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

We do not fully understand the relationship among Darwinism, eugenics, and racism.  Each of the three terms: “Darwinian,” “racism” and “eugenics” defies easy definition. There is no single “Darwinism,” rather the term has always been shared by a host of research programs that claim the term in different ways (Delisle, 2017).  Diverse ideologies and movements flew the banner of “eugenics” in the early twentieth century. (Dikötter 1998; Paul 2016; Pauly 1993; Weindling 2021). Ideological racism has certainly received a vast amount of attention from a host of disciplines which have shown the protean nature of the idea (Solomos 2020; Wal and Verkuyten 2019).

If our three central terms defy easy definition, the links among them are an order of magnitude more difficult to recount. A racist ideology, which depends on the reality of immutable racial differences among fixed biological groups should be untenable in any Darwinian worldview given that Darwinism posits that there are no fixed types and that even species themselves are mutable (Jackson and Depew 2017).  Historians, while recognizing that racism played a role in eugenic thought have moved beyond a simplistic assumption that eugenics was necessarily a racist enterprise finding that those views “are too broad to reflect accurately the many nuances and complex relationships that connected race and eugenics” (Turda 2010, p. 63). Eugenics relationship with Darwinism is itself vexed: “Whether efforts to improve the human stock follow logically from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution,” write Diane Paul and James Moore, (2010) “is a contested and highly sensitive issue (p. 27).

One reason the links among Darwinism, eugenics, and racism are indistinct owes to conceptual muddles about what was biological and what was cultural in eugenicist thought. “Eugenics was not so much a clear set of scientific principles,” Frank Dikötter (1998) argued, “as a ‘modern’ way of talking about social problems in biologizing terms” (p. 467; also see Weindling 2021). Yet, as Evelyn Fox Keller (2010) warned us, terms used to discuss questions of nature and nurture are notoriously vexed even in modern discourse when we all have supposedly moved beyond the naive partitioning of nature and nurture. Such questions still confront us with “a morass of linguistic and conceptual vegetation grown together in ways that seem to defy untangling” (p. 9). My hope is that following that vegetation to some of its historic roots might clarify such language by identifying several equivocations about Darwinian terms in eugenic discourse in a specific time and place.

This paper focuses on the notion of the “unfit” or “fit” in eugenicist discourse. “Fitness,” Diane Paul (1992) reminded us, “is perhaps the most contentious concept in evolutionary biology” (p.112). 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.” To understand how eugenicists squared that circle we need to understand how at least three different ideologies came together in the early 20th century United States: eugenics, ideological racism, and Darwinism

I will proceed as follows: My setting is the United States, where racial policies were fully codified into legal and social policies (Fredrickson 2002). In the first two decades of the twentieth century, many writers argued that the United States was endangered by immigration from southern and eastern Europe because of their belief that the racial stocks of those countries were biologically inferior to “Native American” stocks from northern and western Europe.1 These writers feared the new immigrants were a risk because superior racial stocks would soon be supplanted by their racial inferiors. Charles B. Davenport (1921) argued that, “the fecundity of stocks is only a part of the problem in a country which like ours, has in a single year, added about as much to the population by immigration as by birth. Probably never before in the world has such a migration of all sorts of races in such numbers, over so great a distance, taken place” (p. 26). Shutting off new immigration was a biological imperative for the United States. Harvard’s Robert DeC. Ward (1914) spoke for many when he pointed to the unique eugenic opportunity for the United States when he noted, “A policy of national eugenics, for the United States as for every other nation, means the prevention of the breeding of the unfit native. But for us it means far more than that. For us it means, in addition, the prevention of the immigration of the unfit alien.” (p. 543).

Within this setting, I will first explore the ambiguity of the word “fit:” specifically how its technical meaning in evolutionary biology posed a problem for American eugenicists seeking to prevent the “unfit” immigrant from entering the country. In seeking a Darwinian explanation for their political agenda, eugenicists held two different versions of Darwinian theory which would serve their purposes. I explore those I dub the “panmixia eugenicists” who believed civilization suspended natural selection allowing for the survival of the “unfit.” Then I turn to Madison Grant, white supremacy’s chief spokesman who embraced “organic selection” to explain how the Nordics were endangered. Each of these figures embraced eugenic racial polices informed by different versions of Darwinism.

