Monday, November 9, 2009

The Children of Evolution

I am shocked (in a good way) that the prestigious
Sunday Times walked away from the media's
"We Love Darwin" circle jerk and ran a critical piece about the Father of Evolution.

In his article,
Charles Darwin and the Children of Evolution, Dennis Sewell writes...

In April, 1,000 people gathered at sunset in Littleton, Colorado, to commemorate the victims of the Columbine high school massacre, 10 years on. Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel was the first of the 13 children to be murdered, and whose son Craig narrowly escaped being shot, cannot understand why so little attention has been paid to the motivation of the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and their interest in Charles Darwin’s ideas. “Harris wore a ‘Natural Selection’ T-shirt on the day of the killings. They made remarks on video about helping out the process of natural selection by eliminating the weak. They also professed that they had evolved to a higher level than their classmates. I was amazed at the frequent references to evolution, and that the press completely ignored that aspect of the tapes.”

Much of the evidence remains sealed under a court order issued to minimise the risk of copycat killings, but from those documents that are in the public domain, it is clear that Eric Harris fantasised about putting everyone into a violent computer game that only the fittest could survive. And, like Darwin himself, he noted how vaccination might be interfering with nature’s weeding process. In his rantings Harris said he wished there were no vaccines, or even warning labels on dangerous goods, “and let natural selection take its course. All the fat, ugly, retarded, crippled dumbass, stupid f***heads in the world would die? Maybe then the human race can actually be proud of itself”.

As the attorney for the families of six of the students killed at Columbine, the Denver lawyer Barry Arrington has come across more in a similar vein. “I read through every single page of Eric Harris’s journals; I listened to all of the audio tapes and watched the videotapes. It became evident to me that Harris consciously saw his actions as logically arising from what he had learnt about evolution. Darwinism served as his personal intellectual rationale for what he did. There cannot be the slightest doubt that Harris was a worshipper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.”

In 2007, detectives following up a tip-off about a planned school shooting in Pennsylvania discovered that their suspect often logged on to a social networking site called Natural Selection’s Army and a number of related chatrooms that were later tagged by the media as the “cyber school for killers”. These sites were quickly shut down by their service providers, but today “Natural Selection” is the name of a popular computer game in which competing teams attempt to annihilate one another — a sign that Darwin’s term is still associated by many teenagers with sudden and extreme violence.

“Natural Selection” T-shirts have proved a popular line through web-based outlets, and it seems that the Columbine killers have spawned a gruesome personality cult — there is even a computer game in which players adopt the roles of Harris and Klebold, which features original CCTV footage of the killings. Among those reported to have frequented the original Natural Selection’s Army website was an 18-year-old Finnish student, Pekka-Eric Auvinen. On November 7, 2007, in Tuusula, Finland, Auvinen forced his head teacher to kneel down in front of him before he shot her with his pistol. He slaughtered a further seven victims before turning the gun on himself. Some of the Jokela high school students afterwards described the way Auvinen prowled through the building pointing his gun at people’s heads. Sometimes he would squeeze the trigger and kill them; sometimes, after looking long and hard through the sights, he would suddenly turn away and let his terrified target go free. One witness said he seemed to be choosing his victims at random, but in fact he was making a very deliberate selection. He was trying to weed out the “unfit”.

Before he embarked on his shooting spree, Auvinen posted a lengthy apologia on the internet. Styling himself a “social Darwinist”, he said that natural selection appeared not to be working any more — had maybe even gone into reverse. He had noticed that “stupid, weak-minded people reproduce faster than intelligent, strong-minded ones”. The gene pool was sure to deteriorate if society continued to guarantee the survival of the second-rate. He had pondered what to do about this problem. He understood that life was just a meaningless coincidence, the outcome of a long series of random mutations, so there might not be much point in doing anything at all. But eventually he had decided he would do his bit by becoming a natural selector, aping the pitiless indifference of nature.

Auvinen left a special plea for his motivation to be taken seriously and for the world not merely to write him off as a psychopath, or to blame cult movies, computer games, television or heavy metal music, before concluding: “No mercy for the scum of the Earth! Humanity is overrated. It’s time to put natural selection and survival of the fittest back on track.”

