a. The Survival of the Fittest.
b. Negative Eugenics.


When ignorance and evil join forces, they become a formidable enemy
to everything that is worthwhile.

In the late nineteenth century, Herbert Spencer proposed the idea, based on biological evolution by means of natural selection, that the rule of the survival of the fittest is operative, not only in biological systems but also in human societies (1). Once this idea took hold, it soon began to grow into the movement of Social Darwinism by the work of Walter Bagehot (2), reaching an extreme form of racism in the works of the Austrian Ludwig Gumplowitz (3). Social Darwinism has been the support to many fallacies and atrocities. Arrogant ethnic superiority on the one hand, and racial genocide on the other, were some of the political fruits of this theory. Prince Peter Kropotkin, a late Russian contemporary of Charles Darwin, anticipated a dismal future for society. He thought that the social theorists of his time will soon twist Darwin's conception of nature into a world of perpetual struggle among starving people, thirsting for each other's blood (4). In the business world today, which is looked upon by some as a "dog eats dog world," similar ideas seem to sanction the destruction of all competition in the name of free enterprise. After all, some would say, the survival of the fittest is a principle of nature.

I want to show in this essay that the tenets of Social Darwinism, contrary to the earlier political views of our century, and contrary to some of the present business practices, have no biological foundations. It is not justifiable to support such views and such practices by the idea that after all "this is the way of nature." At best, the foundations of Social Darwinism were and are based on ignorance about the ways of nature.
First, it should be quite clear that the survival of the fittest does not mean a monopoly on life for one or a few most successful organisms. What we find instead is the countless numbers of the most varied forms of life, all living together, and all being well adapted to the diverse aspects of a rather complex and ever changing environment. Instead of being slowly eroded and destroyed, this richness of life is generated and maintained by the processes of nature. Let us see, how this happens.

Variation is a universal characteristic of all groups of living things. The sources of variation are genetic and environmental in addition to the effects of some random factors. The relationship between the variants within and between species is competitive because the resources that support life are limited. The result of this conflict is the differential survival of the variants. The word "differential" simply means that survival is not a live or die situation but is a matter of degrees of reproductive success in the given and ever changing environment. We can measure the amount of variation in any group of living things, and what we find is quite impressive. As a rule of thumb, the amount of variation maintained in natural populations is at a practical optimum. It is at a value at which the opposing factors tend to be in balance, as too much variation would make the population ill-adapted in a somewhat stable environment, while too little variation would render it unable to respond adaptively to environmental changes. Similar principles seem to apply to population size that is again maintained within the supportive limits of the environment at a practical optimum. Unlimited growth is simply meaningless in natural systems.

The way selection works can be best seen in the extreme forms of competition between members of the same species on a relatively small island, where resources are quite limited, and there is no place to go to find new sources of support. The evolutionary response to such severe form of competition is often adaptive radiation. The unity of the species is disrupted as the local populations, in response to competition, move toward a more specialized use of the many diverse aspects of the environment. This strategy is adaptive and is supported by natural selection through some of the genetic, ecological, anatomical, physiological, or behavioral mechanisms available. The resulting subdivisions of the original species are then gradually consolidated by reproductive isolation. The process achieves a better utilization of the environment, resulting in a net gain as the severe intraspecific competition is shifted toward a much reduced interspecific competition. The overall result is not the destruction but the production and maintenance of a richness of life that we see in nature. A classical example of adaptive radiation is given by Darwin’s finches of the Galapagos.

Specialization of resource use, as a major factor in the reduction of competitive stress between species, may show up in many different ways. Quite often, it is the physical encounter that is minimized, as the peak activity of one species becomes shifted in time from that of another. A comparable spatial separation can also function most efficiently in this regard. In a 1958 study (5), MacArthur showed that different species of warblers that forage on the same pine tree occupy distinct regions, which are statistically well definable. The foraging zone of the Cape May warbler is the outer regions of the tree tops, while the Bay-breasted warbler occupies the entire middle zone, and the Myrtle warbler concentrates its activity on the lower branches including also the area under the tree. Such fine, spatial differentiation of an ecosystem means the efficient utilization of resources by a great variety of life forms at a reduced level of competition.

Here is another example. A superficial impression given by the relationship between predator and prey may have presented, and still may present, an attractive image to the followers of Social Darwinism. Again, in this context, the power of this image is only an illusion. In natural situations, that is without human intervention, the relationship of predators to their prey cannot be characterized as being destructive. The predator depends on the prey for survival, and consequently, any destructive component in this relationship would be harmful to both, predator and prey. Natural selection could never establish or maintain such a negative component. Of course, I do not imply here that destructive elements never occur in natural relationships. I simply maintain that natural selection swiftly opposes such elements. It has been shown that the predator-prey relationship is not only balanced but that there is in it, besides the obvious benefit to the predator, a beneficial component in favor of the prey.

