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Evolutionary medicine and society: key points
- Evolutionary theory affects the way we think about human thought, nature and culture.
- While evolutionary theory discounts the need for an active creator that forms the foundation of most religions, religion and belief need not be, and in most cases are not, in conflict with evolutionary thinking.
- Since its 1859 publication, Darwin’s evolutionary theory has influenced many, some of whom developed and supported ideas and practices that were controversial and even abominable: most prominently eugenics and Nazi racial theories. Darwin and his theory of evolution cannot be held responsible for these misapplications.
Eugenics. The idea that society ought to promote breeding of those considered to possess worthy traits and prevent the breeding of those who did not was highly popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Middle-class Victorians, such as Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton, appalled by the sight of urban slums, argued that the poor reproduced more quickly than other social groups and that this trend should be discouraged in order to improve the quality of the society. To arrest the supposed downward spiral, the society was supposed to take evolution in its hands, as this poster from the 1932 International Eugenics Congress suggests.
Under the influence of eugenics, public health and social measures were implemented that included institutionalization of those considered unworthy of reproduction (‘feeble minded’; criminals; mentally and otherwise ill; or just destitute), and even, in some countries, sterilization. Although we normally consider such severe interference into individual bodies and freedoms a mark of extremism and totalitarian regimes, eugenics was popular across the political spectrum and in diverse societies although it took its most severe and atrocious form in Germany under the Nazi rule. It was precisely the post-World War Two discovery of the horrifying consequences of Nazi ‘eugenic’ practices that discredited eugenics once for all.