The Survival of the Unfit: Darwinism, Race, and Eugenics in the United States

This is a paper that I first presented at a workshop at the University of Mississippi in 2012. I submitted it to a journal soon after and got a “Revise and Resubmit.” I then moved, switched computers and it got lost somewhere in all that. When I re-discovered it recently, I realized that it was really too late for me to bring it up-to-date with current work on eugenics given my other writing commitments. Therefore, I decided to post it here for anyone interested in these historical issues. I still like the paper and think it has something important to say.

Abstract: The historical relationship among Darwinism, eugenics, and racism is notoriously difficult to unravel. Eugenicists worried about the “survival of the unfit,” a phrase that should, prima facia, be nonsense for those with a Darwinian worldview in the early twentieth century. To be “fit” in a Darwinian sense meant adapted well enough to the environment to out-survive (and out-reproduce) one’s competitors. For eugenicists, the measure for “fit” could not be those best adapted to the environment in this way because they were concerned with the opposite situation: those who thriving and yet were “unfit.” Additionally, historians now reject the idea that eugenics was necessarily founded on racist assumptions. We can address these problems by examining the different forms of Darwinism adopted by early twentieth-century notions of “fitness” and how the term was interpreted in the context of American debates about immigration restriction and race. For some eugenicists, the idea of panmixia allowed them to argue that the unfit were outcompeting the fit. For others, notably Madison Grant and Henry Fairfield Osborn the idea of organic selection provided them with a Darwinian mechanism that solved the problem of the “survival of the unfit.”

Keywords:  Darwinism; Eugenics; Racism; Fitness; Panmixia; Organic Selection

CONTINUED ON PAGE TWO

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