Those humanitarian founders!

By Razib Khan | December 5, 2009 3:23 pm

Darwin’s idea has cost lives:

Truths that America’s founding fathers had held to be self-evident – that all men were created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights – were now scorned as gross sentimentalities that had been overtaken by Darwinian science. Within a decade the self-styled “scientific racialists” had begun to classify other groups as genetically inferior. Immigrants from Spain and Italy were held to be a threat to the quality of the American gene pool and spurious scientific evidence was adduced to “prove” that Jewish immigrants were near-imbeciles whose admission in large numbers might lead to a lowering of the average level of intelligence of the American people. In fact, this cohort of Jewish immigrants would go on to supply more Nobel Prize winners than any other immigrant group. But in the early Twenties it was the voice of the genetic-alarmists in the science establishment that prevailed and the US Congress imposed strict quotas on the admission of Jewish and south European immigrants. One unforeseen consequence of the quotas was that many Jews seeking to escape Nazi persecution in the Thirties found the doors to the United States barred to them.

I have no interest in defending Charles Darwin as a 21st century humanitarian liberal, or his intellectual successors up until World War II. The author is above recounting an incident where a Congolese Pygmy was placed in the “Monkey House” to show the progression of human evolution. But it seems much to refer to the founding fathers as paragons of human egalitarianism in comparison to the eugenicists of the early 20th century. After all, many of the founders were slave-holders, and even those who objected to the moral acceptability of slavery conceded the reality that ~20% of the American population was to be held as property and accounted as 3/5 of a human in electoral allocations.
The past is complex. Children are often taught history in cut-outs because they easily see the world as heroic and villainous. Intellectuals who attempt to do the same do a disservice to their audience, as they are unable help us move past our baser tribal natures. Rather, they are seek to profit from it. I am personally uncomfortable with the hagiography around Charles Darwin, though I understand that that is generally a response to his singular vilification as the prophet of all the abominations of the 20th century. Those who wish to point to the past moral failings of science in its applied sense might wish to uphold a higher standard of objective analysis themselves if they aim to maintain their credibility.
Note: I’m not a major critic of the Founding Fathers because I’m a temporal moral relativist. Judge not the past too harshly lest ye be judged by the future by standards yet unknown!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution
  • bob koepp

    Razib – I’m curious about your “temporal moral relativism.” Are you also a temporal rational relativist? I ask, because there’s good reason(!) to believe that standards of rationality evolve — that reason/rationality is not what it will be. Interestingly, temporal relativism allows for absolute judgments in the here and now.

  • funny and sad

    After you realize the strength of coalitional biases on human thinking, reading and debating these things stops being interesting.
    Also note, except for the subtitle, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been written already by those attacking “sociobiology” — another example of creationists taking a cue from the left.

  • ChicagoMolly

    Read Darwin’s Sacred Cause by Adrian Desmond & James Moore. It focuses on the years from the Beagle expedition through the publication of the Origin, especially regarding attitudes regarding human equality. The situation was not at all a straightforward split between Science and Superstition. Darwin was practically raised from birth to be an abolitionist (both the Darwins and Wedgwoods were staunch campaigners against the slave trade) and was sure that when we understood the fact of our descent from a common ancestor with African apes we would appreciate human equality all the more. But other scientists held that a belief in common ancestry was nothing more than a sentimental attachment to the Adam and Eve myth and that really Europeans, Africans, Asians and American Indians were all totally separate and unequal.
    In some of his letters Darwin said things about other racial groups that make us cringe today; Richard Dawkins says that everybody sounded racist back then. However, during the Beagle voyage he had made more personal contact with people of other races than any of his opponents (or even his friends. Charles Lyell visited the US before the Civil War, but his hosts were mostly Southern plantation owners, so he only ever saw household slaves, and servants were to be seen but not heard so he could pretty much ignore them). The debates and polemics were furious and sometimes confusing, rather like those of today. But when you examine the pro- and anti-equality arguments, and who held them, it’s simply wrong to frame Darwin as the bad guy in the debate.

  • awvs

    In a Catholic newspaper at that. Not a place where you’d ordinarily expect to find anti-evolution propaganda.

  • B.B.

    Dennis Sewell said:
    spurious scientific evidence was adduced to “prove” that Jewish immigrants were near-imbeciles whose admission in large numbers might lead to a lowering of the average level of intelligence of the American people.
    It should be noted that this claim which originated in Leon Kamin’s The Science and Politics of IQ (1974) and was repeated in numerous other anti-IQ literature such as Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981) is false. It is a misrepresentation of Henry H. Goddard’s research into determining whether the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales test was as effective at identifying “high-grade defectives” amongst people emigrating to the United States. The test was used on immigrants “preselected as being neither ‘obviously feeble-minded’ nor ‘obviously normal'”, i.e not a representative sample, so the study was never intended to be a gauge of the average cognitive abilities of any given population.
    In fact a high average Jewish intelligence was already well established in the early 20th century. Charles Russell and Harry S.Lewis noted in The Jew in London (1900) that Jews took a disproportionate number of academic prizes in spite of their poverty. In 1922 Jews constituted around one fifth of the undergraduates at Harvard University and many Ivy League Universities instituted discriminatory admittance policies in favor of gentiles in order to rectify the disproportionate representation of Jews in the student body. Also, in 1928 A.G. Hughes’ conducted a study published in the July issue Eugenics Review titled Jew and Gentiles: their intellectual and temperamental differences which tested the IQ’s of three London schools with mixed Jewish & non-Jewish student bodies, one wealthy, one poor and one very poor, which showed that Jewish students, on average, had higher IQ’s than their schoolmates in each of the groups.

