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A Wall Between Science & State?

The Political Gene: How Darwin's Ideas Changed Politics

By Dennis Sewell

Publisher: Picador

Pages: 269 pages

Price: $26.95

Review Author: Anne Barbeau Gardiner

Anne Barbeau Gardiner, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is Professor Emerita of English at John Jay College of the City University of New York. She has published on Dryden, Milton, and Swift, as well as on Catholics of the seventeenth century.

In 1906 a Congolese pygmy named Ota Benga was put on display in the Bronx Zoo in a cage with an orangutan. Ota’s family and tribe had been wiped out, and a “keen Darwinist” from South Carolina had purchased him and exhibited him at the World’s Fair two years earlier. When Ota was shown at the Bronx Zoo, Rev. J.H. Gordon, a black Baptist minister, complained to the mayor about “this exhibition of one of our race with the monkeys.” The New York Times printed a reply from the Darwinist camp the next day, September 12, 1906: “The reverend colored brother should be told that evolution, in one form or another, is now taught in the textbooks of all the schools, and that it is no more debatable than the multiplication table.”

The “scientific consensus” at the turn of the twentieth century was that black people were “closer in the evolutionary scale to apes” than white people were. Although scientists today see this as a terrible wrong, they don’t take “any responsibility for it,” writes Dennis Sewell in his new book The Political Gene. Instead, they act as if the mistake “had nothing to do with science at all.” But it was the “authority of science,” writes Sewell, that put Ota in the cage, and this egregious indignity was defended as “fully justified” for its “educational benefits.”

Ota Benga later stayed with one of the black pastors who had defended him, learned to read, and was baptized. Then he moved to Virginia and worked in a tobacco factory. But on March 20, 1916, after asking about the cost of a steamship ticket back to Africa, “he shot himself through the heart.”

Can Darwin be blamed for the use to which his writings were put? Sewell, a Catholic who worked for twenty-four years at the BBC, started off impartial on this point, but kept finding strong links between what Darwin wrote and what Darwinists “carried into the social and political domain.” He concludes that it is false to say that scientific racialism and eugenics are “wholly unwarranted extrapolations from Darwin’s thought.” For example, in The Descent of Man (1871), Darwin said that the Negro and the European were of such “distinct” races that a naturalist might consider them two different “species,” and that the evolutionary break between animals and man was between the “Negro” and the “gorilla.”

Those who want to free Darwin from responsibility for the consequences of scientific racialism should consider that he was so “revolted” by the indigenous Fuegians of South America that he said he was “more comfortable thinking of himself as the descendant of a baboon than of men like them.” He made this prediction in Descent: “Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.” Here Darwin made genocide “a law of nature,” writes Sewell, or “left it open to be interpreted that way.” In his private letters, he took an “equally sanguine view of the destruction of other races.”

As a coda to the Ota Benga story, Sewell relates how in August 2005 the London Zoo opened an exhibit in which three men and five women “frolicked on some rocks clad in pinned-on fig leaves and bathing suits,” separated from the apes by an electric fence. They said they wanted to show “that the human is just another primate” and “not that special.” The view that our human nature is of little worth is also part of Darwin’s legacy. Sewell reports that Princeton microbiologist Lee M. Silver looks forward to “a genetically engineered modern-day hereditary class of genetic aristocrats” who could diverge into another species. His friend James Watson asks, “If we don’t play God, who will?” Despite their arrogance, Sewell reflects, evolutionary scientists are no more prepared to direct human evolution “than a two-year-old infant is to fly a high-performance jet fighter.”

Sewell accepts the science of evolution but rejects the ideology of evolutionism that has caused great harm. “The notable lack of contrition exhibited by its adherents today,” he warns, “offers little reassurance that the threat has passed.” The media ignores links to evolutionism in events like the Columbine massacre. Not only was Eric Harris wearing a “Natural Selection” T-shirt on the day of the shootings, but both killers were “amateur social Darwinists” who spoke on video about having “evolved to a higher level than their classmates” and “helping out the process of natural selection by eliminating the weak.”

