We drown the weakling and the monstrosity. It is not passion, but reason, to separate the useless from the fit. -- Seneca (63 CE)
Bananas have large, hard seeds. Lots of seeds, actually -- at least the undomesticated varieties still found in Southeast Asia are loaded with hard seeds. When the plant was originally domesticated (probably over seven thousand years ago in Papua New Guinea), they were grown from those seeds. However, you're unlikely to be surprised to hear that commercial bananas today are lacking seeds. Like seedless grapes, watermelons, and blackberries, they are reproduced though some other means. In the case of bananas, commercial varieties are propagated form cuttings taken from a parent plant that was a demonstrated producer of large quantities of desirable fruit. So most bananas sold in the world come from "cultivars" of a single plant -- clones of a single seedless parent.
If you were born before the 1950s, you may have eaten two bananas in your life. If you're younger, chances are you've eaten only one. Of course, you may be fond of plantains, or be lucky enough to live in an area where your grocery provides more variety, but for most of America and Europe "banana" actually means "Vietnamese cavendish banana." That's the banana that's sold in these markets today.
Before the Cavendish, the bananas sold in most markets went by the name of Gros Michael -- the Big Mike. Big Mike was carefully selected for a whole set of properties that made it a terrific banana for the market. It had a bright, attractive, relatively unblemished skin. It wasn't just pretty, it was also tough. The yellow skin peeled easily, but was thicker than that on other bananas and Big Mike lasted for a longer period without becoming overripe. That made it easier to ship the bananas without refrigeration. Many people who ate them in their childhood still have the memory of bananas being better back then -- and they are right. It's not just nostalgia. The Gros Michael had a smooth texture, along with a taste that was sweeter than today's Cavendish.
Breeding for market appeal isn't new and it isn't unique to bananas.
Plants and animals of all sorts have been domesticated over the last twelve thousand years or so, and if the steps that made the first domesticate animals were little more than trial and error, it wasn't too long after the first sheep or cow was taken in that people were breeding for those that were "unblemished." Though animal breeding may seem like something more likely to concern country farmers than urban professors, until quite recently, domesticated plants and animals played a very direct role in the lives of most everyone, even those who lived far away from farms. Not only were they familiar with animals as pets or as transportation, but until refrigeration and high speed transportation made it possible to raise livestock far away, stockyards and slaughterhouses were common features of even the largest urban areas.
When Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace needed examples for the new theory of evolution through natural selection, they turned to domesticated animals because they knew their audience would find them familiar. Not only were domesticated animals highly visible in their daily lives, but anyone who took time to note the flocks that passed in the street could see that they were clearly not "fixed." Each of the various animals used as food, labor, or pets came in a wide array of varieties, each with its own special properties. A few generations of selection by farmers, sometimes even just one fortunate cross, could generate a new "breed" that had unique and valuable characteristics. All the Angus cattle today can trace their ancestry to a pair of hornless cows on a Scottish farm in the first few decades of the 19th century. A wavy-coated retriever crossed with a Tweed Water Spaniel formed the lineage for the millions of Golden Retrievers to follow. In the early part of the 1800s, American farmers in New England kept flocks of "otter sheep" with long bodies and legs too short to allow them to jump the area's low stone fences. Not only did otter sheep come into existence from breeding one animal that had the short-legs and long-body form, the whole breed disappeared almost as swiftly only few decades later when changing conditions made other breeds of sheep more desirable.
Domesticated animals demonstrated that the basic design of a creature could be altered, sometimes radically, within a few generations. These new forms could be wildly successful, or meet with extinction. So it was no wonder both Darwin and Wallace found them valuable examples. However, those examples got some people thinking in another direction.
