Sunday, November 15, 2009

Dennis Sewell and the Abuse of Darwinism

Someone else has noticed Dennis Sewell's book. Simon Underdown of the Guardian writes a review that is not too kind. First, he corrects a misunderstanding:
For evolutionary scientists there is no such thing as "Darwinism". Instead we have a scientific theory that, in combination with Mendel's work, provides the modern or neo-Darwinian synthesis, which explains the development of life on Earth. Although this is a rather succinct definition it effectively sets the limits of the usefulness of Darwin's theory. However, in the last 150 years, there have been many attempts to take Darwin's idea and apply it outside of the context for which it was developed, hence the influence of social "Darwinism" on concepts such as eugenics and a more recent Darwinian nihilism that absolves the individual of any moral or social responsibility.
As I wrote in post a bit back, these have ranged from the tragic starvation of the Sans Cullots in Soviet Russia in the 1930s under Stalin to the Holocaust under Hitler. That there is not a shred of evidence to support either position is immaterial. Darwin was evil and Hitler was evil, therefore the two must be related in some way. Underdown also castigates Sewell for his acceptance of these extrapolations:
This inherent danger of using Darwin's theory outside of its biological context has lead to attempts to portray Darwin as the de facto cause of 20th century genocide: see, for example, Andre Pichot's book The Pure Society. There is a fallacy at the core of this line of thinking – can scientists really be held responsible for what is done with their ideas when they are misunderstood and corrupted by groups such as the Nazis? I would argue that they cannot: the actions of criminals do not need such highbrow justification and trying to do so merely lends a pseudo-scientific veneer the actions of the Third Reich.
This analysis, which is correct, also doesn't mention the fact that long before Darwin came on the scene, genocide and slavery were alive and well. If you need a primer of men behaving badly, try reading the later chapters of Genesis.

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  1. The 27th Comrade1:24 PM

    I think it is important to note that Darwinism is prone to being abused because it is, in those respects, valid. Perhaps within all of us is the knowledge that we can select for our kind ("good") by killing or in some other way disabling the other kind.

    Indeed, these abuses of it, which, as you note, were there before Darwinism (with much the same justification, just a different language), are a kind of validation for Darwinism. (We instinctively know that this stuff works that way. Of course.) So, I find it strange that this is often presented as an argument against evolution.

    (In other news: I see that I ended up in the moderation bin for a previous comment on another entry. My apologies, sir. I should have slept and had breakfast before writing it.)

  2. You did? I think, by accident. I had to change who could leave comments. I got tired of the viagra ads.

  3. Anonymous6:06 PM

    Charles Darwin, in the Descent of Man, claimed that the Caucasian race was more highly evolved than the Negro or Aborigine (as he termed them).

    No-one before Darwin could have come up with this erroneous doctrine, as it was Darwin himself who came up with the idea of evolution by natural selection.

    Today, genetics shows that the different races are not more (or less) evolved than one another. There is nothing superior genetically about whites.

    But the fact remains that Darwin made this error. The error was not corrected for many generations.
    In the meantime, many scientists who had been misled by Darwin's mistake also preached this false science. It did much harm.
    So Darwin WAS responsible for scientific racism.

  4. The 27th Comrade4:41 AM

    I did. But also the comment was a bit too abrasive and dismissive in a way that doesn't pay fitting respect to the other end. Not good material. I'm not very used to communicating via these wires, where the snarky comment can't necessarily be tempered by the comradely smile. Smileys aren't our, um, evolved means of communication, you see. ;-)

    If I were to type it again, I'd hope I treat it better this time. But I likely won't type it again.
    (On the sheer profusion and indefatigability of the viagra ads, surely That Problem can't be so widespread!)

  5. Anonymous7:45 AM

    Yes, Sewells idea is nonsense. You can't blame the inventors of mobile phones for terrorism.