Of course, it is not unusual for homicidal maniacs to cite great writers when seeking to justify their crimes. The Chicago spree-killers Leopold and Loeb (the models for Hitchcock’s 1948 film, Rope) claimed Friedrich Nietzsche as their muse, as did the Moors murderer Ian Brady. Other deranged misfits have nominated Albert Camus, Jean Genet and AndrĂ© Gide. But it may take a keener intellect than was possessed by Harris, Klebold or Auvinen to negotiate such a reading list. The basics of evolution are much more accessible and are taught in every high school, so it should not be surprising that Darwin seems to be emerging as the inspiration for the more dim-witted schoolboy sociopath.

Darwin would no doubt have been horrified by all this, but it’s easy to see why some of his ideas might appeal to the disturbed adolescent mind. One conclusion implicit in evolutionary theory is that human existence has no ultimate purpose or special significance. Any psychologically well-adjusted person would regard this as regrettable, if true. But some people get a thrill from peering into the void and acknowledging that life is utterly meaningless.

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.

The American conservative controversialist Ann Coulter is one of Darwin’s fiercest critics, lambasting him in her book Godless and via cable TV. Coulter claims she is not surprised that psychopaths gravitate towards Darwin’s ideas. “Instead of enshrining moral values,” she says, Darwin “enshrined biological instincts.” Coulter believes Darwin’s theory appeals to liberals because it “lets them off the hook morally. Do whatever you feel like doing — screw your secretary, kill Grandma, abort your defective child — Darwin says it will benefit humanity”.

Today’s evolutionary scientists go some way towards Coulter’s view when they describe ethics as merely an illusion produced by genes. From a Darwinian perspective, there is nothing objectively wrong with shooting your classmates; it’s just that most of us have an inherited tendency to kid ourselves that it’s wrong — and that’s something that helps our species in the longer run by keeping playground massacres to an acceptable minimum.

Darwin looked forward to a time when Europeans and Americans would exterminate those he termed “savages”. Many of the anthropomorphous apes would also be wiped out, he predicted, and the break between man and beast would then occur “between man in a more civilized 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”. He took a sanguine view of genocide, believing it to be imminent and inevitable. “Looking to the world at no very distant date,” he wrote to a friend in 1881, “what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilized races throughout the world...”

For many years after his death, Darwin’s racial theories remained the consensus position of the international scientific community. In 1906, the director of the Bronx Zoo decided to give New Yorkers an object lesson in human evolution by putting a 23-year-old Congolese pygmy on public display in his monkey house. The pygmy, Ota Benga, shared his cage with an orang-utan. The spectacle drew enormous crowds. Before long, they were asking the questions the exhibitors hoped they would: was Ota Benga an ape or a man? Or, as the zoo-keeper himself speculated, was this perhaps a transitional form between the two, the elusive missing link?

When a group of African-American clergymen objected to a human being being put on show, they were told that Darwin’s theories were now accepted scientific facts, that the “lower races” were psychologically closer to pigs and dogs than to human beings, and that a different value should be put on their lives. Truths that the founders of the United States had held to be self-evident — that all men are created equal and had certain inalienable rights — were being denied by the promoters of Darwinian science. By the end of the first world war, it was not only blacks who were deemed genetically inferior by many of America’s top geneticists and biologists, but Italian, Greek and Jewish immigrants too.

In their book
Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James A Moore argue that, far from nursing racial prejudices, Darwin was driven to advance a theory of common descent by his hatred of slavery. But how can the idealistic abolitionist be reconciled with the man who so casually contemplated the extermination of entire races? Some argue that he grew more racist as he got older; others that his racism followed logically from his theories.

Nowhere was the toxic doctrine of racial superiority more enthusiastically taken up than in the Third Reich. The Nazis believed that the Aryan race was already the most highly evolved, but could evolve further if defective genes could be eliminated. To purify the German gene pool, they decided to exterminate all the physically and mentally handicapped.