One of the best examples of the beneficial as well as the necessary presence of the predator is given by the fate of a small herd of reindeer, which consisted of 29 individuals. These animals were introduced onto St. Matthew Island in the North Pacific in 1944. The island had two important features. It provided a lush vegetation for the reindeer, and it was totally devoid of the reindeer's natural predator, the timber wolf. The largest carnivorous animals on the island were some foxes. The reindeer population grew exponentially, reaching close to 3000 individuals by the year 1960. By 1964 the population doubled and reached about 6000 individuals. During the following winter, which was unusually severe, it became apparent that the large number attained so suddenly was beyond the carrying capacity of the island. Most of the reindeer died of starvation and exposure during this winter reducing their numbers close to extinction. The count in 1966, when the experiment was discontinued, was 42. (6).

Observing the activities of the wolf pack and the reindeer herd, it becomes obvious that healthy reindeer can outrun a pursuing pack. It is the old, the sick, and the very young that is mostly the prey for the wolf. Among these, the very young receive special protection against the wolves through parental care and through the protective devices of the herd.

A similar picture emerges from other examples of predator-prey relationship. It has been observed that the number of the snowshoe hare in Canada fluctuates with a periodicity of close to 3 years, as indicated by the sale of pelts to Hudson's Bay Company. The same periodicity, but with a slight lag, can be seen in the lynx, the principal, natural predator of the hare. The lynx does not eliminate the snowshoe hare, but the two populations are in a fluctuating, natural balance in which they are both thriving and healthy. (7).
It is fascinating to see how coevolution of diverse organisms may reduce competitive stress through the various stages of increasing mutual benefit. A point may be reached when there are no more negative elements in the relationship of two organisms. Although, at this point, there may not be any actual benefit in their close association, but there is certainly no more harm in it either. If this trend of changes continues, it may eventually lead to the benefit of one or both associated partners, as in commensalism and mutualism.
There may be some objections against this idea of coevolution, leading the relating organisms from harm to benefit. Is it not possible that such process may only be functional in a few, isolated, and rather special cases? Furthermore, when we describe an actual, symbiotic relationship, we do not really know its evolutionary history. In other words, there may not be sufficient evidence to provide real substance to this idea of coevolution leading from harm to benefit.

Consider, however, the following argument. The sum of the negative and positive components in the ecology of organisms is on the positive side simply by definition because they are surviving quite well. What we see is a great multitude of the many forms of life, which are all thriving in the complexities of their social and physical environments. As to the social component, the rule is coadaptation toward mutual benefit in which the established level of fitness, again by definition, has a positive edge on survival. In this context of mutual dependence, destructiveness of one toward the other is self-defeating and the need for evolutionary change from harm to benefit represents a feasible hypothesis. We can, however, do much better than proposing a hypothesis. We can observe and accurately describe such coadaptive evolutionary processes.
One of the best examples is given by the natural history of the Myxoma virus in rabbits. (8). It was the year 1950 when the virus was introduced the first time in Australia to control the tremendously growing rabbit population of that country. At this early time of contact between parasite and host, virus virulence was close to 98% and host susceptibility close to 95% in terms of mortality. By 1957, after five successive epidemics and the span of only a few years, the relationship has changed. By that time, virulence was approaching the 80% value, while susceptibility was reduced close to 30% indicating a clear case of coevolution of the two species in the direction toward mutual survival, that is, in the direction from harm to benefit.

There is much to learn from the ways of nature. We find the wisdom of survival there, molded to fine perfection by hundreds of millions of years of practice. We find beautifully functional compromises that have been balanced around the practical best for all concerned. We find a great number of specializations reducing competition and at the same time ensuring the richness of life on earth. It could be of great benefit if we were to translate these ecological realities of the biosphere into those of human affairs. It would certainly enrich our lives and it would much benefit our survival.

It seems to me that those who subscribe to the ideas of social Darwinism are neither social, nor have they anything to do with Darwin’s concept of selection and evolution. They are very much ignorant of the ways of nature.


1. Spencer, Herbert. On Social Evolution, selected
writings. Edited by J.D.Y. Peel. (1972)
2. Hofstadter, Richard. Social Darwinism in American Thought. (1945).
3. Same as 2.
4. Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution. London, Heinemann. (1902)
5. MacArthur, R.H. Population ecology of some warblers
of northwestern coniferous forests. Ecology, 39: 599-619. (1958).
6. Klein, D.R. Journal of Wildlife Management, volume 32
of the Wildlife Society. (1968).
7. MacLulich, D. A. University of Toronto Studies, Biological
series, 43. (1937).
8. MacFarlane Burnet, Sir, and White, David O. Natural History of Infectious Disease. Cambridge University
Press. (1972) .Pp. 139-142.


