Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Darwin and Haeckel 4

Darwin and Haeckel 1
Darwin and Haeckel 2 
Darwin and Haeckel 3


Some of the most jarring parts of The Descent of Man are those where Darwin goes just to the edge of openly advocating the deaths of children. More than that, he repeatedly steps on that line in the book.  Darwin never crosses it to directly and openly advocate infanticide but he knew by that time that his foremost representative in Germany did cross it.   Since Darwin gave his highest praise to Ernst Haeckel and, especially,   The History of Creation  in his citations,  he would be aware of what Haeckel had said in the book.  Here is part of it:

It appears of interest here to remark that not only natural selection, but also artificial selection exercises its influence in many ways in universal history. A remarkable instance of artificial selection in man, on a great scale, is furnished by the ancient Spartans, among whom, in obedience to a special law, all newly-born children were subject to a careful examination and selection. All those that were weak, sickly, or affected with any bodily infirmity, were killed. Only the perfectly healthy and strong children were allowed to live, and they alone afterwards propagated the race. By this means, the Spartan race was not only continually preserved in excellent strength and vigour, but the perfection of their bodies increased with every generation. No doubt the Spartans owed their rare degree of masculine strength and rough heroic valour (for which they are eminent in ancient history) in a great measure to this artificial selection.

I'll begin by pointing out that there is no scientific evidence presented to support the idea that the Spartan aristocracy were physically superior to those who don't kill children deemed to be "weakly, sickly,...."  That would be because there was no scientific evidence that was true.  The Spartans were long dead and everything Haeckel knew about them was from classical literature which, even in the best of their historical writing, is more like gossip than science.   And even that shows that the Spartans were not an invincible superior race of men but a brutal military dictatorship that were dedicated to war and slavery.  A far more obvious reason for their position in classical lore than their belief in the beneficial effects of infanticide.  I'd like to go on about a conclusion that he could have made about infanticide and brutal dictatorships but that's for another post.  For now, Haeckel wanting to claim Spartan infanticide as evidence to validate natural selection was based on anything but science.

Haeckel goes on attributing a similar position to the "Redskins" even of 1860s when he was writing it:

Many tribes also among the Red Indians of North America (who at present are succumbing in the struggle for life to the superior numbers of the white intruders, in spite of a most heroic and courageous resistance) owe their rare degree of bodily strength and warlike bravery to a similar careful selection of the newly-born children. Among them, also, all children that are weak or affected with any infirmity are immediately killed, and only the perfectly strong individuals remain in life, and propagate the race. That the race becomes greatly strengthened, in the course of very many generations, by this artificial selection cannot in itself be doubted, and is sufficiently proved by many well known facts.

Haeckel isn't as careful to give citations as Darwin was in The Descent of Man so I don't know what he based this on. I would be interested to know how he came by his "many well known facts" and what they are.  I have a suspicion that some of  those "facts" are, as Darwin's assertions about the dysgenic effect of mass vaccination against small pox, invented out of nothing but a desire to support the Darwinian conception of natural selection.  My guess would be that they are more based in sensational and racist lore than in fact.  I would wonder what  historians specializing in those groups today would say about it.

Having established an artificial substitute for scientific data to support his contention Haeckel goes on for quite a while in this vein until he arrives at this:

If any one were to venture the proposal, after the examples of the Spartans and Redskins, to kill, immediately upon their birth, all miserable, crippled children to whom with certainty a sickly life could be prophesied, instead of keeping them in life injurious to them and to the race, our so-called “humane civilization” would utter a cry of indignation. But the same “humane civilization” thinks it quite as it should be, and accepts without a murmur, that at the outbreak of every war (and in the present state of civilized life, and in the continual development of standing armies, wars must naturally become more frequent) hundreds and thousands of the finest men, full of youthful vigour, are sacrificed in the hazardous game of battles. The same “humane civilization” at present praises the abolition of capital punishment as a “liberal measure!” And yet capital punishment for incorrigible and degraded criminals is not only just, but also a benefit to the better portion of mankind; the same benefit is done by destroying luxuriant weeds, for the prosperity of a well cultivated garden. As by a careful rooting out of weeds, light, air, and ground is gained for good and useful plants, in like manner, by the indiscriminate destruction of all incorrigible criminals, not only would the struggle for life among the better portion of mankind be made easier, but also an advantageous artificial process of selection would be set in practice, since the possibility of transmitting their injurious qualities by inheritance would be taken from those degenerate outcasts.

