Times of London: Darwin responsible for all ills

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.

58 Comments

  1. newenglandbob
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 4:07 pm | Permalink

    “gone badly wrong.” is an understatement for Dennis Sewell. I think he started out wrong. Citing Ann Coulter on anything is the mark of an idiot.

    • Michael K Gray
      Posted November 10, 2009 at 3:02 am | Permalink

      Have considered that he is not so much an idiot, but a canny publicity-whore for his advertisers?

  2. Posted November 9, 2009 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    This does not merely explain the origin of morals, it totally explains them away.

    Yes, and you explain love via evolution and neuroscience, and it also disappears.

    I guess it follows from the idea that because there’s a theory of evolution, it can’t also be a fact. Much like gravity disappeared when Einstein gave us a relativistic theory for it.

    I will allow that evolution doesn’t demand anything, not adherance to a god, not that one shouldn’t participate in causing the Holocaust, nor that one should. It is, perhaps, worth considering that it is quite a shift from the didactic myths that used to be taught, but of course these typically explained why, say, non-Christians were morally less valuable, or, indeed, that Christians were morally less valuable.

    Evolution does apparently change our perspectives on society, but for once it tells us something that is based in fact, not bias. Sewell needs to tell us why looking at humanity and its societies honestly is in fact a bad thing, and why dishonesty might be the best policy after all.

    Couldn’t most things that said about evolution and its supposed dire consequences also be said of neuroscience? Such as that it destroys free will (more surely than does evolution in the abstract), that it tells us that “we think with meat,” and that we certainly could decide that some brains are worth keeping and others might as well be “recycled”?

    The fact is that all of the dissatisfaction with science (and there’s plenty out there, not just from the religious) ends up being dumped on evolution, when often other branches are often explicitly or implicitly included–notably neuroscience. People don’t easily give up their fantasies about themselves, and decide that some ignoramus like Harris must be correct about evolution, simply because they’re equally ignorant regarding evolution.

    Grant that evolution changes things, yes, but obviously we’re stuck with the same moral predilections, emotions, and difficulties in getting along with others that we’ve always had. We just have a tool for getting to the truth, now, which seems to me like a good thing.

    Glen Davidson

    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

    • scott
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

      why looking at humanity and its societies honestly is in fact a bad thing

      Because to most people, explaining a thing is the same as excusing it.

  3. MadScientist
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    Bullies and assholes have been in abundance long before Charles Darwin, but imbeciles love to misrepresent Darwin’s ideas. Natural selection and the ‘survival of the fittest’ as people love to quote, have nothing to do with murderous idiots. On the other hand, murder and god go hand in hand – a fact that religiotards either ignore or offer weak excuses for. Even while Darwin was alive he was enraged by and opposed to the proponents of what is now known as “Social Darwinism”; it is very sad that Darwin’s name is even associated with that nonsense since he had nothing to do with it. Now god on the other hand (at least abraham’s version) reportedly commanded his sheep to commit murder, pillage, and rape. As far as I know, Darwin was not in favor of those things that Abraham’s god was so fond of.

  4. Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    Considering that the Chinese had a comprehensive legal system and ethical/moral standards for at least a 1,000 years before Christianity got to China somewhere between the 3rd and 5th Centuries I find it rather arrogant when a Christian Apologist makes this argument. We’ve also got the morally-developed Hindu’s that arose some 2,000 years before Christianity got to India.

    It’s such an amazing historical and cultural blindness coupled with pure hubris. I’m just always amazed… I keep asking myself how could they be so completely ignorant of everything…

    • Bruce Gorton
      Posted November 11, 2009 at 12:29 am | Permalink

      Actually it is mostly racism. They can’t believe that non-whites could all on their own develop a decent, moral society without the intervention of the big white daddy and his big white God with his big white Jesus.

  5. Occam
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    A Rupert Murdoch newspaper?

    • newenglandbob
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      A Rupert Murdoch newspaper?

      He said a reputable newspaper.

