Friday, 13 November 2009

Shoddy Sewell in Sunday Times Shocker

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At first I was going to blog about last week's Sunday Times and the ludicrous article in it written by one Dennis Sewell that drew a straight line from Darwin, via eugenics and (surprise, surprise) Hitler, to the columbine school shootings. Then I thought I wouldn't bother. But on the tube this morning the bloke next to me was reading a copy of Sewell's book from which he cribbed the article - The Political Gene: How Darwin's ideas changed politics - and he was scribbling in the margin furiously and I almost leaned over and spoke to him but it was my stop so I didn't so this post is what I would have said to that bloke:

"I haven’t read the book," I’d have admitted, "but judging by the excerpt I read in the Sunday Times at the weekend, that really is one of the shoddiest and least convincing arguments I've read in quite some time- what were the Times thinking? For example,” I'd have continued, "Sewell seems to think he has discovered something profound about Darwinism by proving that the Columbine killers thought they were following Darwin's precepts [cleansing the world of the unfit] and one of them was wearing a T-Shirt with "Natural Selection" on it. Since when," I'd continue, “does the fact that a murderer says they did it for this or that reason mean that the reason - in the case Darwin - bears any responsibility? Suicidal murderers have been known to misinterpret some of the more complex elements of evolutionary biology, and some have even been insane. Sewell quotes "Denver lawyer Barry Arrington" thus: 'There cannot be any doubt that [Dylan] Harris was a worshipper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.', and treats this revelation as some kind of supporting evidence. But what is it evidence of? That a Denver attorney thinks this is the case? Sure. That Harris thought he was following Darwin's ideas? Perhaps. But it says absolutely nothing about Darwin or Darwinism (whatever that is, as if believing unquestioningly in gravity should be known as Newtonianism), let alone proving that the killings happened because of those ideas.

"Sewell''s implication is clear," I would yell (I'd have lost it by now), "Darwin's ideas lead inexorably to mass murder. But this is like blaming Jodie Foster for Ronald Reagan being shot (John Hinckley was doing it for her), or perhaps more pertinently blaming God for all the murder committed in his name. Of course Sewell - a Catholic apologist - would never do that! In fact he manages to skirt around the subject of religiously inspired violence altogether- he finds space for murders committed in the name of quite a few European thinkers of a certain, existential bent - Nietzsche, Camus, Gide - but nary a mention of murder perpetrated in the name of religion. He similarly makes much of the Natural Selection T-shirt as if somehow the shoot-em-up video game which it references was a faithful rendering of On The Origin of Species in digital form."

By this point the man on the train would have left hurriedly I’m sure. In any event you should read this tripe and see if it is the shoddily argued, polemical nonsense I say it is.

[PS: The shame of it is there is a good book waiting to be written about eugenics, which certainly is in some ways the dirty little secret of late 19th and early 20th century Darwinism and humanism - but this clearly ain't it. For now I just wish I knew if the bloke was scribbling in the margin because he agreed with the argument, or because he, like me, thought it was shoddy bunkem. If you are that bloke, let me know]


Ravi said...

If you are that bloke, let me know

Not sure if I'm your man, Caspar, but I have been reading that book on the Victoria line this week, and marked the odd passage though no furious scribbling that I can recall.

The Sunday Times article is rather sensationalist and simplistic, but then nearly all newspaper articles are sensationalist and/or simplistic. Maybe the editors
have a rule about it based on market research.

In the book version Sewell insists he isn't trying to 'blame' Darwin for what others have done in his name - mostly eugenicists and racists and pretty firmly pins the blame on the eugenicists and racists.

This might well be the book you say is needed, in that it does give a detailed history of the 'dirty little secret of late 19th and early 20th century Darwinism and humanism'. I was amazed how little of it I knew despite having studied this period of history (both British and American) at uni.

In the book Columbine gets about a page, eugenics get about 7 chapters, so the article isn't really representative.

As you say, Sewell does come at it from a Catholic POV, but I thought he was open-minded on secular/humanist ethics - he isn't knee-jerk hostile on the moral question. He is certainly not in the atheism=immorality camp.

His main focus in this area is on finding a an agreed basis on which to base human rights in a post-Darwin world. What are the criteria we should use to establish rights in a way that doesn't leave it to the State? These are interesting questions and while I don't agree with all Sewell says, he approaches them intelligently on the whole.

Caspar Melville said...

Hi Ravi

well it was the Victoria line so maybe it was you- I was sensationalizing when I said scribbling, but certainly you- or whoever it was- were marking passages intently.. anyway thanks for the detail- I suppose i shall have to read the book but even if this article is only sample the reasoning is very unconvincing and the tone alarmist. See you on the tube... maybe


Grumpy Bob said...

The Unfit by Elof Axel Carlson is quite a good book about eugenics (and some related topics):


Neuroskeptic said...

I love this bit of the original article -

"In their book Darwin’s Sacred Cause, Adrian Desmond and James A Moore argue that, far from nursing racial prejudices, Darwin was driven to advance a theory of common descent by his hatred of slavery. But how can the idealistic abolitionist be reconciled with the man who so casually contemplated the extermination of entire races? Some argue that he grew more racist as he got older; others that his racism followed logically from his theories."

Shorter version - "There's a whole book about how everything I've just said is wrong, but, naaaah."

Eiskrystal said...

I want to know when someone is going to blame dog/pigeon breeding for making them kill lots of people.