Essays and Theories

Altruism, Eugenics, and Natural Selection:
The View As We Approach the Millennium:
William A. Spriggs
June, 1996

As we approach the new century, I would like to offer my views and analysis of three interrelated subjects: eugenics, natural selection, and altruism. All three have a function in biology, and all three cause a certain amount of controversy, creating confusion, hope, anger, fear, contention, prejudice and, unfortunately, subjugation and ethnic cleansing of some of the inhabitants on our planet. I feel that it is necessary to weave the three together into a coherent overview as we enter the new millennium, so that we can better understand each one and their new combined relationships.

I first wish to take on eugenics, as this is the subject that creates the most fearful response to those who are familiar with the term. Basically, eugenics is the attempt to "assist" nature by "improving" the natural selection process in humans. Eugenics had its start in 1883 with an English scientist by the name of Sir Francis Galton. And guess what? He was Charles Darwin's cousin. Although Galton was a mathematician, he was fascinated by the biological "genius" that ran in his family and he began to make meticulous measurements of various human physical characteristics. He gathered information on human head measurements, heights, and weights, and with it, Galton pioneered in the method of mathematical biological inheritance that gave rise to what is known as the eugenics movement.

His cousin's theory, natural selection, although controversial with the science societies, made perfect sense to Galton and to his fellow English landed aristocrats. This was a time in English history where the "country home" dominated society, and here, in these massive country homes, the British nobles ruled the world and all that lay before them. This gave rise to an attitude of manifest destiny that created an empire that permeated even down to their farm animals. To them, breeding the finest features into the animals on their estates made perfect sense -- financially, socially, and biologically. Since animals have shorter life cycle then humans, it was very easy to see the effects of their "proper breeding." Hence, the breeding of quality features into house and farm animals became part of the social fabric of the society. One merely has to read the Jane Austen's novels and count the word "breeding" to get an idea of the word's usage in the society of the time. If these same positive results could be obtained through breeding animals and members of their own social circles, could not the same methods be used to improve the rest of the poor human livestock that lived in squalor in the major cities for the benefit of all humankind?

But eugenics does not apply to animals. It only applies to humans. And for the eugenics movement to take hold, there had to be a concept of the human condition which fell into the two classifications of "desirable" and "undesirable." As vast fortunes were made in manufacturing, and major successes were made through exporting, the wealthy owners of these institutions found that they needed more workers to work the mills and factories that were springing up in major commerce areas. Labor was still mostly on the farm, bound by farming regulations that dated back to the middle ages. Like their wealthy counterparts of today influencing our legislature, the wealthy Englishmen lobbied their Parliament into passing laws that would be beneficial to their causes. One such law repealed the Corn Laws in 1846. The repeal of this law had the effect of flooding the British market with foreign grains and drastically lowering the price of grain in England. This had the effect of making poor farmers even more destitute, forcing huge numbers off their lands. In order to survive, the farmers had to abandon their farms and head for the booming industrial cities in search of jobs. This massive movement from the rural to urban areas in English history that we are familiar with was recorded by Charles Dickens in his famous novels, The Pickwick Papers, A Christmas Carol, and Nicholas Nickleby. The poor, the unlanded, and the unskilled were all pushed into already overcrowded and unruly cities to fend for themselves.

The landed aristocrats, who had the fortune to be able to acquire vast amounts of resources due to their wealth, positions, and families, viewed these other humans in the industrial cities, as "undesirables." To them, such people were abominations due to their horrid lifestyles and morals that obviously were products of bad breeding. And of course, since the industrial revolution was just beginning, there was precious little middle-class to temper the influence of the upper-class through Parliament. The wealthy ruled the "lower" classes with an autocratic iron fist. You either had resources, or you didn't. Such a disparity left a chasm between rich and poor that has had a major influence in the thought processes of the rich and poor up to the present day.

