The Political Gene

Book review: Dennis Sewell, The Political Gene (Picador, 2010).

He was the man who gave us the theory of evolution, but according to Dennis Sewell, Charles Darwin was also responsible for the development of a monstrous ideology that cost the lives of millions and which could be about to dominate the world of politics again. In his book, The Political Gene, Sewell presents a disturbing case for revising our opinion of the scientist who explained the origin of life on Earth. By Ed O’Hare.

In 1906 an exhibition illustrating the theory of evolution was mounted by the Bronx Zoo. Visitors to the monkey house were shown different species of primate. In a cage between the enclosures for gorillas and orang-utans they came face to face with a 23 year-old pygmy named Ota Benga. A native of the Congo, Ota Benga lost his parents when Belgian rubber-planters slaughtered his tribe. He was sold at a slave auction and brought to the US by an explorer who later went bankrupt. Lost and alone, Ota Benga submitted to being put on display in the zoo alongside animals. The message of the exhibit was blatant. Man was just a more refined breed of primate and ‘savages’ like Ota Benga were evolutionary throwbacks, primitives whose destiny was to die out and give way to more advanced forms of human. The exhibition, every bit the succès de scandale its architects had hoped for, drew more than 40,000 spectators. The contempt shown for Ota Benga extended beyond putting him in a cage. He received no payment for his participation and several years later, in despair at his inability to raise enough money to return to Africa, he shot himself.

In The Political Gene former BBC reporter Dennis Sewell argues that Ota Benga is just one of a countless number of people who have suffered and perished as a direct consequence of the work of Charles Darwin. A century and a quarter since his death, Darwin remains one of the giants of scientific thought. For many he was the first thinker to put human nature under the microscope and the one who answered the greatest questions of all: who are we, where do we come from, and where are we going?

Sewell believes the accusation that Darwin has blood on his hands is far from unrealistic. He maintains that whether because of Darwin’s own deliberate ambiguity and evasiveness, or because of the misrepresentation of his work by others, the theory of evolution has been used as justification for the torture, incarceration, segregation, neglect, sterilisation and extermination of millions.

The Political Gene is Sewell’s record of “the political uses and abuses of Darwin’s ideas in recent history.” The list of politicians and intellectuals he says were influenced by Darwin is indeed diverse: Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Ramsay MacDonald, William Beveridge, Karl Marx, Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Oliver Wendell Holmes, H.G. Wells, Marie Stopes, Adolf Hitler, George Bernard Shaw, Richard Nixon and even Barack Obama, all, according to Sewell, had Darwin’s theory in mind when they entered public affairs. Although Darwin saw evolution as a force working away blindly, quietly and relentlessly through living organisms, the idea of social Darwinism - or the possibility of engineering the evolutionary process so that it moves humankind towards a desired goal - occurred to some almost as soon as On the Origin of Species appeared in 1859.

The first writer to postulate political implications for Darwin’s theory was Herbert Spencer, the pre-eminent British Philosopher of the Victorian era. It was Spencer who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’ and who argued that it was a natural law that superior races would endure while weaker ones would not, meaning social resources should not be squandered on the poor. “If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well that they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die,” he wrote.

Similar views were soon being expressed in America. William Graham Sumner, who held the first professorship of sociology at Yale, argued that if the survival of the fittest was not recognised as “the law of civilization” and support withdrawn from the poor and the helpless, then the end result would be the “survival of the unfittest”. These views struck a chord and it was only a matter of time before steps were taken to re-structure society along ‘scientific’ lines.

The bulk of The Political Gene is devoted to uncovering the forgotten history of the Eugenics movement, and what Sewell reveals is truly shocking. From the turn of the last century right up until the Second World War a cabal lobbied for the introduction of policies which they claimed were practical applications of Darwinism. In Britain this movement was originally led by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, while its chief proponent in America was Madison Grant, a self-described scientist, political advisor and author of a popular book about the superiority of the Anglo Saxons which Adolf Hitler called his ‘Bible’. The central tenet of the Eugenicist movement held that the human race was made up of different groups of varying worth. By killing off the ‘lesser’ races they sought to purify mankind and create a more healthy and stable world. Mad though this ambition sounds, it’s frightening how close the Eugenicists came to achieving it.

The power the Eugenicists exerted over successive governments was enormous, and before long laws had been introduced on both sides of the Atlantic targeting so-called mental defectives. These gave medical officials the authority to sterilize or send away to institutions anyone they deemed an undesirable. Racial minorities, young women, the lower-classes and the uneducated were the obvious victims. Tens of thousands of people who had done nothing wrong were robbed of the right to have children or put in sanatoriums (in many cases never to return) simply because they did not fit the profile of human perfection desired by the Eugenicists. It is no surprise that when the Nazis came to power their measures closely followed what the Eugenicists had done. The most terrifying aspect of Sewell’s account is how widely these supremacist sentiments were held. The benefits of eugenics were championed by avowed right-wingers and dedicated liberals; by members of old-money families and radical intellectuals; by doctors, journalists, businessmen, academics and lawyers, and by communists, capitalists and fascists alike.

At the heart of The Political Gene is Sewell’s belief that Darwin’s personal vision of life as a cruel and unrelenting struggle for survival opened the gates to a destructive, nihilistic way of thinking which has done and continues to do great social damage. He believes we now live in a virtual technocracy where the scorn scientists have shown towards those who hold alternative views of creation led to much of the religious extremism which has marked the first decade of this century. Unfortunately, the sloppiness with which Sewell composes the later sections of the book, in which he often tries to deal with several questions simultaneously, undermines his argument.

Furthermore, Sewell seems constantly to be about to advance a theistic position himself but never does. Obviously, this is because he knows that, whatever misery has resulted from Darwin’s theory, it is nothing compared to the numberless instances of violence and cruelty that have resulted from religious intolerance. He also contradicts himself when he argues that, on the one hand, our moral code and value-systems are the outcome of evolution while, on the other, states that they are the result of civilisation’s spiritual foundation. If Sewell is, as he claims, someone who has “no quarrel whatsoever with the orthodox account of evolution” then surely he must understand that religious belief, like our morals and ethics, is also merely a product of evolution.

To ask whether Darwin shares some blame for the inhumanities brought about by the Eugenicists or the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis is akin to asking how much Albert Einstein or Niels Bohr were responsible for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Darwin gave us a new account of life on Earth but it is up to us to come to terms with it. Sewell believes that, deprived of their basis in Judeo-Christian theology, the values that underpin civilisation are left meaningless and without these we will revert to the Stone Age. What this catalogue of horrors fails to prove is that this must be the case. Our values evolve with us but together we must make sure where we want to go. {jathumbnailoff}