Friday, November 13, 2009

Ideas Have Consequences

The Times Online has an excellent article by David Sewell on the moral implications of a Darwinian worldview. It's fascinating stuff, but I'm a little surprised that it passed editorial scrutiny. Perhaps the Brits are more open-minded about such things, but I can't imagine an article like this appearing in, say, The New York Times.

Sewell starts off by noting the eerie and strangely underreported fact that overt Darwinian tropes recur among serial killers. Eric Harris wore a t-shirt that extolled natural selection as he gunned down classmates at Columbine High School, and Pekka-Eric Auvinen, a Finn, murdered his teacher and a number of his fellow students on the basis of their lack of "evolutionary fitness."

Although Darwin himself would have been appalled by such horrors, they are the logical consequence of his ideas. Sewell writes:

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.

Not only does a Darwinian worldview lead to the conclusion that life is ultimately pointless and that morality is an illusion "fobbed off on us by our genes" as E.O. Wilson puts it, but Darwin himself believed that his ideas led to racial purification:

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.

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 who believed neither in God nor an afterlife could "only follow those ideas and impulses that seem best to him". Darwinian ideas - eugenics and its corollary, eugenic euthanasia - were accepted by the mainstream of the German scientific and medical professions, but also by many of the educated elite in the United States in the first four decades of the twentieth century. It wasn't until the ghastly crimes of the Nazis came to light in the mid-1940s that eugenics acquired a bad odor among American progressives.

Ideas have consequences, and when we no longer hold fast to the idea that man is made in the image of God then no longer will we find anything about us that has any intrinsic worth. Man thus devalues himself, losing his dignity in the process and reducing himself to a simple brute, a mass of mere protoplasm. What almost inevitably follows are genocidal holocausts such as those of the 20th century in atheistic regimes in Germany, the USSR, China, Cambodia, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Darwin's theory was a powerful impetus to the spread of atheism and a powerful justification, or rationalization, for those seeking scientific warrant for the depersonalization of their victims. The 20th century was simply Columbine High School writ large.


The Real Victim at Fort Hood

David Brooks at The New York Times puts his finger on a quirk of American psychology:

When Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan [murdered and maimed dozens of helpless victims] in Fort Hood, Tex., last week, many Americans had an understandable and, in some ways, admirable reaction. They didn't want the horror to become a pretext for anti-Muslim bigotry.

So immediately the coverage took on a certain cast. The possibility of Islamic extremism was immediately played down. This was an isolated personal breakdown, not an ideological assault, many people emphasized.

Major Hasan was portrayed as a disturbed individual who was under a lot of stress. We learned about pre-traumatic stress syndrome, and secondary stress disorder, which one gets from hearing about other people's stress. We heard the theory (unlikely in retrospect) that Hasan was so traumatized by the thought of going into a combat zone that he decided to take a gun and create one of his own.

A shroud of political correctness settled over the conversation. Hasan was portrayed as a victim of society, a poor soul who was pushed over the edge by prejudice and unhappiness.

There was a national rush to therapy. Hasan was a loner who had trouble finding a wife and socializing with his neighbors.

This response was understandable. It's important to tamp down vengeful hatreds in moments of passion. But it was also patronizing. Public commentators assumed the air of kindergarten teachers who had to protect their children from thinking certain impermissible and intolerant thoughts. If public commentary wasn't carefully policed, the assumption seemed to be, then the great mass of unwashed yahoos in Middle America would go off on a racist rampage.

Worse, it absolved Hasan - before the real evidence was in - of his responsibility. He didn't have the choice to be lonely or unhappy. But he did have a choice over what story to build out of those circumstances. And evidence is now mounting to suggest he chose the extremist War on Islam narrative that so often leads to murderous results.

The conversation in the first few days after the massacre was well intentioned, but it suggested a willful flight from reality. It ignored the fact that the war narrative of the struggle against Islam is the central feature of American foreign policy. It ignored the fact that this narrative can be embraced by a self-radicalizing individual in the U.S. as much as by groups in Tehran, Gaza or Kandahar.

It denied, before the evidence was in, the possibility of evil. It sought to reduce a heinous act to social maladjustment. It wasn't the reaction of a morally or politically serious nation.

Indeed. One might have gotten the impression, listening to some of the commentary on this atrocity, that Nidal Hasan was an unfortunate victim of forces beyond his control. The excuses and rationalizations that were being offered for his heinous act almost made me think that the people I should be angry with in this incident were the cops that shot this poor, pathetic man.

Such are the times in which we live.