[Review] Davenport’s Dream

It is always cute when the anti-evolutionists (in all their guises) try to do history; witness here, for example. Veteran observers are not surprised to find them trying to warp history (see here, here, here & here for that). Nowhere is this warping more evident than in how DI-hacks such as John West & Richard Weikart have promulgated a meme linking Darwin to Haeckel to Nazism. This has been clearly dealt with by a number of historians (see references herein and read Robert Richards’ latest book on Haeckel). Equally as resilient is the idea (also held by West & Weikart) that American eugenicists at the start of the 20th century were inspired by Darwin (who was himself, they claim, sympathetic to eugenics) and, thus, Darwin was culpable for American eugenic policies. Historian Mark Borrello dealt with this when debating West back in 2007 and, of course, someone with even the most facile knowledge of history knows that eugenics pre-dated Darwin by quite some time. But let’s look at one American eugenicist, Charles Davenport, and his book Heredity in Relation to Eugenics.

Davenport has been described as “the most notable American eugenicist” by James Watson, and a 1907 World Magazine article pitched him as “the man of mystery who is searching for the secret of life.” Trained as a biologist, Davenport was initially a biometrician but eventually became a Mendelian, i.e. held ideas that were in distinct tension with the utility of Darwinian selection. In 1910, he became the director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he founded the Eugenics Record Office, an organization which examined the application of Mendelian genetics to human affairs. Throughout his tenure at the ERO, which closed in 1935, Davenport’s ideas received significant criticism – which he ignored – from British eugenicists. In later years, he maintained connections with eugenic organizations in Germany.

Davenport’s central place within the American eugenic movement is undeniable and Jan A. Witkowski & John R. Inglis have recently issued a facsimile of Davenport’s Heredity in Relation to Eugenics (1911), bundling it with ten essays by historians, scientists and legal scholars, under the title Davenport’s Dream: 21st Century Reflections on Heredity and Eugenics (CSHLP, 2008). Davenport’s life gets briefly examined in an essay by Witkowski, Elof Carlson puts his work into a wider context, and Maynard Olson analyzes the logic of the reissued work. For me – as an historian – these were the most useful contributed essays, but I’m sure that folks more interested in bioethical issues would find much in the other contributions.

Historically, what is truly valuable here is the facsimile reissue of Heredity in Relation to Eugenics. Even the briefest perusal reveals how Mendelian the work is. There is page after page of genealogies for traits such as “corpulency,” singing ability, artistic ability, mechanical skill, “feeble-mindedness,” nervousness, nosebleeds, and “brilliancy.” Except for the traits being examined, this is standard genetic fare and it is only in the latter third of the work that Davenport begins to clearly advocate eugenic procedures (either by “elimination of undesirable traits” or by “the control of immigration”*).

One has to wonder what Darwin has to do with all of this. The short answer is very little apparently. Davenport only cites Darwin once in the whole 300 page book, and here is the quote:

Inheritance of peculiarities of handwriting is often alleged (Darwin, 1894, p. 449), but it is difficult to get satisfactory evidence about it. [p. 63]

That’s it. And the reference is to Domestication of Plants and Animals, not even to the works that discuss natural selection, the central core of Darwin’s theory. Speaking of which, the index has no entries for selection or natural selection (or for that matter, survival or fit(ness)). My point here – such as it is – is that if you are going to put a tag on Davenport’s work, it should be “Mendelian”. Would we thus hear the Discovery Institute wage war against the Austrian monk? Of course not. Davenport’s book is muddled in its application of Mendelian ideas to social issues. This misapplication does not in any way invalidate the ideas themselves. But of course, that’s what the creationists want you to believe – that the effects of a misapplication of a scientific theory somehow undermine the scientific ideas themselves. (On that, see the link between Newton & Hitler).

My advice is to read Davenport and the writings of the other eugenicists. Read them in conjunction with works by historians such as Dan Kevles, Elof Carlson and Mark Largent (to name but a few). You will discover that the history of eugenics in this country is a lot more complicated (and interesting!) that the simplistic ideas being promulgated by the Discovery Institute.

To end, I’d like to give a quote. See if you can guess whom it is from:

I wish very much that the wrong people could be prevented entirely from breeding, and when the evil nature of these people is sufficiently flagrant, this should be done. Criminals should be sterilized, and feebleminded persons forbidden to leave offspring behind them.

The words were written by President Theodore Roosevelt whose image is carved into Mount Rushmore – that icon of ID – as one of our greatest presidents. Draw your own conclusions.


* It would be remiss of me not to quote Davenport’s opinion of the Irish immigrants:

The traits that the great immigration from the south of Ireland brought were, on the one hand, alcoholism, considerable mental defectiveness and a tendency for tuberculosis; on the other, sympathy, chastity and leadership of men. The Irish tend to aggregate in cities and soon control their governments, frequently exercising favoritism and often graft. [p. 213]


5 thoughts on “[Review] Davenport’s Dream

  1. Richard Roberts has done some interesting and useful scholarship but he goes too far in his defense of Haeckel.
    Roosevelt’s eugenics was influenced by his friend Madison Grant, an environmentalist and naturalist and a close associate of Davenport. Hitler called Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race his “Bible.”
    Letter from Charles Davenport to Karl Pearson, 1903, regarding Pearson’s rejection of Davenport submission to Biometrika:
    From Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Eugenics Archive
    “You say that I practically throw Darwin out & adopt a Mutation Theory. I do not lay great stress on Natural Selection because this has, evidently, [obs type] as originally conceived by Darwin, little or nothing to do with variation. In the summary of Chapter IV Orig. of Species, 6th Ed he says: “Considering the infinite complexity of the relations of all organic beings to each other & to their conditions of life, causing (N.B. conditions cause; not nat. select.) an infinite diversity in structure, constitution, & habits, & be advantageous to them, it would be a most extraordinary fact, if no variations ever occurred useful to each being’s own welfare …. But if variations useful to any organic being do occur, assuredly individuals thus characterized struggle for life”. True Darwinism is a theory of adaptation. Darwin taught that variations were due to direct influence of environment; is it not you rather than I who would throw Darwinism over? Finally, you think to accept the possibility of Mutation (as Darwin did) and to insist on the great importance of the direct modifying effects of Environment (as Darwin most emphatically did) stultifies my paper & biometric work in general.”
    Pearson was Galton’s student, a pioneer of biometrics, and an important British eugenicist. Davenport introduced Pearson’s biometrics to the US as he had Mendel’s genetics.
    Anthropologist Jonathan Marks places the American eugenics movement in historical context.

  2. One point is that figures like Davenport and Pearson were indeed concerned about Darwin’s vision and argued their interpretations of it, even if their understanding of Darwinism is not the same as ours. Another is that eugenics was mainstream applied genetics of the era. Roosevelt’s views reflect traditional prejudices, but those prejudices were rationalized by the propagandizing of Grant, who was in turn reinforced by the scientific authority of Davenport, Pearson, and Galton.

  3. It pays to realise that between Darwin’s death in 1882 and around 1920, Darwin’s theory of evolution was held in disrespect – historian Peter Bowler calls this the “Eclipse of Darwinism”. In point of fact, the eugenicists were drawn from every school of thought in biology, and while everyone made ritual obeisance to Darwin as a “great man”, almost nobody in genetics, whence eugenics sprang, agreed with him about the necessity for natural selection, not even Pearson and Fisher, as the motivating force for the “hygiene” of the human species. And well they might not, for natural selection would make those hated Irish and the so-called “feebleminded” fitter just in virtue of their having successfully out-reproduced their comeptitors.

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