Friday, November 13, 2009

Charles Darwin, Social Darwinism and Columbine

Dennis Sewell has an article for Times Online about the link between Darwin and the recent spate of high school massacres. He writes:
In America, where Darwin’s writings on morality and race have come under particularly intense critical scrutiny because of the enduring creationist debate, he has been accused of fostering moral nihilism and scientific racism, and even of promoting an ethic that found its ultimate expression in the Holocaust. Most startling of all, a connection has now been drawn between Darwin’s theories and a rash of school shootings.
Morality? Race? Darwin not only failed to express some of the views against racism that were prevalent in his culture but was an outspoken opponent of slavery. The rest of the article painstakingly recounts all of the events that led up to each high school shooting and the fact that each of the shooters wanted to rid the world of people they thought were inferior and in the way. While interesting in its own right, it is not clear how much it actually has to do with Darwin's concept of natural selection, in which the environment plays a role in how species change over time.

It has been shown time and again that Darwin's views were not shared by either Hitler or Stalin and had nothing to do with the Holocaust. This meme is getting so old, it has whiskers, but creationists and ID supporters keep using it. Sewell also writes:
Darwin also taught that morality has no essential authority, but is something that itself evolved — a set of sentiments or intuitions that developed from adaptive responses to environmental pressures tens of thousands of years ago. This does not merely explain the origin of morals, it totally explains them away. Whether an individual opts to obey a particular ethical precept, or to regard it as a redundant evolutionary carry-over, thus becomes a matter of personal choice. Cheerleaders celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday in colleges across America last February sang “Randomness is good enough for me, If there’s no design it means I’m free” — lines from a song by the band Scientific Gospel. Clearly they see evolution as something that emancipates them from the strict sexual morality insisted upon by their parents. But wackos such as Harris and Auvinen can just as readily interpret it as a licence to kill.
This is a complete misread of Darwin's understanding of morality. While it is certain that, by the end of his life, Darwin was not a Christian, he did believe in a God and did have a high opinion of morality. In his autobiography, he wrote:
A man who has no assured and ever present belief in the existence of a personal God or of a future existence with retribution and reward, can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones. A dog acts in this manner, but he does so blindly. A man, on the other hand, looks forwards and backwards, and compares his various feelings, desires and recollections. He then finds, in accordance with the verdict of all the wisest men that the highest satisfaction is derived from following certain impulses, namely the social instincts. If he acts for the good of others, he will receive the approbation of his fellow men and gain the love of those with whom he lives; and this latter gain undoubtedly is the highest pleasure on this earth. By degrees it will become intolerable to him to obey his sensuous passions rather than his higher impulses, which when rendered habitual may be almost called instincts. His reason may occasionally tell him to act in opposition to the opinion of others, whose approbation he will then not receive; but he will still have the solid satisfaction of knowing that he has followed his innermost guide or conscience.
Darwin clearly understood the good of being kind to his fellow humans. In fact, without this understanding of morality, his kindness to his wife or love for his children and his opposition to slavery would have made little to no sense. "Let them die!" would have been a more appropriate response if, in fact, he thought that everyone should have his own morality.

Klebold and Harris were clearly not acting in anybody's best interest, even their own. Darwin never used the term "survival of the fittest." It was attributed to him much later when the misguided notion of "Social Darwinism" arose. Darwin's contribution to the scientific world was the theory that organisms in any given population expressed a variety of traits and that the environment acted on those traits in a way that some variations were positively selected, some were negatively selected and some were not selected either way. Over the course of many generations there was "descent with modification." That's it.

Sewell ends thus:
The more sinister implications of the world-view that has come to be called “Darwinism” — and the interpretation the teenage nihilists put on it — are as much part of the Darwin story as the theory of evolutions [sic]
This misses the central point about evolution, though. When nuclear power was harnessed in the 1930s and used in the 1940s to devastating effect, it ushered in the nuclear age and the raging debates about whether nuclear energy should be used, even for beneficial purposes.

I remember seeing Peter, Paul and Mary perform in 1985, here in Knoxville. Ever the protest singers, they sang one song called "Power." One of the lyrics was "Take all of your atomic poison power away." Above the protests, sat nuclear power, oblivious to all of it. It simply was. It existed. As Shel Silverstein put it: "Its all the same to the clam."

The same is true of evolution. It exists. It is observable and its effects can be quantified. Not only do we see evidence of speciation in modern-day organisms, we see evidence of it in the fossil record (fishapod, frogamander). How Darwin's theory, and the extrapolations from it, have been misused is irrespective of the actual processes, themselves. The implications may be part of the story of "Darwinism" but they are not a part of evolution.

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  1. The 27th Comrade6:48 AM

    I'm also getting tired of hearing this nonsensical link between Darwinism and any specific behaviour.
    Even if Darwin had said "survival of the fittest" (which is what he implied, anyway, by the vaguer-but-less-problematic "natural selection"), it would not have implied that he endorses it as a living philosophy. Merely as an observation[1] in nature. He didn't even recommend it for any one or any species.[2] The ID camp can get better arguments against Darwinism (they abound), but this is just a pathetic strawman. (Even if it were true, it wouldn't hurt or augment the validity of Darwinism. ID people, stop it already.)

    [1] An observation I consider true and valid. The extrapolations, on the other hand, are probably the stupidiest thing science is enduring and trying to accomodate today.

    [2] Darwin was racist, actually, just not as virulent as the kind that he campaigned against. Then again, I don't consider racism to be intrinsically a bad thing. Quoth:
    At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace the savage races throughout the world. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes… will no doubt be exterminated. The break between man and his nearest allies will then be wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, even than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.

  2. I think I understated Darwin's acceptance of the common mores of the times. However, he, through his understanding of natural selection, came to understand that lower animals and humans evolved and that is how things came to be. He understood that the western society to which he belonged has "progressed" further than those of the tribes that he encountered on his travels and, like most other people of his time, he considered them less "advanced." It is not clear that he ever thought of them as less "evolved," however.

  3. Regulo1:54 PM

    The links between Darwin's racism and the Nazis are far from illusory. Darwin believed that some races were genetically superior to others and that the higher races would exterminate the lesser. No big leap needed to the Nazi ideas of Aryan master-race exterminating untermensch.

    Besides, the Nazis themselves boasted they were basing their ideology on Darwin's work and used slogans like: Politics is Applied Biology etc. The leading German geneticists were nearly all involved in eugenics and many were among the earliest members of the Nazi party.

    Being against 'Darwinism' isn't the same as being against evolution. Darwinian is the adjective applicable to evolutionary science. 'Darwinism' is an ideology or worldview which is a variant of materialism and declares that there is a naturalistic explanation for everything.

  4. The 27th Comrade4:47 AM

    Regulo, good points. I'll stop saying "Darwinism" when I mean "Darwinian [something]".

    But most people front this argument as a way to say that the work of Darwin is somehow bad or evil. That is, in my opinion, just a load of scare-mongering. If belief in F = M x A should be the formula behind every murder weapon (it is), that should say absolutely nothing about Newtonian physics, Sir Isaac Newton, or the six billion Newtonians alive. :o)

    It has a place in a debate on bioethics, but not in a debate of the validity of evolution.
    (And I say this as one who has failed to believe in Darwin's theory, in spite of having no known barriers to it.)