There is a link, too, between evolutionism and a recent spate of eucharistic desecrations. Prof. Paul Myers, an evolutionary developmental biologist, founded the Pharyngula blogsite in 2002 as a platform for driving religion out of the public square. In 2006 his site was ranked the top science blog of the year by Nature magazine. In 2008, after obtaining a consecrated Host, Myers drove a rusty nail through it and threw it in the garbage with used coffee grounds. He posted a video of his acts, which he titled “The Great Desecration,” on his blog, sparking copycat desecrations. What was the response of his fellow scientists to this horrific sacrilege? “Surprisingly, Paul Myers’s attitude appears to be broadly representative of that of evolutionary scientists in general,” Sewell observes. “There has been no high profile condemnation of his action by his academic peers; instead he was roundly applauded on many science websites.”

Evolutionary scientists have not apologized for promoting pro-abortion frauds. Darwin’s friend Ernst Haeckel was behind the myth that the unborn baby goes through the stages of evolution of our species, from fish to mammal. This myth was endorsed “by generations of scientists and physicians after him.” Haeckel finally admitted it was all a fraud, “confessing that his embryo drawings were fakes.” Yet in 1981 that myth was being used as a prop to abortion-on-demand, “included in the expert scientific evidence provided by a leading geneticist to the United States Congress during an enquiry into abortion law.”

Nor have evolutionary scientists shown any contrition for the calamities that resulted from eugenics. Sewell notes that it is “a fact that all the early eugenicists identified Darwin as the inspiration for their discipline and most of the leading figures in evolutionary science in the early decades of the twentieth century supported eugenics to some degree. During this period eugenics was science.” Darwin’s cousin Francis Gal­ton launched the Eugenics Society and, until World War I, it “looked like a Darwin family business.” Darwin’s son Leonard became chairman after Galton, and three more of Darwin’s sons were involved in a Cambridge offshoot. In Descent, Darwin presents eugenics as a “grisly universal law of nature”: “Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man.” Only with mankind are the “worst animals” allowed to “breed.” Yet Darwin married his cousin and they had ten children who were “notably sickly.” When Francis Galton pointed out the “possible dysgenic effect of inbreeding,” Darwin wrote to his friend Asa Gray: “We are a wretched family & ought to be exterminated.” Violence was built into eugenics: Nietzsche, also a Darwinist, argued that society could promote eugenics by “the most rigorous forms of compulsion and restriction, and under certain circumstances have recourse to castration.” G.B. Shaw predicted that “part of eugenic politics would finally land us in an extensive use of the lethal chamber.”

In the early twentieth century, eugenicists dominated the editorial boards of scientific journals, and they persuaded “large parts of the political class (and much of the general public too) that they knew and understood both the biological and social implications of evolution.” In the 1920s “more than three hundred academic courses involving eugenics were taught in American universities, including the most prestigious.” Illiterate vagrants were paid to walk the streets of cities carrying signboards that read: “I am a burden to myself and the state. Should I be allowed to propagate? Would the prisons and asylums be filled if my kind had no children?” Sewell comments eloquently: “The breathtaking heartlessness and cynicism of this exercise is surely enough to make one wonder whether perhaps too much exposure to evolutionary science might itself lead to a degeneration of the faculty of moral discernment.”

Carrie Buck’s story is as poignant as Ota Benga’s. Carrie was raised by a foster family and was a normal child until she was raped in 1923 by her foster parents’ nephew and became pregnant. The family closed ranks against her, and she ended up sterilized as “feeble-minded” under the Eugenical Sterilization Act of Virginia. Her trial was a setup job: Her lawyer was the “active eugenicist Irving Whitehead, who had personally campaigned for sterilization.” The plan was to take her case to the Supreme Court in order to launch the large-scale sterilization of Americans. This goal was achieved when Justice Oliver Wen­dell Holmes declared in Buck v. Bell (1927) that “three generations of imbeciles are enough.” In a letter to a friend, Holmes showed his contempt for the human race: “I doubt if a shudder would go through the spheres if the whole ant heap were kerosened.” Carrie was condemned to a colony for the feeble-minded, from which she emerged to marry and live a long life, showing no hint of “imbecility.” In 2002, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of Buck v. Bell, Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia apologized for the forced sterilizations, but the Supreme Court has yet to overturn Buck v. Bell. The avalanche of coerced sterilizations that followed Carrie Buck’s proved that evolutionary science is “dysfunctional” when applied to politics.

