If you’ve generally felt positive about whatever you know about evolution and natural selection and Charles Darwin himself, you might want to sit down and take a deep breath before reading this passage:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilized societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.
I did a mental double-take when I first read this passage in the fifth chapter of The Descent of Man, published in 1871. The scientist who so impresses me with his vision of the common struggles of all species, humans included, sounds like nothing short of a racist here. The comparison to animals reinforces the impression. The final two sentences seem horribly emphatic. The Social Darwinist movement that grew from Darwin’s ideas, a movement that fostered American sterilization of the mentally deficient and the Nazi genocide, seems to have taken its cue directly from the great scientist himself. Lots has been written to defend Darwin here; his contemptuous attitude was characteristic of his class at that time, and so forth. But still.
1950, North Carolina. Board approval for the sterilization of a “feebleminded” woman. What would Darwin say?
But if we look more closely at the chapter where the passage appears, we might feel, if not comfortable with it, at least less revolted. The second and third sentences—about medicine, asylums and other social efforts to help the poor and ill—are part of Darwin’s argument throughout the chapter that human sociability, inherited from animals, is the foundation of our most civilized achievements, including human closeness, compassion, and morality. A few sentences after the passage above, Darwin writes, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent [possible, uncertain] benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.” Even though, he is saying, it might appear to be desirable for civilized people at times to abandon their scruples and ignore those who suffer, in reality we would be losing more–our morals–than we would gain by reducing the numbers of the poor and sick.
Darwin wrote in The Descent of Man, “If we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind.”
In fact, when most people think about a better society in the future, that vision of “progress” doesn’t consist of “eliminating”—Darwin uses the word often—people who are judged inferior. Rather, it consists of a greater and happier morality that includes “the approbation [praise] of our fellow-men—the strengthening of our sympathies by habit—[positive] example and imitation…and religious feelings.” Sounds good to me.
This point certainly has relevance today. Think of the debates over whether government should actively help the poor or whether, on the other hand, it should assist as little as possible and let the poor sink or swim. Darwin’s position would probably be that even at the risk of encouraging some dependence on government, in the long run our society will benefit the most—will “advance” the most–by acting compassionately.
Still, there is a problem. Among all species, Darwin argued, evolution favors those who have the greatest number of surviving offspring. It’s a matter of hard numbers. Among the people who live in “civilized societies,” as he called them, those who are poor and “reckless” marry earlier and collectively have more children than members of the higher, “virtuous” classes who are careful of their resources, marry later and have smaller families. So, why haven’t the children of the poor taken over society?
Because, Darwin wrote, natural selection is not the only force at work. It is “checked”—modified—in many ways. The offspring of the poor are fewer than one might expect for several reasons. Married people live longer than the unmarried (this remains true today), and the many poor men who do not marry at all die younger than most. The poor die younger also from migrating to cities where living conditions foster early death. And although many of the poor have large families, the very poor have very few children.
The point that can be conveniently overlooked in the chapter is Darwin’s cautiousness about the impact of natural selection on humans. Other writers, when it has suited them, have portrayed that process as a rigid, inexorable one. Darwin, to the contrary, wrote, “Development of all kinds depends on many concurrent favourable circumstances. Natural selection acts only tentatively.”
To conclude, I can’t help thinking that if Darwin were alive today, he might have some unexpected company as he warned that the proliferation of the poor, the violent, the hopelessly sick would be harmful to a society. Progressive people and organizations who work to improve conditions for such groups would argue that, yes, of course, high rates of poverty and violence are “highly injurious” to humanity, in that any nation with high rates of poverty and violence is a degraded, dismal and difficult place for all those living within it. Today we view such an issue through the post-World War II lens of human rights; Darwin, however, saw it through the bourgeois, refined sensibilities of the Victorian era. If we adjust for the time warp, both extremes of Darwin’s view have value today: that some people are at disadvantages in any given society and it’s better for everyone if they are few in number rather than many, and that the empathy that prompts others to care about them is not a soft-hearted amenity but a requirement for human survival.