During the late nineteenth century, many American intellectuals came to embrace Darwinism. Although this was primarily a development within the natural sciences, it had an important impact on the broader society as well. Although some prominent late-nineteenth-century Darwinists maintained that Darwinism could be held consistently with a belief in God and even with some form of Christianity, Darwinism’s fundamental tendency was nevertheless toward atheism and materialism. The majority of Americans rejected Darwinism (and still do), but its acceptance by many within the nation’s economic, intellectual, and educational elite meant that Darwinian ideas began to influence important American institutions in significant ways.
Darwinism mandated a completely different worldview from that which Americans had traditionally held and on which the nation’s institutions had previously been based. During the first century of the nation’s independence, not all Americans, probably not even a majority, had been evangelical Christians, but an overwhelming majority of Americans had accepted the basic worldview advanced by the Bible and believed that the universe was the creation of an infinite, personal God. The acceptance of Darwinism brought change in a number of key areas of thought.
Darwinism removed the historical American basis for human rights. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson had famously summed up the commonly held beliefs of his countrymen with the memorable words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Because human beings were the creation of God, they had rights that other human beings were bound to respect. Darwinism changed this entirely. If life had evolved from a single-cell organism to human beings by means of natural selection—the survival of the fittest—it had certainly not done so by favoring organisms that respected the rights of others. Instead, natural selection would favor the survival and propagation of those organisms that most successfully trampled on the rights of others. This change in worldview had the potential to open the way for major changes in American practices.
Another area in which the arrival of Darwinist thought opened the door to sweeping change was that of race relations.
The Abolitionist movement (1831-1865), which campaigned tirelessly and ultimately successfully for the complete end of the institution of slavery in
The arrival and acceptance of Charles Darwin’s theory changed the intellectual landscape of
It is important to recognize that Darwinism did not invent racism, nor did it introduce racism into the
Darwinism also removed the basis for asserting any essential difference between humans and animals. Indeed, leading Darwinists emphatically proclaimed, “Man is an animal.” By this they meant not simply the uncontroversial and long-recognized fact that man’s physical body functions in ways similar to those of animals, but that man is nothing more than an animal. This too was an inescapable outcome of reasoning from Darwinist premises. If man had gradually evolved from lower life forms, then there could be no qualitative difference between man and his supposedly less evolved ancestors. Man might be a very clever and highly developed animal, but he was an animal nonetheless. And since it was impossible to conceive how a human soul—as distinct from the physiological function of the brain—could evolve, most Darwinists soon came to posit that man had no soul. The human, like the animal, was the sum total of his physiological functions.
By the same token, Darwinist assumptions led directly to the conclusion that man did not have free will. “Science seeks to explain phenomena in terms of mechanism,” wrote prominent Darwinist and eugenicist Charles Davenport, as he argued that human behavior should be understood as being “under a mechanical law instead of being conceived of as controlled by demons or by a ‘free’ will.”
The impact of these changes in the thought of many prominent individuals in the American intellectual elite is illustrated by the rise of the eugenics movement and so-called “scientific racism” in the
The central idea of eugenics was that man should now take control of his own evolution, and this should occur by means of the state deciding who should procreate and who should not. In some cases it also meant the state deciding who should live and who should die. It was an extremely exciting idea to those who embraced it. “The discovery that man is able to guide his own evolution by means of eugenics,” proclaimed the American Eugenics Society, was the “most momentous” human discovery of all time, and a prominent eugenicist announced breathlessly, “Today we are beginning to thrill with the feeling that we stand on the brink of an evolutionary epoch whose limits no man can possibly foretell.”
The origin of the eugenics movement can be traced directly to Darwinism. Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, is credited with being the father of eugenics, but Darwin himself hinted broadly at the idea and gave it his strong support, especially later in his life. In The Descent of Man he wrote,
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 every one 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.
Galton picked up
Although Galton’s emphasis was on the heritability of talent, he also asserted that character was hereditary. The idea that a man’s moral choices might be determined by his heredity was shocking to most Americans in the mid-nineteenth century, but it was not an unreasonable conclusion if one started from Darwinist presuppositions. Since man did not have a free will, something must cause him to act in certain ways, and that could only be his heredity. This assumption was to shape the eugenics movement in important ways.
