Whoever Dennis Sewell is, he has, as the Brits say, “gone badly wrong.” Check out what seems to be a precis of his book, The Political Gene: How Darwin’s Ideas Changed Politics, in the online Times of London. The paper has published an article that, in essence, holds Darwin responsible for not only the Columbine massacres and the Nazi Holocaust, but also the decline of morality in today’s world.
After a perfunctory nod to Darwin Year, Sewell gets down to it:
Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel was the first of the 13 children to be murdered, and whose son Craig narrowly escaped being shot, cannot understand why so little attention has been paid to the motivation of the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and their interest in Charles Darwin’s ideas. “Harris wore a ‘Natural Selection’ T-shirt on the day of the killings. They made remarks on video about helping out the process of natural selection by eliminating the weak. They also professed that they had evolved to a higher level than their classmates. I was amazed at the frequent references to evolution, and that the press completely ignored that aspect of the tapes.”
Much of the evidence remains sealed under a court order issued to minimise the risk of copycat killings, but from those documents that are in the public domain, it is clear that Eric Harris fantasised about putting everyone into a violent computer game that only the fittest could survive. And, like Darwin himself, he noted how vaccination might be interfering with nature’s weeding process. In his rantings Harris said he wished there were no vaccines, or even warning labels on dangerous goods, “and let natural selection take its course. All the fat, ugly, retarded, crippled dumbass, stupid f***heads in the world would die… Maybe then the human race can actually be proud of itself”.
As the attorney for the families of six of the students killed at Columbine, the Denver lawyer Barry Arrington has come across more in a similar vein. “I read through every single page of Eric Harris’s journals; I listened to all of the audio tapes and watched the videotapes… It became evident to me that Harris consciously saw his actions as logically arising from what he had learnt about evolution. Darwinism served as his personal intellectual rationale for what he did. There cannot be the slightest doubt that Harris was a worshipper of Darwin and saw himself as acting on Darwinian principles.”
I wonder if Harris ever read any Darwin. I doubt it.
And why does Sewell hold Darwin more responsible than other authors, like Camus, whose writings have also been used to justify senseless violence? Because evolution is taught in lots of schools:
The basics of evolution are much more accessible and are taught in every high school, so it should not be surprising that Darwin seems to be emerging as the inspiration for the more dim-witted schoolboy sociopath.
The implication, of course, is that perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so eager to teach evolution to our kids.
What galls Sewell the most about evolution is this familiar plaint: it destroys the basis of morality.
Darwin would no doubt have been horrified by all this, but it’s easy to see why some of his ideas might appeal to the disturbed adolescent mind. One conclusion implicit in evolutionary theory is that human existence has no ultimate purpose or special significance. Any psychologically well-adjusted person would regard this as regrettable, if true. But some people get a thrill from peering into the void and acknowledging that life is utterly meaningless.
I haven’t heard any atheist say that life is “utterly meaningless.” What evolution eroded was the idea that humans were special creations of God, thereby removing the authority of God-given purpose. What we say is that we ourselves give meaning to our lives — through our friends, our work, our families, and our avocations.
Darwin also taught that morality has no essential authority, but is something that itself evolved — a set of sentiments or intuitions that developed from adaptive responses to environmental pressures tens of thousands of years ago. This does not merely explain the origin of morals, it totally explains them away. Whether an individual opts to obey a particular ethical precept, or to regard it as a redundant evolutionary carry-over, thus becomes a matter of personal choice. Cheerleaders celebrating Darwin’s 200th birthday in colleges across America last February sang “Randomness is good enough for me, If there’s no design it means I’m free” — lines from a song by the band Scientific Gospel. Clearly they see evolution as something that emancipates them from the strict sexual morality insisted upon by their parents. But wackos such as Harris and Auvinen can just as readily interpret it as a licence to kill.
Apparently Sewell hasn’t heard about the secular origin of morality, or the fact that, as even many theologians admit, we cannot philosophically ground right and wrong on divine fiat. And what’s wrong with accepting one’s morality as “matter of personal choice”? Isn’t it more admirable to act out of reasoned principles of morality than out of fear of eternal immolation for disobeying the Sky Dictator? Freedom to behave is what makes moral behavior admirable, and immorality deplorable. Who is more admirable: someone who gives to the poor because a small sacrifice produces an enormous improvement in the world’s welfare, or someone who does so because Jesus preached charity as a way to heaven? Were Sewell correct, we atheists, bereft of meaning, would be bumping ourselves off by the score, but not until we’d committed our fair share of murders, rapes, and robberies. Where are all the immoral atheists?
Nor has Sewell grasped that the moral precepts of faith are even more “readily interpreted as a license to kill.” What inspires the fanatics who train their gunsights on abortion doctors, or strap bags of explosives and nails around their waists?
Sewell even cites wacko Ann Coulter as a trenchant critic of Darwin:
Coulter claims she is not surprised that psychopaths gravitate towards Darwin’s ideas. “Instead of enshrining moral values,” she says, Darwin “enshrined biological instincts.” Coulter believes Darwin’s theory appeals to liberals because it “lets them off the hook morally. Do whatever you feel like doing — screw your secretary, kill Grandma, abort your defective child — Darwin says it will benefit humanity”.
I’ve read a lot of Darwin, but I don’t remember him saying anything about screwing my secretary and offing Grandma.
Sewell goes on, but I can’t. Darwin takes the rap for slavery (despite his well known antislavery activities) and, of course, for the Holocaust. The “orders” followed by the Nazis apparently came from the sage of Downe. And in the end, we’re all accused of neglecting Darwin’s dark legacy:
There are, however, many interesting questions about how Darwin’s views chime with our values of liberal democracy and human rights, or the simple lessons of right and wrong that most of us teach our children. But our society cannot begin to address these issues while we are fed only a bowdlerised account of Darwin’s work. The more sinister implications of the world-view that has come to be called “Darwinism” — and the interpretation the teenage nihilists put on it — are as much part of the Darwin story as the theory of evolutions [sic].
I hadn’t realized that Darwinism was a “world-view.” Silly me — all along I thought it was just a theory meant to explain the development and diversity of life.
Shame on the Times for publishing tripe like this. I’d expect to see this flatulence in a creationist pamphlet, but not in a reputable newspaper. Fortunately, the Times readers are taking Sewell apart in the comments section.