The first printing of Darwin's On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection was sold out before it reached the shelves, which is an event all authors would love to experience at least once. Among those first readers were several members of Darwin's family, including a half-cousin, Francis Galton. Thirteen years younger than Darwin, Galton had been a child prodigy who learned to read at an age when most children were learning to speak, and who could converse in Greek and Latin by the time he turned five. But for all his inordinate brain power, Galton had difficulty in school. He had trouble taking direction and was prone to breakdowns that plagued him through his life. Like Darwin, Galton made a run at medical school, before dropping out to take on another topic (in Galton's case, mathematics). Unlike Darwin, Galton went back to medicine, then left college to pursue his own racing thoughts. Like his half-cousin, Galton also spent some time tracking through areas less trampled down by European civilization, and his book Narrative of an Explorer in Tropical South Africa earned him some of the same praise and attention Darwin had received when he published his popular volume on the Beagle journey.
Some of that praise came from Darwin. The distance of their relationship, and the difference in their ages, meant that Darwin and Galton to that point had not been very close -- a detachment that's easy to detect in Darwin's letter to Galton.
You will probably be surprised, after the long intermission of our acquaintance, at receiving a note from me; but I last night finished your volume with such lively interest, that I cannot resist the temptation of expressing my admiration at your expedition, and at the capital account you have published of it.
If you are inclined at any time to send me a line, I should very much like to hear what your future plans are, and where you intend to settle.
I live at a village called Down near Farnborough in Kent, and employ myself in Zoology; but the objects of my study are very small fry, and to a man accustomed to rhinoceroses and lions, would appear infinitely insignificant.
Galton's adventures didn't end on his return to England. He made contributions across multiple fields that survive to our day, among them the use of fingerprints for identification. A great deal of the science of statistics was created by Galton. He devised the standard deviation, regression toward the mean, correlation, and normal distribution. He went as far as producing a mechanical device that took the place of a "random number generator," to demonstrate his ideas about distribution. Galton was the first to recognize the "wisdom of crowds," when he observed a contest to guess the weight of an ox and saw that, while individual guesses might be wildly off, the mean of all the guesses was astonishingly close to the real value.
Still, though it's always a bit dicey to make a diagnosis over a span of decades on the basis of writing and remembrances, it's tempting to wonder if Galton suffered from some disorder that might have a convenient label today. OCD, perhaps, or some a problem akin to Asperger's. His bouts of emotion seemed to baffle those around him, his obsession with exactly counting and calculating values was expressed in nearly every field he entered, and even his ability to fixate on an idea and obsesses about it for years seemed to come with a price. Galton himself seemed to recognize this and worried that he his thinking seemed strange to those around him.
Men who leave their mark on the world are very often those who, being gifted and full of nervous power, are at the same time haunted and driven by a dominant idea, and are therefore within a measurable distance of insanity.
Though he helped shape many areas and items that we still live with today, from the moment On the Origin of Species was published, there was one idea that dominated Galton's thoughts. If Darwin had been taken with Galton's recollections of his travels in Africa, Galton was immediately and intensely struck with what he found in Darwin's book. Smitten. So much so that it would become the focal point for the rest of his life.
It wasn't the overall argument for natural selection that gripped Galton. It was one of the early chapters -- one that centered on the variations of domesticated animals. If Darwin had hoped the use of these familiar animals would make good examples, they certainly worked to convince Galton -- but maybe not quite in the way that Darwin would have wanted.
Throughout Origin, Darwin had carefully avoided the direct application of natural selection to the evolution of humans (he would tackle that topic head on in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex). Galton felt no such compunction. However, it wasn't humanity's origins that concerned Galton, it was humanity's future. He eagerly wondered whether human traits were inherited as they were with other animals, and he set out to answer the question in the way that he had answered others -- through statistics. Height, weight, finger length and hat size would all come under Galton's examination, but it was already clear enough that human beings could inherit physical traits -- otherwise you would not end up with children that so often resembled the parents. He was more concerned about whether the less visible traits were inherited. Was the intelligence and ability of children passed on from their parents?
The question was not one that particularly interested Darwin. He considered most people to have more or less the same level of intelligence. Darwin regarded accomplishment as a measure of opportunity and hard work. In other words: all nurture, no nature. Galton did not agree. He set out to look at the children of people who were "eminent" to see if they showed signs of inheriting the abilities of their notable parents. This first study of human intelligence and accomplishment would face the same obstacles as every such study that followed after -- is a child innately smarter because he or she inherited the trait from bright parents, or is the child smarter because of surroundings that include a respect for learning and opportunities to both acquire and express knowledge? It's hard enough to control for the effects of environment when you're examining the situation in person, but Galton's study was done much more remotely.