The Polysemy of “Fitness”

At the turn of the twentieth-century Darwinian natural selection was virtually synonymous with “survival of the fittest.” a phrase coined by Herbert Spencer and adopted by Darwin himself only begrudgingly. Many Darwinian writers used “survival of the fittest” interchangeably with “natural selection” (Paul 1988). Charles Reed summarized the relationship between natural selection and fitness in 1913:

Individuals of the same species die while others survive under apparently equal conditions of environment. These differences are realized in the course of activities that are spoken of collectively as the struggle for existence. The conditions of environment being equal, or approximately equal, the wide difference in results must come from correspondingly wide differences of characteristics manifested by and within the different individuals. The individual that possesses characteristics which enable him (a) to become harmoniously adjusted to his environment, (b) to resist disease-producing or other inimical influences inherent in environment, and (c) to exercise harmoniously and with even balance the functions of his organism, is best calculated or is most “fit” to survive and does best survive the vicissitudes in the struggle for existence. The individual that does not possess the characteristics enumerated in the previous paragraph is relatively “less fit,” or may be even “unfit,” to survive the vicissitudes in the struggle for existence and, unless aided, is liable to perish in the constant conflict. (p. 78)

This clear picture of Darwinism became confused when joined the eugenicists’ social agenda. Lord Arthur James Balfour at the First International Eugenics Congress in 1912 expressed concern that “I am not sure that those who write and talk upon this subject do not occasionally use language which is, I think, incorrect in itself” (1913, p. 8). A key word Balfour worried about was “fit.”

The word “fit” meant “adaptation” for evolutionary naturalists: organisms that “fit” into the environments were well-adapted, which the naturalist could measure by survival and longevity (Gayon 1998, pp. 239-240). For example T.H. Huxley wrote in 1894 that, “One of the most characteristic features of this cosmic process is the struggle for existence, the competition of each with all, the result of which is the selection, that is to say, the survival of those forms which, on the whole, are best adapted to the conditions which at any period obtain; and which are, therefore, in that respect, and only in that respect, the fittest” (Huxley 1916, p. 4). Huxley was very specific: the measure of fitness is differential survival rates among different organisms. Fitness would then be measured not by any qualitative judgments about “good” abilities or “bad” abilities in some transcendental sense but only by the adaptedness organic forms in relation to their environments, quantitatively measured by differential survival rates. Certainly, this understanding was shared by the eugenicists as Balfour explained “We say that the ‘fit’ survive; but all that means is that those who survive are fit; they are fit because they survive, and they survive because they are fit…. All it says is that here is a class or race or species, or whatever it may be, which does survive, and therefore is adapted to its surroundings. From a strictly biological point of view, that is all ‘fit’ means” (1913, p. 9).

Huxley despaired that writers were not careful when they discussed fitness and evolutionary theory, especially when talk turned to human activities: “Unfortunate ambiguity of the term ‘fittest’ in the formula, ‘survival of the fittest.’ We commonly use ‘fittest’ in a good sense, with an understood connotation of ‘best’” but that is not what the term meant for Huxley’s biology (Huxley 1892, p. 568). Eugenicists struggled with this ambiguity, Balfour noted that for the naturalist “fitness” meant adapted to the environment but that was “not…all that the eugenist means. He does not mean that mere survival indicates fitness; he means something much more than that. He means that he has got ideals of what man ought to be, what the State ought to be, what society ought to be; and that these are not being carried out because we have not yet grasped the true way of dealing with the problems involved” (1913, p. 9). Balfour offered a reductio ad absurdum, if “fitness” did not change meaning for eugenics, it followed that since “the number of the feeble-minded is greatly increasing, that can only mean, from a naturalistic point of view, that the feeble-minded are getting more adapted to their surroundings. (Laughter)” (1913, p. 9). The (perhaps uncomfortable) laughter from the audience underscored a central problem for the eugenicists: how to simultaneously claim Darwin’s mantle while reversing the meaning of one of his central terms. To do so, they needed to find a version of Darwinism that was both scientific and supported their preferred social policy of restricting the immigration of inferior races.

