Last week, my daughter had a field trip to the new Darwin Center at the Natural History Museum in London, the place where you can see real scientists at work and ‘true’ science in the making.
For me, the unveiling of this new building, and all the bicentenary hoopla about Darwin – the commemorative stamps, the re-releases of his books, the special museum piece in his honor, the television specials all featuring the kindly, long-bearded gentleman-genius – have sparked in me some rather grave second thoughts about the man and his enduring legacy.
Although all of science has a profound effect on our own definitions of our universe, the discovery that may have had the greatest and most enduring impact on our philosophical view of the world was the theory of natural selection.
When putting together his ideas for what eventually was published as On the Origin of Species, Darwin was profoundly influenced by the concerns put forward by 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.
Subsequent interpretation of Darwin’s work did most to generate a vision of man’s solitary nature, with the suggestion that in life only the toughest and most singleminded survive.
Darwin’s thoughts about randomness got a further boost in 1953, when James Watson and Charles Crick unravelled deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), the genetic coding within the nucleus of every cell. Thereafter, scientists came to believe that within the coiled double helix lay every individual’s lifelong blueprint.
Each of our cells, equipped with a full pack of genes, would live out its pre-programmed future, while we were held hostage, powerless to do anything other than to observe the drama unfolding.
As with every other kind of matter, the individual could also, in a sense, be reduced to a mathematical equation.
Consequently, for two hundred years our world view has been shaped by a scientific and philosophical story describing isolated beings competing for survival. Our paradigm for living, as largely extrapolated from Darwin’s theories, has been built upon the premise that competition is the most essential aspect of existence.
No true morality
The modern-day followers of Darwin, the so-called ‘Neo-Darwinists’, have taken this one stage further, with the more extreme view that our genes, even our ideas and morals, are engaged in competition with other gene pools and thoughts for domination and longevity.
Morality itself was an evolutionary happenstance, completely at the whim of what works best in keeping the species alive.
Shooting your classmates is not objectively wrong, but the idea has evolved to ‘appear’ wrong so that we all don’t turn on each other with a semi-automatic.
Recently I came across an extraordinary new book, entitled The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics, by Dennis Sewall, which takes issue with the beneficial effect of Darwinism.
As Sewell notes, one person is not celebrating the Darwin double anniversary this year. That is Darrell Scott, a resident of Columbine, Colorado.
Natural selection at Columbine
Scott’s 16-year-old daughter Rachel was killed by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebolt when they sauntered through Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 (Adolf Hitler’s birthday), armed with two 20-pound propane bombs, an Intratec TEC-DC9 blowback-operated semi-automatic ‘handgun’, a Hi-point 995 Carbine semiautomatic pistol, a Savage 67-H pump-action shotgun, and a Stevens 311D double-barrel sawed off shotgun, plus assorted bombs and Molotov cocktails, opening fire on much of the student population, killing 13 of their classmates and injuring 24 others before turning the guns on themselves.
Last April, at the gathering of the 10th anniversary of Columbine massacre, Scott senior noted that on the day of the massacre, Harris was wearing a t-shirt with the words ‘Natural Selection’ emblazoned on it.
‘They made remarks on video about helping out the process of natural selection by eliminating the weak,’ noted Scott. ‘They also professed that they had evolved to a higher level than their classmates. I was amazed at the frequent reference to evolution, and that the press completely ignored that aspect of the tapes.’
Attorneys for six of the families whose children were killed at Columbine also found, among Harris’ journals and videotapes made at the time, that Harris was a great devotee of Darwinist principles and saw his actions purely as a natural extension of evolution and survival of the fittest.
My killer camp
Before it was closed down, ‘Natural Selection Army’ was a popular social networking chatroom considered a training ground for the disaffected like Harris and Klebolt. One of its frequent guests was Pekka-Eric Auvinen, an 18-year-old Finnish student, and self- described ‘social Darwinist’ (his You-Tube street name was ‘Natural Selector89’).
In 2007, Auvinen went on to shoot and kill his head teacher, while she was kneeling in front of him, and seven other students at his senior school in Tuusula, Finland, again before turning the gun on himself.
His rationale? ‘Stupid, weak-minded people are reproducing . . . faster than the intelligent, strongminded’, he wrote.
Many of the survivors noted that Auvinen was discriminatory about whom he chose to kill and whom he’d set free, deliberately attempting to root out those he deemed ‘unfit’.
The Harris and Auvinen cases appear the rantings of the lunatic sociopath until you ponder the fact that every aspect of our society reflects the essentially competitive nature of the universe and life as equivalent to a game of chess.
Every modern recipe in our lives has been drawn from this notion of being as individual and solitary struggle, with every-man-for-himself competition an inherent part of the business of living.
We have built our entire Western economic model on the notion that competition in a free-market economy is essential to drive excellence and prosperity.
In our relationships, we extol our inherent right to individual happiness and expression above all else, as our divorce statistics testify. We educate our young by encouraging them to compete and excel over their peers.
The currency of most modern two-cars-in-every-garage neighborhoods, as I have found, is comparison and one-ups-manship.
Darwin actually predicted (and appeared to favor) the idea that at some point in the future Europeans and Americans would exterminate those deemed to be ‘savages’ and that the higher races would prevail. Violent competition in nature, in his view, inevitably produces winners and losers. The winners have a right to winner take all, because the race as a whole will benefit from it.
As our Darwinian economic model and much of our social contract lays in ruins, we have to question, as Sewell puts it, “the more sinister aspects of the world-view that has come to be called ‘Darwinism”.
While we live our lives in competition, every last one of us has a piece of Eric Harris inside of him.