Um so schlimmer für die Tatsache!
I won’t let facts destroy my theory.

The name Eugenics was coined by Sir Francis Galton in 1885, from the Greek eugenia (well born). Galton defined Eugenics as "the study of the agencies under social control that may improve or impair the racial qualities of future generations physically or mentally." (1) If the desired goal is to enhance the mating of individuals with desirable characteristics, then we have positive eugenics. If the aim is to prevent reproduction in those who are suffering from genetic abnormalities and diseases, then we have a regimen of negative eugenics. The respective methods of choice in positive and negative eugenics are artificial insemination and sterilization.

It is not correct to look upon positive and negative eugenics as if they were the two sides of the same coin. It is true that the former uses selective mating, while the latter selective prevention of mating, nonetheless, in positive eugenics, we select and breed out of a population a particular genotype, leaving the original source unaltered, while In negative eugenics the intention is to change the composition of the entire gene pool of a population. The latter is achieved by sterilization of all individuals who show certain genetic disorders, so that their harmful genes will not return and spread in the population. In eugenic jargon, the aim is to lessen the human genetic load.

Positive eugenics is a highly successful breeding method that has been in use in agriculture and animal husbandry for thousands of years. From flowers, grain, and fruits to all breeds of dogs, cattle, and horses, positive eugenics has been and is a real success story. The few, undesirable side-effects of the method, particularly those which reduce genetic variation, are all associated with inbreeding. We can balance these, however, by preserving the rich variation of the original, wild stocks. Today we have extensive seed banks established just for that purpose. (2) The need to preserve the rich genetic variation of the original source became acute more recently when cloning methods have been added to the technological arsenal of positive eugenics. We can preserve and establish rare combinations of genes by this method in large, cloned populations. These populations are isogenic, which means that they have no genetic variation. Consequently, their survival in a changing environment is most precarious.

There have been some sporadic attempts of positive eugenics in people, ranging from such atrocities as certain slave breeding practices (3 & 4) to attempts to breed "quality" people with superior intellects or some rare talents.

It seems that there is a great deal of unreality in this idea of "quality" traits for humanity. After all, what is really the best? Is the genius with an IQ of 160 better than the ordinary guy whose IQ is 100? In biological terms, one should say that the best genotype is the one that has the most to contribute to fitness. This means that in a normal distribution of traits we are talking about the average. In the realities of life, those who are somewhere in the tail ends of the distribution are less fit then those who are close to the average. People whose IQ is within one standard deviation from the mean, that is within a range from 87 to 113, represent more than half of the entire distribution, and thus prove to be more fit in the game of life then those whose IQ is 40 or 160.

There are also other problems with this idea of breeding "intelligence". First, it is not clear what we really measure by intelligence quotients. The Stanford-Binet scales, the Wechsler scales, and the group tests used by the U. S. Army are so deeply culture bound that in a universal, global use they easily become instruments of discrimination. Second, we find that really special talents are often the results of interactions between rare combinations of genes and unique, mostly not repeatable conditions of development. The rare combination of genes, of course, is disassembled by the normal mechanism of sexual reproduction. For that reason, the children of super-intelligent or super-talented parents are often quite ordinary.
I believe that the best approach to positive eugenics in the human situation is not the direct manipulation of the genotype, but as Verle E. Headings has stated, it is the optimization of the performance of human genes by providing a rich environment and thus enhancing all developmental opportunities (5).
What about negative eugenics? The many problems of genetic diseases and malformations are and have been with us always. The human gene pool is loaded with mutant recessive genes that cause inborn disorders of varying severity in the homozygous condition. Since we are locked into an outbreeding mating system safeguarded by incest taboos, most of these genes remain hidden in the heterozygotes where their effects are not manifested. Protected by the dominant gene, recessive, harmful mutations may then accumulate in the gene pool and result in a rather large genetic load. According to some, this problem is compounded by recent advances in the medical sciences allowing many of those with genetic disorders to reach reproductive age. As these people are having children, they return their harmful genes into the gene pool. Consequently, as it is assumed by negative eugenicists, the frequencies of these recessive "bad" genes are on the rise adding more and more to our already heavy genetic load. They demand, therefore, that all those who are homozygous for a given severe genetic disorder be sterilized. Of course, the most effective, and in the long run, the least expensive way of sterilization is selective, or "therapeutic" abortion. They contend that in this way the genetic load will be reduced and the human gene pool will eventually be purified from all harmful genes.

This may seem to be eminently reasonable to someone who does not really know how much we can achieve and under what conditions by the proposed sterilization programs. The fact is that in practice, negative eugenics would produce no appreciable benefits in terms of lessening the genetic load.

Consequently, any form of proposed, obligatory sterilization program would simply mean much wasted time, money and effort. It would also mean much unnecessary cruelty and hurtful discrimination to people who are already heavily burdened by their biological inheritance.

