Darwin for Dummies

In comments on Darwinist Hero and on his blog, Ed has been very indignant about the purported connections between Darwin and Hitler and between Darwin and Stalin. I assume he would not be so offended about the connection between Darwin and Mao, since that is more explicit in Mao’s writings.

I have said that the connection is not causal, but rather memelike. Also, human psychology is not deterministic, in that people tend to find reasons for their beliefs after they have already formed them; moreover, most people are pragmatic in how they choose their rationalizations, insofar as they attempt to optimize rationalizations to suit their particular situation and objectives.

My understanding of memes comes not from Dawkins himself, but from Robert Anton Wilson. A meme is an idea that is basically independent from its creator, and so tends to replicate and mutate according to cultural conditions, regardless of its creator’s intentions. One idea that most nineteenth-century thinkers were fixated on was positivism, in the sense it was used by Auguste Comte. Positivism proposes that for a given system, such as the world we live in, all variables can be isolated and their characteristics defined, using a scientific method.

If humans are defined as creatures evolved from animals, and animals can be understood in detail (the assumption being that they are more readily studied in a reductionistic manner), then it would follow that humans can be understood by ruthlessly experimenting on animals. This also leads to the conclusion that all human thought and culture can be understood as the product of an evolutionary process extending back in time through animals to the first lifeform. Since humans had arguably been trying to understand human thought and behavior for thousands of years without producing a reliable mechanistic model, this appeared to be a clever way to derive such a model.

Charles Darwin provided an important impetus to this effort by proposing an explanation for the persistence of certain traits within a population as a consequence of interactions between each organism’s ancestors and their environment, along with the capacity of the ancestors to reproduce and pass on such traits. He declined to be drawn into theorizing about anything other than purely biological mechanisms; however, his idea of a mechanistic process that would differentiate groups of organisms and enable only certain ones to succeed was too compelling for his contemporaries to leave the meme alone, leading to the development of “social Darwinism.”

Herbert Spencer famously expanded on the idea of biological evolution by proposing that what any particular individual knows apart from social knowledge was inherited biologically. Furthermore, he expected that evolutionary processes would work on human populations in the same way as animal populations, differentiating groups and enabling certain traits to persist in subsequent generations within groups.

Walter Bagehot went a little further, stating that the grouping effect was normative and essential for the survival of individual humans. Furthermore, Bagehot believed that the most successful groups were compact, coherent, disciplined, and homogeneous, and thus most likely to propagate. The traits of organisms in the successful groups were not merely “more fit,” but were qualitatively “better.” Bagehot considered religion to be the greatest contributor to social cohesion, and also decided that religion itself evolved into better forms. He considered the most highly evolved groups in the nineteenth century to be the relatively liberal limited democracies of Europe, with their “enlightened” Christianity.

Ludwig Gumplowicz went even further than Bagehot, promoting the outright necessity of the modern state for the survival of the individual. Society had evolved to the point where small groups, by themselves, could not ensure survival, and so the individual owed his entire existence to the state. The state itself, however, was too unwieldy to function autonomously; it required the direction of a small group of authoritarian rulers.

From here, it is easy to see how a national socialist view of society could have developed by the early twentieth century. By a similar route, applying Darwinian theory to human populations, Francis Galton and Karl Pearson helped develop the idea of eugenics as a method of improving traits within groups. The eugenicists specifically denied that humanity could ever improve except by eliminating the propagation of undesirable traits; that is, they had no concept of social evolution apart from biological determinism. However, they had very vague ideas of how populations differentiated, and they used the term “race” only loosely. It was up to racialists such as Arthur de Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain to identify the significant groupings in terms of “racial characteristics” and to associate certain characteristics with qualitatively better social traits. The writings of these last two were wildly popular in German translation in the early twentieth century, leading directly to the ideas of Hans Gunther (the official anthropologist of the Nazi Party), Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz.

I’m sure that Ed would mostly quarrel with the link between Charles Darwin and “social Darwinism.” Since Darwin couldn’t control the meme after he let it go, it doesn’t really matter what Darwin thought about social Darwinism, or what Nazis thought about Darwin. What is more significant is the materialistic, reductionistic, positivistic viewpoint shared by most “liberal” and “scientific” thinkers that all human behavior can be explained by reference to the process of biological natural selection on human populations. Not only can it be explained in this way, but the “correct” behaviors and traits are also determined by their justification in the narrative of evolution.

The only difference between nineteenth-century social Darwinists and contemporary progressive liberals is that the modern liberals have regressed in their logic. They no longer believe that evolutionary processes act to differentiate human subpopulations in terms of socially desirable traits. Instead they state that the traits they personally prefer, including ideals that are unique to the religious culture that their more “aware” late-twentieth-century culture purportedly “evolved” beyond, were naturally selected for over a period of 100,000 years. Everything, of course, is justified if it can be derived from a consensus among myopic specialists and inserted into a fictitious narrative about how humans evolved.