Darwin summed up his moral philosophy by saying that a man could “only follow those ideas and impulses that seem best to him”. Darwinian ideas, eugenics and its ugly sister, eugenic euthanasia, were accepted by the mainstream of the German scientific and medical professions. Indeed, so convinced were the staff of the clinic at Kaufbeuren-Irsee in Bavaria that they were acting rationally that, even after Germany’s surrender in 1945, they carried on killing handicapped people under the American occupation, until a US officer led a squad of GIs to the hospital and ordered them to desist.

The connection between Darwin’s ideas and the Holocaust remains hugely controversial, not least because many creationists try to reduce it to a crude blame game. The writer David Klinghoffer, an advocate of intelligent design, which many regard as creationism in disguise, claims: “The key elements in the ideology that produced Auschwitz are moral relativism aligned with a rejection of the sacredness of human life, a belief that violent competition in nature creates greater and lesser races, that the greater will inevitably exterminate the lesser, and finally that the lesser race most in need of extermination is the Jews. All but the last of these ideas may be found in Darwin’s writing.”

The debate between Darwin’s bulldogs and religious fundamentalists over the truth of evolution and the existence of God has become a sterile one. There are, however, many interesting questions about how Darwin’s views chime with our values of liberal democracy and human rights, or the simple lessons of right and wrong that most of us teach our children. But our society cannot begin to address these issues while we are fed only a bowdlerised account of Darwin’s work. 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 evolution.

Mr. Sewell is the author of the new book,
The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics. According to its Amazon product description...

The Political Gene examines how scientists and politicians have sought to use Darwin's ideas to solve social problems, or to bolster political ideologies. Social Darwinism, eugenics and scientific racialism - whose adherents have all claimed Charles Darwin as their inspiration - became associated with some of the darkest episodes in our recent past. Dennis Sewell follows the thread of theory and the historical footprints left by a myriad cast of key characters to tell an often shocking and sometimes heartbreaking story...

Today, rapid advances in genetic and evolutionary science are once again placing Darwin's theories at the centre of some of the most bitterly contested cultural and political controversies. In the future, as the stakes for humanity are raised yet higher, the gene is set to become more political than ever before.

About the Author...

Dennis Sewell is a writer and broadcaster and a Contributing Editor of the Spectator. For more than twenty years he was on the staff of BBC News, where he was a presenter of Radio 4's Talking Politics and BBC World Service's Politics UK, and a reporter for BBC2's Newsnight. He is the author of Catholics - Britain's Largest Minority, published by Penguin in 2000.

I think it's interesting that Sewell's piece came out the same day that
The Guardian reported: Scientists Win Place For Evolution in Primary Schools. According to the article...

"The [U.K.] government is ready to put evolution on the primary curriculum for the first time after years of lobbying by senior scientists....The schools minister, Diana Johnson said: 'Learning about evolution is an important part of science education, and pupils already learn about it at secondary school.'"

I'm confused. So they want Darwinism to be taught twice - first in secondary school AND then again in primary school? What would be the point of that?

H/T: Darwiniana


Novaseeker said...

The collapse of morality and the rise of nihilism is not all based on Darwin. The retreat away from morality was well underway before Darwin wrote Origin. Nietzsche, for example, used a very different rationale for overturning morality and much more directly than Darwin did -- the redefinition of being itself as simply the Will to Power. I would say that Nietzsche's philosophy, which is often presumed to be Darwinist (wrongly, I think) had as profound an impact on undermining morality as Darwin did.

The same can be said for Nihilism. Are the post-modernist philosophers really followers of Darwin, or are they followers of Nietzsche, Heidegger and so on? It seems to me that while Darwinism has had a certain impact on the popular culture relatively recently, broader trends in the academy were influenced much more by the trends in philosophy and critical theory, which really began to dominate in the universities by the middle of the 20th century and were anything but Darwinian, really.

Of course people seem to like to pretend that these people do not exist because they do not speak in soundbytes that most ordinary people can understand, so we pretend that their influence is minimal. It isn't, precisely because they are the folks who have educated our elites. I think that has much more impact on society than events like Columbine, as horrific as they are.

Todd White said...

Nova: "The collapse of morality and the rise of nihilism is not all based on Darwin."