      • Occam
        Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

        My point precisely :)

    • Posted November 11, 2009 at 4:46 am | Permalink

      It’s worth noting that this article was published in the SUNDAY Times, not the Times proper. Here in Blighty, the Sunday papers are run by different staff to the weekday ones and they’re essentially different entities. In the same way that the Guardian is not the Observer, the Sunday Times isn’t the Times.

      I only say this because the Times science staff are an excellent bunch and consistently produce some of the best science coverage in the mainstream media, and they don’t deserve to have their reputation tarnished by tripe like this.

  6. scott
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I asked this question a long time ago in the bowels of this blog, and didn’t get an answer, I’d like to ask it again.

    I often see the words, “Darwinist”, “Darwinism”, and “Evolutionist” used – by you – as well as those who propose religious explanations for life, and want to treat “Darwinism” differently than every other scientific thought. This is, after all, largely what the Dover trial was about.

    I’d like you to stop.

    I know this is big ask, being as how yesterday in this space I was advocating dusting off Paine and getting OB to focus on Yahweh, and not God … ;-)

    However, this time I’m serious.

    Why is it that “we” use the term “Darwinism” or “Evolutionist” … the proper term should be “Science”. You can just use “find/replace” and where ever you might say “evolutionist” put “scientist”.

    It seems to me that by using these terms, you do a lot of the work for the idealogs at DI and for heartland knownothingism, who afterall, would like to pick evolution from the pile of knowledge minted since the enlightenment and label it for special treatment.

    This may be a hijack on this tread, and I’m sorry if so, but I’d really like to hear your explanation. It is one thing for “them” to call YOU and “evolutionist”, but to buy into the “wedge” even one bit, is to do science itself a disservice.

    A “biologist” is an “evolutionist” by definition.

    Lets get control of the message people, manage your isms. Peace out.

    • Posted November 10, 2009 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      I seem to remember someone making a similar point to Richard Dawkins recently, and Dawkins agreed that a term like “evolutionary scientist” was better than “Darwinist”.

    • Posted November 10, 2009 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

      “and getting OB to focus on Yahweh, and not God …”

      You mean me? Were you? If you mean me, I missed it…

    • Posted November 12, 2009 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

      Jerry, do me a favor: don’t let anyone tell you how to fucking talk. Thanks.

  7. bilbo
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

    “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.”

    If there was a “shake head in disbelief” icon to use here, I would put a big one below that statement. What does Dawkins say about Darwinism?

    “Darwinianism (sic)…should bring a new consciousness outside of evolutionary theory, one that extends to multiple disciplines.”

    Not silly you, Jerry. Silly Dawkins. Of course, this won’t ever make it to posting, because you apparently cull out the comments that cast you in a bad light. It’s ok to be vain – it’s your blog!

    • Nasikabatrachus
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

      It’s hard to see why you think that puts Jerry in a bad light. In fact it’s hard to tell what your point is.

      But don’t worry, it’s okay to be condescending and obscure – it’s the Internet!

    • scott
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

      See JAC, if you were a deist, you’d be in the driver’s seat to school Bilbo, you could pull a “founding father” on him, you could appeal to “nature and nature’s god” … call that your world view, say that science represents a world view, admit it, it IS a world view.

      Deism is great stuff it was a can of whoop ass big enough for a guy like King George, hell it actually neutered the church, it sure can handle players in fantasy land like Mr. Bilbo.

      • scott
        Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

        yes, yes, yes, the fact that we evolved, and are part of a great continuum of life on this wonderful planet, and are “risen”, not “fallen” creatures, is indeed our worldview!

        We are not “marked with the stain of original sin” we simply admit that we bear the stamp of our lowly origin.

        All men are created equal, endowed by their creator, no creed was marked for favoritism, and “growing up in the universe” asks us to accept these facts.

        It is a great world view, science not only informs a world view, it also TEACHES VALUES.

        Yes, the scientific world view is endowed with values and meaning.

        Now if university professors would start admitting this, and say, class, we respect, honesty, doubt, respect for evidence, openness, accountability, tolerance, and and hunger for opposing points of view.