The reasons for this statement are the following. According to a simplistic model of a single pair of Mendelian genes, a trait may be inherited as a dominant or recessive phenotype. In a somewhat more sophisticated model the trait may be inherited in a system of several pairs of genes as in multiple factor and polygenic modes of inheritance. Let us briefly consider what a sterilization program would do to gene frequencies in these diverse genetic situations.

It may seem that every defective dominant gene could be eliminated in a single generation by sterilizing all those who show the disorder. This, however, would not work, because even after a severe sterilization program, the same defects would reappear in the next generation. The reason is that the frequencies of these harmful, dominant genes are already kept close to mutation rates by natural selection. The appearance of the same disorders in the next generations would then be the result of new mutations.

As to recessive defects, sterilization programs would prove to be equally inefficient. The average frequency of such defective genes in the human gene pool is about 0.02. A bit of calculation shows (see technical note at the end of this essay) that it would take 50 generations of worldwide, compulsory sterilization of all homozygous recessives (those who show the disorder) to halve this frequency to a value of 0.01, a very small result indeed. In human terms, this would mean about 1500 years. The hardship of such program, and the expense would be enormous. The very small results could never justify them. Incidentally, we are working here with a model that is the fastest and most efficient imaginable. Any deviation from this model, such as making the sterilization program regional and voluntary, instead of worldwide and compulsory, or having to deal with a polygenic system, instead of a simple Mendelian one, would considerably slow down the progress.

I believe that the real issue here is not the concern about genetic load of the human gene pool but the hardship for the particular families who have to deal with specific genetic disorders. Considering the same issue, but on a larger scale, for many the real concern is the expense to be provided by the general society for the care of disabled children and adults in the various institutions. It is important to be honest about this, and not to call the inhuman treatment of the disabled humanitarian because someone thinks that such treatment will appreciably reduce the genetic load. It will certainly not do that.

What should we do then? We should change our attitudes toward the genetically disabled. Instead of discriminating against them, we should realize that all of us are part of the same distribution. For every IQ of 130 there is an IQ of 70. We can apply this idea of being part of the same distribution to all inherited traits. We all share in the genetic load, because each person born into this world is the carrier, on the average, of two new mutations. Once we have accepted the human condition in its entirety, we realize that those whom we once called less fortunate are very much an integral part of all of us. Instead of trying to turn away from them, we should ask what we could do to be positive and supportive toward them.

In an address at a "Symposium on Ethical and Social Problems in Human Biology" Dr. Verle E. Headings said that environmental control is a major tool for treating certain genetic disorders. He listed, as some of the most useful approaches, the replacement of deficient gene products, the restriction of intake of specific factors, the restriction of exposure to specific factors, and the procurement of developmental opportunities. (6)

We should not play down the fact that there are some, extremely debilitating inherited disorders. It is also a fact that there are many others that respond quite well to treatment. Just because a human life is at the very edge of our distribution, there is no reason to regard it as one who does not belong. If the child is alive, it has a right to live, even if that life will be very short and burdened. Love and respect for human life in all its forms should be our guide in our decisions. To aim at "perfection" by destroying the "imperfect" is not only unrealistic but also a cruel contradiction. After all, love, care, compassion, and respect for all forms of life are very much part of human greatness. They are the real hallmark of human perfection.


The inefficiency of negative eugenics in reducing the genetic load of debilitating recessives may be shown in a simple population model. On the average, the frequency of such recessive genes is 0.02. The change in gene frequency resulting in compulsory and global sterilization of all who show the disorder, the homozygous recessives, after n generation is 0.02/(1 + 0.02 n). How long would it take to half the original frequency, that is to reduce it from 0.02 to 0.02/2? The conditions for this change are satisfied if 0.02 n is equal to 1. Then, the value of n is 1/0.02, that is 50. It takes, therefore, fifty generations to achieve a very small result. In human terms, fifty generations mean approximately 1500 years (7).


1. Newman, J.R. (Ed.) Entry under Eugenics by G. B. Moment in The Harper Encyclopedia of Science. Harper and Row,
Publishers, 1967.
2. Owen, O.S. Natural Resource Conservation. 4th edition, p. 127. Macmillan Publishing Company, 1985.
3. Botkin, B.A. (Ed). Slave Narratives. Volumes 1-17. Washington. The Library of Congress, 1941.
4. Lewis, N. Brazil's dead Indians: The killing of an un- wanted race. Atlas, January, p. 22. 1970.
5. Headings, Verle E. Dr. Developing the potential of human genes. Address to Symposium on Ethical and Social Problems
in Human Biology. April 21, 1972. State University of New York, Buffalo.
6. Same as 5.
7. Li, Ching Chun. Population Genetics. Page 253. The University of Chicago Press, 1968.


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