Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Response to “Religion, E. O. Wilson, and Darwinism”

In Intelligent Evolution, one of the arguments which E.O. Wilson presents, argues that scientific humanism, and by extension Darwinism, is a better solution to the question of our origins than that offered by religion. Religion, he argues, has had a heavy cost. The heavy cost Wilson is alluding to is the countless immoral acts which have been justified by way of appeals to religious texts. In an article entitled "Religion, E. O. Wilson, and Darwinism," posted in the Criticism group, Krisha argues against Wilson, and maintains that Darwinism has also had a heavy cost, and is therefore, no better on those grounds than religion. This post will critically analyze Krisha's post.

Krisha's article, argues that Darwinism has been responsible for terrible crimes of its own. In it, she argues that Darwinism is the cause of eugenics and eugenics is considered by us to be a violation of the rights and freedoms which are of paramount value in the Western World. While there is no question that eugenic programs are a violation of an individual's rights and freedoms, at least those offered to citizens in Canada and the United States, and would indeed be considered immoral by most in any society which has such values. Indeed, I too very much value said rights and freedoms. However is it a truth that Darwinism is responsible for the use of eugenics? The answer is clearly no. Darwinism does not make any claims about what ought to be. It is not a theory of ethics, and has no opinion on the matter of public policy. Darwinism's limits are to providing a possible account for the mechanism by which we experience diversity of life on earth, and is not a treatise on how to govern a society. As a result, it is most certainly not responsible for the application of eugenics. Darwinism does hold that a eugenics program would likely work, but that is entirely different from arguing that it ought to be done.

The failure to make this distinction is why Krisha's argument fails; one is not responsible for all the possible applications of one's theoretical work. Darwinism is no more responsible for eugenics, than Niels Bohr's contributions to atomic theories make him responsible for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or Nikola Tesla's theories of alternating current making him responsible for use of electrocution in the application of capital punishment. Such theories are concerned with the processes of nature, and what is possible. They are not theories of ethics, and make no claims as to what ought to be done. One must distinguish between discovering a mechanism in nature, developing said mechanism into a potential application, and the decision to utilize said application. Understanding this distinction is critical if one is to justly ascribe moral blame to an individual, this is especially true if one is to ascribe the utmost moral blame to an individual. Krisha has ascribed such a profound immorality to Darwinism, for she does not merely hold Darwinism responsible for eugenics, she also holds him responsible for the Holocaust, by extension from eugenics. I find the argument that Darwin is responsible for the Holocaust to be offensive, precisely because it fails to ascribe blame where it is due. Individuals such as Adolph Hitler and Herinrich Himmler are responsible for the Holocaust, for they are the ones who were at the level of moral decision making, while Darwinism is at the level of purposing the mechanisms of nature. Consequently, even though Darwinism may be considered a necessity for eugenics programs, it is clearly not sufficient for them, and certainly not for the Holocaust. This means that Darwinism does not necessitate eugenics, or any system of ethics, even though eugenics may necessitate Darwinism, they are not biconditionals.

As it has now been shown that Darwinism is not responsible for eugenics nor for the Holocaust, this paper will now consider whether Darwin made any ethical arguments concerning eugenics. While the theory of natural selection does not, in and of itself, argue for nor necessitate eugenics, could it be that Darwin himself made ethical arguments concerning eugenics, and if so, what would that support the claim that Darwinism is responsible for eugenics? If we look to primary sources, we can see Darwin making an argument in The Descent of Man which has strong implications for the practice of eugenics. In it he states that, "if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwhelming present evil" (p. 162). The sentiment expressed by Darwin in this passage is that while allowing for the weak to die would be beneficial to the "stock" of humanity over subsequent generations, that it would necessitate a profound evil to accomplish, and would thus be immoral and unacceptable. We see in this that Darwin has a deep respect for the dignity and liberty of the individual, placing its import above that of the biological strength of the species. This passage maintains that it is unacceptable to even neglect other individuals who may be weak; let alone actively sterilizing or murdering those perceived as "weak". As a result, not only can we conclude that Darwinism does not necessitate Eugenics, and is therefore not responsible for it, it has also been shown that Darwin himself did not endorse the practice; in fact, he found that even neglecting the weak was immoral.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Dialogue with Bruce Alexander on Richard Dawkins

During Bruce Alexander's presentation he had mentioned that he found Richard Dawkins to be deplorable because he was a social Darwinist. To my understanding he was not, and so I engaged Dr. Alexander in a dialogue concerning the matter. He gave his consent to it being posted on the blog, and so the following is the exchange between us:

in class, you mentioned that you despise Richard Dawkins because he is a social Darwinist. could you please identify for me where Dawkins has identified himself a social Darwinist, or anything that he has said that necessitates social Darwinism?


Hi Brock,
Thanks very much for your comments. I am including a short
snippet from the draft copy of my next book which shows both why I
hate Richard Dawkins and why I think he is a Social Darwinist. It is
based on his 1989 book. I have not even thought to follow his recent
work. Do you think he is not a Social Darwinist?