        The last one of course does not mean that if you tell me to stop because I am “hurting your feelings” that you get to claim that “it’s a draw”.

    • Hansen
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

      If bilbo had any decency, he would point out where the quote was from so others could check the context.

      I’m guessing it might be from The God Delusion and that the context is how Darwin’s theory should raise our consciousness to the fact that complexity can arise from simplicity. The “multiple disciplines” refer to other scientific disciplines.

      • scott
        Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

        What is wrong with one idea informing another, of course the idea that we evolved should “raise our consciousness” … that isn’t anything to run from, quite the opposite.

        Anyone can misunderstand anything and be wrong, any tool can be put to a wrong use.

        The problem is that ethically, morally, religion is a problem. It has a moral code, and it is obsolete, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have any moral code, it must means that we don’t have the one minted by the Romans.

      • scott
        Posted November 9, 2009 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

        Has evolution informed parenting … yes.

        Has evolution informed pschology … yes.

        Has evolution informed art, theater, the design of heavy trucks, fisheries management, and forestry … yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes.

        What part of “this is one of the most significant discoveries ever made” has not hit home? If it were a minor idea, without big implications it would not be a threat to religion, which is also a big idea with big implications – it just happens that evolution is true, and supported by evidence, and religion is “made up”, and supported by human emotions (which themselves evolved) … yes, if your world view demands replacing “evolution” with “Yahweh” … you have a big problem with a little thing I like to call “REALITY”, and now that I’m a Deist, I can proudly say that my “reality god” is WAY bigger than your mythical god who is bound in book and wears medieval haircuts.

    • Posted November 10, 2009 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      Yes, because when Dawkins talks about Darwinism he’s obviously talking about politics… even though several times he’s condemned a Darwinian way of thinking when it applies to people, it’s okay to try to condemn Dawkins on the grounds that he uses a taboo word.

      Seriously, if you’re going to attack someone, make sure you’re not misrepresenting them. Lest you come off as a jerk bearing a grudge.

  8. Reginald Selkirk
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    “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…

    They, as individuals, evolved? Evolution comprehension fail. If they had been properly educated about evolution, maybe they would not have held such silly ideas. And how many offspring did Harris and Klebold contribute to the next generation of the gene pool? (Hint: it rhymes with “zero.”)

    • Nasikabatrachus
      Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:23 pm | Permalink

      Dennis Sewell doesn’t seem to pick up on that either. At face value it seems they were inspired by the X-Men as much as they were by Darwin–which is to say, not by very much, because they were clearly looking for whatever excuse they could come up with for their hatred and desire to do violence.

      • Paul C
        Posted November 11, 2009 at 3:50 am | Permalink

        An individual organism always makes the running in the evolution stakes. Mutations don’t happen in synchronized batches. to suggest otherwise suggests saltationism or worse. Though I grant you two genetic vanguardists in the same high school is an unlikely coincidence.
        On the main point- I don’t see Sewell arguing with the science here. His main points seem to be:
        1. Darwin thought some races had evolved to a higher level than others and that someday the advanced races would exterminate the less advanced. Darwin did say all that.
        2. That Hitler used the authority of Darwin to carry the theory in 1. above into practice. Also true.
        3. That Darwin held that human life – in the general scheme of things – was not that special. Also that moral sentiments were traits that themselves were the products of evolutionary change rather than being eternal, free-standing verities. That’s true too.
        4. That kooks like Harris & Klebold take the ideas in 3. above as a licence to kill. Demonstrably the case.

        I have the jump, I’d guess. on most of you in actually having read Sewell’s book – which this somewhat luridly presented article was presumably there to promote. It isn’t a religious tract. It isn’t anti-science. It’s a thoughtful plea for contemporary society to address some of the conundrums Glenn Davidson raises in this thread. I think Jerry has a hair-trigger when it comes to shooting the messenger sometimes.

      • Tulse
        Posted November 11, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        An individual organism always makes the running in the evolution stakes.