To find out if humans could pass along their intelligence, Galton read books. He examined biographies and records concerning eminent men and their descendants. He was aware that this method of study wasn't perfect. He suggested studies of twins and of adopted children, anticipating the way such studies would be done for more than a century to follow. However, that didn't stop him for searching for intelligence in the pages of books. And he found what he was looking for.
Galton's research was pioneering in many ways, and out of his obsession came mathematical tools that benefited researchers in all fields. The value of his statistical methods was quickly realized and the carefulness of his approach impressed many, including Darwin. However, there was nothing remotely "double blind" about Galton's research. Despite his studious tabulation and examination of his numbers, his study suffered from extreme prejudice in which the lives of the notable were far more likely to be recorded (and their deeds to be inflated). There was no way to verify the validity of the praise heaped on some of the historical figures in his work, and no way to compare their intelligence against less "accomplished" men and women in any measurable way. Galton's study was highly mathematical, but wasn't scientific. Galton, like a million researchers to follow, found what he was looking for in his sea of numbers.
By 1869, Galton had published his book Hereditary Genius. In the book he pressed the idea that there should be more attention given to favorable traits in human breeding. After all, if the form and behavior of sheep, cows, goats, and all other domestic animals could so readily be affected by the introduction of some control over their breeding, shouldn't the same apply to human beings? Wouldn't control over human breeding be required to weed out undesirable traits and ensure the survival of favorable traits? If we domesticated cattle, shouldn't we also domesticate man?
Darwin considered the question and responded that he thought that Galton was probably right in his basic ideas. In fact, Darwin admitted that the program of breeding Galton suggested might be the way that these favorable traits could be insured. However, Darwin viewed the idea as impractical. Instead, he suggested that people be told the importance of inheritance, and left to make their own decisions.
I should be inclined to trust more (and this is part of your plan) to disseminating and insisting on the importance of the all-important principle of inheritance.
This wasn't the only issue Darwin had with his half cousin's book. Galton, drawing conclusions from his swarm of statistics, had produced numeric evidence that some races of men were not only mentally, but physically inferior. Even that some races were inherently uglier than others. Darwin saw no proof of this.
Finally, Darwin was surprised to discover that Galton had taken from On the Origin of Species an idea that ran completely counter to the whole design of natural selection. The subtitle of Origin was "The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." Galton took this subtitle quite literally. Individuals, he declared, did not matter. It was the race that was important. His words on the subject seem particularly chilling in retrospect.
The life of the individual is treated as of absolutely no importance, while the race is as everything; Nature being wholly careless of the former except as a contributor to the maintenance and evolution of the latter.
The idea was as startling to Darwin as it is for us today, partly because it represents a total misunderstanding of the theory of natural selection. Though Darwin had placed the preservation of "favored races" in the title of his seminal work, he had always maintained that natural selection operated against individuals. Races -- what we would view today as varieties or subspecies -- did not exist except as a convenient way to group individuals that carried some common traits. Evolution could not act against race, because race was no more than a construct, a fiction. Only individuals existed for the purposes of selection.
Galton reversed Darwin's logic. His work subjugated the individual to the race, and placed the whole of evolution under the control of a Nature that showed its favor by gifting certain races with abilities that outstripped others. By 1883, Darwin was dead, and Galton had a new term for his pursuit of an improved humanity. He called it "eugenics," from the Greek for "good stock."
In Darwin's absence, the importance of natural selection was increasingly doubted as an agent of evolution. As it had from the beginning, the idea put forward by Darwin and Wallace seemed just too simple. Darwin had maintained that there was grandeur in his view of nature, but how could a theory that could be written on a post card contain all the glory of the world? Besides, Galton had shown (quite correctly) that Darwin's ideas about the actual mechanism of inheritance were completely wrong. Darwin had believed that traits were passed on by some mechanism in the blood, a theory Galton tested by experimental transfusions among rabbits. He found no evidence for Darwin's proposal.