TW: I wouldn’t say’s it ALL based on Darwin, but I don’t feel like it’s unfair of me to say that the root of nihilism is atheism, and to the extent that – as Richard Dawkins said – Darwin made it possible to be “an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” Darwin contributed enormously to the growth of nihilism.

Nova: "The retreat away from morality was well underway before Darwin wrote Origin. Nietzsche, for example, used a very different rationale for overturning morality and much more directly than Darwin did -- the redefinition of being itself as simply the Will to Power. I would say that Nietzsche's philosophy, which is often presumed to be Darwinist (wrongly, I think) had as profound an impact on undermining morality as Darwin did."

TW: Hmm, that’s not my understanding of Nietzsche’s philosophy. In fact, Nietzsche himself was very outspoken about the influence of Darwinism (and the atheistic implications of Darwinism) on his philosophy. One quote will suffice for now:

“'The total nature of the world,’ Nietzsche wrote in Die frohliche Wissenschaft, ‘is. . . to all eternity chaos,’ and this thought, basic to his philosophy, arose directly from his interpretation of Darwin.” - From Nietzsche: The Man and His Philosophy

For more, please see my essay, “From Darwin to Nietzsche to Hitler”

Nova: "Are the post-modernist philosophers really followers of Darwin, or are they followers of Nietzsche, Heidegger and so on?”

TW: That depends. While it's true that most post-modern philosophers probably wouldn't say, “Yes, I was heavily influenced by Darwin," since the creators of their philosophy (guys like Nietzsche) WERE influenced by Darwin, then, yes, indirectly, I would have to say that they WERE heavily influenced by Darwinism.

I’m not familiar enough with Heidegger to say to what extent he was influenced by Darwinists, but since Heidegger was a Nazi (and the Nazis loved Darwin), I’m tempted to say that at the very least Heidegger is consistent with the Darwinian paradigm.

Nova: "It seems to me that while Darwinism has had a certain impact on the popular culture relatively recently, broader trends in the academy were influenced much more by the trends in philosophy and critical theory, which really began to dominate in the universities by the middle of the 20th century and were anything but Darwinian, really.”

TW: I think it was 2 things. It the “Death of God” stuff that Darwin and Nietzsche were propagating (directly in Nietzsche’s case; indirectly in Darwin’s). In addition to that, it was also the “Reason is impotent” stuff that started with Kant and Schopenhauer, then was adopted wholeheartedly by the Darwinists in the 1970s, with E.O. Wilson and the “evolutionary psychologists” taking the lead.

Darwinian materialism and Kantian mysticism are both ugly gateway drugs to nihilism. And sadly, they are not even “true,” in my humble opinion. It’s sad that people fear “The Truth” because they’ve been led to believe that "The Truth" will lead to Nihilism. Hence, we've seen the birth of an entire culture whose purpose is to distract us from exploring the deeper meaning of life (consumerism, hedonism, etc.) That’s where we stand today.

[to be continued]

Todd White said...


Nova: "Of course people seem to like to pretend that these people do not exist because they do not speak in soundbytes that most ordinary people can understand, so we pretend that their influence is minimal. It isn't, precisely because they are the folks who have educated our elites. I think that has much more impact on society than events like Columbine, as horrific as they are.”

TW: Yes, I agree that the elites have been way more influenced by Darwinism/nihilism than the masses. The masses have an instinctive ability to “compartmentalize” uncomfortable truths). The elites, almost by definition, are those who hunger for knowledge and can synthesize competing ideas.

At the risk of plugging my own work too much, I acknowledged the corruption of the elites in my other essay, “From Rorty to Obama to Beyond.”

Novaseeker said...

The thing is, though, that Darwin was not a philosopher. That's why I think that the philosophical and metaphysical "bad implications" of Darwinian evolutionary theory can be more than offset by either (1) a robust metaphysics which distinguishes between the necessary materialism of science and scientific theory, on the one hand, and philosophical or metaphysical materialism or (2) a theological awareness that by its nature hems in and rejects any attempt to draw metaphysical, philosophical or existential conclusions based on materialistic scientific theories.

Todd White said...