        Of course, but the point is that H&K said that they had evolved beyond their classmates, which is simply non-“Darwinian”, as individual organisms don’t change their genetic makeup during development or adulthood.

        On the main point- I don’t see Sewell arguing with the science here. His main points seem to be:
        1. Darwin thought some races had evolved to a higher level than others and that someday the advanced races would exterminate the less advanced. Darwin did say all that.

        Yes, but not really approvingly, and he certainly did not assert that such was not subject to conscious intervention/amelioration.

        2. That Hitler used the authority of Darwin to carry the theory in 1. above into practice. Also true.

        In a word, BULLSHIT. Hitler did not “use the authority of Darwin” in any way, shape, or form. Do you honestly think that no one had thought of genocide before Darwin, or conceived of human populations as involving the strong groups subjugating and/or wiping out the weak? (If so, I suggest you actually read the Bible.) What is the evidence that Hitler used Darwin as a justification? The answer is “none” — Hitler never made a single mention of Darwin in any of his public speeches or writings. It’s not even clear if he knew of Darwin.

        3. That Darwin held that human life – in the general scheme of things – was not that special.

        This is a naked equivocation. Darwin held human life to be very special — he loved his wife deeply, and was generally held to be a warm and genial man. What he argued was that the human species was not unique in terms of the causal processes that generated it. That’s not at all the same as saying that human life is not special.

        Also that moral sentiments were traits that themselves were the products of evolutionary change rather than being eternal, free-standing verities. That’s true too.

        Sure, but so what? Plenty of people believe that and don’t go around murdering, and plenty of people believe that the eternal verities include “kill all those who believe different eternal verities”. Belief in eternal verities doesn’t keep you from committing mass murder

        4. That kooks like Harris & Klebold take the ideas in 3. above as a licence to kill. Demonstrably the case.

        Would you like me to point to the Crusades? 9/11? Jonestown? The Branch Davidians? The Inquisition?

        Your arguments are nothing more than cheap talking points that are continually regurgitated by the religious right and creationists. If you want to play in the Big Leagues, you need better stuff.

      • Posted November 12, 2009 at 8:10 am | Permalink

        Paul, as Tulse says, Hitler did not use Darwin to justify his policies.

        He did, however, repeatedly use Jesus to justify them.

  9. Occam
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    All may not be lost yet.
    From yesterday’s Guardian (a truly reputable newspaper):

    “It’s a great birthday present for Darwin in his 200th anniversary year. For the first time, evolution will be on the national curriculum for primary schools when the new version is published later this year. It was initially excluded from the draft curriculum when it was published for public consultation but sometimes, if not always, it seems government will listen to scientists and experts, many of whom were signatories to an open letter (pdf) to Ed Balls organised by the British Humanist Association in July which called for evolution to be included.”

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2009/nov/09/evolution-primary-schools-science

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/08/evolution-primary-school-curriculum-education

  10. Posted November 9, 2009 at 9:50 pm | Permalink

    Dennis Rader thought he was doing God’s will and Ed Gein’s mother read the bible to him every night.

    You lose Sewell.

  11. Fallsroad
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 10:27 pm | Permalink

    Seems to me the argument the writer is making is pretty weak, as are his examples.

    I mean, relying on Ann Coulter as confirmation of anything is ludicrous, but filtering Darwin through the eyes of the proven, murderous psychopath Eric Harris, who seriously misinterpreted Darwin as another means to justify his profound wish to murder people is galactically stupid or infinitely cynical.

    Or both.

  12. The Moiety
    Posted November 9, 2009 at 11:34 pm | Permalink

    New research indicates that Charles Darwin can now be excused for single-handedly causing the Holocaust and the loss of life’s meaning and mankind’s moral sensibilities – it turns out he subsisted on a diet consisting only of Hostess Twinkies while writing the OOS. So, like, its all square now.

  13. Posted November 9, 2009 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    Teach gravity and kids will start pushing
    old folks off buildings.

