Sunday, 22 February 2009

Andrew Marr on the real legacy of Darwin

[...] So is there any natural connection between Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' and human violence?

It seems to me a wild leap of logic to take his patient explanation of how so many extraordinary varieties of living thing could emerge, over countless millennia, and then turn it into a political philosophy for the here and now.

What happened was that his scientific case about the evolution of species was so strong that ideologues of all kinds tried to steal it and apply it to their own agendas.

Hitler's generals quoted Darwin as they planned the 'final solution'. Karl Marx claimed Darwin's book justified his vision of class war. Imperialist Britons, Americans and French thought Darwinism explained the extermination or subduing of lesser breeds.

Yet Darwin believed from the beginning that man was a single species. There is no get-out clause for racism in his writing.

Nor for selfishness, even though many Darwinists asked themselves why, if life was driven by the survival of our 'selfish' genes, we should be kind to strangers. Didn't evolution by natural selection add up to 'devil take the hindmost'?

One of the brilliant men who worked on this was George Price, an unstable American who devised a mathematical formula to explain altruism in terms of evolution. He found the idea that goodness could be so reduced intolerable. He converted to Christianity, gave all he had to the poor and ended up killing himself in a dismal squat in London.

Price might have done better had he considered that, though science can explain much about what we do, it cannot be a guide to our behaviour.

'Why' and 'ought' are different; explaining something does not make it right. Unlike bees, dinosaurs or broccoli, humans have self-consciousness. They can reflect on their 'natural' behaviour and change it for the better.

But there is one remaining large area of Darwin-in-politics which has caused intense argument and much suffering. It is the simple idea that, if it is possible to breed more muscled cows, or bigger strawberries, or cleverer sheepdogs, it must be possible to breed better people.

This idea, known as eugenics, a term thought up by Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, categorised humanity into different classes, ranging from useless criminals to the most brilliant people.

Galton drew up plans for encouraging the clever and industrious to have more children - medals, free housing, subsidies - and raised the notion of stopping the feckless from breeding at all. In this way, he thought, a society might advance to happiness far more quickly.

In fact, there is no necessary connection between that idea and Darwinism. It could have emerged just as easily from studying racehorse stud books. Yet the prestige of Darwin's evolution by natural selection and fears of racial decline a century ago made eugenics hugely fashionable.

British liberal and socialist thinkers - people such as Virginia Woolf and H.G. Wells - were fans of eugenics. For a while Winston Churchill was also keen, as was economist John Maynard Keynes. George Bernard Shaw talked with relish of using the 'lethal chamber' to kill off misfits.

In the end, Britain was lucky. Parliamentary wisdom overcame this excitable enthusiasm.

But in America eugenics was taken up keenly amid fears that the American 'race' was being spoiled by the arrival of idle, criminal and idiot immigrants. Read more

Or listen to my own Darwin, Dawkins and Dictatorships, here

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