The eugenics movement was at this time small. It gained momentum with the "rediscovery" in 1900, of Mendel's theories on the peas in his garden. He found that certain factors contributed to the various traits of the peas. These factors were later to be identified as genes. Now science had hard physical proof that the good and the bad of the human machine could be altered and "improved." Since the foundation of the eugenics movement was formed within the boundaries of the English nobility, the creation of the perceived superiority of the white Anglo-Saxon race was also born. Since wealth is the ultimate endless resource of food, shelter, and safety -- and thus, the perceived best vessel for gene survival -- those that obtained such wealth were then considered most knowledgeable in the matter of survival. And thusly, they appointed themselves as judge and jury in matters of cultural standards. (Also see my essay, Evolutionary Psychology and the Origin of Bigotry and Prejudice). If this were a different planet, the circumstances could very well have evolved differently. Perhaps a black female matriarchal society could have just as easily have arisen in our species and become dominate. Skin color and cultural ethnicity has nothing to do with the rise of eugenics. It is entirely dependent upon the control of one group restricting resources from another group to genetically advance their own group. For further confirmation of the skin color issue, please review your history of Rwanda and Burundi in regards to the two dark-skinned Hutu and Tutsi clans. When the Belgians took control of the area in 1956, they picked one group to serve as their proxies. Even though the Tutsi clan was in the minority (14%), the Belgians picked them based on the "pseudoscientific" studies in vogue at the time that led them to think that the Tutsi were biologically superior. Once again, one group dominated and attempted to restrict resources from another group. The result was dramatically played out with the holocaust in 1994 between the two clans.

Despite its origin in England, eugenics was strongest in France, Germany and the United States from 1915 to 1940. In America during the late twenties and early thirties, there even arose eugenic clubs in which the best human traits were showcased. Research into human heredity gained new support and such organizations claimed that criminality, prostitution, and feeblemindedness were the product of poor genes. Laws were passed in 24 states encouraging sterilization of those who were mentally retarded, insane or had criminal records. Supporters of the eugenics movement also felt that the female should not even be allowed into the work place due to her unique position of child bearer and child raiser. If women forsook their duties, then the entire species would suffer. Such organizations also produced information on desirable traits of intelligence and character, which they trumpeted, were easily recognizable. Such publications helped to pass the Johnson Act in 1924, reducing to a trickle, the flow of immigrants from eastern Europe and the Mediterranean region. It was these people, the Act stated, that were "inferior" to those of the Anglo-Saxon race.

While the Johnson Act was being passed, Adolf Hitler was writing his autobiography while serving a prison sentence for a failed putsch uprising. America's interest in eugenics was noticed by Adolf Hitler. He came to power in a period of terrible economic conditions in Germany. After W.W.I, the Germans were brutally subjugated by economic hardships brought on by the victorious allies. Hyper-inflation brought on by a hapless German central bank printing billions and billions of worthless Marks meant that it took a wheelbarrow of money to buy a loaf of bread. In such circumstances, democracy is sometimes thrown out the window as the cause and not the cure of economic distress. In time of hardship, people are desperate for any way to end the agony. To do so, sometimes they look for someone to blame in order to vent anger. Sometimes this anger turns to hate, and when this occurs, one group dominates another and verbal harassment and physical injury can occur. And sometimes, because they have the upper hand, innately, the joy of defeating a foe rises to the surface as cruelty and torture. It was these conditions that Hitler understood and exploited.

The problem then, as it is today, is a total lack of understanding and a refusal to believe in our common linkage as a species. In addition, the total eradication of the democratic process and the substitution of a process in which only one political message is permissible occurred. This combined with severe economic conditions created the opposite of altruistic behavior. In this particular circumstance, it was the Nazi party and Adolf Hitler that eradicated hunger and unemployment which created support for this terrible time in our human history. I cannot write about the unspeakable pain and suffering inflicted upon others by this one dominate cultural group in the attempt to "improve" the race by eliminating "undesirables." This was our planet's darkest moment. And because of this dark period, we as a species are constantly alert to any group -- be it political, scientific, or military -- that suggests any improvements in the human structure. As modern genetic research rapidly advances, perhaps we have the answer as to why God allowed these unspeakable crimes to occur.

The second part of my essay concerns Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection. The definition of natural selection that seems to have survived the voyage since Darwin's first writings seems to be that if a trait, (like a big nose to help a species adapt to breathing in a polluted atmosphere), helps to allow the species to survive at a particular location on the planet, and this trait is passed on to the next generation through birth, then that is natural selection. If the particular trait continues to spread amongst the herd of the species, then the result is considered to be an aggregate pool. Since the development of the particular trait helps survival of the species, then, the theory contends, widespread disbursement amongst a particular herd will help to guarantee all safe passage into succeeding generations.