    • Jeremy
      Posted November 10, 2009 at 5:42 am | Permalink

      Indeed! And chemistry teaches people about how to make bombs. And driving lessons teach people to drive getaway cars. And reading lessons allow people to swap submersive emails. And eyesight …

  14. jakc
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    Darwin: responsible for Marxism, Racism, Eugenics, the Holocaust and WW II, slavery, and a whole bunch of other stuff.

    This guy was the greatest thinker of all time! what other philosopher can claim to have done so much–or sure, there’s the bible, but that’s from god

    • Eddie Janssen
      Posted November 10, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      This is a difficult one. A real Darwin hater would have included WW I as well so I think this is a Poe.

      • jakc
        Posted November 10, 2009 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        A Darwin hater? Surely you don’t mean me? I admire the guy. According to his opponents, look how he changed the world–wasn’t just a better theory of evolution he darn near changed everything!

        It’s like a guy I saw in the paper who declared personal bankruptcy with $130 million more in debts than assets. I mean, how are you able to do something like that? It’s amazing.

        No, I am amazed by what Charles Darwin did. I expect that when we look closely enough, we will discover that CD is responsible for the designated hitter in baseball.

  15. Posted November 10, 2009 at 4:02 am | Permalink

    I think that the TOE and the facts that support it should “inform” a worldview rather than being a worldview of its own.

    I think we’d call Darwin himself a “humanist’ nowadays.

    On the other subtopic: I don’t see any problem using “evolutionist” interchangeably with “biologist”. Dumbass people (AIG, DI, etc.) are always going to distort and confuse things anyway.

    • Tulse
      Posted November 11, 2009 at 9:39 am | Permalink

      I don’t see any problem using “evolutionist” interchangeably with “biologist”.

      I do, in that it suggests that all biologist directly study evolution, and that all biology is evolutionary biology. All biology is informed by evolution, but not all biology is directly concerned with evolution. It would be like saying that all biologists should call themselves “chemists”.

  16. Sigmund
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    When I was in primary school the rough kids would pick on the rest of the class by standing next to the wall of the corridor and tripping them up as they walked by. Personally I blame Newton and his abominable theory of gravity for inspiring this despicable behavior.

  17. Kiwi Dave
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 5:38 am | Permalink

    Dazzled by Sewell’s proof of what Darwinism does to people, I await with trepidation the TV news broadcast showing PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins toting assault rifles and massacring hundreds.

  18. Jason Hall
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 6:43 am | Permalink

    Hang on guys – surely the fact that Sewell says that Darwin would have been “horrified” by the crimes those who misrepresented/misunderstood his ideas perpetrated means Sewell is explicitly NOT blaming Darwin?
    If it is true that the Columbine murderers were infatuated with Darwin (and the lawyer Sewell quotes is pretty unambiguous on this) then it seems whoever taught them evolution in school should have his/her teaching license suspended.
    If Sewell’s point is that psychos can and do misinterpret science, then that’s a valid point in support of better science teaching.

    • Sigmund
      Posted November 10, 2009 at 10:35 am | Permalink

      Presumably they were not taught in isolation. Heaven knows how many pupils were exposed to the same biology classes as these two. If a few lessons in evolutionary biology can do this to these two individuals think how many other massacres have been potentiated by this malicious teacher. It shouldn’t be hard to trace the paths of destruction wrought by the other biology students. Presumably there will be copious police records covering year after year of terror in the district.

  19. Posted November 10, 2009 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    If anything, the observations about Harris’ possible motivations are an incentive to improve early education on evolution and natural selection. Even if we buy that this was a big part of his rationale (and really, we all know the ultimate cause of Columbine was adolescent angst that got out of hand, right? Whatever specific justification they came up with is superfluous) then all that would mean is that Harris shot up his school because he didn’t know anything about Darwinism.

  20. embertine
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Ugh, I read this in the Sunday magazine of the Times and had to put it down as it was preventing me from swallowing my breakfast.

    The use of the term “Darwinism” was of course a dead giveaway, and I got what I deserved by carrying on after that point.

