Posts Tagged ‘Darwin’

The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler


The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler

By André Pichot

Verso, 360pp, £19.99

ISBN 9781844672448

Published 20 April 2009

Review originally published in the Times Higher 25th August 2009

Of all the names that echo across the twentieth century it is interesting that perhaps the two loudest should both belong to men born in the nineteenth; Darwin and Hitler.  They occupy the diametric positions of what evolution has allowed human intelligence to achieve, sublime beauty and sublime evil.  Chuck in a shared penchant for facial topiary and that is where the similarities end.  Darwin had arguably the greatest idea to ever occur to a human being, which has a simple elegance comparable to any great work of art and Hitler, well, he had a moustache.  The theory of evolution by natural selection has only ever been a scientific idea and has never been a guide for how society should organise and conduct itself.  André Pichot in his book ‘The Pure Society From Darwin to Hitler’ somehow misses this important point and tries to make the case that Darwin’s idea is somehow responsible for all manner of dangerous policies from Nazism to racial apartheid.  This fundamental error means that an impressively researched and passionately argued book, and a readable example of history of science covering a remarkable breadth and depth of material, ultimately falls down.

The book begins with a long introduction entitled ‘A Hard Subject to Tackle’ which lays out the framework for Pichot’s argument before being divided into three sections of increasing intensity: Sociology & Biology, Genetics & Eugenics, and Taxonomy, Evolution & Racism.  Pichot starts to construct his argument with a clever, if debating society type comparison, between the work of Bernard, Pasteur and Darwin.  All three made a major contribution to the development of science but he argues only Bernard and Pasteur’s work had practical beneficial applications to society while Darwin’s idea only had deleterious societal results.  In this lies the foundation of the many flawed and confused assertions that turn a fascinating history of the misapplication of science into a jumble of ill-thought out conclusions and strange statements – not least the frankly laughable assertion that the writings of Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have parallels with that of Nazi scientists.

Pichot includes a revealing caveat in his rationale for the book – the statement that it is outside the area of his own expertise.  This warning is no false modesty since here is a book that leaves the reader wondering time and time again if the author is serious.  While no credible scientist would deny that in the past scientific ideas relating to evolution and humans have been misunderstood with sometimes appalling results (eugenics and the pseudo-science of racism being the two most obvious examples), the author labours under the misapprehension that there is a grand conspiracy of silence within biology that seeks to keep this dark history buried.   He cites examples of scientists whose writings, when elements of them are scrutinised under the bright light of twenty-first century knowledge and values, are problematic and unpalatable, and claims these uncomfortable aspects of their predecessors’ work are ignored by modern scientists. It is certainly true that men like Fisher made assertions that are not acceptable today because we have a better understanding of our own species’ biology, but this does not render their contribution to science null and void.  Consider the recent comments made about race by James Watson.  His work on DNA is no less valid because of ludicrous statements made in the twilight of his career.

Pichot also appears to be irritated by modern biology’s attitude to race.  His vitriol is aimed at the modern concept that separate biological human races do not exist – rather that we are merely one species that displays variation related to historical population distribution.  He sees this as an attempt to negate racial problems and atone for a dark past through semantic games, but once more he misses the point in spectacular fashion.  That there are no separate human races is a statement of biological fact, demonstrable through genetic analysis, and not a belated attempt to reshape society.  This is essentially the fundamental flaw in Pichot’s argument.  Science itself is ultimately a ‘pure’ pursuit.  Sometimes it has direct applications that can be helpful to society in a Baconian fashion (such as the work of Pasteur), on other occasions it has a more tangential application and this skews how science and society interact.  One can certainly make a very strong case for science not always considering how once outside of the scientific ‘box’ its ideas can be appropriated, contorted and abused.  Yet it would not be fair to lay the blame totally at the door of the lab.  If one returns to the concept of Nazis crimes sprouting from Darwinian seeds then the central fallacy of Pichot’s argument is clear.  The Nazis were criminals: totalitarian, industrialised and with the apparatus of a modern European state behind them, but essentially, criminals.  They occasionally used pseudo-Darwinian ideas to lend a veneer of respectability and rationality to their actions, picking them up and tossing them in to the melting pot of Nazi ideology along with mutated forms of philosophy, history and archaeology as well as science.  Pichot would persuade us that the Holocaust was the inevitable result of Darwin unleashing his ideas on the world.  Nonsense: one could no more blame Prometheus for arson than Darwin for Hitler.


Race Against Time


Evolution isn’t making people in different parts of the world more distinct. There are no human races, just the one species: Homo sapiens

Originally published by the Guardian 12th December 2007

Race is one of the most misunderstood terms in modern science, misused by seasoned scientists and laymen alike. Put simply, there are no human races, just the one species: homo sapiens. The idea of human races is a totally artificial concept, a sloppy form of shorthand that refers to an ill-defined mish-mash of surface differences, such as skin colour (probably controlled by a small number of genes), as well as different cultural practices, especially religious ones. Humans have an innate need to define and categorise, but race is a dangerous and outmoded idea that just can’t keep up with modern science.

