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Noumenon 28th Mar 2014 21:03

Dennis Sewell: The Political Gene
 
The Sunday Times, quoted on my paperback copy, calls The Political Gene ”A disturbing and provocative book”, and they are absolutely dead on. It is both, though I would say the manner in which it disturbs is not the same in which it provokes. I read Dennis Sewell’s polemic at the end of 2010, and it’s only now that I can bring myself to comment. Call it a three-year cooling off period.


As a keen reader of Richard Dawkins and other popularisers of science and/or evolutionary theory–and of writers in the atheist movement, from the other three horsemen to Bertrand Russell–I felt it was time to dip into a less celebratory pool, and this book seemed a good choice: I’ve no time for denials of evolutionary theory, but learning more about the misuse of Darwin’s ideas did appeal. In his introduction, Sewell takes the time to establish some terminology: specifically, to justify his use of the word Darwinist. He notes that Creationists have “appropriated” both this and the word Darwinism to imply that “believers in evolution have turned themselves into something approaching a religion”. He moves to differentiate himself from this point of view while availing himself of the word’s “convenience and utility”; his intent is to distinguish between the theory itself and related ideas (which are Darwinian), and “the use of his thought to form the basis of an ideology or outlook pertaining to politics or society”–or, under Sewell’s freshly polished label, Darwinist.

Now, my understanding is that in order to appropriate a term in this sense, that term must first be in use with a contrasting meaning. My further understanding is that no-one in evolutionary science uses either term to describe their activities–not now, and not in the past either; so the thought did cross my mind that, perhaps, Sewell also hoped to avail himself of the opportunity to instantly and repeatedly correlate the man with the litany of disgusting thought and action that followed in his wake. Could there not have been a more impartial alternative? After all, the term “eugenics” is familiar to the world because it was self-applied by its proponents, once upon a time (starting one year after Darwin’s time, incidentally) and at least some of the evils supposedly done in Darwin’s name fell into that category. In any case, the distinction Sewell makes is an important one, and my feeling at this early stage was fair enough, at least we won’t be walking down the theory versus theory path all over again. However, that vague concern about how clearly this distinction was going to shine through in the reading persisted as I did so.

What I found was a well-written and engaging text, one that swiftly pulled me in with a deep and expansive history of first religious and later secular responses to Darwin’s work. And there is no denying it, inexcusably terrible things have been done in pursuit of notions of superiority, be the goal to attain it for the future or ensure it in the present–and not just racial superiority, where at least it can be said that superficial but obvious differences exist upon which a person could claim “we are better than they”; but even of class superiority, as though the social construct of how much money or status a person has could justify their castration for the greater good. Although some of the details were already familiar–the holocaust, of course, being the prime example–as I read I was frequently moved to anger, and it is to the author’s credit that he wielded his pen so effectively.

However, notions of superiority are not what Darwinian theory is about–at least, not in the sense that the Nazis and eugenicists championed for themselves. The fallacious tethering of Darwin to these crimes–not even recognised as such in the prevailing culture of the time, and conducted long after his death–is an old trick of religious apologists affronted by the erosion of Godly creation threatened by evolution; and despite his early protestation to the contrary, as the text continues the impression grows that Sewell has more in common with the Creationist perspective than just a shared favourite term. Almost every chapter ends on a note bordering on outrage, either justified in the light of the disgusting details revealed or setting the scene for more to come, but the outrage feels ever more personalised. Almost as though one man in particular were to blame. On the final page, indeed, in the final line of the book, Sewell at last casts off the gloves and says what it is he really means. Those conciliatory assurances of the introduction ultimately prove irrelevant; if the horrors derived from “revolutionary 19th Century thinkers” are ever to be cleared away, it isn’t Darwinists or Darwinism that Sewell first wants put back in the box: it’s Darwin.

Well, at the risk of sounding unduly victorious on behalf of a soft-spoken dead man, tough shit, Dennis Sewell. Shocking offenses committed through a willful misreading of another man’s theory do not discredit that man, nor do they invalidate that theory, whether you tie them to his name or not–and make no mistake, that is the objective of The Political Gene. But Darwin (and Darwinian thought) was never “in his box” to begin with, unless all of human thought was in there with him; to climb into one now would be to close our eyes to what is demonstrably true, and wish for it to go away. Doing so will not stop evil people from doing evil things, it will only make their task the easier.

All Charles Darwin ever did was demonstrate how obviously wrong humans had been about the working of the natural world. It took other people, like the eugenicists, like the Nazis, and in his own small way like Dennis Sewell, to show how wrong we can continue to be.