Panmixia and the Survival of the Unfit

Natural selection was a force that shaped certain traits in a population. Absent selection pressure for a given trait, that trait would never develop. At the turn of the century the embryologist August Weismann posited something like the converse of this principle of natural selection, which he named, “panmixia” in which a population underwent random mating. In panmixia, explained George Romanes in 1897, “any structure which was originally built up by natural selection on account of its use, ceases any longer to be of so much use, in whatever degree it ceases to be of use, in that degree will the premium before set upon it by natural selection be withdrawn. And the consequence of this withdrawal of selection as regards that particular part will be to allow the part to degenerate in successive generations” (1897, p. 98). The implications of panmixia were far-reaching: because the traits allowing for survival were no longer factors in differential survival and reproduction; all members of the population could reach breeding ages resulting in free mating leading to the degeneration of formerly favorable traits (Gayon 1998, p. 149).

The principle, if not the neologism itself, can be found in Darwin’s Origin. A key part of the argumentative strategy of the Origin was the analogy between the artificial selection breeders used to produce the wide variety of domesticated animals and the natural selection nature used to produce the wide variety of species. Darwin held that, while breeders had produced a startling variety of animals, their efforts paled in comparison with the power of nature to produce the much wider variety of organisms found in the wild (Largent 2009). However, nature’s adaptations could begin to wither away when an organism was domesticated: “In our domestic animals, if any part, or the whole animal, be neglected and no selection be applied, that part (for instance, the comb in the Dorking fowl) or the whole brood will cease to have a nearly uniform character. The breed will then be said to have degenerated” (Darwin 1859, p. 152).

Darwin argued in Descent of Man (1871) that civilization had this precise degenerative effect on humans:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (p. 168)

For many eugenicists, Darwin’s lesson was that the principle of natural selection could not apply to humans in civilization because they were a domesticated species not a wild species. Civilization protected the weak and infirm from elimination by natural selection as charity and medicine protected those who would otherwise succumb to selection pressure. Freed from the pressures of natural selection the result was the risk of the degeneration of races (Gayon 1998, p. 243). Worse, the strong and wise were often selected against by civilization. Stanford University President David Starr Jordan (1902) who bemoaned that the best and brightest were sent off to war to die while “indiscriminate charity has been a fruitful cause of the survival of the unfit. To kill the strong and to feed the weak is to provide for a progeny of weakness” (p. 33). The end result, he warned, was to undercut the very biological conditions that had made civilization possible. “The survival of the fittest in the struggle for existence is the primal cause of race-progress and race-changes,” he concluded, “but in the red field of human history the natural process of selection is often reversed. The survival of the unfittest is the primal cause of the downfall of nations” (p. 25).

This view was promoted by Charles Reed, the chairman of the American Medical Association’s division on gynecology in 1913 (Kevles 1985, pp. 67-68). Reed’s eugenic marriage manual offered advice to parents wanting healthy and happy offspring. Natural selection eliminated weak or infirm individuals thus guaranteeing the health of the race because, “this same law, cruel and inexorable to the individual victim, is the most beneficent of all laws in its effects upon the race.” Reed (1913) argued that “Through its operation, the unfit are largely eliminated from the race and many poisoned currents of hereditary deficiency and degeneration are thus kept from flowing on through the natural gates and alleys of succeeding generations” (pp. 82-83). Reed tied himself in linguistic knots as he whipsawed back and forth between “fit” in the naturalist sense and “fit” in the social sense once he began to describe the effects of civilization, “Unfortunately, while the practical operation of our philanthropy is to make the unfit more fit, it can never make many of them fit enough in their turn to propagate an efficient, or, in other words, a fit progeny” (p. 83). A clear meaning of “fit” is very hard to pull out of this passage: If in the environment provided by civilization individuals survive and reproduce, they are “fit” in the technical sense of the term provided by Huxley. Yet, Reed then withdraws the technical meaning by insisting that, even if these individuals could produce progeny, those progeny would not themselves be “fit” in the popular sense meaning “desirable.” Hence, Reed argued for eugenic measures to stop “the preventable transmission of corroding taints which, if unchecked, will in turn send future generations in increasing numbers as martyrs to the Juggernaut of natural selection” (p. 83).