    • Posted November 10, 2009 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

      This is why you should read The Observer or The Independent on Sunday instead of The Times.

      (Though usually The Times is not so bad, despite its Murdock ownership.)

  21. jdhuey
    Posted November 10, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

    Every one of these types of screeds that use the supposed impact of teaching evolution on morality includes a statement to the effect that it explains the “decline in morality that we see today”. This seems to be a refrain that is repeated each and every generation. ‘They’ always seem to point to some vague golden era when morality held sway and nobody did bad things – a recent Garden of Eden – where modern influences are the apple.

    • Posted November 11, 2009 at 6:20 am | Permalink

      exactly–the idea is ludicrous on its face. many of these asswipes hark back to the first couple of decades of the 20th century (any idea how many lynchings were taking place then?)…

      you can take it back a little earlier, say to the 1890s (just pick up a copy of Wisconsin Death Trip), or earlier still–but then you’ve got that whole, um, slavery deal going on. that one covers about 400 years–and don’t get me started on the witch crazes, Inquisition, etc.

      Sewell’s breath-taking stupidity does challenge my anglophilia, as some other commenters hint… and in that sense it’s constructive, LOL…

  22. Ed Yong
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Worth noting that this was the Sunday Times not the daily version. Our Sunday papers have different staff and are essentially different entities. I mention this cos the Times has excellent science coverage and I’d hate to see their reputation besmirched.

  23. Eric MacDonald
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 6:40 am | Permalink

    Let’s keep this in some sort of perspective. After all, Dennis Sewell is a ‘cradle catholic’, and has written a book about Catholics in Britain, simply called Catholics. Quelle surprise! So of course he is sticking to the standard catholic line. Morals are a shambles, people are consumed with enui and meaninglessness, and it’s all down to Darwin, even though he would not have approved some of the uses to which his ideas have been put. But, looked at closely, this is the inevitable outcome of belief in evolution, for, in those terms, the idea that it’s wrong to shoot your neighbours is an illusion.

    Sewell quotes Darwin’s letter to William Graham as evidence that Darwin himself took what he calls “a sanguine view of genocide.” But this does not seem to have been Darwin’s point. He is merely thinking in terms of natural selection, not of wholesale killing. Here is what he says:

    “The more civilised so-called Caucasian races have beaten the Turkish hollow in the struggle for existence. Looking to the world at no very distant date, what an endless number of the lower races will have been eliminated by the higher civilised races throughout the world.”

    The “Turkish race” was beaten at the Battle of Vienna in 1549, and, with the growing success of European science and civilization, it is unlikely that they will get another chance to impose their will on the “so-called Caucasian races.” But there is absolutely no evidence here that Darwin is contemplating genocide with equanimity, although, in the light of what was to come, it could, in retrospect, seem to be an unfortunate choice of words. But this was in an occasional letter, and is not in any sense a result of Darwin’s theory of evolution, although the continuity between the evolution of other animals and human evolution is difficult for humans, even now, to accept dispassionately.

    But what is really telling about Sewell’s piece in the Times is that he does not seem to be able to see that objectivity in ethics does not depend on absolute foundations. Nor does he see that more harm has likely been done by supposing there are such foundations, than recognising that morality is not only a product of evolution, but also the outcome of millions of negotiations made daily by people who are trying to live their lives as meaningfully as they can.

    This weak-kneed piece of work comes from the same thought world as the pope’s pontifications about moral relativism and modern secular depravity.

  24. Strider
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    For anyone interested, the Skepticality podcast did a fascinating interview with a man who actually investigated the reasons behind the Columbine shooters. His conclusions: none of what you’ve heard thus far is true. Really good stuff.

    • MadScientist
      Posted November 11, 2009 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

      “There are whacko people” seems like a good enough explanation but as any scientist would point out, it’s not an explanation with any value whatsoever – but at least it’s a conclusion based on observations and not on fantasy. However, every single story I’d seen on the Columbine shootings is just riddled with nonsense – everyone has their pet story and wants to choose facts to suit their delusion. For example, the “they watched Movie X” stories – sure, and so did so many million others – so why don’t we have a million murderers? Those kids might have had a Big Mac – don’t go to the golden arches, they’ll turn you into a psychotic murderer. So – are there any demonstrable reasons beyond “they had something wrong with their heads like many other humans”?

