In today’s New Statesman, philosopher John Gray reviews Dennis Sewell’s new book, The Political Gene: How Darwin's Ideas Changed Politics...
One of the virtues of The Political Gene is to show how often Darwinism has been used to promote ideals of human progress that are illiberal, authoritarian or racist.
Drawing an implicit parallel with The Black Book of Communism, published in France in the late 1990s, which detailed communist atrocities ignored by bien-pensant opinion, Dennis Sewell writes that "the Black Book of Darwinism contains some real horrors".
A large part of The Political Gene focuses on how leading Darwinists have campaigned for eugenics. Francis Galton (1822-1911), one of the founders of modern psychology, used Darwin's theory to promote his field as "an upbeat project offering an optimistic hope of Utopia", even writing an unpublished novel, Kantsaywhere, about a republic ruled by a Eugenic College, whose fellows set and administer "anthropometric tests" measuring the "fitness" of the population. Galton's repulsive utopia may seem remote from any 20th-century political reality but, as Sewell shows, eugenic ideas of the kind Galton propagated were taken seriously, not least in the United States, where 33 states passed sterilisation laws and at least 60,000 people were sterilised as "unfit".
In Germany, the chief propagandist for Darwinism was Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), who, like Galton, promoted the idea of a racial hierarchy. Holding that "the lower races . . . are psychologically nearer to the mammals - apes and dogs - than civilised Europeans", Haeckel was pivotal in giving scientific respectability to the categorisation of race. The extent to which his ideas were used by the Nazis is disputed, but there can be little doubt that his enormously influential writings helped open the door to racist pseudo-science in Europe…
It is at this point that 21st-century defenders of Darwinism will be up in arms, indignantly protesting that these were abuses in no way entailed by the theory of natural selection. They have a point… While eugenic movements have always been prone to racism, eugenic theories need not - as a matter of logic, at any rate - accept race as a scientific category. More generally, one cannot hold a theory responsible for the uses that are made of it, if only because judgements of value do not flow automatically from explanatory claims.
This last point is confirmed by the diversity of contending movements that have claimed a pedigree in Darwinian thinking…It might seem reasonable to conclude that they were all wrong, and say that no moral or political position can be derived from Darwinism.
Yet matters aren't quite that simple. Contemporary evangelists for Darwinism continue to claim that it supports a particular political programme - in this case, a militant version of secularism - and aim to convert humanity to what they see as a scientific world-view. The logic of their position has never been explained. A phenomenon that is nearly as universal as religion is likely to have some evolutionary role and, even if religions are illusions, the upshot of Darwinian science may be that the human animal cannot do without them. In that case, Darwinism would suggest evangelical atheism is a pointless, indeed absurd, activity.
What actually happened was that evolution was promoted as a faith. Galton hoped that eugenics would one day have the authority of the church. Haeckel set up his "Monist League" explicitly in order to found an "evolutionary religion"…
The appeal of this fantasy is unlikely to wane, because it satisfies the need for faith while offering the alluring prospect of power.