Nova: I think that’s essentially what Stephen Jay Gould proposed, right? The idea of "Non-Overlapping Magisteria?" The idea that science would stick to science and religion would stick to religion, and never the twain shall meet?

While that idea worked for a long time, I fear it’s starting to break down. First of all, the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, etc) have no interest in “Non-Overlapping Magisteria.” They want to use Darwinism as a battering ram against religion. And few scientists these days (even those who have a respectful toward religion) have any interest in stopping them.

This puts the mainstream Christian community is an uncomfortable spot. As beneficiaries of Gould’s policy, they essentially made peace with Darwinism. But now the Darwinists no longer have interest in maintaining peace. Should the Christians continue to defend Darwinism or re-think the entire paradigm? I would argue that they should re-think the paradigm. Why? Not for the Christian adults, who – comfortable with their schema – will ignore this new skirmish between the forces of faith and reason. No, they should be worried about the Next Generation – their children and grandchildren, who – in a secular society – are being taught “Da Truth” of Darwinism. That “Truth” will surely swallow any mystical metaphysics, if the child himself has no emotional connection to that metaphysics. For example, in my dialogues with Luke “the Common Sense Atheist,” he’s pretty straightforward that even though he grew up in a strong Christian household (his dad was a pastor), the “truth” of Darwinism was a major factor in his conversion to atheism (even though, he – unlike many Christians – had a family and community willing to talk him out of him). Then we get to kids like Klebold and Harris – mentally disturbed to begin with – who become admirers of Darwinism, and used it as motivation to commit horrible atrocities, which – in the greatest shame of all – no true Darwinist can argue are truly “atrocities.” After all, life is just “survival of the fittest.”

Novaseeker said...

I think many Christians already do support ID. Certainly my impression is that this is the dominant position among evangelicals and bible christians, if they believe in scientific ideas about creation to begin with. The Catholics are playing it very carefully -- Cardinal Schoenborn's recent book is an example of that. On the one hand, I think the issues you mention are recognized, but on the other hand, the Catholics don't want to be on the wrong side of this, like they are accused of being with respect to Galileo (a much more complex pattern of facts than most people are aware, but the popular takeaway -- and the one flogged by people like Dawkins and Harris endlessly -- is that the Catholics were denying scientific reality). My own Orthodox Church has no official view about evolutionary theory, but we also don't interpret Genesis as literal natural history, either.

I'm not worried about the "new atheist" gang. Their screeds are very, very easily refutable. A well-done, if somewhat humorously caustic, take-down of them and their views of history and so on is "Atheist Delusions" by one of our own EO theologians, David Bentley Hart.

Todd White said...


Yes, many Christians support I.D. in principle, but their interest in the issue is pretty mild, which I find perplexing. Certainly I don't think the I.D./Darwin debate is as important as the economy or terrorism or abortion, but to be honest, I think it's more important than same-sex marriage, which needless to say, has dominated the social political landscape for the last 5 years (while boring most Americans).

I agree with your analysis of the Catholic Church. They're still stinging from the Galileo fiasco 500 years later. That's a shame. The only people who care about Galileo are the Scientific Elites - and since nearly all of them are materialistic atheists, they're always going to be hostile to Rome, no matter what. Why should the Pope care what they think?

To be honest, I'm pretty concerned about the "New Atheist" gang. I'm not sure if you like John Derbyshire's work, but in his new book, he has like an 8 page section in which he expresses something I've felt for a while - basically, that the New Atheists are a voice for the public's frustration over religious fundamentalism of all kinds (Christian, Islamic, whatever). Sadly, since there's few voices for Christian moderation or just theism without dogma, the New Atheists are filling an ideological vacuum and tipping the scale of public opinion in their direction.

That is why I'm generally nervous about the next 10-20 years. We are surrounded by religious extremists (and I include the New Atheists as extremists too). Meanwhile, the old Liberal Order is crumbling (which I'm OK with). It's almost like Europe before World War I. We have a sense that the Old Order is coming to an end, but we also have anxiety about what comes AFTER the Old Order. It might take decades for us as a culture to figure this all out.

Sorry for the tangent ;)