*0000 doesn't cover it.

This originally appeared on my blog under a rather more exciting title... I'm so glad Bill inspired me to steal his quotation title approach!

loupgarous 3rd Apr 2014 2:58

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Misuse of the term "Social Darwinism" has accounted for untold foolishness on the left side of the Atlantic. Failure to endorse unlimited reproduction by women who can't provide for their offspring and the fathers of whose offspring seem never to show up after the offspring's birth is freely called "social Darwinism."

A craven fear of being so labeled has given us the elephant in the room no one ever discusses in American politics publicly - the expenditure of billions of dollars by the Federal government and the state governments in "entitlements" which arise from people not knowing how to use their naughty bits without littering the nation with semi-wanted children. Anyone who objects to this arrangement is called a "social Darwinist" (at least) and few of the chattering class here can avoid affirming the truth of Godwin's Law while flinging brickbats at the "social Darwinist" in question.

Which, I think would dismay and befuddle Darwin himself. Nothing in The Origin of Species endorsed the Spartan practice of leaving unwelcome babies out to die of exposure and starvation, or any of the putative abuses of Darwin's theory (actually, they seem to have come more from Nietsche) of which so-called "social Darwinists" are accused of wishing after by the party currently in power in the United States.

And nothing is ever said of what happens when the wheels come off the cart of state and America can't even continue its practice of borrowing from other nations to finance its subsidization of free-lance baby farming for no particular reason. No one wants to realize that the world can't finance America's failure to tell impoverished mothers to use birth control or control their reproduction by the time-honored expedient of only having reproductive sex if a gainfully-employed breadwinner is willing to provide for the child.

Sounds like Sewell (whose book I have not yet read, nor do I anticipate a need to read it, based on your review) has decided to commit the post hoc, ergo propter hoc error of the century, pinning every abuse of Darwinian theory on Darwin and his actual writings themselves.

I'd also be interested if, now that every gene in the human genome has been mapped (if not characterized as to its function in the human body), Mr. Sewell claims to have located an actual gene connected to political behavior, or if he's talking from his cloaca on that, too.

Beth 11th Apr 2014 4:29

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Are the gods of O'Rourke after you, loupgarous? Maybe the reason "no one" ever discusses the sort of tosh you describe is that the idea of limiting reproduction to only those deemed "fit" is patently ridiculous and has been tried before by certain extinct regimes.

As Noumenon expressed so well above, "notions of superiority are not what Darwinian theory is about."

loupgarous 15th Apr 2014 17:37

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Beth, I never spoke one word about "limiting reproduction" of anyone.

What I proposed was not subsidizing gratuitous reproduction which is neither planned nor particularly desired by a significant portion of the prospective parents - parents who don't intend to take responsibility for the life they bring into the world, and simply leave it to the 53% of Americans who pay Federal income taxes to fund their reproductive habits.

That is the phenomenon creating multiple generations of the "entitled" (multiplying geometrically) who have a legal claim on over half of the US Federal budget, resulting in a crisis involving unsustainable debt to other countries whom, even if they were so inclined, cannot continue funding our curious habit of subsidizing uncontrolled procreation.

I have not said one word about the fitness of any of the "entitled" to live. I simply said that no one ought to be entitled to take money out of someone else's pocket simply because he or she had no intention at all of providing for their children properly.

And Beth, I don't consider myself superior to those who reproduce without assumption of personal responsibility for the life they've created per se - but I do condemn their actions. I think that if Darwinian principles come into the matter at all, it will be at the largest and most tragic scale possible, when the most powerful government on Earth goes bankrupt and no one's needs are attended to - all because too many politicians are afraid of being called "social Darwinists.".

This isn't a racial problem, and it isn't an ethnic problem. It's a full-blown failure of generations of politicians and sucklers on the government teat to exercise common sense.

That reproduction without personal responsibility has become not only wrongly subsidized, but that it cannot be discussed openly without the sort of ad hominem attacks you've made... says a great deal about the sort of thinking which has created the problem in the first place. An ad hominem attack is the "click" in the pistol of thought signalling you've run out of ammunition.

When discussion of this problem is also tagged "social Darwinism," it also (as Noumenon correctly pointed out) slanders a man who discovered a fundamental tenet of biology; that Nature selects the "fittest" to live, if only by predation on animals who don't blend in well enough with their environment to avoid becoming prey.

I hope you have a great day, Beth, but in this case you're wrong, wrong, wrong.