One of the first Americans to advocate eugenics openly was zoologist and sociologist Edward S. Morse, who in 1892 argued that a criminal “breeds criminals; the taint is in the blood, and there is no royal touch which can expel it.” Morse believed shiftlessness was also a genetic trait. “Vagabonds, like criminals,” he asserted, “spring largely from a degenerating stock.” As a solution, Morse urged his contemporaries to “quarantine the evil classes as you would the plague.” That same year an American physician named Henry Chapin wrote in Popular Science Monthly that the way to deal with society’s “horde of defectives” was to prevent them from reproducing themselves in the next generations. “Such a permanent quarantine should be applied to all tramps, cranks, and generally worthless beings,” wrote Chapin.
Before the end of the decade, some Americans were beginning to agitate in favor of state laws that would mandate the involuntary sterilization of those deemed to be unfit. In 1897 a sterilization law passed one house of the
The dubious honor of being the first state to legalize involuntary sterilization went to
The institutional underpinning of the American eugenics movement developed out of the American Breeders Association. Founded in 1903 as an agricultural organization, the American Breeders Association was originally concerned with the scientific improvement of animals and plants. In 1909, however, the American Breeders Association established a Committee on Eugenics, within its organization, to investigate the possibility of applying the rules of animal breeding to human beings. This committee in turn, using a large financial grant from Mary W. Harriman, widow of railroad magnate E. H. Harriman, established the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York, to be administered by Harry H. Laughlin in close cooperation with Charles B. Davenport, his mentor, who was already director of the Station for Experimental Evolution at Cold Spring Harbor. Laughlin and
The purpose of the Eugenics Records Office was the gather information about what were presumed to be the hereditary characteristics of as many American families as possible, so as to be able to identify those who should and should not be encouraged—or allowed—to leave offspring. Laughlin eventually came to boast a collection of 750,000 note cards in a fireproof safe, storing information on thousands of families and individuals.
Another prominent eugenicist whose original rise to prominence had come through his work with animals was Madison Grant. A wealthy New Yorker, Grant had previously helped found the American conservation movement as well as the Bronx Zoo, and he had helped to save both the California redwoods and the American bison from extinction and had been one of the first to recognize that the continued health of the elk herd in Yellowstone National Park required occasional culling of some of the animals. In 1908 Grant abandoned his work on animals and turned his attention instead to human beings. “Man is an animal differing from his fellow inhabitants of the globe, not in kind but only in degree of development,” Grant declared in distinct agreement with Laughlin and other Darwinists. He now proposed to apply to human beings the same concepts he had used in dealing with animal populations, including the need for selective breeding and, more ominously, the occasional culling of the herd.
It was the influence of William Z. Ripley that turned Grant’s interest to anthropology. Ripley was an economist who dabbled in anthropology. In 1899 he had published a lengthy book entitled The Races of Europe, and his idea of what threatened the further evolution of the humanity added another element to the eugenics movement. Ripley believed that different ethnic groups represented different “races,” which were at different stages of evolutionary development. The danger, according to Ripley, lay in the highest “race” of humans being overrun and amalgamated with the lower “races,” in which he included persons from southern and eastern Europe, as well as Jews. The idea that there were separate races of humans and the idea that the influx of immigrants to
Grant enthusiastically embraced Ripley’s ideas. Whereas the belief of most Americans in human descent from Adam and Eve required a belief in the brotherhood of all mankind, Grant and others like him believed that the different races had evolved separately and were fundamentally different from each other. He insisted that the human race contained three entirely separate species, and that each of these species was divided into numerous subspecies. Interbreeding between these groups would be detrimental, especially to what Grant perceived to be the most highly evolved subspecies, his own, consisting of persons from northwestern Europe and their descendents. To describe this subspecies, or “race,” he used the term “Nordic.”
Grant developed his ideas of eugenics into what would come to be called “scientific racism.” In doing so, he was influenced by the Frenchmen Arthur de Gobineau and Georges Vacher, Comte de Lapouge, the Englishmen Darwin, Galton, and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the German Ernst Haeckel, and of course the Americans Davenport and Laughlin. Together these writers provided a mix of racism and eugenics with an underlying evolutionary basis to make such an amalgam possible.
