The origin of specious assumptions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 January, 2009, 12:00am

Most people accept that it is important to know history. Yet, when it comes to the history of science, it is at best a sideshow and, at worst, utterly irrelevant to its practitioners. Perhaps in mathematics and physics this attitude is understandable and innocuous; it is, however, not justified. But in biology, and especially Darwinism, it can be positively dangerous.

This year marks two Charles Darwin anniversaries - the 200th year since his birth and the 150th year since the publication of The Origin of Species. Western liberals today like to point out how rising numbers of religious fundamentalists around the world reject Darwinism in favour of creationism. They warn of the dangers fanatical believers pose to scientific development, progressive ideas and perhaps civilisation itself.

The triumph of Darwin's ideas is usually portrayed as a victory over religious ignorance and social prejudice, a battle that is now being renewed. But was the battle for Darwin really so simple? Sure, there was fierce resistance; some established figures in Victorian science and religion held out for a long time; subsequently, they have been unfairly turned into caricatures and ideological punching bags.

But what is really remarkable was the speed with which Darwin's theory of evolution and natural selection spread and won acceptance. Darwin has fascinated lay readers from the start and liberated biological scientists from the word go. The first and second editions of The Origin of Species were sold out on their first days of publication. It is by far the greatest best-seller in the annals of science. Victorian atheists, gentlemen- scientists and self-styled progressives took to swearing on it instead of the Bible.

The brutality and exploitation of British industrial capitalism found its scientific justification in the Darwinian picture of nature, or at least one version of it.

As a world view, social Darwinism also served to justify the extreme economic inequality and corruption of the Gilded Age in the US, phenomena we are again witnessing in the past two decades of globalisation.

It helped drive the eugenics movement, whose full horrors were realised by the Nazis. It contributed to a view of economic life and social organisation that was responsible for the bungled policy responses to the worldwide market collapses in 1929. Otherwise-viable banks and companies were allowed to go under as proof of their unfitness for survival. The series of policy failures led straight to fascism and the second world war. Hitler considered himself a Darwinian.

Have we learned much about the dangers in the use and abuse of biological science? Probably not. The modern synthesis of Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics - which paved the way to molecular genetics and biotechnology - figures among humankind's greatest intellectual achievements. But some militant practitioners have been so sure of themselves as to defend reason to the point of unreason.

There are empirical-evidential limits to what they can legitimately claim for their theories, as with all scientific disciplines. But among its more popular writers, notably the ever-present Richard Dawkins, those limits are routinely flouted, sometimes not even acknowledged.

In doing so, they have done as much harm as good. Professor Dawkins has been singularly responsible for confusing the public by carelessly - sometimes provocatively - using words like 'selfish' and 'altruistic'. Even he acknowledges genes don't have motives and their influence on behaviour is highly complex. The theory of so-called primordial soup at the beginning of biological time has been turned into the central creation myth of our time.

In this year of worldwide Darwin celebrations, I am reminded of the dedication that prefaced British philosopher Mary Midgley's classic Evolution as a Religion: 'To the memory of Charles Darwin who did not say these things.'

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post