  25. articulett
    Posted November 11, 2009 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Use of guns is not NATURAL selection…(even if the person using the gun has a t-shirt which says “Natural Selection”).

    The easy accessibility of weaponry is more at fault for Columbine than Darwin.

  26. Bruce Gorton
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    The thing that gets me here: I posted a fairly lengthy rebuttal as a comment.

    I raised the examples of mass shootings in which clear links could be shown to religious influences (Cho of Virginia Tech comparing himself to Jesus for example, and of course the murder of Asia McGowan by a stated creationist.)

    I didn’t swear, nor did I attack any particular group as I noted that much like two out of the three examples raised in the article the examples I pointed out suffered from clinical depression – something the author didn’t see fit to include.

    In effect I showed how the writer was using much the same scare tactics as “moral guardians” have used against computer games, comics and rock music, with about as much intellectual rigour and basic honesty.

    Yet The Times saw fit to not allow my comment. Evidently their cavalier attitude to journalistic ethics, so learned from Rupert Murdoch and Fox News, extends to their commenting policy.

  27. PaulC
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 4:15 am | Permalink

    @Tulse (8)

    H&K said that they had evolved beyond their classmates, which is simply non-”Darwinian”, as individual organisms don’t change their genetic makeup during development or adulthood.

    However badly they were taught science, there’s no evidence I know of that they were Lamarckians. One has to assume they thought they inherited their ‘superior’ qualities in the usual way or benefited from some helpful mutation.

    In a word, BULLSHIT. Hitler did not “use the authority of Darwin” in any way, shape, or form.

    This isn’t my field, but it is my brother-in-law’s. He says that Nazi ideological tracts are full of references to Darwin and evolution and that Mein Kampf (which I have never read) has a number of sections which seem strongly influenced by Haeckel. He also says that two of Hitler’s most respected biographers Ian Kershaw and Alan Bullock ascribe Hitler’s whole worldview or ideology to ‘social Darwinism’. It is certainly the case that the Nazis claimed a scientific basis for their racial theories and that the SS employed anthropologists and geneticists to back this up.

    This is a naked equivocation. Darwin held human life to be very special — he loved his wife deeply, and was generally held to be a warm and genial man.

    I was careful to include the phrase ‘in the general scheme of thinks’. You ignore this and therefore miss the point. Karl Marx loved his family too and was said to be a genial drinking and dining companion. That did not prevent some of his ideas being used to cause great harm.

    Your arguments are nothing more than cheap talking points that are continually regurgitated by the religious right and creationists. If you want to play in the Big Leagues, you need better stuff.

    I don’t know what league you play in, but at my university resorting to cheap ad hominem attacks is still frowned upon (though that doesn’t mean it never happens!). I wouldn’t know what ‘talking points’ the religious right and creationists constantly regurgitate as I don’t live in the US and to the best of my knowledge have never met a representative of either cult. But I would guess that the religious right and creationists sometimes discuss facts that are common currency among the rest of us. Just because the religious right says something (e.g. ‘crack dealers destroy young lives’) doesn’t mean the rest of us have to avoid covering that ground or sharing those opinions.

    • Tulse
      Posted November 12, 2009 at 8:23 am | Permalink

      However badly they were taught science, there’s no evidence I know of that they were Lamarckians. One has to assume they thought they inherited their ’superior’ qualities in the usual way or benefited from some helpful mutation.

      I thought that the “however badly they were taught science” is in essence what is at issue — if they are mangling Darwin’s actual views, Darwin is no more responsible for that than Jesus is for the Inquisition.

      He says that Nazi ideological tracts are full of references to Darwin and evolution and that Mein Kampf (which I have never read) has a number of sections which seem strongly influenced by Haeckel.