Grant’s closest friend and ally in his advocacy of “scientific racism” was Henry Fairfield Osborn. Like Grant, Osborn was a New Yorker born to extreme wealth and privilege. Osborn earned a doctorate at
Osborn and Grant frequently worked together. Grant served on the board of the museum, and Osborn served on the board of the New York Zoological Society, which Grant came to head. In 1906 the two were involved in an incident that revealed much about their views of human beings and their place in the order of living things. In that year they placed an African pygmy named Ota Benga on display in the primate house of the Bronx Zoo. The dual implication was clear: humans were mere animals, and some humans—black ones—were much closer to the alleged animal ancestors than were others. As it turned out, the exhibit of the black man had to be terminated after only a few weeks due to community outcry led by a number of ministers, particularly members of the Colored Baptist Ministers’ Conference.
In 1908, the same year that Grant turned his attention away from zoology and toward anthropology, Osborn, apparently at least in part at Grant’s urging, shifted his own primary focus away from dinosaurs and other extinct animals to a quest for the early history and origins of human beings. Using (without attribution) the work of assistants at the museum, Osborn in 1915 published his great work on human evolution. Entitled Men of the Old Stone Age, the book set forth Osborn’s and Grant’s theories about humans. Osborn confidently asserted that the discoveries of Neanderthals as well as other ancient humans or alleged ancient humans such as Eoanthropus (the infamous Piltdown Man hoax) provided all the missing links that were needed to support
A central point in all of Osborn’s writings was his attempt to demonstrate that the human race had originated in Central Asia, partially in order to support some of his own particular theories about how evolution functioned and partially because scientific racism at that time associated the origin of the “Aryan” race with
The following year, 1916, it was Grant’s turn to publish his own book interpreting human history as an evolutionary struggle among races. The tome, product of several years of work, was entitled The Passing of the Great Race. In it Grant presented a somewhat fanciful account of the history of
In Part One of the book, Grant argued that race, rather than language or nationality, was the decisive factor in determining the greatness of individuals and civilizations, and he lamented that democracy was inimical to freedom, to the preservation of the superior race, and to the production of the greatest possible civilization. In Part Two, Grant presented his racial history of
Henry Fairfield Osborn wrote a preface to the book, in which he asserted that race accounts for “all the moral, social and intellectual characteristics and traits,” and added, “There is no gainsaying that this,” an interpretation of history through the lens of race, “is the correct scientific method of approaching the problem of the past.” Osborn expressed enthusiastic agreement with Grant’s desire for the “conservation” of the “great race.”
Grant’s book included his response to the perceived threat of the excessive survival and reproduction of lesser races. “We may be certain that the progress of evolution is in full operation today under those laws of nature which control it,” Grant wrote, and if “the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century” did not allow for the non-survival of the unfit, the result would be a devolution of the human race, away from the noble Nordics and toward other, less worthy types. Grant’s answer to this was a straightforward Darwinist ethic: “The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit, and human life is valuable only when it is of use to the community or race.” He expressed regret that “mistaken regard for what are believed to be divine laws and a sentimental belief in the sanctity of human life tend to prevent both the elimination of defective infants and the sterilization of such adults as are themselves of no value to the community. He was especially critical of the role of Christianity in preventing nature from taking its cruel course with the weak. “The church assumes a serious responsibility toward the future of the race whenever it steps in and preserves a defective strain,” he wrote. “Before eugenics were understood much could be said from a Christian and humane viewpoint in favor of indiscriminate charity for the benefit of the individual.” Now, Grant maintained, better knowledge made all that sentimental Christian care for the poor and needy entirely inexcusable. Charities must be conducted with “some small modicum of brains,” he insisted or they would be, and indeed were, more injurious to society “than black death or smallpox.”
