Evolution Intelligent design/creationism Medicine Pseudoscience Science Skepticism/critical thinking Surgery

More confusion on the “intelligent design” front

I’m confused again about what appear to be mutually conflicting statements.

The Discovery Institute’s favorite creationist neurosurgeon Dr. Michael Egnor two months ago on Pharyngula:

Perhaps a fable (not a just-so story!) will illustrate. Imagine that you, P.Z., were a student in 1925. You would study Darwinism fairly intensively as a high school student, undergrad, and med student (it’s a hypothetical!). In high school you’d read Hunter’s ‘A Civic Biology’ (unless you lived in Dayton, Tennessee), which taught the Darwinian superiority of the Nordic races and the need to eliminate the lesser races. In college you would take courses on Eugenics (thousands were offered), and learn the application of dog breeding to humans. As a medical student you would be steeped in Eugenic practices. You might do a term paper on Darwin’s lament in the ‘Descent of Man’ (ever heard of the book?) that the smallpox vaccine was regrettable because it enabled the ‘weak’ to breed, noting that ‘no breeder would ever breed from his worst stock’. You would then go off to practice medicine, and join the Eugenic frenzy. Fifty thousand Americans, tagged ‘feeble minded’ and manifestly poor breeding stock, were sterilized involuntarily. Your Darwinian-Eugenic work would be mainstream medicine, endorsed by all the big guys, except the ‘anti-science’ types like Chesterton and the Catholics, who kept bleating about human dignity, and your only interruption would be those pesky Germans who kept visiting, and learning from you. Darwinism was absolutely indispensable to Eugenics, and to American medicine (and some continental European medicine) in the first half of the 20th century…

Darwinism was the indispensable basis for Eugenics. I teach in the medical ethics course in my medical school. I make sure the students learn about Eugenics, and where it came from. I have a particular distaste for your ideological ancestors.


Regarding your ‘Eugenics denial’, the link between Darwinism and Eugenics is tight, a matter of historical record. Everytime I hear the trope ‘Darwinism is indispensible to medicine’, I’m going to stick Eugenics in your face. Darwinism was indispensible to Eugenics, but is indispensible to nothing else in medicine.

Here’s Dr. Egnor one month ago:

It used to rely a lot on Darwinism back in the early 20th century when eugenics was a very important part of the practice of medicine in this country and many other countries. Eugenics was essentially the application of Darwinian ideas about breeding animals to human beings. And, almost immediately, with the publication of The Origin of Species, many of Darwin’s colleagues, including his cousin Francis Galton, began applying these ideas to people. Darwin himself applied these ideas in The Descent of Man, which he published subsequent to Origin of Species.

And eugenics was basically the concept that human beings could be bred as one would breed animals and that there was something morally right about “survival of the fittest,” that it actually extended Darwin’s ideas to the moral realm. Of course, all ideas as shattering as Darwin’s ideas were ultimately get extended to some extent into morality and politics, and eugenics was central to American medicine. 60,000 people were sterilized against their wills in the early 20th century…

And, finally, here’s Dr. Egnor now (and here’s where the confusion comes in):

Darwin’s theory asserts that all natural biological complexity arose by non-purposeful variation and natural selection. It doesn’t apply to purposeful variation or purposeful selection, which are designed.

Dr. Cartwright is right. The experimental selection of “desirable” bacterial variants is bacterial eugenics, using the same empirical principles that eugenicists applied to human breeding. Eugenics is human breeding, and is every bit as much of a misapplication of Darwin’s theory as are Dr. Cartwright’s examples of bacterial breeding…

Modern eugenics arose from a philosophical proposition. The basis for eugenics was philosophical materialism, which denied the inherent dignity and sanctity of every human life. Denial of transcendent ethical standards eventually leaves “because we can” as the sole ethical standard.

See why I’m confused, having noted the–ahem–evolution of Dr. Egnor’s story? I have to ask Dr. Egnor: Which is it? Is Darwinism the “indispensable basis for eugenics” or isn’t it? And, more importantly, now that you’ve admitted that eugenics is artificial, not natural selection, when are you going to stop blaming eugenics on “Darwinism” and stop telling medical students in your medical ethics classes that Darwinism is the “indispensable basis for eugenics”? After all, now that you admit that you know that eugenics is in reality “intelligent design” rather than natural selection (sorry, couldn’t resist), from now on, if you continue to tell your students that eugenics is based on “Darwinism,” we’ll know you’re lying.

Of course, It’s highly amusing to note that Dr. Egnor’s newfound historical knowledge doesn’t go down well at all with his new friends at the Discovery Institute. John West, in particular, appears unhappy that Dr. Egnor has admitted that Dr. Egnor has in essence admitted that eugenics is not natural selection, even while being forced to admit it himself. (Never mind that Darwin himself rejected West’s claimed rationale that Darwinism implies letting the sick die in his book The Descent of Man.)

Careful, Dr. Egnor. Your newfound buddies will turn on you in an instant if you stray too far from the script. Then, not only would you have destroyed your reputation, but you’d have destroyed it and then been abandoned for doing it.

Just a friendly word of warning from a fellow surgeon.

ADDENDUM: John Pieret has an excellent commentary on how John West selectively quotes Darwin to justify the Discovery Institute lie that eugenics naturally follows from Darwinism. Moreover, he shows that even Darwin realized that the presumed “contingent benefit” of a eugenics artificial selection program would be uncertain at best and not worth the “deterioration in the noblest part of our nature.”

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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