If Darwin was incorrect about how traits were passed on, how could his theory be trusted to predict larger effects of evolution? Darwin's directionless, individual-based ideas had never been a comfortable fit with a hierarchical society. Instead the idea of a more directed evolution, one that drew from Lamarck and Spencer and Haeckel, found increasing favor, particularly with the public, but even among scientists. Galton explicitly denied that there was any evidence for the kind of direct inheritance of acquired trait that had been suggested by Lamarck, and in fact took a very strict view of natural selection. However, he also could not accept that evolution was, or should be, directionless.
Galton's idea of race as the unit of evolution fit in well with this more directed approach. If Darwin was wrong, then why shouldn't evolution act against races instead of individuals? If we couldn't see the mechanism for this, it was only because we could not make out the whole of the complex plan. Galton's ideas found a natural ally in the growing ranks of Social Darwinists. Where Herbert Spencer taught that government itself was a primitive trait that mankind would soon outgrow with the introduction of a Laissez-faire utopia, Galton took it a step further. He maintained that government, by protecting the weak and supporting the "common man," was actually thwarting the progress of racial evolution. Like Spencer and Haeckel, Galton saw a drive in evolution -- a drive that human charity was retarding.
He argued that the only way to resolve this problem was for government to reverse its role; for the government to assure that the best were traits were perpetuated by taking a direct role in human breeding. If Spencer's ideas of evolution drew from medieval ideas like the Great Chain of Being, Galton's ideas looked even further back to Rome, to Sparta, and to disfigured children thrown from the cliffs of Mount Taygetos.
Today, the eugenics Galton advocated is most associated with the horrors of Nazi social policies, but Galton had plenty of surprising followers at home. The most free-market-centric economists became followers of eugenics, but so did John Maynard Keynes. H. G. Wells was a follower of both Spencer and Galton. So was George Bernard Shaw. Another follower was a young army officer turned politician named Winston Churchill.
By the turn of the 20th century, the eugenics movement had spread well beyond Great Britain. Alexander Graham Bell, so often remembered as a teacher of the deaf, read Galton, researched the inheritance of deafness, and suggested that deaf couples not be allowed to marry. Woodrow Wilson -- who re-segregated the armed forces -- promoted an active program of eugenics and eventually saw the passage of laws in over thirty states that mandated the sterilization of the mentally handicapped.
Galton approved of such laws. Like many people today, he fretted that poor people were reproducing faster than the wealthy and (especially since he shared Spencer's idea that poverty was equal to undesirable) worried that civilization would be drowned in waves of the underclasses. Galton produced a simple diagram -- criminals and the poor at one end, industrial barons at the other end -- that correlated wealth and achievement directly with "genetic worth." Just as with Spencer's Social Darwinism, this was a theory that those in power wanted to believe. They were not just richer than the people who worked for them -- they were better. Genuinely superior right down to every cell of their bodies.
The sterilization laws were fought by advocates of the mentally ill and physically disabled all the way to the Supreme Court. They lost. In the Buck v Bell (1927), the United States Supreme Court held that the State of Virginia was within its rights to sterilize anyone that the state found unfit. More than 64,000 Americans were forcibly sterilized.
American laws based on eugenics didn't stop with the "unfit." Eugenics was also behind the "anti-miscegenation" laws created to block interracial marriages. Laws such as Virginia's Racial Integrity Act blocked interracial marriage in the name of race purity from 1924 until the Supreme Court overturned the law in 1967. For the American followers of Galton, laissez-faire wasn't just an economic idea, it was a class unto itself. If government's pernicious influence could be removed, powerful "laissez-faires" would rule over the subclass of mediocre humanity. With the law on their side, they set out to accomplish just that.
Eugenics was used as the foundation for executing criminals, for removing children from their parents, and as justification for the extinction of native peoples. The idea spread to Canada and Sweden where thousands more were sterilized, to Australia where it was behind the "assimilation" of mixed-raced children, to China, to Japan... and of course, to Germany.
