Last week, I was making the point to a friend of mine that Darwin has been used as the unwitting intellectual rationale for many social movements that haven’t been particularly good for humanity (such as red-in-tooth-in-claw capitalism), and also that Darwin, for all his brilliance as a scientist, was a white supremacist.
My friend worried that by making this explicit, I might be laying myself open to being labeled a radical Creationist.
This remark (and the extraordinary response I got to last week’s blog – thank you all so much for your lovely comments) got me thinking about the nature of scientific debate these days and also how scientific ideas get appropriated to advance completely unrelated arguments.
Since the 2009 bicentenary celebrations of Darwin’s birth and television shows portraying Darwin as a cross between Santa Clause and God (the long-white beard, the kindly, aw-shucks manner, the love of animals and children), it has been virtually impossible to take issue with anything Darwin stood for without being assumed to be part of the camp that believes that dinosaurs and earliest man roamed the earth side by side just a couple of years before Jesus was born.
No doubt, Darwin’s theory of natural selection was a bold and remarkable advance in our understanding of life.
Nevertheless, thanks to newly invented telegraphic cables and advances in printmaking, Darwin’s views quickly swept across the globe and were largely hijacked as intellectual justification for a raft of fledgling social movements.
Darwinian evolution made for a perfect fit with emergent western capitalism.
English biologist Thomas Huxley, dubbed ‘Darwin’s bulldog’, largely acted as Darwin’s vociferous mouthpiece, using Darwin’s ideas to justify dog-eat-dog competition.
Huxley was convinced that it was in the natural order for human beings to put their own interests above all others. In fact Huxley had a simple recipe for those without sufficient means to support themselves: “They die, and it is best they should die.”
Darwin’s theories were also cited as proof positive that the world’s races were inherently unequal, and that certain races — particularly the white Europeans — were far ‘fitter’ than others.
They were used to justify the Chinese revolution and the ‘whitening’ of Latin American indigenous culture with European stock.
Columbine natural selection
Darwin obviously is not to blame for the vast amount of misguided notions that have been carried out in his name. He was simply attempting to figure out how nature works.
He would have been appalled to note that Eric Harris was sporting a T-shirt emblazoned with the words ‘Natural Selection’ when he and Dylan Klebolt sauntered into Columbine High School and opened fire on their fellow students, and that entire websites, such as Natural Selection Army, are cyber schools for neo-Nazi killers-in-training.
Nevertheless, scientists do not formulate their ideas in a vacuum, but usually reflect the cultural mores of their time. When assembling his ideas for what eventually was published as On the Origin of Species, the young Darwin was profoundly influenced by the concerns put forward by the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus about population explosion and limited natural resource, and ultimately concluded that since there wasn’t enough to go around, life must evolve through struggle.
Some of the fledgling ideas of what came to be called Social Darwinism may have originally influenced his theories. Darwin himself predicted (and appeared to favor) the notion that at some point in the future Europeans and Americans would exterminate those deemed to be ‘savages’, and the ‘higher civilized’ races would prevail. “Excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed,’ he once noted in a letter to a friend.
What I’m saying is that some of the ideas that led to Darwin’s discoveries and some of the ideas that have used evolution as a crutch are both, in their own ways, suspect.
Closed to interpretation
My biggest problem is reserved for the greatest Darwinian hijacking of them all. Modern-day interpreters of Darwin, the so-called ‘neo-Darwinists’, have insisted on a particular interpretation of biology based entirely on a supposition about evolution.
It has now become fashionable to regard genes as having the power to control every aspect of our lives, so that the rest of the body is considered simply the vehicle of transport. We supposedly emerge from the womb with a static batch of attributes specified by our genetic history.
A great deal of evidence in the fledgling science of epigenetics takes issue with this version of evolution.
The intricate array of environmental influences to which we are exposed throughout our lives actually determines the final expression of every gene in our body. Genes get turned on, turned off, or modified by our life circumstances and environment — what we eat, who we surround ourselves with, and how we lead our lives.
It is this connection, and not simply the genetic code, that gets passed down to subsequent generations.
Darwin's theory in On the Origin of Species specified that genetic mutation occurred only over a vast number of generations and millions of years of natural selection, when some studies showed that new traits could show up in a single generation.
I, for one, do not buy either the ‘selfish’ or the ‘struggle-for-dominance’ metaphor. The more evidence I examine in virtually every scientific discipline, the more I grow convinced that life exists through a giant act of cooperation and that the leitmotif for all of nature is connection, rather than battle.
Despite there being no definitive evidence to support the metaphor of ‘selfish genes’, the orthodoxy does not entertain any alternative point of view of either Darwinism or neo-Darwinism.
Today’s scientific fascism reminds me of the situation after 9/11. America was so gripped by fear that it was absolutely verboten to do anything but agree with Bush’s war against the terrorists. As a popular bumper sticker in my youth put it: ‘America – love it or leave it.’ Embrace it uncritically or get out.
A few years ago the BBC aired an excellent documentary called Did Darwin Kill God? The theologian who narrated the show made the very good case that neo-Darwinists and the Creationists are both extremists, misappropriating the views of Darwin.
To my mind, Darwin did not kill God. Darwin is God now, in whatever way we choose to interpret Darwin.
So long as we believe there is nothing more to add to the story, we blind ourselves to the real truth of science, which is that no single scientist, however brilliant, can declare that this is it, the full and complete guide to the universe.
Our scientific story must always remain unfinished — continuously revised by every new Darwin.