Last night, Glenn Beck blended his anti-progressive polemics with anti-evolution dogma, attacking Charles Darwin as “the father of modern day racism” who “plant[ed] the seed that leads to progressivism, eugenics.” He expanded on this critique on the radio this morning, saying that Darwin wrote about “the savages” and announcing: “I understand why Darwin has to be taught in schools now. You have to teach evolution, because if you don't teach evolution, progressivism falls apart.” According to Beck and his cohorts, a direct line can be drawn between Darwin, eugenics, and Hitler: “Charles Darwin is the father of the Holocaust.”
Much of what Beck is referring to can be found in Darwin's The Descent of Man, published in 1871 -- in particular Chapter 5, titled “On the development of the intellectual and moral faculties during primeval and civilized times.” And, indeed, Darwin's writings are peppered with terminology and assertions that, to modern sensibilities, are offensive. That Darwin was writing at a time in which theories of racial superiority were widely accepted -- the United States had just wrapped up a war predicated on the notion that blacks were inferior to whites -- is not exculpatory but does add some needed context.
But to lay blame for “modern racism,” eugenics, and the Holocaust at Darwin's feet is not only wrong, it's phenomenally lazy and an act of profound cowardice from a self-styled “thinker” like Glenn Beck.
Let's take a look at Darwin's thoughts on natural selection and the human race. In the Descent of Man, Darwin argued that the “civilized” trait of caring for the weaker members of the species appears to contravene the natural selection observed in the rest of the animal world:
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 out medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of the 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.
This is hardly what one would call politic, and most people would recoil at such a dispassionately cruel assessment of the human capacity for benevolence. However, Darwin immediately went on to explain why we, as a species, are obligated to care for the weakest among us, and that to shirk that duty would be “evil”:
The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself while performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were to intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil.
This passage would seem to run counter to the idea that Darwin was the “father” of eugenics.
But Beck insists that Darwin's writings provided the justification for the Holocaust. Using his own standards for culpability, however, I can do him one better and make the (unfounded) argument that real blame actually goes much further back -- to Jesus Christ.
After all, the Gospel of John contains a passage in which Jesus appears to refer to an assemblage of Jews as children of Satan:
Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father's desire. He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Yet because I tell the truth, you do not believe me! Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don't you believe me? He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
This, of course, is counterbalanced by the many passages in which Jesus exhorts love and tolerance. Would I be intellectually honest to seize on this Biblical excerpt to claim that Jesus was the father of modern anti-Semitism and laid the groundwork for the Inquisition and the Holocaust? Absolutely not, and I'd be rightly excoriated for doing so.
The legacy of Darwin is not racism or eugenics or genocide. It is the ongoing quest, as humans, to figure out where we came from and, hopefully, who we are. The science of modern biology, the Human Genome Project, and many wonders of modern medicine can be traced back to Darwin's five-year voyage on the HMS Beagle. And Beck is trying to tear down those monumental contributions to humanity by speciously linking Darwin to humanity's worst moments.