No, the real problem is not with poor Mr. Darwin. The real problem is with the misguided modern-day people acting in his name, fervently pushing on everyone else their superstitions about how Science must dictate the correct thoughts and behaviors of everyone.

Followup Posts:

Darwin and Marxism: Part 1

Darwin and Marxism: Part 2

Darwin and Marxism: Part 3

Darwin and Marxism: Part 4

Darwin and Marxism: Part 5

Darwin and Marxism, Part 6

Lysenko’s Legacy

The Murder of Vavilov-1

The Murder of Vavilov-2

Soviet Ape-Men



12 thoughts on “Darwin for Dummies

  1. I assume he would not be so offended about the connection between Darwin and Mao, since that is more explicit in Mao’s writings.

    What I’m indignant about is total hooey like the claim made there. There is no connection whatsoever between Maoist ideas and Darwin.

    And if you claim there is, please provide something other than bluster to support the claim. Mao didn’t understand Darwin, either, and in the two or three times Mao made mention of Darwin, it had nothing to do with connecting any part of evolution theory to anything Mao advocated, especially not basing a reason for acting on anything to do with Darwinian theory.

  2. Now there, Ed, let us not descend into petty quote-mining. That would make me like the billion or so people who quote Santayana out of context! No, I think I have understood your criteria for an ideological connection: Unless Mao had been thoroughly educated in biology and had applied Darwin’s principles as they have been interpreted since the 1960s, he was not truly Darwinian, and thus Darwin is not to blame for the consequences of Mao’s ideas.

    But I have already conceded this point to you. I have absolved Darwin of blame for anything that happened after he died. Moreover, while ignoring the whole “no true Scotsman” fallacy, I don’t feel the need to characterize Mao as a Darwinian biologist. Let Darwin have his niche in biological theory, I say, and let Mao be an atheistic psychopath who used the name of Darwin in vain, in order to persuade the intellectual class (in China, Europe, and America) that he was progressive and scientific.

    Really, I am more interested in ideas and rhetorical strategies. Why was it necessary for Mao to invoke the name of Darwin? Why do Marxists still insist that evolutionary theory is a cornerstone of their historical and economic theories? Why do national socialists still insist that differential selection acting on racially distinct populations describes all of human history? Calling them all random nuts doesn’t get away from the fact that their rhetorical strategies have been very effective in persuading people.

    What is it about Darwin’s name that causes people to act irrationally? Poor Darwin is just a placemarker for scientific materialism, sociobiology, and social evolution. Weak-minded people who need a crutch look to science to specify everything they should do, to justify everything their precious leaders ask of them. The leaders don’t need to understand science, and neither do the majority of the people. The leaders just know that the people trust anything done in the name of science. The intellectuals are culpable because many of them actually believe that all social policies must have a basis in materialistic biological determinism.

    This is why eugenics was so enormously popular in America during the twentieth century. I know you will say it was unscientific; but until that evidence appeared conclusive to policymakers, they were willing to bet on the provisional truth of eugenic science, because they unequivocally trusted the eugenic scientists.

    I freely admit that I have borrowed this whole line of reasoning from Dawkins, since he makes parallel arguments against religion in The God Delusion.

  3. You really should have left it alone. You don’t have a clue how Mao invoked Darwin — he never suggested in any way that Marxism is based in Darwinian theory.

    What is it about Darwin’s name that causes people (you, perhaps?) to act irrationally? I don’t know. Why not study up on what Darwin said, so you don’t act irrationally?

    In any case, there is no connection between Darwin and Marxism that any rational person would claim.

    Is it gilding the lily to point out that you don’t offer any evidence such a link exists?

  4. Well, now I guess I’ll have to go down to the library. I don’t have anything from Vox, just 20 years of reading Marxist polemic from university professors. But since you don’t think Marxism has anything to do with Darwin, I’ll find something for you. I’m afraid Marxist “science” is quite illogical, though, so you may still not be happy. I can’t help it if you don’t like the fact that Marxists think Darwin is important.

    I’ll say it again and again: I’m not in the business of attributing communism, atheism, nazism, maoism, cultural decline, and everything satanic to Darwin. I simply do not accept the simplistic historical determinism of Vox Day or any other conservative blamer. Why should I let anyone off the hook by implying that some book has an occult power over their brains? They are responsible for their own stupid choices.

    I have previously pointed out your error in using the Santayana quote, Ed. It isn’t unique to you; history teachers have been doing it for about a hundred years now.

  5. I can’t help it if you don’t like the fact that Marxists think Darwin is important.

    But not for the theory of evolution, if at all.

    In Stalinist Russia, Darwin’s supporters were regarded as enemies, not with the cause. They were deprived of rank, fired from their jobs, forced into exile, and a few emigrated. A few others were executed.