Just in case anyone wonders how Haeckel came to his infamous reputation in German History, this is a good beginning.   And, of course, there is no data to support his contention that all of these ills are the product of biological inheritance, other than a few of the disabilities that are, in fact, inherited.  How much of the scientific support of natural selection at the time was based on actual science and how much of it was based on lore treated with hunches might give some insight into the contemporary, informed skepticism of it that Darwin and Haeckel faced.

As presented by the post-war Darwin PR, the early opposition to Darwinism was entirely based in peoples' queasiness about being related to apes.  But it is forgotten that much of early advocacy of infanticide, capital punishment and similar developments in the name of Darwinism, founded on the concept of natural selection, were responsible for much of the opposition to evolution.  Scientists advocating murder is far from a mere side issue.  Haeckel whined about anticipated objection to his call for murdering children in the first sentence of that last paragraph.

You're left to wonder how the Darwin commonly presented to us as a great humanitarian, would react to his "chorus leader" in Germany openly advocating infanticide.  What he said in the Descent of Man - a book he said he wouldn't have written if it hadn't been well underway by the time The History of Creation had been published -  hardly called Haeckel's advocacy of infanticide into question.  In fact, he echoed it right up to the point of endorsing it,  even, oddly, placing that into a discussion of sexual selection:

No race or body of men has been so completely subjugated by other men, as that certain individuals should be preserved, and thus unconsciously selected, from somehow excelling in utility to their masters. Nor have certain male and female individuals been intentionally picked out and matched, except in the well-known case of the Prussian grenadiers; and in this case man obeyed, as might have been expected, the law of methodical selection; for it is asserted that many tall men were reared in the villages inhabited by the grenadiers and their tall wives. In Sparta, also, a form of selection was followed, for it was enacted that all children should be examined shortly after birth; the well-formed and vigorous being preserved, the others left to perish. (13. Mitford's 'History of Greece,' vol. i. p. 282. It appears also from a passage in Xenophon's 'Memorabilia,' B. ii. 4 (to which my attention has been called by the Rev. J.N. Hoare), that it was a well recognised principle with the Greeks, that men ought to select their wives with a view to the health and vigour of their children. The Grecian poet, Theognis, who lived 550 B.C., clearly saw how important selection, if carefully applied, would be for the improvement of mankind. He saw, likewise, that wealth often checks the proper action of sexual selection. 

And that's hardly the only mention of allegedly hygenic infanticide in the book.  Just casually, I counted  about ten other assertions of the idea from numerous, named ethnic groups around the world, and probably missed more in the book.   As so often with Darwin, there is massive and leading advocacy for an idea countered with a brief assertion of the ideas wickedness.  And he does in a word or phrase in a handful of them.   Here, though, is how he deals with the opposition that this kind of advocacy provoked:

 It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely-different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. (6. Mr. H. Sidgwick remarks, in an able discussion on this subject (the 'Academy,' June 15, 1872, p. 231), "a superior bee, we may feel sure, would aspire to a milder solution of the population question." Judging, however, from the habits of many or most savages, man solves the problem by female infanticide, polyandry and promiscuous intercourse; therefore it may well be doubted whether it would be by a milder method. Miss Cobbe, in commenting ('Darwinism in Morals,' 'Theological Review,' April 1872, pp. 188-191) on the same illustration, says, the PRINCIPLES of social duty would be thus reversed; and by this, I presume, she means that the fulfilment of a social duty would tend to the injury of individuals; but she overlooks the fact, which she would doubtless admit, that the instincts of the bee have been acquired for the good of the community. She goes so far as to say that if the theory of ethics advocated in this chapter were ever generally accepted, "I cannot but believe that in the hour of their triumph would be sounded the knell of the virtue of mankind!" It is to be hoped that the belief in the permanence of virtue on this earth is not held by many persons on so weak a tenure.) Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience. For each individual would have an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts, and others less strong or enduring; so that there would often be a struggle as to which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or even misery would be felt, as past impressions were compared during their incessant passage through the mind. In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed, and the other ought not; the one would have been right and the other wrong; but to these terms I shall recur. 

It is amazing how after reading Haeckel's advocacy of infanticide in History of Creation and in a book where Darwin goes on and on about the hygenic virtues of infanticide, his answer to "Miss Cobbe" is:

It is to be hoped that the belief in the permanence of virtue on this earth is not held by many persons on so weak a tenure.

