Pichot’s book redresses the balance of this year’s almost obsessive preoccupation with Darwin, insisting that there were many other outstanding biologists, not least Cuvier, Lamarck and Buffon, who were significant figures in the study of evolution. This is a welcome reminder, as at times this year it has seemed as if Darwin was being made over into a ‘celeb’, a surely unmerited fate. But more importantly Pichot is intensely hostile to eugenics and sets himself to trace what he sees as the link between Darwin’s theory of natural selection and that nightmare figure of 20th century eugenics, Hitler.
Pichot’s thesis is that the emergence of evolutionary theory is integral to the cultural process of naturalising society by the increasingly influential biologists. The emphasis by Darwin and his peers on the biological communalities between all living organisms, sets aside human culture. The supernatural becomes redundant. What matters is the material world. Despite the 150 years time gap this debate between Christian fundamentalists and Darwinian fundamentalists continues remarkably unchanged. Thus among the latter, Richard Dawkins believes that biological science proves atheism, while fundamentalist Christians believe that the two pages in Genesis setting out the Creation story are still the literal truth. Not all biologists take this either/or view. With rather more sophistication Stephen Jay Gould (though a formidable foe of creationism, recognizes the difference between religion and science recognizing them as ‘non-overlapping magisteria’.
The heart of Pichot’s book is his critique of this naturalizing, or as some would say, biologising of society .He sees the process beginning, not with the biologists, but with the late eighteenth century figure of Malthus, who argued that the consequence of an increasing population and fixed resources inexorably leads to competition with the weaker losing out. Darwin is unequivocal that it was Malthus who was the major influence in shaping his theory of natural selection. Thus his concept of the struggle for existence is directly drawn from Malthus. But Darwin’s thinking was also hugely stimulated by his interest of pigeon fancying where breeders select for particular characteristics, a process Darwin called artificial selection. These strands of natural and artificial selection are brought together and applied to humans via Galton’s theory of inherited genius and Spencer’s hugely popular Social Darwinism.
This naturalising leads inexorably to worrying about the quality of the national stock. Are the unfit outbreeding the fit? It is a commonplace among historians of eugenics that the educated classes, barring Catholics, but otherwise regardless of their political stance, shared this anxiety and became increasingly committed to eugenics as the means of at least preserving and preferably enhancing the national stock. But what Pichot does is to pin responsibility on the biologists for providing the scientific justification for the eugenics. This was not just the Nazi scientists. He pursues this theme relentlessly and with formidable scholarship.
With the rediscovery of Mendel and the modern synthesis in the 1930s which successfully brought natural selection and genetics together, the concern about the unfit, above all the mentally disabled or ill, became translatable into policy whether by sterilisation or sexually segregated incarceration. Pichot explores the biologists’ commitment to eugenics even though as the Nazi threat gathers, they use their science to attack racism. He documents their silence about the Nazi’s – almost trial run – initially sterilizing, then exterminating the mentally unfit. He offers strong evidence that the geneticists only challenged eugenics when it was applied to the Jews but otherwise retained their commitment to eugenics for the unfit (…)
The Pure Society especially to those in the field of biomedicine, (often trying to forget their professional involvement in the dark history of eugenics) is both fascinating and infuriating. None the less well worth reading, as we can only avoid the mistakes of the past if we understand our history. And given the power and maybe threat of genomics this is important and not only for those in biomedicine.
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Hilary Rose reviews André Pichot’s ‘The Pure Society’ for The Lancet
October 26, 2009 by versouk