The Social Darwinism Problem

“Prejudice is the child of ignorance.” William Hazlitt

Nikola Tesla. Charles Lindbergh. Thomas Malthus. Francis Galton.

These men were eugenicists. Eugenics is the idea that there are some traits in human beings that can be selectively bred out creating a more robust and better human being. Conditions like anemia and asthma; even death itself, could be selectively bred out to create a more superior person. A person without illness, of strong mind and body. A pure individual. Eugenics arose from Charles Darwin and his theories on Evolution via Natural Selection. In theory, natural selection could be applied to humanity with a little help from doctors and mystics to bring about a more capable and heartier person.

Let’s back up a bit. Because I’m sure by now you’re asking me: Amanda, why are you talking about eugenics? If you ever have the pleasure of meeting me or being a close friend or family member of mine you have certainly heard me claim that something was “the Ghost of Darwin” when a person trips over a patch of heavy air or after hearing a news story that seems to come straight from The Onion but is entirely too true. The Ghost of Darwin became a code to myself and my friends to rationalize when bad things happen to people that per the situation seemed to deserve it. We were practicing social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is a viral and visceral form of schadenfreude: a way to enjoy or take pleasure in something bad happening to someone else. It’s a rationalization for people who drive drunk through the PlayPlace at McDonald’s or to the man who falls into a fountain after aggressively catcalling a young woman. It’s more importantly a way to separate yourself from those receiving those misfortunes: deserved or not. It’s a means of distancing yourself from the general population. To a Social Darwinist they are above the rabble, they are somehow even slightly more superior than the rest. It’s a passive-aggressive eugenics way of thinking. Now again is probably the time you’re asking: Okay, Amanda. That’s all fine and good. But eugenics?

Pop culture.

I love movies and recently a few of my most beloved films have had a eugenics plot behind them.

The cult action thriller Machete Kills features a demigod-like villain named Voz. Voz is an almost Steve Jobs sort of man who has grand delusions and dreams about creating a perfect world and destroying Earth as it is. He then rounds up the creme de la creme of humanity and encourages them all to hop aboard one of his space ships to fly out into deep space while Voz destroys the world with a complicated matrix of catastrophes and man-made disasters. Voz and his followers were to enjoy luxury among the stars, even bringing servants with them to continue their elitist ways in the heavens.

Kingsman: The Secret Service pits villain Valentine against the top-notch spy agency The Kingsman. Valentine is a charismatic media mogul who decides that the world is terrible and the only cure for the world is to remove humans except for those he finds or ‘persuades’ into joining him. Valentine seduces politicians, dignitaries and elites with his mentions of how climate change is our fault (which it is) and that the only way to save the world is to trim the fat. Valentine then programs an app in his new free smartphones that triggers uncontrollable rage in the brain. This meant to cull the population of the world through hyper-violence and keep those treasured few safe to repopulate the world.

The ever so controversial Django Unchained features a Southern slave owner named Calvin Candie who rationalizes his cruelty and ownership of human beings with phrenology. Phrenology is a pseudo-science that dictates that you can measure and learn a lot about a person based on bumps and sections of the human skull. Candie states that because of a defect in the skulls and brains of Africans they cannot simply live on their own. They need slavery to function and he was a white landowner was doing everything right by owning other human beings.

Why is this dangerous? Because it glamorizes eugenics. Especially with Kingsman I remember leaving the theater thinking Valentine “made some good points” and it wasn’t until I was in the car with my friend driving back home that I realized how insane it was to say that. I was rationalizing what was effectively genocide, albeit a fictional one. We see these movies and we believe and understand the points made by these charismatic men. What we don’t see is the result of people being swayed by eugenics.

The result of eugenics and social Darwinism is nothing short of death. The result is the Holocaust. The result is the KKK and modern racism and racially motivated crimes. That’s the price of eugenics. When you believe you are better than someone else it’s very easy to more actively wish to remove them from the planet. Hitler ruled Germany through these poisonous thoughts and it allowed for the slaughter of millions. Plantation owners and racists used eugenics and Darwinism to enslave others and subject them to unspeakable terror. When we allow pop culture to even humor eugenics, we validate what these people’s thoughts; that there are people that are radically other than you and it is right and justified to separate yourself from them.

Charles Lindbergh was a noted American eugenicist and didn’t see the error of his ways until visiting the concentration camps of Germany and saw the horror that his perfect world that he wanted to create via selective breeding caused. He recanted his views on eugenics and never looked back on those ideas. As Americans we still have racially motivated crime and terror in our very recent memory and any movie, song, book or even joke that makes light of a movement that rationalized terror seems to be at odds with the needed eye-opening moment Lindbergh needed to have to stop his insidious passion for eugenics.

What’s the most concerning about these recent pop culture mentioning of eugenics and social Darwinism is who gets to decide who lives and who dies. In Machete Kills, it’s Voz and he decides on the elite and the rich. In Kingsman it’s Valentine who also for the most part chooses the elite, rich and academics.

So why the rise of eugenics in popular culture? Crisis. We are in a perceived time of crisis. Like Germany after WW I and the Antebellum South. Most people in the West see our current time with climate change and terrorism both domestic and international as a time of chaos and crisis. So when there is crisis, many find comfort in the idea that there are those that can and will rise above the masses and that the world will be reborn new and different with only the best and brightest. Sound familiar? A lot of dictators used this same rhetoric. The only reason it sounds familiar? It’s the base of the Judaeo-Christian Bible and many other creation myths. The story of the flood is one central to many cultures from Sumer to the Nile and beyond. The flood mythology has a giant flood as its main conflict and “god” or a series of deities select a good righteous few to carry on. The rest of the world are left to die in the flood and the good righteous few are left to repopulate the world with their goodness.

I’ll never police fun and things like The Darwin Awards are hilarious and the occasional jest at the expense of the specter of Darwin aren’t all in bad taste. It’s a habit I’m all too aware of and one that I and my friends do still sometimes commit. However, there’s a darker history is sometimes allowed but it’s important to remember the murky legacy of the statements we made no matter how light they may be in moments.

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