One can only speculate as to how Darwin created the natural selection theory. As I mentioned above in the eugenics section concerning the wealthy land owners, by 1800, the use of the verb "to select" was commonly used in various publications of animal and plant breeders. Since Darwin, was by profession a clergyman, in 1838 Darwin noted in his E notebook that breeding was a natural process equal to the natural laws handed down by God. Darwin concluded that the final result of natural selection was the sorting out of proper structure and adapting to any local changes. Darwin based his final observations on the observation of sporting dog breeds where their predatory methods were cultivated but the vicious temperament element was culled out. Here we see the enormous advantage of wealth and setting of the country home. Do you think Darwin would be able to make the same observations today in the barrios of East Los Angeles?

But since the publication of Darwin's theory, there has been much confusion on the part of scientists and scholars concerning exactly what is the definition of natural selection. The confusion continues up till the present day. Actually, Darwin never really defines the phrase and only mentions it in his writings metaphorically. Only the title of his book published in 1859 comes close: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. By the third edition of Origin in 1961, Darwin wrote in the introduction: "...but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us." I want you to burn the last eight words into your long-term memory and tie them to the phrase that seems to echo down the halls of time from what Darwin wrote on pg. 263 of Origin: "....let the strongest live and the weakest die." Somehow, various people in positions of influence have taken these words and have used them to justify unspeakable things against others. They have ascertained that certain sequence of events in biology justified their actions. In truth, for these people, natural selection leads to a prejudicial method of judging things and people hidden in scientific garb. The phrase about the strongest and the weakest justified "biologically" the death of six million Jews under Hitler.

We know that this confusion could be true because Darwin had difficulty with his own theory, as there were exceptions in the natural world that seemed to defy his studies. In fact, the mere existence of the male peacock made Darwin divide his original theory in into two: natural and sexual. Why? Because the male peacock, with its wild plumage extended to attract the female, would be highly vulnerable if a predator were to pass by, and that would not be conductive to survival. (Unless, of course, the predator was laughing too hard to pounce). Darwin tried to smooth this over by writing that sexual selection was a distinctive form of selective competition which was needed to attract a mate. And this was different from natural selection because it did not involve death to those not selected. I have a real problem believing this. I mean, I thought the whole basis of natural selection was the passage of traits through heredity -- and that involves sex. Today, most popular journals debating the natural selection theory seems to have evolved and have gone into a complete circle by reinventing the definition of natural selection to mean any trait that will help in passing one's genes into the next generation. (Nov 96: see my new essay, Evolutionary Psychology and the Recipe for an Artificial Brain: Add One Cup of Gray Matter and Mix. In which I feel that I have put this quandary into proper perspective -- sexual selection is just one stage of our entire life's voyage.)

For the sake of simplicity, I would like to offer my five step definition of natural selection:

Now, let's take my fifth step and expand upon it so that you can more clearly see the issue that I am striving toward in my triad essay: A). The concept of natural selection would never have arisen unless one species had the conceptual ability to label and categorize the new traits that were necessary for survival in other plants or animals; B). The concept of "desire for improving" the plants or animals must have arisen; C). The "why" of how traits are passed from one generation to another in plants and animals needed to be discovered by the species with the conceptual ability noted above; and D). There had to be a mechanism of controlling the plants or animals needing "improvement" or "discouragement" to produce variations in traits -- keeping the "good" and discarding the "bad." That would be the controlling of resources, either adding to, or taking from, the subject being controlled -- like providing the best possible conditions for growth or discouraging growth in a plant by giving the right amounts of water or withholding water. The same mechanisms can be done with humans. We can give the best possible resources in providing the right opportunities for everyone which would encourage growth -- like a national effort to educate all children equally or by discouraging certain groups in various ways like blocking all attempts at living in a better neighborhood by hindering approval of housing loans. The burning issue will be if we can become aware of our subtle eugenic tendencies and how best to avoid this evolved mechanism. This is not the social groupings of our ancestors; this is now.

