Monday, November 16, 2009

down with Newtonism!

It's difficult to tear your hair out while at the wheel of a car on the motorway, and just as well as I have little enough of it to spare anyway. Had it been possible I might have done so this morning, however, while listening to the brief interview the Today programme did with author Dennis Sewell, who is doing the rounds promoting his book The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics.

It's late, so I'll be brief - basically Sewell's thesis is: Charles Darwin's discoveries led inexorably to the advocating of eugenics, and therefore inevitably to the extremes of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and more recently to the atrocities committed by the Columbine killers. Sewell was keen to point out that he had no disagreement with the central science (though he did then go on to disagree with it, as it happens), but with the use it was put to by those who came after Darwin. That being the case it's hard to see the justification for the prominent use of Darwin's name, unless of course it's just a transparent bid to squeeze some cash out of the old geezer's multiple anniversaries this year.

It's always amusing to play spot-the-logical-fallacy with these idiots, the most obvious one here being the huge appeal to consequences at the heart of his argument (equivalent, say, to blaming Isaac Newton every time someone falls off a high building), but there's also the slippery attempt to draw an equivalence between "Darwinism" and, say, Marxism or Islam in terms of their capacity for unforeseen consequences. Trouble is, Darwin wasn't espousing a political worldview, merely trying to explain how the world works. While it's certainly true, for instance, that by today's standards his views on race seem pretty archaic and unpalatable (though there's a case for saying that he was pretty liberal for his day), it isn't for those that he is remembered. Since science is not a religion, we're under no obligation to accept everything Darwin said as truth unquestioningly; we can just pick and choose those bits that repeatedly stand up to empirical testing and reject the rest.

Anyway, various others have taken turns to tear strips from Sewell's still-twitching corpse in an entertaining way.

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