Noumenon 15th Apr 2014 18:20

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
I'm not sure if I accept how you're applying the word "entitled" there, Loup, nor where you place the blame for the situation you clearly deplore. There may be a lot of people of little-to-no means who expect support for nothing, but they are well-balanced by those at the other end of the scale taking hand-over-fist and giving nothing back. Neither side are blameless, but (to butcher a pig) perhaps some are more blameless than others...

If Americans want to see less disadvantaged children nibbling at the GDP, perhaps a good start would be for the richest of them to stop throwing money at people who consider discussing and promoting contraception to be a less effective strategy than magically expecting teenagers of all stripes not to fuck.

But I risk redirecting a book review into a critique of US social policy, so I'll choose not to go on.

For now.

loupgarous 15th Apr 2014 18:53

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Quote:

Originally Posted by Noumenon (Post 134163)
I'm not sure if I accept how you're applying the word "entitled" there, Loup, nor where you place the blame for the situation you clearly deplore. There may be a lot of people of little-to-no means who expect support for nothing, but they are well-balanced by those at the other end of the scale taking hand-over-fist and giving nothing back. Neither side are blameless, but (to butcher a pig) perhaps some are more blameless than others...

If Americans want to see less disadvantaged children nibbling at the GDP, perhaps a good start would be for the richest of them to stop throwing money at people who consider discussing and promoting contraception to be a less effective strategy than magically expecting teenagers of all stripes not to fuck.

But I risk redirecting a book review into a critique of US social policy, so I'll choose not to go on.

For now.

You might be surprised to hear that I agree with you completely on the silliness of opposition to contraception. Every penny spent providing free contraception (especially barrier methods) not only saves a dollar (at least) on preventing the conception of unwanted and unplanned children, but helps sharply reduce the spread of HIV and other sexually-transmitted pathogens. When my sons came of age, I was very quietly helpful in threatening their lives and access to the family car if they did the deed, and supplying them with condoms so that the damage they did when they went and did it anyway would be contained.

I undoubtedly am guilty of redirecting your insightful review of "The Political Gene" into a tangentially-related topic. It wasn't intentional, simply agreeing with your contents and relating an example of how the slander of Charles Darwin and his work has not only hurt his reputation, but created additional problems. Sorry about that, Noumenon.

I won't explore your comment "If Americans want to see less disadvantaged children nibbling at the GDP, perhaps a good start would be for the richest of them to stop throwing money at people who consider discussing and promoting contraception to be a less effective strategy than magically expecting teenagers of all stripes not to fuck," except to ask which "richest of them" that would be.

The owners of the Hobby Lobby store chain are the only ones who come to mind, and considering their daily expenses, they don't strike me as being among the richest Americans - if they lose this case before the Supreme Court, sticking by their guns could cost them $375 million a year.

And The Koch brothers (every right-thinking editorial writer's pair of Satanic bookends) are more libertarian than that - I don't really see them agitating against contraception per se, simply against individuals or corporations being compelled by Big Mother-in-Law to fund specific methods of contraception that they object to morally on the grounds that they cause fetal damage (and for the record, I don't think a two-day old clump of cells makes the cut as a "fetus."). They're more anti-statism than anti-contraception.

Noumenon 15th Apr 2014 23:35

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Quote:

Originally Posted by loupgarous (Post 134164)
Sorry about that, Noumenon.

No apology necessary, these things happen!

Beth 17th Apr 2014 5:14

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Loupgarous, I don't want to derail the thread too far, either. There are many imaginative and rigorous thinkers like Darwin, and I can't help but wonder what he might think of modern life and the poverty of our collective imagination to solve some of our biggest problems without devolving into groups. Thinking hugely and with such precision as Darwin would leave scant moments for generalizing and lumping humans into crude categories such as "semi-wanted".

I'm happy to attack, ad "hominemly" or otherwise, any notion that our problems can be dialed into so simply that one group of people becomes the elephant in the room. When any group or individual begins using the language of "littering the nation" to describe children of the poor, it's alarming.

loupgarous 25th May 2014 18:30

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Beth, our national reluctance to tell the poor to take advantage of free or almost-free birth control, combined with our national reluctance to balance a national budget, nearly took the world's economy down with it in 2008-2009.

If there was ever a time to ditch political correctness so that half the world's last superpower's budget wasn't spent on debt service trying to sustain unsustainable spending on kids whose parents don't even WANT them, it's now.

Ang 29th May 2014 0:51

Re: The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell
 
Sorry I didn't see this before. Beth, you're NOT "wrong, wrong, wrong".


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