Social Darwinism finds its recent scientific support in the biologically sophisticated writings of "Sociobiologists" or "Evolutionary Psychologists" who call themselves neo-Darwinists. An extreme example would be Richard Dawkins' famous book, The Selfish Gene (1989). Writing in a clear and forceful style, Dawkins summarises his powerful perspective on psychology on the first page of his book:
...We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes (Dawkins, 1989, p. v.)
Later he adds two extensions of this doctrine:
...I think "nature red in tooth and claw" sums up our modern understanding of natural selection admirably. (Dawkins, 1989, p. 2)
Hi Brock,

Here is the snippet that I meant to include in my previous email.


...we, and all other animals, are machines created by our genes...I shall argue that a predominant quality to be expected in a successful gene is ruthless selfishness. This gene selfishness will usually give rise to selfishness in individual behaviour. However, as we shall see, there are special circumstances in which a gene can achieve its own selfish goals best by fostering a limited form of altruism at the level of individual animals. "Special" and "limited" are important words in the last sentence. Much as we might wish to believe otherwise, universal love and the welfare of the species as a whole are concepts that simply do not make evolutionary sense. (Dawkins, 1989, p. 2)
Dawkins expresses his doubt that culture can restrain the impulses of selfish genes as follows:
...Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature. Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish. Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something which no other species has ever aspired to. (Dawkins, 1989, p. 3)
Although Dawkins acknowledges that Darwin did not directly state any theories like these, he confidently attributes his views to Darwin:
The selfish gene theory is Darwin's theory, expressed in a way that Darwin did not choose but whose aptness, I should like to think, he would instantly have recognised and delighted in. In fact it is an orthodox outgrowth of neo-Darwinism... (Dawkins, 1989, p. viii)
Although Dawkins' sanguine view of innate human selfishness may be a reasonable deduction from the Origin of Species and an "orthodox outgrowth of neo-Darwinism" [i], it is definitely not "Darwin's theory" of human psychology as expressed in Darwin's two psychology books. In fact, Darwin's perspective on human morality is much more complex, and in large measure contradicts Dawkins and many other sociobiologists or evolutionary psychologists.
If Social Darwinism does not come from Darwin, where does it come from? I wish I could find some ancient expression of it, but as yet I have not. At this point, I can trace it back no further than the Calvinist theology of the Reformation (Weber, 1920/1958) with its veneration of uncompromising, entrepreneurial individualism in the service of God's design that His earth should be made to flourish, a view that was translated into a more secular form within Hobbes', Hume's, and Adam Smith's writings. From these secular writings, Social Darwinism entered into the political doctrine of the 19th century Whig and Liberal parties (Desmond & Moore, 1991; Hobsbawm, 1962; 1975; 1989)

[i] ...Richard Dawkins' reflective of neo-Darwinism's preoccupation with the...Victorian conception of evolution as a prolonged and bloody battle (Margulis & Hinkle, 1991, p. 15).


Forgive me but I fail to see how you have demonstrated Dawkins to be a social Darwinist. Perhaps I am mistaken on the meaning of social Darwinism. For your clarification, my understanding of social Darwinism is the belief that the most fit in society ought to prosper, and that the weak ought to be let to die. Is this not essentially what social Darwinism entails? It is, then it seems to me that one must make the distinction between arguing that social Darwinism would work (that is it would succeed in it fostering desired traits in human populations) and actually arguing that social Darwinism ought to be practiced. Is this not a fair distinction to be made? And if it is, are those who merely argue that social Darwinism could work, i.e. those who are merely purposing a mechanism of adaptation, also to be called social Darwinists? I was under the impression that one had to argue that society ought to embrace social Darwinism, and allow the week to die, or actively sterilize or kill them in order for one to be a social Darwinist. Am I mistaken? Does merely arguing that "if a society allowed for the week to die off, then the week would not perpetuate week traits in future generations", make one a social Darwinist? If the weaker definition is all that is required, then it seems clear that dawkins is a social Darwinist, however, if the stronger definition is used, I have never heard him endorse the killing off of the week. In fact I have heard him specifically state that while he believes that if there existed a mad dictator who wished to create a nation which would have the worlds best high jumpers, and to do so, he enacted a breeding program, or only allowed the tall and athletic to breed, that such a program would most probably work, this Dawkins says, is fundamentally different from the question of whether one ought to do such a thing. Here is a quote from Dawkins "it would be a very unpleasant thing if there were a sort of government organized breeding program in which the smart people were encouraged to breed and encourage the dull people not to. I think that would be a horrible thing. That's different, however, from saying that it wouldn't work" from Penn radio show 2006/10/25 27minutes in (available free on itunes, podcast)

So am I mistaken in what is required to be a social Darwinist? Is the distinction between arguing that it is possible, and arguing that it ought to be done, significantly different? The distinction is between oppenhimer and Truman, between theory and action, between what is and what ought to be, and is a difference which is of fundamental importance when ascribing moral blame to another individual.


