics never received significant state funding or support, and forced sterilisation was not carried out (thought privately carried out procedures did occur).  On the other hand Sweden was quite keen, recording some 62,000 procedures between 1934 and 1975, focussing on “deviants and the mentally ill”, a higher number thn any other European nation, other than Nazi Germany.

With characteristic disregard for the individual and for human life, Nazi Germany succeeded in forcibly sterilising an estimated 400,000 people between 1933 and 1937, a quite astonishing total.  To add to this, they murdered tens of thousands of disabled people, many of whom were children.  While most nations employed negative eugenic policies, Nazi Germany also used a positive strategy, of encouraging women with particular physical characteristics to have larger families.

Could eugenics have worked?

Almost certainly not.  In the majority of cases documented, there was little or no evidence for a genetic cause of traits that eugenicists sought to eliminate.  In cases such as many recessive genetic disorders (for which a real genetic cause is known), the proportion of heterozygous carriers in the population so vastly exceeds the affected homozygotes, that depleting the population of affected individuals would be wholly ineffective.

Does Genetic Screening = Eugenics?

With the growth in molecular genetic understanding of many genetically-determined diseases has come the ability to identify individuals who may transmit or suffer from specific genetic conditions.  With the possibility of such genetic testing comes the baggage of past eugenic policies.

[As an aside, a number of years ago, I was invited to talk about the human genome project and its implications to a Church of England group.  I was rather astonished by the gung-ho nature of their approval of potential germline gene therapy and other interventions – their thoughts seemed to be informed by an idea that of God led us to the knowledge and skills to make these interventions, we should jolly well do it!]

What must be recalled is that genetic testing is applied to very simple monogenic conditions, and generally those with high penetrance (that is to say individuals homozygous for a disease-causing allele are certain to develop the condition), and that it can be implemented in different ways, and with different intentions.  One might imagine scenarios were individuals wish to know whether they are carriers of a recessive condition, or whether they carry dominant conditions such as Huntington’s disease (which is typically late-onset).  Where testing generally becomes more contentious is in the testing of early embryos, pre-implantation, where accusations of “designer babies” are often made.  In these cases, one either makes one’s own moral boundaries (or accepts those taught by a religious figure).   I for one have moral boundaries which probably lie between those imparted by religions on the believers and what might be described as the full-on interventionist opinions of James Watson.

So, Evolution led to Eugenics?

Well, clearly there are links between eugenics and natural (or actually artificial) selection.  However, the rise of eugenic policies came as Mendelian genetics had been “rediscovered” and, with the science of genetics in its infancy, badly applied to human population.  I’d add that eugenic policies became widespread at a time when attitudes to the individual human and his or her life were very different than they are now.  Furthermore, there’s an argument that eugenics fits well onto a tradition of harsh treatment of those perceived to be disadvantaged relative to the population as a whole.  The linkage to atheism is possibly not strong – history doesn’t record (at least not in easily accessible form) whether the politicians and scientists who were responsible for the implementation of eugenic policies were religious believers, agnotics or atheists.  But I would expect that senior political figures would be publicly religous (heck, I’ve just seen Barack Obama on the TV preparing to be sworn in on Abraham Lincoln’s own bible).

Eugenics of course gained huge notoriety after the policies undertaken in Nazi Germany (though I confess to being surprised by how late eugenic sterilisation statutes remained on the books in some countries) and has been conflated with the massive crimes perpetrated by the Nazi state.  In the next part of this article, I’ll look at whether Darwinism and atheism were key drivers for the Holocaust.

4 thoughts on “Did Darwinism lead inevitably to the Holocaust? part 1 – Eugenics

  1. Merci pour ce bluffant post sur referencement site. Ton Site Did Darwinism lead
    inevitably to the Holocaust? part 1 est une grande source d’infos .

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