In 1859, the world was taken by storm with the publication
of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of the Species by Means of
Natural Selection. Darwin used this forum to explain his
theory that all living creatures were descended from a
common ancestor. He called this "descent with modification,"
and claimed it occurred as a result of a natural mechanism,
which he termed "natural selection."
Social Darwinism was an ideology that adapted Darwin's
theories of natural selection into the realm of social
relations. The result was a social theory that was used to
provide a "scientific" explanation and social justification
for such things as racial and social inequality. It was also
the theory from which the Eugenics Movement emerged.
In 1904, Sir Francis Galton—a half-cousin of
Charles Darwin—founded the Eugenics Movement in England. The
word "eugenics" is derived from the Greek word meaning "well
born." Galton was the first person to assert that
"intelligence" was a scientifically meaningful concept and
that it was inherited. He based this belief on his
statistical analysis of biographical encyclopedias and
school performance records. Using these to identify
exceptionally accomplished people, he often found that the
people whom he classified as "most talented" were related.
It seemed logical to assume that if intelligence was
inheritable, then so too were undesirable characteristics
and social traits.
Among the characteristics viewed as almost exclusively
hereditary were: mental retardation and mental illness, as
well as other social defects like poverty, criminality,
prostitution, and alcohol and drug abuse. One of the most
dominant and recurring themes of Eugenics philosophy in the
late 19th and early 20th century was the emphasis on the
link between mental retardation and criminality, and the
consequent "menace" which mental deficiency posed to
As undesirable characteristics were believed
to be hereditary, it was thought that, for the good of
society, people who had these undesirable traits or
"inferior" genes should be discouraged from having children.
Some of the methods used to achieve this included
segregation in institutions or sexual sterilization. On the
other hand, human "thoroughbreds"—who had desirable
characteristics and genes—were encouraged to have children
in the interests of strengthening and improving "the race."
Many prominent Canadians of the time—including Emily
Murphy, Louise McKinney, Irene Parlby, Henrietta Muir
Edwards, and Nellie McClung—were advocates of Eugenics
philosophy and in the 1920s and 1930s, expressed support for
eugenic sterilization. Others advocates included James Woodsworth, founder of the Cooperative Commonwealth
Federation, and leading members of the United Farmers of Alberta.
Although today we know that Social Darwinism and Eugenics
were based on a flawed understanding of genetics and
heredity—as well a variety of social assumptions—at the
time, these ideologies were widely accepted in the Western
world, and intelligent Canadians were not immune to them. In
fact, because they seemed to be based in science, and
science seemed to hold the answer to every question,
educated people found these ideologies very appealing.