Darwin, e quel che c’è stato dopo

L'origine delle specie
L'origine delle specie, 1859

Da qualche giorno – succede anche questo, quando vai a correre e non c’è un disco che di recente ti ha preso violentemente – sto ascoltando alcuni mp3 tratti dalla trasmissione radiofonica Il terzo anello. In particolare, si tratta di un ciclo di puntate dedicate a Darwin denominato Darwin. L’evoluzione permanente. Vi si affrontano le scoperte dello studioso inglese non tanto (ma anche) per quanto riguarda l’aspetto prettamente scientifico, ma soprattutto per ciò che concerne le interpretazioni date successivamente alla sua teoria dell’evoluzione. Si parla dunque di filosofia, di conflitti con religione, di sovrainterpretazioni (aberranti) come eugenetica e razzismo, e di tanto altro. Il tutto è organizzato e gestito da Lucetta Scaraffia e Anna Foa. Il linguaggio è molto chiaro e – questo conta – anche tono di voce delle due speaker è assai gradevole.

Sentendo parlare di eugenetica ho ripensato al bellissimo Intelligenza e pregiudizio di Stephen J. Gould, incontrato qualche anno fa. E – inevitabile – al suo doloroso paragrafo dedicato alla storia di Doris Buck (e di sua sorella Carrie), sterilizzata a sua insaputa (come riporta wikipedia: “Doris was also sterilized when she was hospitalized for appendicitis, although she was never told that sterilization had been performed. In later years she married and she and her husband attempted to have children; she did not discover the reason for their lack of success until 1980″).

Ho trovato il brano in questione in rete (in inglese) e non posso fare a meno di incollarlo qui sotto.

In 1927 Oliver Wendell Holmes, JR., delivered the Supreme Court’s decision upholding the Virginia sterilization law in Buck v. Bell. Carrie Buck, a young mother with a child of allegedly feeble mind, had scored a mental age of nine on the Stanford-Binet. Carrie Buck’s mother, then fifty-two, had tested at mental age seven. Holmes wrote, in one of the most famous and chilling statements of our century:

“We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the state for these lesser sacrifices. . . . Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

(The line is often miscited as “three generations of idiots. . . .” But Holmes knew the technical jargon of his time, and the Bucks, though not “normal” by the Stanford-Binet, were one grade above idiots.)

Buck v. Bell is a signpost of history, an event linked with the distant past in my mind. The Babe hit his sixty homers in 1927, and legends are all the more wonderful because they seem so distant. I was therefore shocked by an item in the Washington Post on 23 February 1980 – for few things can be more disconcerting than a juxtaposition of neatly ordered and separated temporal events. “Over 7,500 sterilized in Virginia,” the headline read. The law that Holmes upheld had been implemented for forty-eight years, from 1924 to 1972. The operations had been performed in mental health facilities, primarily upon white men and women considered feeble-minded and antisocial – including “unwed mothers, prostitutes, petty criminals and children with disciplinary problems.”

Carrie Buck, then in her seventies, was still living near Charlottesville. Several journalists and scientists visited Carrie Buck and her sister, Doris, during the last years of their lives. Both women, though lacking much formal education, were clearly able and intelligent. Nonetheless, Doris Buck had been sterilized under the same law in 1928. She later married Matthew Figgins, a plumber. But Doris Buck was never informed. “They told me,” she recalled, “that the operation was for an appendix and rupture.” So she and Matthew Figgins tried to conceive a child. They consulted physicians at three hospitals throughout her child-bearing years; no one recognized that her Fallopian tubes had been severed. Last year, Doris Buck Figgins finally discovered the cause of her lifelong sadness. One might invoke an unfeeling calculus and say that Doris Buck’s disappointment ranks as nothing compared with millions dead in wars to support the designs of madmen or the conceits of rulers. But can one measure the pain of a single dream unfulfilled, the hope of a defenseless woman snatched by public power in the name of an ideology advanced to purify a race. May Doris Buck’s simple and eloquent testimony stand for millions of deaths and disappointments and help us to remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath: “I broke down and cried. My husband and me wanted children desperately. We were crazy about them. I never knew what they’d done to me.”

UPDATE (9 aprile)

Ho scritto il post quando dovevo ascoltare ancora alcune puntate della trasmissione. Ammetto di esser rimasto piuttosto deluso in particolare dalle ultime due, nelle quali si cerca di salvare capra e cavoli nel dibattitto tra l’evoluzionismo e le proposte del disegno intelligente. Le solite accuse di “dogmatismo” agli scienziati evoluzionisti (tra cui Dawkins, del quale come al solito si travisa il pensiero trasformandolo in un mostro scientista facile da attaccare) o il solito ricadere sul “problema” dell’anello mancante evidenziano come i meccanismi dell’evoluzione non siano stati totalmente compresi dalle autrici della trasmissione – alla ricerca, ripeto, di una forzata mediazione. Peccato. Rimangono assai interessanti le puntate precedenti.

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