Thursday, March 15, 2007

A rushing river of stupid. Eugenics is not evolution in action.

Okay, so I was going to let this go, since several other folks have taken it on them to give Michael Egnor a beatdown. But I've just decided that I can't. Michael Egnor is the neurosurgeon making a name for himself as an evolution denier. Others have already taken him down for spouting nonsense. I'm going to focus on the part of his post that I found offensive. That part is:

"In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the only contribution evolution has made to modern medicine is to take it down the horrific road of eugenics, which brought forced sterilization and bodily harm to many thousands of Americans in the early 1900s."
There are two major parts to his argument that are retarded.

First. Eugenics is the claim that some races are fitter than others. Does this sound a little like evolution by natural selection? It's only peripherally related. Though non-biologists like to think of humans as being the most fit species on earth, to a biologist, this statement is clearly bunk. Every living organism today is the descendant of the most fit organism in that niche. Bacteria that live in hot water vents thousands of meters below the ocean's surface are the most fit for that niche. Elephants are the most fit for the niche that they occupy. And pubic lice are the most fit for the niche that they occupy. That said, we cannot predict what exactly will be the environment that we, as human beings, occupy in the future. And even if we could, we wouldn't be able to predict who would be the most fit in that environment. Fitness is merely a measure of who survived to have the most offspring in that particular environment. It is not an absolute. It is directly related to the environment that the organism finds itself in at the time. It may turn out that in the post-apocalyptic future, that stupid people will be the most fit, and that brains will have turned out to be an evolutionary dead end, as detailed in the fictional account by Kurt Vonnegut. This is all to say, anyone who says that they know who the most fit humans are does not understand evolutionary theory, and is more than likely a garden variety bigot. Anyone who thinks that eugenics is the practice of genetics or evolutionary biology as applied to human beings doesn't understand eugenics or evolution.

Second. Let us imagine a world where evolutionary biologists were able to identify who is the most fit human for the future environment. We've decided that left-handed, red-haired, stepchildren are the most fit, and instituted a policy of executing all blondes, and artificially inseminating all other women with the fertilized eggs of people who are the most fit. Clearly this would be an inhuman and unethical state of affairs. That said, being unethical doesn't make the science behind it wrong. Creation of the atomic bomb doesn't make the physics behind it wrong. Creation of agent orange, doesn't mean the chemistry is wrong. Even if you were to use this knowledge to do terrible things, that, by itself is not evidence that the underlying science is incorrect.

Please, Dr. Egnor, please. The next time you'd like to accuse an entire field of inquiry of being responsible for the eugenics movement, please, please! speak with a historian or an evolutionary biologist. The fact that you're a neurosurgeon means that people may take you seriously. Please, please, read a little before you make more of an ass of yourself.


1 comment:

Interrobang said...

Speaking as a social historian, the confluence of factors that created the eugenics movement have really very little to do with evolution qua evolution. In the eugenics literature of the period, it's usually spoken of in the same terms as selective breeding of any sort, including for livestock. Last I checked, human beings were doing that on purpose for centuries (perhaps tens of centuries) before Charles Darwin was born.

To get an accurate picture of what the eugenics movement looked like, you'd have to look at the social improvement movements of the late 19th and early 20th Century, the influence of Christianity in the notion of social progress as linear and the classification of people, the beliefs of some of the "socially-minded" overclass about creating a better worker class, and the absolute irrational scientism of the period.

Just based on one of my points there, I could probably make a compelling argument that eugenics has far more to do with creationism than evolution.

Transference? I've never known a wingnut who didn't accuse everyone else of exactly whatever malfeasance they were responsible for/doing themselves.