Grant had a definite plan for the “elimination of the unfit,” and this too he expounded in his book. The solution had three parts. First, Grant wanted birth-control legalized throughout the
Third, Grant advocated a program of mandatory sterilization for “those who are weak or unfit.” Grant’s proposed program of sterilization would begin relatively small and grow. First would come the sterilization of “the criminal, the diseased, the insane”—much as
Reviewers received Grant’s book enthusiastically, but sales were low, due in part to the First World War, then in progress, and to the general public’s antipathy to Grant’s ideas. Nevertheless the book gained for Grant a reputation among the nation’s intellectual elite as one of
In 1925 The Passing of the Great Race was published in German as Der Untergang der Grossen Rasse. Shortly thereafter it came to the attention of the leader of a minor German political party, recently released from prison for an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the government. Upon reading Der Untergang der Grossen Rasse, Adolph Hitler was so moved with admiration that he wrote Grant a fan letter in which he said, “The book is my Bible.” Hitler’s writings, notably Mein Kampf, contain much material that is very similar to Grant’s thinking, though some of it came not through Grant but rather through German evolutionist scientist and apostle of monism Ernst Haeckel, among others. Still there can be no doubt that Grant’s thinking provided one element in Hitler’s concept of a racially “pure”
The trans-Atlantic admiration between the German National Socialists and the American eugenicists was definitely mutual. Grant and other eugenicists such as Harry Laughlin were enthusiastic advocates of Hitler’s racial policies. Perhaps the most eager of them was
Ironically, it was National Socialist Germany that ultimately discredited the eugenics movement in
Belief in the program of eugenics brought prominent and highly respected Americans like Madison Grant, Henry Fairfield Osborn, Charles B. Davenport, and Lothrop Stoddard to open sympathy with Hitler and to the advocacy of ideas that helped to form the foundation and at least part of the scientific justification for the Holocaust. Their belief in eugenics sprang from a belief in Darwinian evolution. If man had evolved from lower animals by the natural selection of chance variations, then man was himself no more than an animal, and there was no reason he should not be treated as such. In that case, the human population could and should be selectively bred or sterilized—or even culled—for the preservation of the herd and the improvement of the stock. That the logical outworking of this belief was so horrible has tended to obscure the fact that it was indeed the natural destination of Darwinist beliefs. As long as those beliefs remain unchallenged at the foundation of the worldview of the western intellectual elite, the horrors of the Holocaust remain an imminent threat, whenever the majority in any society forgets where that particular train of Darwinist thought must necessarily lead.
 Jonathan Peter Spiro, Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant (
 John G. West,
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 135.
 Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, rev. ed. (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1896), 1: 168.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 135; West,
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 135; West, Darwin Day in America, 24, 86-87; Elof Axel Carlson, The Unfit: A History of a Bad Idea (Cold Spring Harbor, NY: Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2001), 9; Edwin Black, War against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003), 15-16.
 Black, War against the Weak, 17; Carlson, The Unfit, 233-34.
 Carlson, The Unfit, 171.
 Carlson, The Unfit, 52.
 Black, War against the Weak, 66; Carlson, The Unfit, 218-19.
 Black, War against the Weak, 63-67; Carlson, The Unfit, 207-12.
 Carlson, The Unfit, 193-95; Black, War against the Weak, 33-41, 51-57; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 126-28.
 Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 127;
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 100.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 93-95; Gossett, Race, 413.
 Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, or, The Racial Basis of European History, 4th edition (New York: C. Scribner’s Sons, 1923) xxv; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 100-02.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 103-34.
 Brian Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn: Race, and the Search for the Origins of Man (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2002), 25-34, 39; Ronald Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity: Henry Fairfield Osborn and Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History, 1890-1935 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1991), 24, 38, 46; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 81, 144.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 44-48.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 103; Henry Fairfield Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age: Their Environment, Life and Art, third edition (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1919), 5-7, 49-275.
 Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age, 451-89; Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity, 99-102; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 103, 140; Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, 88-93, 98-99.
 Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age, 489.
 Osborn, Men of the Old Stone Age, 489-95; Rainger, An Agenda for Antiquity, 99-102; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 103, 140; Regal, Henry Fairfield Osborn, 88-93, 98-99.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 13.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 3-96.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 97-252. Quotation page 222.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, vii-ix. This preface originally appeared in the 1916 1st edition.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 262-63.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 49; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 151.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 49-50.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 48-49; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 156.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 1st edition, 45-46, 49-50, 98; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 156.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 50.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 50; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 156-57.
 Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, 4th edition, 50, 54; Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 156.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 158-61, 168-69.
 Madison Grant, Der Untergang der grossen Rasse: Die Rassen als Grundlage der Geschichte Europas, translated by Rudolf Polland (Munich: J.F. Lehmann, 1925).
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 357; Black, War against the Weak, 273-77; On the origins of the thought behind the Holocaust, see Richard Weikart, From
 Black, War against the Weak, 304-05.
 Regal, Henry
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 365. 370, 373; Thomas F. Gossett, Race: The History of an Idea in
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 338-39; Gossett, Race, 429.
 Spiro, Defending the Master Race, 190, 235; Black, War against the Weak, 127-44.