This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and Nov. 24 marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, the landmark work in which Darwin laid forth his theory of natural selection. While celebrations have emphasized the British naturalist’s giant role in the advancement of human progress, British political journalist Dennis Sewell is not convinced. In a new book, The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics, he highlights how often – and how easily – Darwin’s big idea has been harnessed for sinister political ends. According to Sewell, evolution is scientifically undeniable, but its contribution to human well-being is unclear.
Should we reassess Darwin’s legacy?
Bicentennial celebrations have portrayed Darwin as a kindly old gentleman pottering around an English house and garden. What that misses is the way his ideas were abused in the 20th century and the way in which Darwin was wrong about certain key issues. He asserted that different races of mankind had traveled different distances along the evolutionary path – white Caucasians were at the top of the racial hierarchy, while black and brown people ranked below. [Racism] was a widespread prejudice in British society at the time, but he presented racial hierarchy as a matter of science. He also held that the poor were genetically second-rate – which inspired eugenics. (See a photo-essay on Darwin.)
In your research, you found vestiges of this warped way of thinking in an unexpectedly modern setting: school shootings.
Pekka-Eric Auvinen, a Finnish schoolboy who murdered eight people at his high school in November 2007, wrote on his blog that “stupid, weak-minded people are reproducing … faster than the intelligent, strong-minded” ones. Auvinen thought through the philosophical implications of Darwin’s work and came to the conclusion that human life is like every other type of animal life: it has no extraordinary value. The Columbine killers made similar arguments. One of the shooters, Eric Harris, wore a “Natural Selection” shirt on the day of the massacre. These are examples of how easily Darwin’s writings can lead to very disturbed ways of thinking.
You believe that Darwin should continue to be taught in schools. But how can we teach Darwin and also teach that humans are somehow exceptional in the natural world? Wasn’t his great breakthrough to show that humans, like all animals, share a common origin?
I think we have to decide what status we are going to give to the human race. Most of the world’s religions hold that human life is sacred and special in some way. In teaching our common descent with animals, we also have to examine what is special about human beings, and why they deserve to be treated differently and granted certain rights.
Are you concerned that your ideas will be trumpeted by the creationist movement?
Science is a big enough interest group. It can look after itself. (Read “The Ever Evolving Theories of Darwin.”)
We understand now that eugenics was an illegitimate science, so why even worry about it today?
The thinking behind eugenics is still present. Many senior geneticists point to a genetically engineered future. As the technology for this falls into place, there has also been an explosion of the field of evolutionary psychology that tries to describe every element of human behavior as genetically determined. What we will begin to see is scientists arguing for the use of genetics to breed out certain behavioral traits from humanity.
Is it that you oppose artificial selection in principle, or that you feel scientists are still too far away from a full understanding of genetics to be making such decisions?
Who is going to make the value judgment of what is human enhancement and what makes a human better? I don’t feel comfortable with such judgments being left to scientists.
All things considered, do you believe Darwin was a great luminary in the path of human progress?
What has the theory of evolution done for the practical benefit of humanity? It’s helped our understanding of ourselves, yet compared to, say, the discovery of penicillin or the invention of the World Wide Web, I wonder why Darwin occupies this position at the pinnacle of esteem. I can only imagine he has been put there by a vast public relations exercise.