Watson, Social Darwinism: Old idea re-visited

By Alan Branch
Nov 20, 2007

Nobel Prize winner James Watson has reignited debate about Social Darwinism. In an interview for the London Times on Oct. 14 Watson suggested that people of African decent are not as intelligent as Western-Europeans. Watson said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our politics are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours—whereas all the testing says not really.” In his recently-released book Avoid Boring People, Watson adds, “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”

This sort of ethnocentric racism is not unique to Watson: similar ideas were suggested by Charles Darwin himself. In The Descent of Man (1874), Darwin said: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace the savage races.” Make no mistake, for Darwin, the “civilized races” meant white Europeans while the “savage races” included most everyone else. These same ideas took hold here in the United States during the early twentieth century. Evolutionary racism is clearly seen in George William Hunter’s A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems (1914). Hunter claimed that of all the racial groups in the world “the highest type of all” was Caucasian, represented by “the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.” It is significant to note that A Civic Biology was the textbook in question at the 1925 Scopes trial.

The racism inherent in Social Darwinism was also advocated by Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Writing in 1922 in her book The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger considered “inferior races” to be “human weeds” and a “menace to civilization.”

Social Darwinism is not limited to racial groups, but can include the weak and defenseless as well. Writing in 1983 in the professional journal Pediatrics, Sanger said, “If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.” For Singer, animals may in fact have more value than some humans. James Watson himself expressed similar ideas when in 1973 in the AMA Prism he said: “Because of the present limits of such detection methods, most birth defects are not discovered until birth…If a child was not declared alive until three days after birth, then all parents could be allowed the choice…the doctor could allow the child to die if the parents so choose and save a lot of misery and suffering.”

Sadly, some Christians have periodically embraced the wrong-headed idea that some races are better than others, even citing the Bible to defend their position. The difference between religiously motivated racists and the racism of Social Darwinism is that religiously motivated racists are acting in complete inconsistency with Christian doctrine while racists motivated by Social Darwinism are acting consistently with certain conclusions based on naturalistic Darwinism.

Theories of human origin that omit God as creator inevitably deteriorate into bizarre speculation and absurdity. For example, Francis Crick was James Watson’s colleague and co-winner of the 1962 Nobel Prize in medicine. Operating from basically an atheistic worldview, Crick was confounded by the fact that life is only known to arise from previously existing life, a tremendous obstacle to naturalistic Darwinism. Thus to overcome this problem, Crick suggested an idea known as “directed panspermia” in which aliens seeded primitive forms of life on earth. For Crick, belief in “aliens” is preferable to belief in God!

Christian anthropology rejects all of these notions. Genesis 1:26-28 clearly affirms that all humans are made in the image of God and share equal worth and value. Motivated by a robust respect for human life, Christians have initiated countless ministries to the weak, oppressed and disenfranchised. Though we have not always lived up to the best in our ethics, we do in fact have a system of moral reflection based on an anthropology that challenges us to treat others with respect and dignity. The Christian doctrine of creation encourages respect for others because they are made in the image of God. While advocates of Social Darwinism have advocated a future in which only the “most evolved” get to participate, Christian eschatology offers a contrasting vision and encourages us to look forward to the day when a vast multitude from every possible background shares in worship of the Lamb: “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation’” (Rev. 5:9).

This article is reprinted from the November 13, 2007, issue of The Pathway, the newspaper of the Missouri Baptist Convention. The author, Alan Branch, is vice president for student development and assistant professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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