In my last post to Dr. Michael Egnor, an intelligent-design activist for the Discovery Institute, I pointed out that he had contradicted himself, blaming both evolution and intelligent design for eugenics: “Backed into a Corner, Egnor Cannot Keep His Arguments Straight.” He has responded, “Pseudo-Darwinism: Dr. Cartwright’s Error and Eugenics,” deciding to resolve the contradiction, like ID activist Dr. William Dembski, in favor of blaming intelligent design politics for eugenics. (See Orac for more commentary.)
Yeap, you read that correct. Creationists and intelligent-design activists, who for years have been calling evolution morally corrupt for spawning the “anti-Christian” politics of eugenics—The Discovery Institute’s Dr. Richard Weikart even wrote a book entitled From Darwin to Hitler.—have now decided that eugenics reflects the power of intelligent design and not the “amorality” of evolution. Of course, not all creationists and intelligent-design activists are happy with this change in message; the Discovery Institute’s John West has issued a brief response to Egnor, “Darwinism and Eugenics Revisited,” where in he resorts to academic dishonesty to maintain the message. (See Pieret for the truth.)
If the creationists and intelligent-design activists want to credit intelligent design for eugenics, I’m not going to stop them. Nevertheless, their turn-about is not motivated by the history of eugenics, but rather the desire to label anything done by humans as representing intelligent design. That is of course silly, but it is the “logic” motivating the change in message. According to Dembski and Egnor, artificial selection is not a “Darwinian” process and—I guess—not evidence for evolution.
Dr. Cartwright is right. The experimental selection of “desirable” bacterial variants is bacterial eugenics, using the same empirical principles that eugenicists applied to human breeding. Eugenics is human breeding, and is every bit as much of a misapplication of Darwin’s theory as are Dr. Cartwright’s examples of bacterial breeding.
Is artificial selection, i.e. “breeding”, really a “misapplication” of Darwin’s theory in the way that the ID activists claim? According to them, “Darwin’s theory”, which they never describe accurately, only concerns natural selection, not artificial selection. Of course to answer that we are going to have to see what Darwin said about his theory of evolution by natural selection:
Owing to this struggle for life, any variation, however slight and from whatever cause proceeding, if it be in any degree profitable to an individual of any species, in its infinitely complex relations to other organic beings and to external nature, will tend to the preservation of that individual, and will generally be inherited by its offspring. The offspring, also, will thus have a better chance of surviving, for, of the many individuals of any species which are periodically born, but a small number can survive. I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term of Natural Selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection. We have seen that man by selection can certainly produce great results, and can adapt organic beings to his own uses, through the accumulation of slight but useful variations, given to him by the hand of Nature. But Natural Selection, as we shall hereafter see, is a power incessantly ready for action, and is as immeasurably superior to man’s feeble efforts, as the works of Nature are to those of Art.
As described by Freeman and Herron (2004) in their textbook, Darwin’s theory rests on four postulates:
The postulates, which apply to populations of organisms, are as follows:
1. Individuals within populations are variable.
2. The variations among individuals are, at least in part, passed from parents to offspring.
3. In every generation, some individuals are more successful at surviving and reproducing than others.
4. The survival and reproduction of individuals are not random; instead they are tied to the variation among individuals. The individuals with the most favorable variations, those who are better at surviving and reproducing, are naturally selected.
If these four postulates are true, then the composition of the population changes from one generation to the next. The logic is clear: If there are differences among the individuals in a population that can be passed on to offspring, and if there is differential success among those individuals in surviving and/or reproducing, then some traits will be passed on more frequently than others. As a result, the characteristics of the population will change slightly with each succeeding generation. This is Darwinian evolution: gradual change in populations over time.
(Freeman and Herron (2004) Evolutionary Analysis pp. 72-73)
It is plainly obvious from this that Darwin’s theory does cover artificial selection; Egnor and Dembski are wrong.
So where does that leave eugenics? Was it the height of Darwinian politics and medicine, or was it the success of intelligent-design activism?
While I’m happy to see the creationists and intelligent-design activists take credit for eugenics, it had nothing to do with either of them. Eugenics was a political movement powered by early geneticists that thought that it would be possible to eliminate genetic diseases and other “bad” traits from humans though selective breeding and forced sterilization. Of course such politics were serious violations of individual liberty. These early geneticists were scientific descendants of traditional plant and animal breeders, and in fact many of them worked in agriculture. Thus, making a long story short, these geneticists, and therefore eugenics itself, owed more to selective breeders than to naturalists like Darwin.
While it is true that eugenicists advocated artificial selection of humans, which is a Darwinian mechanism of evolution (see above), it is also true that Darwin wrote against the artificial selection of humans, citing that the natural selection of humans was more powerful. (See Pieret for discussion.) In an ironic twist of science, these early geneticists would ultimately produce the modern synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, which would demonstrate that eugenics was not practical.—Those damn recessive, disease alleles are hard to get rid of, and we all carry our share of them.
So while it is fun to let the creationists and intelligent-design activists take credit for eugenics, it is not historically or scientifically accurate. Of course, asking them to be scientifically accurate is like asking a house cat to bark at the moon.