Due to habits formed in the defense of the wall of separation and public school science against creationism it can be difficult for a leftist to read Marilynne Robinson’s essay, “Darwinism”. It is also uncomfortable for someone on the left to talk about Darwin’s language as she does because many will immediately assume you are a creationist, or accuse you of some other form of apostasy by stealth. This is guaranteed to happen no matter how explicitly you endorse EVOLUTION or a belief neutral, democratic government.*
But you can’t have integrity unless you say what you mean. You also can’t be a decent person if you don’t believe and act as if people are not objects, abstractions, mere ideas or actors in your dearly loved fantasy scenarios playing out what you take to be the grand forces of the universe.
In her essay, Robinson is unsporting enough to read Darwin and others and to believe that they mean what they have written. Asserting that someone didn’t really mean what he continually and lucidly writes should mean that he isn’t to be trusted. But in polite society you are expected to pretend it doesn’t in cases such as this. You are also to concentrate on the demurral appended as an obligatory afterthought and ignore the bulk of what is clearly proposed
As an example, among the quotes she dares to take directly from Darwin and others, I’ll concentrate on this one.
With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The Descent of Man
Darwin regretted that the lower orders will be saved from necessary pruning by our sentimentality. That is as clear as the words he wrote. He was afraid that the level of charity current in mid 19th century, the time of Dickens’ England, was too much charity due to its impeding natural selection. Not that Darwin means to subject himself to natural selection. One assumes that the Darwins and the mostly well off families of his followers didn’t gave up the practice of vaccination or seeking medical care themselves. I’ve looked and can’t find evidence that early Darwinists refused medical care as a matter of principle, if you know of any I will revise. Thus these advocates of the benefits of universal human culling allowed sentiment to overtake their responsibility as members of the rational class, to husband their own stock to a higher state through the death of the underbred.** Perhaps this is something more noticeable for people who have reason to suspect they or, as in my case my great-great grandparents, were included in Darwin’s underclass. Perhaps your ancestors in the 1870s were also among those referred to above.
It is especially interesting to think about this passage due to Charles Darwin’s history of hypochondria - which seems to have begun before his marriage and his decisive reading of Malthus - his history of seeking treatments, cures and just about anything available to, how did he put it, have medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of Charles Darwin to the last moment. Was not such an unfit specimen as Darwin clearly judged himself to be, and he did apprentice as a doctor, marked as one for whom nature should be allowed to take its course?
Some sources say that he worried that his malady was heritable. Charles Darwin was the last person in the world to have missed that possibility. Wasn’t he an example of the worst kind who should be discouraged, at the very least, from breeding? Eventually he produced ten children, two of whom died in childhood, one a famously beloved daughter. You wonder if he thought about his own daughter’s death when he wrote this.
If you think it’s harsh of me to bring up his daughter’s death, do you think it was harsh of him and his admirers to meditate dispassionately on the benefits of untold other peoples’ children being weeded out of the breeding stock by small pox, other diseases, violence and starvation? Does it being called ‘science’ make that noble and good, or at least all right? Does it being “science” preclude further consideration of these matters?
How does this clear warning of dire consequences stemming from the vaccination of the lower orders differ in kind from the Imams in Nigeria advising people not to have their children vaccinated for polio several years ago? That is a real question and there is an answer. The difference is that the Nigerian Imams were afraid of the vaccine being tainted. There had been a drug test in Nigeria several years before which, they believed , had killed eleven children and disabled 200. ***They were also concerned that HIV might be spread through contamination during the immunization program. The clerics and government officials in Nigeria acted through ignorance and paranoia, perhaps, but their crime, for which they were roundly condemned, was an ill informed and ignorant attempt to protect children, not a tacit approval of their culling for racial hygiene. Does anyone reading this doubt that Darwin would have classed these children among the ‘savages’.
Saying that Darwin wasn’t actually advocating that many people die is dishonest. Does anyone really believe that with the thinnest of alibis for cover, he didn’t endorse the idea of allowing people to go unvaccinated, untreated, unfed and allowing a huge number of them to die of disease, starvation or in a horrific, violent struggle for food? He was informed enough about the governmental and economic practices of his time to know that his suggestions could easily have been put into effect with the slightest encouragement, almost by accident.
And he had seen the people he believed it was a folly to save on his travels and at home. Here is his list, “the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick .... [the alleged beneficiary of] poor-laws ... the weak members of civilised societies” all of these should be allowed to undergo what he approves of as the brutal culling found among “savages”. Does this list contain no actual people? Do you really believe that? With the benefit of reading this after witnessing the brutality of the self-professed, scientific regimes of the twentieth century the list should seem all too familiar to us. The word “selection”, also.
The effect of the Darwinists’ casual dismissal of the lives of people in marshaling opposition to the fact of EVOLUTION isn’t considered nearly often enough. Anyone who doesn’t believe that is a part of the opposition to the study of EVOLUTION is deluding themselves. The links between Darwin and those who overcame sentiment to put his ideas into practice are real and the opponents of evolutionary science know about them. Look at their websites if you think this isn’t true. Darwin shouldn’t remain the public face of evolutionary science.
