Darwin’s big turnaround

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

It’s funny how people change their minds about a prejudice when it hits close to home.

My parents didn’t care much for journalists until I became one. Former Vice President Dick Cheney wasn’t a champion of gay rights until his daughter “came out” and married her partner. And biologist Charles Darwin thought people with intellectual disabilities were evolutionary mistakes until his youngest son was born with Down Syndrome.

Unfortunately, love doesn’t always trump bias. There are plenty of stories of parents who reject their children because of some perceived flaw or transgression.

Darwin’s story

I am particularly fascinated with the story of Charles Darwin, whose theories and writings have been of interest to me since I was a child. Darwin was a controversial figure in mid-19th century England, when he published On the Origin of Species. The book proposed that evolution is the result of natural selection – or survival of the fittest – among the species.

Darwin was also a believer in the eugenics movement, which was conceived by his cousin Francis Galton in 1883. Eugenicists believed that people with disabilities and those of certain races and ethnic backgrounds were inferior and defective. Through selective marriage practices, these so-called hereditary disorders could be eliminated.

In the meantime, according to the eugenicists, these defective people should be institutionalized, sterilized, deported or restricted from entering the country.

The ultimate irony

It was the ultimate irony, then, when Darwin’s wife gave birth to their tenth child, a boy named after Charles Darwin, and he had Down Syndrome. By all accounts, Darwin adored this child and grieved intensely when the infant died after only 18 months.

In a memorial to his son, Darwin wrote that young Charles “had a remarkably sweet, placid and joyful disposition… He was particularly fond of standing on one of my hands and being tossed in the air. He would lie for a long time placidly on my lap looking with a steady and pleased expression at my face.”

Darwin apparently made no attempt to institutionalize his little boy or to cast him aside in any way. Instead, he learned from his youngest son that people with intellectual disabilities are not evolutionary mistakes but individuals capable of giving and receiving love and of bringing joy to those around them.

It was a big turnaround for Darwin, whose theories unfortunately bestowed lasting social stigma on people with disabilities.