The final section of my three part essay takes up the wonderful trait of altruism. Altruism is very easy to understand. It means that you are willing to help others when the very act of helping others would reduce your chance of survival. I doubt that there is an altruism gene, but I speculate that what we will discover is that various genes, acting in concert with outside environmental and cultural influences, create cooperation amongst our species to act in a helpful manner to others. If you give a can of vegetables to a food drive, that means you are sacrificing your survival changes to help another survive. In the U.S., with its vast food stores, this small act does not seem that it would have a great effect. But 35,000 years ago, it would have been a big deal. Perhaps a more dramatic visualization suited for today would be a white, male firefighter, risking his life, entering a burning building to save a female child of a minority race. According to the laws of natural selection, and including everything we know about historical facts, this scenario should never have taken place. But it does. It happens every hour of every day. In fact, altruism is more prevalent today than ever. America, England, and France each sent 20,000 each of their youth to Bosnia in the winter of 1995 to keep the peace between two warring factions. Such troop movements to make peace while placing a country's youth at risk would have been unthinkable in Darwin's time. That is altruism at its highest level, and the optimist in me knows that we will see more of such activity as we approach the millennium.

But what about the laws of natural selection that tell us that only the strongest and fittest survive? Two of the greatest minds in evolution, Edward O.Wilson and Charles Darwin faced this dilemma of trying to fit altruism into the framework of natural selection. In his book, The New Synthesis (1975, p.578) Wilson lamented that altruism was basically the reverse of natural selection. Darwin writes in On the Origin of Species (1859) "I...will confine myself to one special difficulty, which at first appears to me insuperable, and actually fatal to my whole theory. I allude to the neuters or sterile females in insect communities."

After considerable thought, the only answer that I could arrive at is that altruism is the biological baseline of all the species; designed to encourage the development of the group, and that natural selection is a "maximum effort mechanism" designed to ensure the survival of the individual, which of course, in multiples, is the foundation of the group. The problem is not in the theory of natural selection, but in the belief of those who feel that natural selection is the overriding law of evolution and nothing else can replace it. Biological altruism is the very reason that we, as a civilization, are here. Inclusive fitness, which helped to create the clan, is the step between the natural selection maximized individual and the various groups that began to form our early societies. It very simply has to do with group cooperation vs. individualism. We could not have survived as a species unless we learned to hunt as a group. We could not have developed a language talking to ourselves -- we needed a way to move and make the group act as one. We could not have survived as a species unless we passed our knowledge to others for their benefit. We could not have survived as a species unless the strong protected others less able to defend themselves. Altruism developed the group; the group developed community; community developed civilization. We will not be able to do alone as individual nations, that which will be our destiny as a global group. Biological Altruism is very simple and states: "we are all one -- nations, men, women, animals, insects and the Earth -- and we are all connected. To me it is obvious. Biological altruism is the real baseline in evolution because we want to include all individuals into our plans, and leave no one behind. I strongly believe that due to the harshness of our origins, natural selection had its place in that it preserved the individual, and therefore preserved the genetic line as a last resort. But as we approach the millennium, we must accept this new combined theory or we will face grave difficulty ahead.

It is the summer of 1996, and is the year of the Olympics in Atlanta. What a perfect time to see natural selection at work. Here are individuals, allowed by our culture to devote all of their attention to improving their skills and creating maximum performance, which of course would relate to the "fittest" in biological terms. But something else is happening here. There is a cost. All this focusing on one trait or skill has produced not just the "fittest," but also an individual who is far from the norm. Such a focus produces an asymmetrical model of the species. Is this person really biologically better? Or has this person been given extraordinary time and resources by those who oversee this person to become the "fittest?" Is an Olympic athlete really a true representative of the group or is it time to reallocate resources so that all of us can develop like the Olympic athlete? It is time for all of us to be given special developmental advantages.

Think of natural selection as the luxury edition of a car model. Thus, biological altruism is the basic car model, and natural selection as the luxury edition of that model. The luxury edition exists because extra resource attention has been added to the basic model. The sterile worker insect is your basic genetic automobile which only comes with biological altruism. The natural selection process is used to improve the basic model. It is time for all of us to think of ourselves as one global village in which we are all apart of the same group.

Natural selection does exist, and works, but we must recombine the theory with biological altruism and also remember the error of eugenics. As we unwind the genetic geonome mystery, we must advance the theory of biological altruism and the belief in our connectives to fight those who would be inclined to stand in judgment of others as "defective" or "undesirable." Biological altruism is the linkage to our past and future descendants. It is the seed of thought that God has planted in humankind to create the group and will surpass natural selection in the future as the governing law of biological nature that stresses the individual. We are all one.


Origin: June 1996

Updated: October 1996

Copyright, Evolution's Voyage 1995 - 2011