These eugenicists called for a new program of artificial selection to replace the dysgenics caused by panmixia. Galton (1909) himself claimed, “Eugenics co-operates with the workings of Nature by securing that humanity shall be represented by the fittest races. What Nature does blindly, slowly, and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly, and kindly” (p. 42). One way to close the borders to inferior races drew upon Darwin’s seeming endorsement of the idea that civilization needed to mimic natural selection or face the overwhelming of the superior by the inferior. The American Eugenics Society (1926) argued that immigration restriction should be “considered a long-time investment in family stocks… By a rigid exclusion of all idiots, imbeciles, feebleminded persons, epileptics, insane persons, persons of constitutional psychopathic inferiority, and similar groups, and by admitting only those who are shown by tests to be superior to the American average” (p. 8-9). The panmixia view of Darwin’s doctrines, however, was not the only avenue available for eugenicists. A quite different view was put forth by Madison Grant, the architect of an overtly racist eugenicist vision.

Madison Grant: Eugenics and Organic Selection

Madison Grant (1865-1937) was a New York attorney whose vast fortune relieved him of the burden of practicing law. He was a committed big-game hunter of and wrote extensively on their natural histories. Close friends with Theodore Roosevelt and other powerful figures, Grant was instrumental in building the National Park system and preserving wilderness for future generations, especially its more spectacular incarnations of large mammals like bison and the redwood forests of California. As his biographer makes clear, Grant’s writings on the preservation of nature turned on three themes: typology (believing each species was based on a classic type distinct from all other types); deterioration (the types are degenerating because of trophy hunting); and invasive species (native species are threatened whenever foreign species are introduced). Grant simply transferred these ideas into social policy in his racial writings (Spiro 2008, pp. 52). At the heart of his social policy recommendations was that the unfit were beating the fit in the struggle for existence.

            In Congressional hearings on immigration restriction, Louis Marshall, the director of the American Jewish Committee opposed immigration restrictions by regaling the Committee with the important work done by recent immigrants such as Nicola Tesla and Charles Steinmetz despite them being from stock that was supposedly racially inferior. Marshall also put his finger on the problem of the eugenicists’ case against immigration by taking aim at Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916), a bible of sorts for the immigration restrictionists (Spiro 2008, pp. 222-223). Despite the esteem with which the country held Grant, Marshall declared that Grant:

was not a real scientist, after all, because he [said] that noble creation of his mind, the Nordic race, was disappearing. Well, being a Darwinist in theory, I wondered how this scientific man could square the idea of the passing of that great race with the doctrine of the survival of the fittest. And when the other day, Professor Osborn, of the Museum of Natural History, also lamented that there was a steady disappearance in many parts of the world and in many parts of our country of the Nordic stock, I wondered why this fabled race was so frail and fragile. (U.S. Congress 1924, p. 289).

Two ideas distinguished Grant’s ideas from the panmixia eugenicists. First, Grant took entire races, rather than individuals within races, to be the units upon which selection operated. Second, Grant did not argue that natural selection was suspended in civilization; rather he argued that civilization was just another environment that had its own selection pressures.