  • miko

    I never know if people use this argument honestly and are idiots or if they are trying to influence idiots by being disingenuous. “Equality” in terms of the founding fathers and any sociopolitical discourse means political and moral equality (equal protection etc, despite hypocrisy of slavery, sexism, blah blah). I’ve never in my life heard anyone argue that individual people are equivalent or identical, which would like some kind of Orwellian fantasy land that maintains that all people are the same height or weight.
    “funny and sad”: E.O. Wilson, ardent environmentalist and one-time “Humanist of the Year”, has pretty solid “left” credentials himself, as do most scientists whose work can be considered sociobiology. I don’t include in this group hacks who use the language of sociobiology/evolution to support specific political agendas without actually doing or understanding any science. Except for the rare attack on sociobiology from conservatives or the religious, the fact that it’s a debate within academic science means that it is essentially completely within the “left”.

  • Art

    Yes, the past is complex. You might want to look into the 3/5th compromise more deeply. It was the slave holders that were pushing for slaves having a full vote and anti- slavery groups pushing for slaves to have less than a full vote.
    The reason is that in the south slaves didn’t use their vote. It was the slave holder that voted for them. If a man had ten slaves he had eleven votes if slaves counted as one vote. this gave large slave owners a lot of leverage in representation and control over the laws. In asking that a slave’s votes to count as less than one vote it was weakening the power of large slave owners to control elections.
    The past is complex and thinking that reducing a slave’s vote to less than a free man’s most assume it was to denigrate slaves as humans and a southern plot. When in fact, in the south slaves couldn’t control their own vote and were not seen as human. Slaves are/were property. The master owned them and he owned their vote.

  • http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    yes. without the slave representation the south wouldn’t have dominated the presidential elections up until 1850. adams would have beaten jefferson.

  • josh

    I’m reading G.K. Chesterton’s “What I Saw in America”. At one point, in talking about the English hypocrisy with respect to the Irish, he observes that if your anti-Jewish propaganda paints the Jews as stupid you won’t get far, because everyone knows Jews are smart. Likewise, the English contention that the Irish are incapable of self-organization held no sway with New Yorkers familiar with Tammany Hall.
    My point is, Jews were probably never painted as imbeciles with any success.

  • Anon

    Uh, actually Art’s comment is mostly wrong. I mean, even if we actually believed that the slave holder would go and vote 11 times and then they’d mark that down as 7 votes for whoever he voted for, with the Electoral College system that would just give slave holders extra power relative to non-slave holders in their state. Everyone got one vote, but the size of representation of a state in the Electoral College (which is what really counts in Presidential elections, after all) and House of Representatives (which is pretty important too) was based on a population size which included slaves at a 3/5 rate.

  • PrestonC

    BB @ 5 said:
    It should be noted that this claim which originated in Leon Kamin’s The Science and Politics of IQ (1974) and was repeated in numerous other anti-IQ literature such as Stephen J. Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (1981) is false.

    In his book The Political Gene Sewell does not in fact base his argument on a false representation of Goddard’s work. He describes the Goddard methods accurately. Regarding the antisemitic uses of IQ – he points the finger at Carl Brigham, and cites chapter and verse to (IMHO) make his case more than satisfactorily. What is in many ways refreshing about Sewell’s treatment of the IQ debate is that he clearly sees and fairly represents both sides of the argument.
    miko @ 6 says
    “Equality” in terms of the founding fathers and any sociopolitical discourse means political and moral equality
    And that is precisely the sense in which Sewell makes his remark about the founding fathers. He points out that blacks had been able to vote in New York State for more than a century yet it was still argued (on pseudobiological grounds) that a black man’s consent was not required to exhibit him in a zoo. One would have thought that constitutional law might have offered some protection.
    awvs @ 4 says:
    In a Catholic newspaper at that. Not a place where you’d ordinarily expect to find anti-evolution propaganda.
    Certainly Sewell’s book cannot fairly be described in such terms. He accepts the scientific case for evolution without cavil. In his introduction he is absolutely unambiguous on this saying ‘I am not, and never have been, a creationist.’ Almost as if anticipating some McCarthyite accusation. Probably a sensible precaution on the part of a Brit whose work is likely to be read in the US. There is no evolution vs. creationism war in Britain (or none to speak of), so the nuances are different.

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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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