Dobzhansky on eugenics

John Wilkins is fighting the philosophical and historical fight against the Darwin’s Deadly Legacy nonsense with an excellent summary of the course of the eugenics movement. I especially liked this quote from Dobzhansky:

The eugenical Jeremiahs keep constantly before our eyes the nightmare of human populations accumulating recessive genes that produce pathological effects when homozygous. These prophets of doom seem to be unaware of the fact that wild species in the state of nature fare in this respect no better than man does with all the artificiality of his surroundings, and yet life has not come to an end on this planet. The eschatological cries proclaiming the failure of natural selection to operate in human populations have more to do with political beliefs than with scientific findings.

If you don’t know who Theodosius Dobzhansky was, he was one of the founders of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, and was far, far more influential on evolutionary thinking than either Haeckel or Hitler. Scientific leaders were calling this stuff nonsense before Hitler tried to invoke his Final Solution.


  1. says

    Isn’t it also true that there was genocide well before Darwin? (Perhaps the genocide was not on the scale of what Hitler did, he had better technology for genocide). The claim that genocide is due to Darwin simply doesn’t hold up for that reason too.

  2. Russell says

    Genocides have a long history, but have little to do with eugenics. The Conquistadores and later European settlers destroyed many native American tribes. Arguably, that was a biological result of the diseases they brought more than purposeful destruction. The Europeans argued about the status of the American Indian, whether he had a soul or not, but this argument was not genetically based. The Romans famously and intentionally destroyed Carthage in the third Punic war, and salted its fields. This was not because they feared the Carthaginians were genetically weak, but because they feared the Carthaginians might at some point achieve military and commercial dominance in the Mediterranean.

    The oldest recorded genocides are mythical, commanded by God: “And Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord sent me to annoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore says the Lord of hosts, ‘I will punish what Amalek did to Israel in opposing them on the way, when they came up out of Egypt. Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.'” [1 Sam 15:1-3] There are others commanded in the Pentateuch, but the complete destruction ordered here is unparalleled. The reader has to wonder that even the domesticated animals were condemned!

  3. bob koepp says

    For those with an interest in the history of science, chief among the eugenical Jeremiahs against whom Dobzhansky inveighed was HJ Muller. His version of eugenics was to be voluntary, which seems to comport with the views of quite a few contemporary bioethicsists.

  4. Caledonian says

    For the past several millennia, humankind has been engaged in the tremendous work of domesticating itself.

    Considering what has happened to the fitness of the other species humanity has tamed, and how short-term thinking has caused intentional breeding to magnify and worsen those problems, the only real question is which state will prove more harmful: our unintentional self-domestication, or our intentional self-domestication?

  5. says

    William L Shirer was a journalist and historian who lived in Germany for a few years before the actual entry of the United Stated into the conflict.

    In his book, the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, he taks about the influence of Darwin on nutcases such as Nietzche and Hitler.

    So if you want to maintain that Darwin had no influence on Hitler, you might ask what the heck Shirer was talking about.

    IN fact, Darwins cousin Francis Galton, himself the wacko father of Eugenics, probably has more influence on Hitler than Darwin did, although to deny that Darwin had an influence on Hiter is, well, simply denial according to Shirer.

    Well, what the heck did Shirer know? He just lived in Nazi Germany and reported back to the United State on their actions.

    He was probably a secret fundie and knew all this would be coming up later.

    For kicks, see Edwin Black’s site:

  6. says

    Although even before the Nazi era geneticists and evolutionists had indeed begun to abandon the eugenics movement (and what Dobzhansky said in 1937 was not atypical for the era as population genetics had begun dispelling some the common sense myths of eliminating traits), simply blaming eugenics on the Galtonists is a bit unfair. Serious evolutionary biologists had been huge supporters of eugenics — not only people like Fisher but even radical leftists like J.B.S Haldane.

  7. says

    Well, I haven’t read that book but it looks like Black is mostly blaming Davenport (at least by the “it began on long island” blurb; Davenport was head of Cold Spring Harbor Labs and was indeed a eugenicist as well as a geneticist). I can’t disagree with the fact that Davenport was a eugenicist, but he was hardly in the same caliber as Haldane or Fischer.

  8. says

    Serious evolutionary biologists had been huge supporters of eugenics — not only people like Fisher but even radical leftists like J.B.S Haldane.

    Yes they had, but in Haldane’s case this was when he was a younger man, not when he was a leading light in evolutionary biology. After fighting in world war I, Haldane came away with a respect for the “lower classes” and wrote in 1924 that genetic theory (note, not evolution) was being used in Britain “to support the political opinions of the extreme right, and in America by some of the most ferocious enemies of human liberty” (The Nation and the Atheneum 35: 291, quoted in Keveles 1995, 126).

  9. Chris Ho-Stuart says

    Just for fun, and to stir the pot a bit. Dobzhansky was also a Christian (Russian Orthodox) and viewed evolution as an aspect of God’s creation.

    Dobzhansky was the author of the wonderful essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. Quite rightly, modern evolutionists quote this widely as a good description of the relationship between evolution and biology. What is less well known is that this essay also includes an explicit consideration of God and creation, and concludes as follows:

    “… Creation is realized in this world by means of evolution.”

  10. jpj says

    The history of eugenics is incredibly rich and detailed and it drives me nuts to see people making stupid claims like “Darwin caused the Holocaust.”

    Yes, most geneticists in the first three decades of the twentieth century were eugenicists. This does not mean that they would have supported the Nazi Final Solution. Supporting eugenics could mean supporting birth control, or sterilization of institutionalized people unable to care for children, or prenatal health care, or supporting “fitter families” contests at state fairs, or any number of things. “Eugenics” did NOT mean genocide so saying geneticists supported eugenics doesn’t mean they supported genocide.

    By 1937, when Doby wrote the quotation supplied by PZ, almost all geneticists had withdrawn their support for harsh or restrictive eugenic measures such as those in the Nazi regime. Soon after that Carnegie Foundation would withdraw its support from the Eugenic Record Office and eugenicists who DID support the Nazis (like Harry Laughlin) were marginalized.

    Dobzhansky is a fascinating figure. If I could be forgiven the self-promotion and if anyone is interested in how he responded to segregationists in the 1950s I have written on that here:

  11. Scott Hatfield says


    Darwin is no more responsible for the Holocaust than William Shirer is responsible for the existence of neo-Nazis in America today. Can we find links, ‘six degrees of separation’, etc. that connect the former from the latter in either case? Sure. Does that mean that either *caused* the other? Certainly not!

    In fact, speaking as a Christian, I feel very strongly that the causal link between a Christian-inspired anti-semitism and the Holocaust is many orders of magnitude greater than any sort of influence attributable to science. I’m sure that the William Shirer who lived in the Third Reich must have observed the many occasions where Hitler appealed to divince Providence and attempted to cultivate the strong anti-semitic strain in Luther’s writings to justify what eventually became ‘The Final Solution’.

    I might add that Darwin’s views were greatly distorted on the Continent (particularly in Germany) by Haeckel, whose anti-semitism is well-documented and whose ‘take’ on Darwin was less science than an exercise in justifying his own personal metaphysics. Darwin’s thought deserved a less prejudicial advocate in 19th-century Germany, but I can’t help him there. What I can do is stand up in the 21st Century and tell the D. James Kennedy’s of this world that their smear campaign tying Darwin to the Holocaust will not stand! Again, as in the case of Haeckel and the Nazis, the religious have much to answer for.