Galton was not around to see the final stage of his ideas played out across Europe. He died in 1910. He spent his last years working on a fantasy novel about a utopia where eugenics was the foundation of religion, racial purity was valued above all, and the state bred for better humans. He didn't live to see his ideas brought to terrifying life (and his daughter burned the manuscript of his novel after his death).
He also didn't live long enough to learn that his ideas not only led to some of the greatest horrors of the 20th century, but were utterly and completely wrong. Not just morally wrong, but scientifically invalid. His fundamental distortion of Darwin -- disparaging the value of individuals -- meant that his theory had been established on vapor from the beginning. New genetic studies have shown again and again that race is nothing but an illusion. It doesn't reflect any significant division of humans. Except for a few rare cases, the traits we perceive as "race" are not an effective way for breaking humans into groups for any purpose (and those cases are in doubt).
The truth is that eugenics was possibly the greatest threat humanity has faced, a threat at least equal to that of our destruction by the atomic bomb. To see why, you have only to look at bananas. Big Mike, the larger, sweeter, tougher banana that was sold before the 1950s, Gros Michael, the perfect banana, isn't sold anymore. Because Big Mike is nearly extinct. A fungal disease struck banana plantations around the world, and infected plants wilted and rotted by the thousands and tens of thousands. Gros Michael was susceptible to the disease. Because all the Gros Michael were the same, they were all susceptible to the same disease.
Around the world, the perfect banana died. That funny old song "Yes, We Have No Bananas"? It records in its lyrics a disaster that destroyed crops, ruined farms, and toppled fortunes. While the Gros Michael plants were being replaced by the Cavendish cultivar, there really were no bananas to be had in many parts of the world.
The Cavendish also has its plagues. A new strain of the same fungus that killed off Big Mike has wiped out Cavendish bananas in several Asian nations. If it reaches the plantations of South and Central America, we may have to revive that old song while banana growers seek out another cultivar to replace the banana you've eaten for the last fifty years.
What makes the bananas so susceptible to world-wide plague is not some problem specific to bananas. What made Big Mike so fragile was low genetic diversity. Other crops, from corn to cows, have demonstrated the same susceptibility. A field full of corn that's all of genetically identical may produce more grain that one made up of multiple strains, but it's also far more vulnerable to disease and climate. In evolutionary terms, "pure breeds" are not stronger, they're much more fragile. No matter how powerful the blond-haired Aryans on old Nazi posters may appear as they threaten the untermensch, a humanity peopled only by such a narrow group would be a humanity always on the brink of disaster.
Galton read On the Origin of Species and was excited by Darwin's description of domesticated animals, but he missed the sheep for the flock. The potential that a species holds is measured in the genetic diversity of the individuals that make up that species. The species itself is nothing but a bit of Latin nomenclature. The individuals are everything.
Increasingly, modern agriculture has recognized the flimsy nature of our low genetic diversity crops. Around the world efforts are under way to not only develop new varieties, but preserve the old. "Heritage tomatoes" are grown in both fields and greenhouses, preserving the flavor that once graced our grandparents' meals. "Heritage chickens" are brought back from the brink of extinction to lay speckled eggs that seem like a novelty to generations of Americans used to pure white eggs from the supermarket. Over the last few centuries, thousands of varieties of domesticated plants and animals have become extinct, and thousands more are on the brink. It will take an deliberate ongoing effort to preserve even a fraction of that variety. It's always easier to take just the variety that looks most attractive at the moment.
And that was Galton's greatest mistake. He saw "mediocre men" as a threat to civilization. But the purpose of civilization isn't to select for the elite: it's to preserve all of us. Civilization is the field in which is sustained. It's the environment in which far more of us are "fit," in the sense that Darwin actually intended, than we would be in the brutal classism of a Social Darwinist "utopia." We don't know what the next crisis to face our species will be, but by maintaining a high level of genetic diversity, we are better prepared to face that next crisis and survive -- both as a species, and as individuals.
(My thanks again to everyone here who have been my "first readers" on this series of articles. The Evolution of Everything is due from PoliPoint Press in May 2010, and that wouldn't have happened without your help.)