    That’s a funny way to treat people, if Darwin is honort by teh Soviets, or by the Maoists in China.

  6. Sorry about that! The bottom line is that Darwin was a theologian who wanted to be a scientist. He observed differences in animals, and concluded that humans are descended from animals.

    Most people think this means you don’t have to worry about “gods” or morality or, really, anything at all, since everything is determined by your animal instincts! This isn’t Darwin’s fault, since he’s dead now, and he can’t help the fact that so many people don’t want to take responsibility for their decisions.

    Have a nice Darwin Day!

  7. Darwin was trained as a geologist, by the best scientists of the day. His methods were meticulous, and transparent. He invented much of the methodology of modern biological science. To call Darwin a “theologian” is to suggest theologians don’t study much theology. To deny Darwin the title of “scientist” is frippery.

    Darwin observed the similarities in animals, and observed that there are familial similarities that suggest strongly that animals, and plants, often have common ancestors. He accumulated enough data to make the case for many species, and he inferred that it was likely we all have a common ancestor somewhere.

    Some foolish theologians argue that some people think Darwin’s theory suggests to them that they don’t have to worry about morality. This is contrary to Darwin’s writings, and contrary to the science. It’s foolishness that demonstrates why it’s not a good idea to suggest that Darwin was a theologian — he wasn’t so sloppy as they.

    As Darwin noted and lived, sharing ancestors doesn’t mean that we should care less about one another. Quite to the contrary, it means we are all related.

    Family shouldn’t mean “fight.” It’s a mystery to me how religious people come to that conclusion. But I suppose it’s a danger of taking things on faith, rather than getting the facts straight first.

    Darwin and Lincoln were born on exactly the same day. I wonder if that coincidence was planned by some higher power.

  8. From Ernst Mayr’s The Growth of Biological Thought:

    Since natural history, or for that matter any science, was not a legitimate subject for study in the England of Darwin’s youth (in fact, not until the 1850s), his father sent young Charles to the University of Edinburgh when he was only 16 years and 8 months old, to study medicine like his older brother Erasmus, who had gone there one year earlier. Medicine bored and appalled him, and the same was true for the lectures in some other subjects such as geology (by the famous Robert Jameson)…. [p. 395]

    This was the age of Paley and natural theology, the age when the professors of botany and geology at Oxford and Cambridge were theologians. Therefore the family, quite logically, decided that Charles should study for the ministry. He agreed, with the reservation that he would become a country parson, his ideal presumably being the Vicar of Selborne. [p. 396]

    He described himself in his autobiography, however, as a “born naturalist,” and he spent most of his free time collecting and observing bugs and other organisms. He ended up receiving his BA in divinity in April 1831. He had to make up two classes after graduating, though, and he was persuaded to study geology. Immediately after returning home from a geological field trip, he was invited to go on the Beagle [p. 397].

  9. It’s quite accurate to note that Darwin was supposed to be on an arc of a career to the ministry. But that is not to say that he was not a scientist, nor can it be maintained that he was not superbly trained.

    His teachers were the best geologists in the world. He spent the summer prior to his last year tramping about England with Adam Sedgwick, the top geologist at the university, working out the geology of the island. Now, it is true that Sedgwick was ordained — but that does not mean he was any slouch of a scientist.

    Darwin graduated with honors, at a time when there were no theology degrees, nor science degrees. His coursework was heavy on the sciences. After graduation he stayed on for what would amount to a masters program today, for studies in geology — again with the finest geology professors around.

    While on his ’round-the-world tour aboard the Beagle Darwin provided the British Museum with the single greatest flow of scientific data it has ever received. On the basis of this outstanding performance, before he even returned to England, the top science society in the world voted him into membership as an outstanding scientist.

    Darwin’s monographs, detailing the creation of coral atolls, detailing the life of barnacles, detailing the mechanisms of twining vines, detailing the operation of insectivorous plants, and detailing the theretofore unstudied area of soil formation by worms from leaf moulds, were all of them groundbreaking studies — still classics in their separate fields. Thus distinguished in geology botany and zoology, Darwin would be considered a giant in science by any rational, fair standard.

    And on top of this, he noticed evolution.

    Darwin was a great scientist, if a humble one. Don’t let his own humility mislead you.

  10. He wanted to be a scientist, and all the scientists today seem to concur that he became one.

    What a sad comment on the narrow specialization and prejudice of today: a contemporary person like Darwin would never be accepted as a “scientist” nowadays. He would probably be a blogger.

    Now, for some reason, some scientists today want to become theologians, and some non-scientists want them to become priests. We are to be told the “scientific” way to think about the things we can’t measure, about who we are, about why we exist, and what is the correct morality. This is the corruption of modern society: not necessarily in science, but in the idolization of it.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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