Friday, February 12, 2016

Charles Darwin and the price of fame

Charles Darwin was born on the 12th of February 1809. Alongside Alfred Russell Wallace he is credited with the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. He is rightly considered to be one of the great thinkers of the 19th Century.

Unfortunately, due to his fame he has become a highly misrepresented individual. His name is used to categorise a number of vile social theories that he never would have supported, and his image has often been appropriated to promote a militant form of atheism he would never have wanted to have been
 associated with either. 

Social Darwinism

A warped interpretation of Darwin's theory of evolution has been used to justify labelling ideologies that promote racism, elitism, competitive strife and eugenics as "Social Darwinism".

Nothing in Darwin's work suggests that he would have supported social policies of demonisation, discrimination, impoverishment and even outright extermination against sectors of society deemed to be inferior by powerful minorities. In fact Darwin's theories are entirely compatible with the idea of community rather than ruthless "survival of the fittest" because it's beyond obvious that a tendency towards forming into community groups can provide an evolutionary advantage (think of shoals of fish, murmations of starlings, colonies of ants, and the more complex social groupings of higher mammals like primates, elephants, dolphins and whales).

In 1902 the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin provided a detailed explanation of how cooperation amongst species was not just compatible with Darwinian evolution, but actually essential to it, in his book Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.

The fact that Darwin never wrote anything to suggest that he would have supported racist or eugenicist policies of deliberately eradicating members of society that are deemed "weak" by the powerful didn't stop people from evoking his name in the blanket term used to describe such theories. It's appalling that the concept of actively cleansing society of so-called "weaker" members still bears his name. 

Militant atheism

Charles Darwin is also often used as a poster boy by militant New Athiest types, despite the fact that he was nowhere near as intolerant of theists and theological debate as they are.

The way Darwin has been appropriated by the militant atheists is actually very similar to the way the economist Adam Smith has been appropriated by the militant Laissez-faire economic hard-right, despite the fact that the most cursory examination of his work reveals that he was nowhere near as fanatically right-wing as they are.

Another example of this kind of appropriation is the way the work of George Orwell is often invoked by right-wing people to attack socialism, even though Orwell was a committed democratic socialist who criticised the Soviet Union for their authoritarianism, not simply because they were left-wing.

To provide a little proof that Darwin was no militant atheist here's a quote from a letter he sent to John Fordyce in 1879:
"It seems to me absurd to doubt that a man may be an ardent theist and an evolutionist ... But as you ask, I may state that my judgement often fluctuates. Moreover whether a man deserves to be called a theist depends on the definition of the term: which is much too large a subject for a note. In my most extreme fluctuations I have never been an atheist in the sense of denying the existence of a God. I think that generally (& more and more so as I grow older) but not always, that an agnostic would be the most correct description of my state of mind."
The idea of invoking the name of a self-declared agnostic (who maintained civil relationships with many theists) in order to promote a rabid form of militant atheism is just as bad as using the name of an economist who supported state intervention (such as infant industry protection) to promote right-wing anti-state fanaticism, or using the work of a lifelong democratic socialist to promote right-wing political ideologies.

The price of fame

It seems to be the price of fame that all kinds of people who have little regard for what you actually believed in will latch themselves onto your work, and use your image to promote their own ideologies, irrespective of whether they're actually compatible with what you said or not.

The way that the names of thinkers like Darwin, Smith and Orwell are invoked in order to add a veneer of credibility to ideologies they would have been very unlikely to support themselves is bad enough, but Darwin had it even worse than most because of the way his name has been associated with a bunch of vile ideologies that are grouped together under the name "Social Darwinism".

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The lamentable decline in the standard of public debate
David Cameron's Orwellian word games
What value can be found in religious contemplation?

Michael Gove's Great War revisionism
The JP Morgan vision for Europe
Margaret Thatcher's toxic neoliberal legacies

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