On the first point, Grant (1916) was infamous for his declaration that his book was on the “meaning of history in terms of race; that is, by the physical and psychical characters of the inhabitants of Europe instead of by their political grouping, or by their spoken language” (p. xv). From Grant’s perspective, the history of civilization was a biological history of the accomplishments of the vaunted Nordic: “all over the world, a race of soldiers, sailors, adventurers, and explorers, but above all, of rulers, organizers, and aristocrats” (p. 198) over the lesser European races: the middling Alpine and the lowly Mediterranean. The Nordic was responsible for leading civilization. “Mankind,” declared Grant, “emerged from savagery and barbarism under the leadership of selected individuals whose personal prowess, capacity, or wisdom gave them the right to lead and the power to compel obedience” (p. 6). In his view, class was a result of race “In many countries the existing classes represent races that were once distinct. In the city of New York, and elsewhere in the United States, there is a native American aristocracy resting upon layer after layer of immigrants of lower races” (p. 5). 

Grant proclaimed that modern Mendelian genetics had shown that nineteenth-century notions of heredity could no longer be supported. Grant argued that modern genetics had shown that certain traits would not succumb to washing out through interbreeding. Rather, Mendelian genetics had shown that important traits maintained their integrity generation after generation. “Certain bodily characters,” Grant wrote, “the so-called unit characters, such as skull shape, stature, eye color, hair color, and nose form, are transmitted in accordance with fixed mathematical laws” (pp. 11-12) and “unit characters are immutable” (p. 16). Significantly, “these four unit characters, skull shape, eye color, hair color, and stature, are sufficient to enable us to differentiate clearly between the three main races of Europe” (p. 26). Closely associated with these physical traits were deeper psychological differences, “These races vary intellectually and morally just as they do physically,” Grant argued. “Moral, intellectual, and spiritual attributes are as persistent as physical characters, and are transmitted unchanged from generation to generation” (p. 197).

The upshot for Grant was that the struggle for existence was best understood as race against race rather than individual against individual because Mendelian unit characters were passed down as whole traits rather than mixed or blended traits. In this, Grant closely followed his scientific friend and mentor, Henry Fairfield Osborn (1921) who argued, “Let each race consider its own problems and demonstrate its own fitness” (p. 3). For Grant, entire races, were pitted against each other:

Where two races occupy a country side-by-side, it is not correct to speak of one type as changing into the other. Even if present in equal numbers one of the two contrasted types will have some small advantage or capacity which the other lacks toward a perfect adjustment to surroundings. Those possessing these favorable variations will flourish at the expense of their rivals, and their offspring will not only be more numerous, but will also tend to inherit such variations. In this way one type gradually breeds the other out. In this sense, and in this sense only, do races change. (p. 42)

The breeding out of one race for another led Grant to proclaim in one of his more infamous passages:

Whether we like to admit it or not, the result of the mixture of two races, in the long run, gives us a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type. The cross between a white man and an Indian is an Indian; the cross between a white man and a negro is a negro; the cross between a white man and a Hindu is a Hindu; and the cross between any of the three European races and a Jew is a Jew. (pp. 15-16)

The noble Nordic was in an evolutionary bind: while their superiority allowed Nordics conquer the wilderness and its racial inferiors, the biological result was the disappearance of the Nordic as it was genetically swamped by inferior traits: “The actual results of the spectacular conquests and invasions of history have been far less permanent than those of the more insidious victories arising from the crossing of two diverse races, and that in such mixtures the relative prepotency of the various human subspecies in Europe appears to be in inverse ratio to their social value” (p. 227). Grant’s invocation of the word “prepotency” is illustrative of the contextual shift between biological science and social policy at play in eugenics discourse. Dating back to the seventeenth century, the word simply meant “having superior power or influence” (Oxford English Dictionary). Darwin in the Origin (1859) used the term when discussing hybridism and noted that the main source of complexity when discussing the problem of hybrids was “the prepotency in transmitting likenesses running more strong in one sex than in the other, both when one species is crossed with another, and when one variety is crossed with another variety” (p. 274). After Darwin, the term increasingly began being used to refer to “The dominance of particular hereditary characteristics or traits through successive generations” (Oxford English Dictionary). In the passage just quoted from Grant he switched back and forth between the dominance the Nordic enjoyed through conquest, to the lack of “prepotency” the Nordic suffered from in interbreeding, and back to a judgment about the “social value” that was falling due to lack of heredity dominance. Here is another equivocation, then, one that arose because the language of eugenics was both biological and political.