The concept of different human races is an old one. From the 19th century onwards, Darwinian ideas of natural selection were misused to justify erroneous concepts of Victorian racial superiority and nationalism. To still talk about separate human races in the 21st century is at best misguided and at worst woefully ignorant of biology.

Our own species is remarkable for our lack of genetic variation. The eruption of the supervolcano Toba approximately 74,000 years ago is thought to have wiped out much of our genetic diversity by causing the extinction of many human groups. All of the differences that we now see in humans are a mixture of small genetic variations, built up over time, and of environmental effects. The Masai Mara and the Inuit have almost identical genes but the differences in their environment have greatly influenced how those genes are expressed, producing different outward appearances.

Yet a recent study continues to prop up this sick old man of biology, suggesting that “human races” in different parts of the world are becoming genetically more distinct. The fact that we are one species does not mean that we should not expect variation between populations, especially ones separated by large distances. Differences do exist, but the shared similarities are far greater. We all remain homo sapiens but the outward and genetic differences we see between populations are retained because of sexual selection and allegorical mating, the simple concept that like attracts like. Similarly the idea that we will all end up looking the same given long enough time is just as flawed as the idea of human races.

The study of human evolution has done much to show up the fallacy of separate human races. Indeed when we examine the work carried out on DNA from Neanderthal fossils (a separate species) huge areas of shared genetic information emerge, not least the FOXP2 or “speech” gene which is identical in humans and Neanderthals. If such little variation exists between two species that last shared a common ancestor over 500,000 years ago, then how comfortable can we be with the idea of separate human races today? Surely it is at last time to put away the idea of different races, celebrate our cultural differences and warmly embrace what makes us all Homo sapiens.

Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle


Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage Of The Beagle

Edited by Gordon Chancellor and John Van Wyhe

CUP, 650pp, £85.00

ISBN 13 9780521517577

Published July 2009

Review originally published in the Times Higher 22nd October 2009

Whisper it quietly: 2009 has been something of a bad year for Darwin.  The Bicentennial celebrations surrounding his birth and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species has lead to an explosion of all manner of Darwin-related books with increasingly tangential and surreal connections to the man and his work.  Darwin himself would have been profoundly embarrassed and amazed by all the excitement.  That said it does provide a ready excuse to revisit the great man’s work in its original form and that is what lies at the heart of the CUPs continuing effort to publish the definitive works of Darwin in their original form.

‘Charles Darwin’s Notebooks From The Voyage of the Beagle’ edited by Gordon Chancellor & John Van Wyhe and handsomely published by Cambridge University Press allow the reader to see a pre-Origin Darwin at work on the expedition that would not only make his scientific name but stimulate many of the ideas that fed in to his later thinking.  What emerges from the notebooks is the reassuring normalness of Darwin.  They are the notes of a young man with a burning curiosity about the natural world and provide glimpses of a profound clarity of thought and supreme powers of observation.  This is the first time that Darwin’s day-to-day notebooks from the Beagle voyage have ever been published in their entirety and the result is quite simply stunning.  While the journals were ostensibly intended to record his geological, and more general, observations the range and breadth of material that he covers is nothing short of breathtaking, showing a scientific freedom that many can now only dream about.

The editors have provided the complete text of the fifteen notebooks that Darwin filled during the five years of the Beagle voyage along with all maps and drawings.  Each notebook is provided with a comprehensive introduction and has been given a unique name by the editors to supersede the ad-hoc numbers that had been assigned to the field notebooks in the past.  The result is to render what is often considered to be the least readable of all Darwin’s material instantly accessible and engaging for all.  The reader is given the key to unlock the work of the young Darwin and hardly a page goes by without some gem jumping out and hinting the scientific giant he would become.  The beauty of the notebooks is that they are unpolished and raw: Darwin was writing for himself rather than the reader, bringing greater vitality and spontaneity to the text than can be found in his carefully polished masterpiece On the Origins of Species.  In between the detailed scientific notes are shopping lists, parts of essays, diary entries and sketches (although the editors have sadly omitted what they deemed to be random doodles).  Read in conjunction with Darwin’s Beagle Diary  (also published buy CUP) the reader can follow Darwin in the most visceral and stimulating fashion using the notebooks to conjure up his day-to-day life over five years of scientific discovery.

The huge amount of Darwin-related material that has been produced for the bicentenary (books, television documentaries and even a film) does risk portraying Darwin as something he wasn’t.  He would have hated the celebrity style treatment that 2009 has hit him with.  Let’s ignore such gloss and to keep things simple: why view Darwin ‘through a glass darkly’ when the great man’s original work is so accessible, and his genius still so enlightening?