January 01, 2010

Review: A Political Gene

Denis Sewell's book is a huge and important mistake from end to end. It is feebly argued, put together with the persuasiveness of a magazine column and with the same attention to the solidity of his argument. Mr Sewell argues that the trail of evolutionary theory, the trail of what he calls Darwinianism, stretches across the twentieth century to include both Naziism and Eugenics. He suggests that these ideologies were involved in the original Darwinian program and that the only guard against them is Christian and Catholic theology. To believe in Evolution today and to be an atheist is to step on a slippery slope towards the horrors of the third Reich and to condone abortion or to believe in contraception is to begin the ride of Dr Mengele. Mr Sewell's argument about the consequences of Darwin is both historical and political therefore, the two parts are supposed to buttress each other and remind us that our only guide and guardian in the perilous quest to understand modern science is the holy mother church. It deserves to be analysed both as a historical argument and as a political argument separately: in the first case Mr Sewell has something to be said for him, in the second alas his arguments are easily demonstrated to be false.

Historically there can be no doubt that some people used Darwinian theory to allow themselves to speculate on the evolutionary doom of the poor (Herbert Spencer) or of subject races (see A. Hitler for an extreme example). To deny that would be perverse and part of the interest of Sewell's book lies in the way that he accumulates examples of people using evolutionary metaphors to describe their own political ideas. Obviously this, as Sewell acknowledges, betrays a basic misunderstanding of evolution: firstly there is no such thing as a wealth gene, secondly evolution functions on the level of the individual organism- there is no such thing as the struggle of the races. Sewell is right to note that Darwin had an influence on people- but what he will not or does not write about is that Darwin's influence came in context. No one set of influences predisposed Europeans to think of other races as sub-human: as Colin Kidd for instance shows there were a whole set of languages coming out of the Bible (about the children of Ham for example) which supported a racist way of viewing the world. Darwin's ideas were understood, are still understood by people, in the context of other beliefs that they had. There is an interesting study to be done about how people interpreted and re-interpreted Darwin- but this not it as it does not discuss, or acknowledge, the ways that Darwin's ideas related to and spoke to other ideas around at the same time.

Furthermore Sewell's book contains no development. Historical accounts are often, especially if stretched over a century, accounts of development and change. For Sewell though, there is no development and no change. The Eugenecists of the Edwardian period, the Nazis of the Second World War, the abortionists of the 1960s and the geneticists of today must be doing exactly the same thing. There are moments when Sewell gets absurdly close to becoming a conspiracy theorist who believes that no matter what happened in British medical history, the Eugenics society were behind it. The problem with this thesis is that things have changed and there is an interesting history in the ways that the twentieth century has seen change. Whereas in the early century, from Sewell's book, genetic advances were being used by social scientists and others to model an ideal future population, at the end of the century they are being used by doctors and others to increase personal choice. Sewell raises cases of forced abortion in the United States in the 1920s and condemns them and then advances straight to cases of abortion today: but of course the forced abortion and the chosen abortion are fundementally different entities. Failing to realise that means that Sewell does not really understand the course of the history that he navigates.

Heavily involved in Sewell's history is a polemic against Atheism. As you might infer from the paragraph above, Sewell is a Catholic polemecist. Some of his politics is unobjectionable- some is deeply wrong. The central claim he makes is that a purely evolutionary position on the development of life will not and cannot allow anyone to take a moral view of the world. Mr Sewell has obviously not read much David Hume and believes that a fact and a value are the same thing. Quite why a reality should determine what I value in the world is something that he does not explain. Quite why an omnipotent God is needed for me to infer a morality, or why a God's omnipotence translates directly into making the orders of that God right he leaves out. If the book's purpose is as it appears to be to suggest that Atheists have done nasty things, that evolutionary ideas have led to some hideous acts, Mr Sewell is not wrong, but then again the same thing could be said of the Church itself or of many other ideologues. Christ did not intend the inquisition but Christians performed it, Muhammed did not intend 9/11 but it happened. Ideas have consequences but the generators of those ideas are not responsible for those consequences- especially as they go down the centuries and people change the meanings they assign to ideas. A scientific theory is either a correct or incorrect explanation of phenomena within the world- whether it is or not incorrect or correct does not effect what it is right or wrong for us to do!

Mr Sewell does have a point in attacking particular evolutionists including Darwin for some of the things that they have said. Darwin did allow Francis Galton to say things without contradicting them that he probably should have demurred from. (Quite what Darwin's responsibility for his grandchild, Leopold Darwin, should be is something I'm not sure about). Others too from the Webbs onwards have said some terrible things about eugenics and evolution, not to mention of course the range of people who rallied to support the Nazis. But the same could be said of the church, Mr Sewell presumably would agree with me that not every deed done in the name of Christ is to be endorsed. This reflects badly on the individuals concerned but ultimately the theory whether of Christianity or Evolution is distinct from the individuals. Philosophically, Mr Sewell is out of his depth (not to mention scientifically where he cites a television program to suggest that there may still be a debate about race and genetics (see p.199)). Whatever evolution tells us about the world or Christianity, you cannot infer a value from a fact- whether that is the competition to acquire genetic decendents or the existance of a God. Secondly almost all ideas can be used in a profusion of ways- almost all ideas will be- the central issue is whether the idea is correct, not whether it has been used by unpleasant people to unpleasant ends.

Ultimately Mr Sewell's book is about an interesting subject. He can write and he can obviously think. He has read quite a bit and could have, perhaps should have written a more interesting book. He does retreive some good quotations and has taught me a bit about the reception of Darwin's ideas and we do need to know more about this, about how they were received and combined with other ideas, about how their reception evolved. Both historically and philosophically he is out of his depth and what could have been an interesting book turns into an uninteresting polemic. This book would have been wonderful if written by a cautious scholar, unfortunately Mr Sewell has the caution of Lord Cardigan and the attitudes to truth of a Daily Mail hack.