Darwin is seldom accused of cynicism but if that isn't a cynical, condescending answer to Miss Cobbe's calling depravity depraved,  then it is a word that has lost its meaning.   In the same paragraph, and in a book in which he, over and over again, presents things such as infanticide as racial hygiene and things like vaccination and aid to the poor and the disabled as catastrophically dysgenic,that sentence is placed there for cover should anyone so presumptuous as "Miss Cobbe" point out what effect the book, if taken seriously, AS SCIENCE, would have.    Of course, history proved that Miss Cobbe's prediction was a bit more accurate than would justify Darwin's condescension.

I could point out many other problems with Darwin in that paragraph, especially Darwin's clear intention of trying to make moral objections to what he said seem ridiculous by mixing them up with absurd fantasies about bees, but I will go on to look at this idea as Haeckel went with it.

So, in the Descent of Man, Darwin's answer to Haeckel's The History of Creation, there was confirmation of his contentions about infanticide's beneficial effects, with many more examples asserted,  And there are a few easily dismissed mentions that it was a wicked thing, for the Miss Cobbes of the world.  What was Haeckel to think but that Darwin had validated his idea by his nonexistent scientific opposition to it*?   Here is a later assertion of infanticide, extended by Haeckel.   If the passage seems to be an extremely disturbing premonition of events in the next forty years of German history to you,  it should.

In our day the number of lunatics in civilized countries is, on the average, five-sixths per thousand. If the total population of Europe is put at three hundred and ninety to four hundred millions, we have at least two million lunatics among them, and of these more than two hundred thousand are incurable. What an enormous mass of suffering these figures indicate for the invalids themselves, and what a vast amount of trouble and sorrow for their families, what a huge private and public expenditure! How much of this pain and expense could be spared if people could make up their minds to free the incurable from their indescribable torments by a dose of morphia! 

Naturally this act of kindness should not be left to the discretion of an individual physician, but be determined by a commission of competent and conscientious medical men. So, in the case of other incurables and great sufferers (from cancer, for instance), the "redemption from evil” should only be accomplished by a dose of some painless and rapid poison when they have expressed a deliberate wish (to be afterward juridically proved) for this, and under the control of an authoritative commission. 

The ancient Spartans owed a good deal of their famous bravery, their bodily strength and beauty, as well their mental energy and capacity, to the old custom of doing away with new-born children who were born weakly or crippled. We find the same custom today among many savage races. When I pointed out the advantages of this Spartan selection for the improvement of the race in 1868 (chapter vii. of the History of Creation) there was a storm of pious indignation in the religious journals, as always happens when pure reason ventures to oppose the current prejudices and traditional beliefs. But I ask: What good does, it do to humanity to maintain artificially and rear the thousands cripples, deaf-mutes, idiots, etc., who are born every year with an hereditary burden of incurable disease  Is it not better and more rational to cut off from first this unavoidable misery which their poor lives bring to themselves and their families?
Ernst Haeckel: "Wonders of Life" 1904 Trans. Joseph McCabe

Notice how Haeckel mixes an act of self determination, suicide in the face of the greatest and most hopeless of suffering, into advocacy for the murder of "cripples, deaf-mutes, idiots, etc."   That is an obvious attempt to palliate that he is promoting mass murder for the purpose of racial hygiene, as it would have been called in Germany even then.

You have to wonder if Darwin had severely and publicly criticized Haeckel's completely non-science based advocacy of infanticide in The History of Creation instead of giving the book his unreserved praise and advocacy if Haeckel might have been somewhat discouraged from perusing that kind of "public understanding of science" instead of extending the list of those to be killed.   Instead, he poked at Miss Cobbe's fear that someone might take his "science" seriously, applying it in real life.  And history shows that Miss Cobbe was right.

*  Darwin would also have been informed of Haeckel's intention to overturn conventional morality through  reading The History of Creation by the time he wrote The Descent of Man.  Haeckel was already scornful of present morality in such matters in that book.  There is no reason that Darwin could have expected his mild as milk assertions of morality would have deterred Haeckel - you can read how Darwin characterized his writing in earlier sections of this series.  Darwin could not have been unaware of how Haeckel and other early Darwinists in Germany were drawing such conclusions from The Origin of Species, where Darwin, himself, had gone no where near as far as he did in Descent of Man.

Note:  I am aware of who Joseph McCabe was and will probably write a post about his advocacy of Haeckel's late works.  But that isn't the topic of this series.

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