It is at this point that Louis Marshall’s question needs to be addressed: Grant held two views. First, that “favorable variations will flourish at the expense of their rivals” and second, interbreeding lead to “a race reverting to the more ancient, generalized and lower type.” Grant argued that the Nordic was both superior in social value to lesser races yet inferior to them in terms of the prepotency of their genetic lines. Nowhere did Grant call upon the explanation provided by panmixia: that natural selection had been suspended in civilized environments allowing the weak to survive. Indeed, Grant ruled out that possibility completely with repeated declarations that “The laws which govern the distribution of the various races of man and their evolution through selection are substantially the same as those controlling the evolution and distribution of the larger mammals” (p. 33), and “The laws of nature operate with the same relentless and unchanging force in human affairs as in the phenomena of inanimate nature” (pp. xvi-xvii), and “Man is an animal differing from his fellow inhabitants of the globe, not in kind but only in degree of development” (p. 2). Indeed, the motivation for his historical study of the races was to caution Americans about the racial peril which they were facing from the inexorable laws of evolution. “We may be certain that the progress of evolution is in full operation to-day under those laws of nature which control it,” Grant concluded, “and that the only sure guide to the future lies in the study of the operation of these laws in the past” (p. 228).

Grant had a distinctive understanding what those evolutionary laws were. It was grounded in the notion of “organic selection” developed by three people independently in the 1890s: psychologist Mark Baldwin, psychologist Conway Lloyd Morgan, and the paleontologist Henry Fairfield Osborn (Aaby 2021; Ceccarelli 2019; Depew 2003; Pearce 2014; Richards 1987). The idea grew from the same social milieu that so worried Grant, the increasing flux of immigrants into New York City and the fear overcrowded tenements and slums (Green 2014). I will focus on Osborn, Grant’s close friend who provided the introduction to Passing of the Great Race and was the curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Louis Marshall had noted that he had found the same curious claims about the survival of the unfit in the thoughts of Osborn as well as Grant.

At the end of the nineteenth century, Osborn was involved in the “factors of evolution” debate that raged in the scientific community. Darwinian natural selection was one “factor” and did a good job of explaining of how adaptive variations could be passed from one generation to the next but did very poor job of explaining the origins of those variations (Pearce 2014, 23; for valuable context of this debate see Beatty 2016). The need for an additional factor in evolution to explain the origins of variations led Osborn and others to revive the theories of Lamarckian inheritance of characteristics acquired through environmental interaction. If one posited that organisms acquired new characteristics one could explain the origins of characteristics with adaptive value and the progress that Osborn claimed to have found in the fossil record (Osborn 1890). August Weissman dealt an apparent deathblow to Osborn’s view when he showed through rigorous experiment that the inheritance of acquired characteristics was impossible. What Osborn needed in the face of Weissman’s overwhelming evidence was a way to “protect his directional, progressivist, endogenously-driven view of evolutionary process…without relying quite as directly as he had on the heritability of acquired characteristics acquired by intelligence and effort” (Depew 2003, 9). His solution was to posit a version of “organic selection.”

Natural selection held that organisms would be adapted to specific environments. If the environment changed then what were once adaptive traits might not “fit” with the new environment and stop conferring selective advantage. Osborn distinguished between “ontogenic variations” which were alterations in behavior or physiology “without necessarily involving any alteration of the stirp” from “phylogenic variations” which could be passed down through heredity (Osborn 1896b, 787). When Weismann drove a wedge between these two kinds of variations Osborn felt forced to give up his belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which were strictly ontogenic. However, within species or races were certain “predispositions” that could manifest themselves in the presence of the right environmental stimuli, “For example,” Osborn argued, “if the human infant were brought up in the branches of a tree as an arboreal type instead of as a terrestrial, bi-pedal type, there is little doubt that some of the well-known early adaptations to arboreal habit (such as the turning in of the soles of the feet, and the grasping of the hands) might be retained and cultivated; thus a profoundly different type of man would be produced” (Osborn 1896a 142). In racial terms, the phylogenic racial characteristics and the ontogenic habits were very difficult to untangle, “In the anatomy of the different races of man,” Osborn argued, “it is demonstrated that many features are fundamental race characters, while others are merely the expression of certain habits, such as modes of walking, climbing, squatting, etc.” (Osborn 1896b, 788).