Maybe less noticeable at first reading is that there is no supporting data given, at least in the edition I’ve got, to demonstrate his contention that vaccinating for small pox actually has the degrading effect he suspects. It’s a speculation based on his supreme theory, which isn’t evolution but the origin of species by natural selection. Darwin predicts dire consequences in vaccinated populations. I’ve not been able to find science from his time or up to today which supports his contention that it has this degrading effect. You wonder if the WHO shouldn’t suspend their efforts if such evidence existed. You also wonder what contemporary advocates of mass vaccination would make of this passage.
It is impossible to read Darwin and his circle and not be reminded of these things, once you have gotten over the habit of ignoring what’s right there in front of you. That was the greatest effect of reading Robinson’s essay, it is a slap to wake up and admit what is there to be seen. I’m sure she knew it would be misunderstood and misrepresented, yet she wrote it and her bravery deserves to be noticed.
Robinson points out ironies in her essay, none greater than the fact that the Darwinists and those who agitate for creationism effectively share the same economic morality. Looking at Republican social policy of the past thirty years, you see a practical attempt to remove any barriers to brutal selection forces. Only it’s called ‘competition’.
My question is how can the very basis of the left’s agenda survive the idea that our reason and morality don’t matter or that it is incompatible with what’s purported to be scientific truth. Equality, justice, democracy, a decent, peaceful life in a habitable environment. If the left really comes to believe that biology is destiny, that free will and good will are illusions or impotent, that the market of natural selection is the inevitable law that governs human lives, our agenda is wrong.
I don’t think it is. I think that the history of the past century proves it isn’t and that there is no realistic alternative to it. Too many of us have been duped through public relations into accepting fundamentally anti-democratic ideas that are based in the assumptions made by self-interested people with an agenda basically at odds with our ideals. I believe that the depressing, dispiriting effect of falling for various species of biological determinism leads to impotent cynicism. Those ideas have been given the test of time. They produce a nightmare.
That is the subject of the third part of this series.
* “Darwinism” is from the collection of essays, The Death of Adam ISBN 0-312-42532-5
Many, especially the throng of devout blog Darwinists who have never read him, might be surprised that Robinson concentrates first and foremost on the economic origins of Darwinism. They should go look at him and see that for him reading Malthus was his breakthrough event, literally everything springs from that moral atrocity. Malthus isn’t simply an implication or a starting point in the line of biological determinism stemming from Darwin he permeates it. Malthus is the seed, Darwin sewed it and it grew.
** You might want to contrast the content and tone with this passage, not much farther on into the book.
Man accumulates property and bequeaths it to his children, so that the children of the rich have an advantage over the poor in the race for success, independently of bodily or mental superiority. On the other hand, the children of parents who are short-lived, and are therefore on an average deficient in health and vigour, come into their property sooner than other children, and will be likely to marry earlier, and leave a larger number of offspring to inherit their inferior constitutions. But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil; for without the accumulation of capital the arts could not progress; and it is chiefly through their power that the civilised races have extended, and are now everywhere extending their range, so as to take the place of the lower races. Nor does the moderate accumulation of wealth interfere with the process of selection. When a poor man becomes moderately rich, his children enter trades or professions in which there is struggle enough, so that the able in body and mind succeed best. The presence of a body of well-instructed men, who have not to labour for their daily bread, is important to a degree which cannot be over-estimated; as all high intellectual work is carried on by them, and on such work, material progress of all kinds mainly depends, not to mention other and higher advantages. No doubt wealth when very great tends to convert men into useless drones, but their number is never large ; and some degree of elimination here occurs, for we daily see rich men, who happen to be fools or profligate, squandering away their wealth. The Descent of Man.
“But the inheritance of property by itself is very far from an evil.... Nor does the moderate accumulation of wealth interfere with the process of selection.” One suspects Darwin’s “moderate accumulation of wealth” which was not yet insalubrious included the wealth of the Darwin -Wedgewood families. Why, since he refuses to consider the possibility that humans’ capacity for reason, moral reflection and self-denial might exempt us from the brutal forces of natural selection, does he seem to think that membership in his notably brutal economic elite should render its members immune?
You also wonder why Darwin didn’t include the laws against stealing in the list of unfortunate curbs on the workings of natural selection. If you doubt that the laws protecting private property are one of the greatest inhibition of the weeding out of the unfit, imagine what would have happened in Darwin’s Britain if it was suddenly legal for the masses of the poor to take from those worthless drones bred to the aristocracy. The resultant struggle might have saved Darwin the embarrassment of explaining how he neglected to discourage their vaccination.
*** “The Pfizer drug test in 1996 is still on our minds. To a large extent, it shaped and strengthened my view on polio and other immunisation campaigns," said Mr bin Uthman. At the time, the US company had used an untested drug on children to fight an epidemic of bacterial meningitis in the Kano area. Lawsuits have since been lodged against Pfizer in the United States and in Nigeria, alleging that the drug trial was illegal and that it killed 11 children and left 200 others disabled.