Evolution gets blamed for a lot of things. Guilt by association as they say. It has occasionally run with an unseemly crowd. Shortly after Darwin died (a good family man–the epitome of Victorian stability and propriety), his ideas were coopted by Herbert Spencer and Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, who used it to argue for something that should have never had our good man’s name attached to it: Social Darwinism. (Spencer was also the one who coined the unfortunately tautological slogan, “Survival of the Fittest.” (Who are the ‘Fittest’? Why those who survive, of course!). These two where among the founders of the ‘Eugenics Society.’ They worried that the poor and uneducated were breeding a little too rapidly and something had to be done about it! This something was not education or social reform but rather things like sterilization. Eugenic societies popped up all over the place spreading the idea that some races and nationalities were more deserving of ‘surviving’ than others (umm . . . sounds like certain voices in my home state). Does this have links to German Nationalism and the rise of the Nazi party? Yes. Does this have anything to do with Darwinism itself? No.
Ironically, as Eugenics gained popularity, Darwinism was, like a preantibiotic tuberculosis patient coughing up blood, and looked to be in serious trouble. Its death was declared from several corners. You see, Darwin had no theory of inheritance. And inheritance was crucial to his idea. For evolution under natural selection to take place it takes basically three things, (1) variation; (2) selection or differential survival of that variation; and (3) inheritance of parental types (there is some nuances that could be elaborated here about accumulation if differences to get speciation, but I’m not going into that now). Darwin had demonstrated all of these in his Origin of Species, but the science of inheritance just was not quite there and some cleaver work showed that if inheritance was blended between the parents, then natural selection wouldn’t work the way Darwin hoped. Darwin did provided a theory of inheritance that involved these little things he called gemmules that floated information from cells all over the body and coalesced in the germ cells of the parents—thereby a father’s chin and a mother’s eyes could be inherited. But by the turn of the century, pressing doubts were being cast upon poor Darwin’s ideas. First, none other than Eugenic’s champion, cousin Francis Galton, trashed Darwin’s gemmule idea when he injected rabbits with the blood of other rabbits and no gemmules seemed to be floating around to get passed on to the bunny’s offspring. Then Lord Kelvin calculated that the Earth could not be older than a couple of hundred million years old based on cooling rates of a molten Earth. Too short for evolution. Things looked dire for Mr. Darwin’s theory indeed. So while eugenics was flourishing evolution by natural selection was being supported by very few science types. It really almost went the way of the dinosaurs.
Of course, as the century progressed, genetics flourished and as Darwin predicted (and hoped) inheritance was of just the right type for evolution to blossom. And it flowered into the beauty we see today. The earth turned out to be about 4.5 Billion years old, just the right amount of time for evolution to flounce its stuff. But associations with eugenics, with atheism and such are gestured toward in efforts of some to dismiss the wonder and importance of evolution. But associations can be dangerous. Consider the connection in people’s minds with FLDS and LDS, pornography and in the Internet, Pygmalion and My Fair Lady, no wait, that one works, but you see my point. If Evolution is not true, judge it on its merits or lack thereof. The last hundred years have made it nothing but stronger. It’s not a threat to anyone’s religious belief—unless you make it so.