Evolutionary science was also to blame for keeping out “tens of thousands of Jews trying to escape Nazi Germany” in the 1930s. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, with its strict quotas for Jews, was based on Darwin’s view of the “evolutionary backwardness” of some races. This act was “driven through the political process by biologists, zoologists and anthropologists, who were the main popular interpreters of evolutionary theory in their day.” Eugenicists had given IQ tests to Jewish immigrants on Ellis Island and had reported that forty percent of them were “feeble-minded.” The committee for the 1924 Immigration Act took its “scientific evidence” from American eugenicist Harry Laughlin, who had published a model sterilization statute. Ironically, one of Hitler’s first steps on coming to power in 1933 was to pass the “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring,” which was based on Laughlin’s model statute. He saw to it also that Laughlin was given an honorary degree at Heidelberg University for his “services to racial cleansing.”

According to Sewell, the evidence that Darwin’s theory helped shape Nazi ideology is “so abundant and well attested that to ignore it would be perverse.” Scholars from Hannah Arendt to Richard Weikart have shown the links between Darwin and Hitler, though none so pithily as David Klinghoffer, who wrote that two key elements in Nazi ideology were “moral relativism aligned with a rejection of the sacredness of human life” and the “belief that violent competition in nature creates greater and lesser races,” with the greater inevitably exterminating the lesser. These two elements can be found in Darwin’s writing. Hitler spoke of “a time when the lesser races would be annihilated — ‘All who are not of good race in this world are trash’ — so that the ‘higher development of organic living beings’ could continue.”

Sewell thinks that William Jennings Bryan, a crusader against eugenics, should not be dismissed as “an old fool of a Christian fundamentalist” who deserved to be “humiliated” by Clarence Darrow. Why? Because “almost everything we think we know about the Scopes Monkey Trial turns out, upon closer acquaintance with the facts, to be false.” The whole trial was a “cynical contrivance.” John Scopes was only a football coach who taught science “very rarely,” when the usual teacher was absent. After a local businessman spotted an ad in a city newspaper asking for a community willing to challenge the 1925 Butler Act (a law two months old, forbidding the teaching of evolution in Tennessee schools), the local boosters saw a “commercial opportunity” and hatched a plot. Scopes was drawn in and went to New York to be briefed by the ACLU and eugenicist Fred­erick Osborn. His lawyer, Darrow, had gotten the Chicago “thrill killers” off the death penalty with an evolutionary argument that the crime “came from some ancestor.” The judge in the Scopes trial would not admit evidence about whether evolution was true or not, so the trial turned on whether the Book of Genesis was “logically incoherent.” It turns out the trial was not the humiliation of Bryan we imagine it was. It took nine minutes for the jury to find Scopes guilty. Ironically, the science text that Scopes pretended to have used was steeped in “scientific racialism and eugenics” and placed Africans “at the bottom of the evolutionary scale.”

Political Gene is packed with fascinating material. Sewell’s style is engaging, and his assertions are documented in eighteen pages of endnotes. His main point is that evolutionary science refuses “to learn from the mistakes of its own history and is bent on repeating them.” Its “attempts to re-order society along scientific lines” have time and again been shown “in the laboratory of history to be pernicious.” Yet the state remains vulnerable because politicians are deferential to Darwinists instead of being “robustly skeptical of the siren claims of cures for serious diseases or even social ills.”

Sewell concludes that we need to “create a wall between science and state, drawing clearer distinctions between the proper domains of facts and values.” We need to protect people from the worldview that put Ota Benga in a cage with an ape, forcibly sterilized Carrie Buck, and shut the door in the face of Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

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