 Osborn argued that under certain circumstances habits thus acquired could hold off being selected against. This plasticity of response to the environment was not so flexible as to replace natural selection entirely; rather organic selection allowed organisms to survive in new environments long enough to allow the mechanisms of natural selection to operate on those traits that did confer adaptive value in the new environment. In this view, organisms could, in a limited sense, remake their environments to create conditions under which they enjoyed selective advantage.

In Passing, Grant borrowed his friend Osborn’s theory of organic selection and applied it to human society. For Grant, human beings were remaking American society. The reworked society confers advantages on some races to the disadvantage of others, but this was not a process that interrupted natural selection; rather it was the process of organic selection working in concert with natural selection. Grant argued that racial inferiors reworked the environment to help themselves but could never completely become truly American: “These immigrants adopt the language of the native American; they wear his clothes; they steal his name; and they are beginning to take his women, but they seldom adopt his religion or understand his ideals.” The result was that Grant’s beloved New York City was becoming a… “cloaca gentium which will produce many amazing racial hybrids and some ethnic horrors that will be beyond the powers of future anthropologists to unravel” (81).

This reshaping of the environment to the detriment of the Nordic took several forms in Passing of the Great Race. Grant wrote of social norms and structures as applying selection pressure upon humans just as much as other environmental factors did for other animals:

Man continuously undergoes selection through social environment. Among native Americans of the Colonial period a large family was an asset, and social pressure and economic advantage both counseled early marriage and numerous children. Two hundred years of continuous political expansion and material prosperity changed these conditions and children, instead of being an asset to till the fields and guard the cattle, became an expensive liability. They now require support, education, and endowment from their parents, and a large family is regarded by some as a serious handicap in the social struggle. (42-43)

Another example of how social structures have changed selection pressure was Grant’s belief that, “selection through…economic competition has replaced selection through adjustment to the limitations of food supply” (33). As the economic structure of the United States moved from tilling the country fields the urban factory, the Nordic found himself at a disadvantage:

Heavy, healthful work in the fields of northern Europe enables the Nordic type to thrive, but the cramped factory and crowded city quickly weeds him out, while the little brunet Mediterranean can work a spindle, set type, sell ribbons, or push a clerk’s pen far better than the big, clumsy, and somewhat heavy Nordic blond, who needs exercise, meat, and air, and cannot live under Ghetto conditions. (186)

As the ghettos filled up with an increasing number of racial inferiors, they became more squalid and more unsuitable for the Nordic while at the same time allowing the Mediterranean to thrive. In this way urbanization was a source of selection pressure on the population even while urbanization itself was being created by humans. Thus, Grant argued that “The brunet Mediterranean element in the native American seems to be increasing at the expense of the blond Nordic element generally… in the large cities” (40-41). In this way, Grant could name these races both fit and unfit: “The ‘survival of the fittest’ means the survival of the type best adapted to existing conditions of environment,” Grant concluded, but the modern environment consisted of “the tenement and factory, as in Colonial times they were the clearing of forests, fighting Indians, farming the fields, and sailing the Seven Seas. From the point of view of race, it were better described as the ‘survival of the unfit.’” (82).

Changing social norms against large families and the rise of manufacturing both paled in comparison to the political order which was the ultimate danger to the Nordic. Grant held that democratic governance was akin to racial suicide. The idea that all were equally fit to govern was belied by the biological fact of Nordic superiority. Insisting that governmental power be shared equally was foolish:

In the democratic forms of government, the operation of universal suffrage tends toward the selection of the average man for public office rather than the man qualified by birth, education, and integrity. How this scheme of administration will ultimately work out remains to be seen, but from a racial point of view, it will inevitably increase the preponderance of the lower types and cause a corresponding loss of efficiency in the community as a whole. The tendency in a democracy is toward a standardization of type and a diminution of the influence of genius. A majority must of necessity be inferior to a picked minority, and it always resents specializations in which it cannot share. (5)

 Grant sneered at the “standardization of type so dear to democratic ideals.” Believers in democracy must call for the death of the Nordic: “If equality cannot be obtained by lengthening and uplifting the stunted of body and of mind, it can be at least realized by the destruction of the exalted of stature and of soul. The bed of Procrustes operates with the same fatal exactness when it shortens the long as when it stretches the undersized” (173).