Hi Brock,

Thank you for making me think more precisely about this issue. I personally agree with your definition of "Social Darwinism", although my quickie wikipedia search showed me that the term can be defined in various ways. I think therefore that you are right that the little Dawkins quotes that I sent do not prove that Dawkins is a Social Darwinist. I still think that he is one, however, on the basis of political comments that I recall from reading The Selfish Gene, but did not write down. If it were not a terrible busy time for me, I would re-read the Selfish Gene to see if my recollection is correct, but I just cannot do it now. Also, it is not fair to label him a Social Darwinist -- definitely a pejorative term -- on the basis of something he wrote two decades ago. I know I am not going to read his more recent stuff. There is too much, and I find it offensive. Therefore, I am not going to be able to settle the issue either to my satisfaction or yours. I agree that I should be more careful about labelling people with pejorative terms unless I am completely sure that they fit, and I will be more careful about Dawkins in the future, thanks to you.

The more interesting question is why some people like me, hate Dawkins, and some people, like you I am guessing, find him inspiring. Perhaps it is simply the difference between modern day Romantics and Whigs. But then the question becomes why are some people Romantics and some people Whigs. There is a lot of psychology to be worked out here. Perhaps,when we both have time we will have a cup of coffee together and you will tell me your take on Dawkins' philosophy (or science, if you like). I would be very interested.

Thanks for the stimulating comments,


Monday, October 18, 2010

Common misconceptions of Darwinism: Part 1

-Darwinism is not synonymous with evolution. Evolution had been accepted long before Darwin published his books, long before he was even born. Individuals such as his own grandfather Erasmus Darwin, and Jean-Baptist Lamarack had purposed accounts of evolution long before Darwin.

-Darwinism (and evolution,) are not theories which purport to account for the origin of life. Rather, Darwinism and evolution are theories which purport to explain the origin of species, i.e. the origin of biodiversity or the reason for variety amongst and within species. This is a different question from the origin of life itself. Abiogenesis, or the primordial soup theory, is a possible explanation for the origin of life on earth, see Carl Sagan video excerpt from "Cosmos":

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Technology, where are you leading us to...?

After the lecture on discussion about the Baconian and Augustan, it puts me into doubt about where our "technology orientated" is going. Initially back in the 1800s I have to say that the rise of science did managed to allow human to make a great leap forward as the introduction of modern machinery has redefined our perception of time and space. However as the time moves alone, know I realised something rather dreadful. Every once in a while we will hear "great" news from the science world announcing that they have find a alternative energy source for cars so we can reduce co2 emission and stop globe warming, all a new medicine has been invented to combat diabetes. All sounds very promising indeed. But the problem is no of this issue that we are currently focused on to resolve was a big problem back in the old days. If it wasn't for the fact machines which powered by fossil fuel were invented, then we won't have globe warming problem. If it wasn't for the fact that modern food industry makes highly sugar concreted item so access , we wouldn't have these may cases of diabetes or obesity.

Some people say technology is the problem and the solution. I personally couldn't agree more. Our society might moving towards a direction where invention is no longer out of free will, but desperation of solving problem which was created by the old technology. In other world we might eventually be enslaved by technology for it is own "need" of existence.

Words on butler's writing.

To be honest I am quite amazed by how well Butler's argument were written. Some people says he wrote all this out of his person desire of seeking for revenge on Darwin for his ignorance. If this is indeed the reason, then I have to say he did a great job. It is quite cleaver that in the beginning of the book, he did not attack on the theory darwin brought up, instead he was trying to discredit Darwin for being a honourable scholar. He talked in detail about how Darwin used other peoples work as if it was his own. In a society which values honour above all, this was indeed a very powerful punch. If it wasn't for the fact that Darwin took his friends advice and not to response to Butler, if the general public did turn their attention towards Butler's criticism, I have to say it is quite hard to say if Darwin would still ended up with all the glory he got.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Darwin Thoughts

I was just thinking how we said in class that if Darwin were writing today we would consider him to have plagiarized but there never used to be plagiarism. If you could write something better or distribute it to more people under your name then it was considered to be yours. A great example is Shakespeare because he didn't come up with the idea for Romeo and Juliet, he stole it from someone else and tweaked it and gave it to the public as his own.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Baconian vs. Augustan

Baconians act in a way that feels that knowledge is property. They feel it is their option to disseminate it however they wish in an elitist fashion. The world just has to deal with what they are given. Technology is inevitable and we just have to go along with it.
Augustans believe that technology is fine as long as we monitor how it is used
. It is being used improperly when we cannot escape it and use it in situations when it is inappropriate (like texting in class or going on facebook when homework needs to be done).
Today's society is given vaccines and medicines that we don’t know if we even need but scientists tell us that we need it so we believe them because we assume that they know better than we do. Sometimes vaccines are made and then the illness is made up. We are also given medications to control and help our ailments instead of being given a cure which makes us rely on technology and scientists. We are then given a “better” medicine but we are not told how it is better, just that it will help but we are also unsure of how it effects our bodies/minds. We are forced to trust the science, technology and intelligence of doctors and researchers because there is no way for the public to find out these things for themselves.