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Origin Day Lecture: Audience Question Five

Updated Tuesday 24th November 2009

Are there abuses of Darwinism, perversions of Darwinism around today and might they yet lead us down a dark route?


Copyright British Council


Armand Leroi (as Chair) 

There’s, well I’ll take one final question from the gentleman right there at the top.

Paul Hatton (in audience)

Thank you very much.  It’s Paul Hatton from SheffieldUniversity.  I'm actually a bioengineer concerned with the impact of technology on health and society and medicine, but I go back to Darwinism when it was abused most famously or infamously by the Nazis, and I wondered really from the panel, in particular from Randal, are there incidents today even of Darwinism being abused by sections of society or communities, and are we ever at risk again of going, of abusing it and going down such a dark alley as was pursued by the Nazis, which of course was a, it started in mainstream thought, it wasn’t initially an aberration, it started in mainstream, accepted wisdom that Darwinism would lead to white supremacy or other things that we now hold to be quite false.  So the question really is are there abuses or Darwinism or perversions of Darwinism around today, and might they yet lead us down a dark route?


Randal, do you even accept the premise of the question?

Randal Keynes

I, and it’s the fate of everyone who offers an idea like that, that becomes popular, that it is used by other people who want to benefit from its acceptance or whatever.  And we, there’s no prescription, we can't say his ideas shouldn’t be used full stop, they should only be used where they apply and I would hope that if his ideas are ever used for politically unfortunate, wicked purposes, everyone involved in the politics should see what’s going on and should say that’s rubbish, and just carry on.  But Peter, can you perhaps offer another answer?

Peter Bowler

Yeah, I think this is very important, because the charge that Darwinism is responsible for all sorts of horrific things including Nazism and the holocaust and so on is a charge that’s routinely raised by creationists as a way of trying to discredit the theory.  And I think we do need to, well as a historian I would proclaim my own field as a very useful way of trying to unpack this, and one of the reasons why I want to write a book about sort of what would happen if Darwin wasn’t there, would be to suggest that in fact many of the unfortunate consequences in terms of race theory and so on that were associated with evolutionism in the late 19th, early 20th century would be there anyway because of Haeckel for instance.  And Haeckel was a promoter of what we would call a racist science.

Sandy Knapp

No I would argue that, but…

Peter Bowler

Well let’s, but certainly many of the other non-Darwinian naturalists of the time, those who believed in evolutionary parallelism would use it to argue that race is a separate species, so that many of these consequences were promoted by people who may have been evolutionists but were not Darwinians.  And of course Darwin himself, as Adrian Desmond and Jim Moore have reminded us in their latest book, was passionately opposed to slavery and to racism, so that I think we need to uncouple Darwin’s particular theory of evolution from more general evolutionary trends, which have been hijacked, if one might say so, by these various political groups for all sorts of unfortunate purposes.

Sandy Knapp

I think you could make the analogy that is the idea that fission occurs in atoms a desperately evil idea because an atomic bomb was made?  It’s a similar sort of analogy, and things that are scientific ideas go well beyond just the idea itself, and that doesn’t make the idea evil, it’s what people put the idea, the use to which people put an idea to, and one has to unpick those two things and be very careful about it because you could make the same argument for the laws of physics.

Armand Leroi

I suppose one, for me, when I was in Argentina recently reading the Voyage of the Beagle, there’s a passage there where - maybe it’s the diaries, in which Darwin is describing his discussions with some of General Rosas’s soldiers. So Rosas was this Argentinian general who basically went on a war of extermination against the Amerind population, and he’s talking to a solider and the solider, and Darwin is reporting this conversation and how the soldier reports how they bayonet every woman over the age of 20, and the solider says, and Darwin reports this, what can be done, they breed so.  And that reminds us I think that there was a social Darwinism before there actually even was a Darwinism.

Armand Leroi (as Chair) 

Ladies and gentlemen, we are at the end of our time.  It remains for me to first of all thank my very distinguished panellists who have been so wonderful today, to thank the British Council who, for putting on this event in the Royal Institution, for hosting us, and most of all to thank you, because this is a wonderful, wonderful day for a book, which celebrates a book that we all love and that has influenced all of our lives.  Thank you very much.




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EO Wilson Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: British Council Professor EO Wilson's lecture to mark Origin Day


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