It was not too late for the United States to save itself from racial suicide for “…How far [Nordics] will be modified by democratic institutions and the rule of the majority remains to be seen” (199). If the United States underwent “…A rigid system of selection through the elimination of those who are weak or unfit — in other words, social failures,” Grant assured his readers that it could “…solve the whole question in one hundred years” (46). Such a program would begin with “…the criminal, the diseased, and the insane, and extending gradually to types which may be called weaklings rather than defectives, and perhaps ultimately to worthless race types” (47).

The other option of “breed(ing) from the best” was unfortunately limited because “… it would be, in a democracy, a virtual impossibility to limit by law the right to breed to a privileged and chosen few” (47). What was desperately needed was that “we Americans must realize that the altruistic ideals which have controlled our social development during the past century, and the maudlin sentimentalism that has made America ‘an asylum for the oppressed,’ are sweeping the nation toward a racial abyss” (228).


 Arguments about the survival of the unfit predated the eugenics movement (Carlson 2001). It was the importation of these ideas into the specific language of Darwin in the early twentieth century that gave rise to the equivocation between the two different meanings of the word “fit.” However, the political and scientific landscape changed soon after this time. Eugenicists’ equivocation on “fitness” existed at a particular moment. In 1924 Madison Grant had one of his many political victories when Congress passed the Johnson Act and the country was protected from the scourge of immigration. The passage of the Act reconfigured racial categories in the United States and the problems of inferior Europeans faded from public view (Ngai 1999). Soon after this, the evolutionary synthesis fully mathematicized the evolutionary synthesis and the term “fitness” became a strict statistical measure for biology (Depew and Weber 1995, 266-267).

The central message of Darwinism was that organic forms were not stable over time. This logic would seemed to have necessitated the end of biological racism which had and its core the notion that races were stable types that persisted over time. Indeed, recent historical work has posited that anti-racism was at the heart of Darwin’s project (Desmond and Morris 2009). However, it is well documented that biological racism, even extreme forms of polygenesis, persisted in the wake of Darwin (Lorimer 1988; Rainger 1978). The ideology of racism overwhelmed the internal logic of Darwinism which required a lot of conceptual work to merge these two worldviews: one of which insisted on the plasticity of organic form while the other insisted on the fixedness of racial type.

Darwinism, as many during this time viewed it, was a Malthusian struggle for survival. Yet, the eugenicists saw that the superior races were those facing extinction. To fashion a biological argument for their politics, eugenicists needed to rethink the logic of Darwinism. This led them to theories of panmixia of organic selection to keep the authority of biological science to prop up their political solutions to the problems of immigration.

For the eugenicists there was no substantial difference between biology and politics. The heart of Grant’s ideas was that the political order was a product of biological race. To speak of political institutions was to speak of heredity and vice versa. The point was made clear by Henry Osborn in his preface to Passing, where he concluded that “The moral tendency of the heredity interpretation of history is for our day and generation, and is in strong accord with the true spirit of the modern eugenics movement in relations to patriotism, namely, the conservation and multiplication for our country of the best spiritual, moral, intellectual, and physical forces of heredity; thus only will the integrity of our institutions be maintained in the future” (Osborn, 1916, p. xiii).

Eugenicists were pulled between using “fitness “as a description of those who survived life’s struggles in a naturalistic sense and as a normative claim about who should survive in order to make the country strong. What these disparate views shared was not the scientific underpinnings of their beliefs, but the conviction that some people were racially inferior to others.


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