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Monday, August 14, 2006

New Film Special: Darwin's Deadly Legacy?

Apparently, Coral Ridge Hour, hosted by Dr. D. James Kennedy, is hosting a special called Darwin's Deadly Legacy, on the legacy of social Darwinism (= sterilizing or murdering people who are thought to be unfit, sometimes called eugenics). There is a whole history there, ably recounted in a sober way by Richard Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler.

I think it quite worthwhile that Coral Ridge wants to explore the legacy of social Darwinism, on the "never again" principle.

However, some cautions might also be well advised.

Strictly speaking, the social Darwinists were completely off the wall in their understanding of Darwinism, as agnostic Australian philosopher David Stove points out.

For example, Darwin himself disapproved, apparently, of vaccination because it preserved weak people. He wrote in 1874:
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poorlaws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. 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. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. (p. 9, quoting Darwin, c. (1874) The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (2nd edition) John Murray, London, Vol. I, pp. 205-6.)

Now, in writing as he did in this specific instance, Darwin was being a true Darwinist (though according to Stove's Darwinian Fairytales, he often wasn't).

That is, if you believe that natural selection is the main force that creates diversity and adaptation in the world, you should not interfere via eugenics. After all, the prison sociopath's selfish genes are probably much better adapted to sheer survival and continuance than are those of the musical genius. The prison socio may well produce eight children on his "trailer weekends," whom he compels taxpayers to support. The musical genius, by contrast, may produce one or two at best, but very often none.

Yet most human beings who have ever lived would prefer to forego the evolutionary benefits of the sociopath's selfish genes. Whenever they can, they execute him or keep him locked up, and offer awards, prizes, and fan clubs to the musical genius instead. That approach to human survival seems quite sound to me - but it is hardly Darwinism.

Here's where the social Darwinists went wrong: They took from Darwinism the lack of respect for the human being as anything other than a brainy ape. But they still wanted to smuggle into Darwinian philosophy at least some respect for human culture and decency, because they were not willing to give all that up. So they developed the worst possible solution: Instead of helping the halt, the lame, and the blind, as well as bumpkins and dullards, because God loves them (the traditional view) OR letting nature take its course (the only reasonable Darwinian view), the social Darwinist came up with a new view that was far worse than either: A system for mass riddance of people who fail a cultural or medical standard.

If they were true Darwinists, they would have just done nothing instead of done murder, for the same reason that Darwin saw a problem with vaccinations.

So we need to be clear here: Social Darwinism is very bad. But, strictly speaking, it is not Darwinism. No human being can live with what Darwinism entails, which is why it so quickly morphed into a bastard social Darwinism.

Neither Darwin nor most of his loyal followers clearly saw the problem because they could not live with the consequences of their own theory. The confusion continues: After the Nazi eugenic horror was fully revealed, people decided to get rid of social Darwinism, but assumed that it was Darwinism in some sense. They couldn't have lived with Darwinism either, but they did not realize that.

Then we reacted by vilifying the Nazis - which is 100 percent fine with me, as far as it goes - but, as Richard Weikart points out, we must see clearly the origin of the problem or we have no assurance that we won't repeat it: Darwinism cannot provide a reasonable account of the human being.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

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