      I’d be happy to see the evidence for this — I know that Hitler himself never made reference to Darwin in any of his speeches or in print. You’d think if Darwin was a major source of his inspiration, he’d have said so.

      He also says that two of Hitler’s most respected biographers Ian Kershaw and Alan Bullock ascribe Hitler’s whole worldview or ideology to ’social Darwinism’.

      And again, “social Darwinism” was not a view that was unique to, or started with, Darwin. The notion that the strong should rule, or even wipe out, the weak has a fairly long tradition.

      It is certainly the case that the Nazis claimed a scientific basis for their racial theories and that the SS employed anthropologists and geneticists to back this up.

      Sure they claimed a “scientific basis”, but that doesn’t mean that such basis is explicitly Darwinian, or that they actually understood what Darwin was saying.

      It’s this kind of generalization that I find so irritating, largely because it is seen time and time again in the materials of the religious right. “Hitler was influenced by Darwin” is clearly not supported by the evidence; “the Nazis used Darwin as a justification” may be true (I don’t know of any evidence, but that isn’t my field), but they also mis-used a lot of other “scientific” theories (and many Nazi higher-ups were also into the occult and mythological anthropology, which they also used as justification). And all of this of course ignores the anti-Semitism and nationalism that preceded Darwin by hundreds of years. The implicit claim that Darwin is somehow responsible for the Holocaust is simply bunk.

      I was careful to include the phrase ‘in the general scheme of thinks’. You ignore this and therefore miss the point.

      No, the point I was making is that “special” is an equivocation. As I said, Darwin’s view was that the causal forces that produced the human species were not unique, but it does not at all follow that therefore humans are not “special” in some moral sense. It’s an invocation of the naturalistic fallacy.

      As for my statement regarding cheap talking points, it was not an ad hominem attack, but rather a comment on the nature of the claims being made, namely, that these arguments are not at all original, have been used extensively by the religiously motivated, and have been demolished time and time again.

      • Occam
        Posted November 12, 2009 at 4:58 pm | Permalink

        I never cease to marvel at the parochial world-view of even the best-informed English-speaking readers where matters historical are concerned.
        The Bullock and Kershaw biographies of Hitler may be respected, and deservedly so, but they represent only a small, and slightly dated, portion of the relevant scholarship. The roots and facets of Nazi ideology have been investigated at large, and continue to be investigated with increasingly refined methods. A huge share of this body of work is published in German; generation after generation of anglophone students fail to take any notice of it.
        Regarding Darwin, it remains to be demonstrated that Hitler has ever read but a single page of Darwin. As for Nazi ‘science’, so called, it is an unmitigated sham, on par with Lyssenko and similar charalatans. Then there is the disturbing cohort of all the ordinary German scientists who recited Nazi mantras out of opportunism and for personal advancement, just like their counterparts in the Soviet Union. As for ‘social Darwinism': this is a huge and intricate field in the history of ideas, the single most essential step in the understanding of which is perhaps leaving Darwin out of it.

  28. Geoff
    Posted November 23, 2009 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Ed Yong was too polite and hasn’t given the full idea of how bad the Sunday Times has become.
    I moved in a remote area and had been unable to get Sunday papers for about nine years and rather missed them: they used to give analysis of the week’s news. I was delighted to be able to get the ST again until I got my first and last copy. It had the odd humorous article, but I regarded the rest as pure drivel and I felt it contained nothing deserving the title ‘newspaper’.


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  1. [...] of know-nothing ignorance, we see some of that in a British newspaper: somehow, evolution leads to a decline of morality: Whoever Dennis Sewell is, he has, as the Brits say, “gone badly wrong.” Check out what seems to [...]

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  3. [...] story idea via Jerry Coyne. can't see the video? here's an alternate format [...]

  4. [...] University of Chicago Professor of Ecology and Evolution (and not surprisingly atheist apologist) bemoans the connection Sewell makes between Darwin and bad behavior , and points out atheists are capable of being moral [...]

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