Thursday, November 12, 2009

Darwinian Theory and Nihilistic Teenagers

There is an interesting article by Dennis Sewell, the author of a new book, The Political Gene: How Darwin's Ideas Changed Politics, in the Times Online. Some excerpts:

The Darwin double anniversary (2009 marks both the bicentenary of his birth and 150 years since the first publication of On the Origin of Species) has featured much vanilla hoopla: the Royal Mail issued commemorative stamps; Damien Hirst designed the dust jacket for a special edition of Darwin’s masterpiece; Bristol Zoo offered free admission to men with beards, and the Natural History Museum served pea soup made to a recipe devised by Darwin’s wife, Emma. The conclusion of dozens of lectures, articles and education packs for schools has been that Darwin wasn’t just a brilliant scientist, but a thoroughly good egg.

With hardly a mention that his name has been associated with some of the most infamous crimes of modern history, it is as if there has been an unspoken agreement to accentuate the positive. Certainly, the milquetoast Darwin played by Paul Bettany in the recent film Creation provided little hint that there might be a dark side to the great man’s bequest to posterity.

. . .

In April, 1,000 people gathered at sunset in Littleton, Colorado, to commemorate the victims of the Columbine high school massacre, 10 years on. Darrell Scott, whose daughter Rachel was the first of the 13 children to be murdered, and whose son Craig narrowly escaped being shot, cannot understand why so little attention has been paid to the motivation of the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and their interest in Charles Darwin’s ideas. “Harris wore a ‘Natural Selection’ T-shirt on the day of the killings. They made remarks on video about helping out the process of natural selection by eliminating the weak. They also professed that they had evolved to a higher level than their classmates. I was amazed at the frequent references to evolution, and that the press completely ignored that aspect of the tapes.”

Darwinian theory helps us to understand the actions of Harris and Klebold in another way, as explained by Richard Dawkins:

But doesn't a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility, whether diminished or not? Any crime, however heinous, is in principle to be blamed on antecedent conditions acting through the accused's physiology, heredity and environment. Don't judicial hearings to decide questions of blame or diminished responsibility make as little sense for a faulty man as for a Fawlty car?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions? Why do we vent such visceral hatred on child murderers, or on thuggish vandals, when we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing? Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution. Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world in which we have to live. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.

In response to that, I observed:

Dawkins says we should not blame people, but "we should simply regard them as faulty units that need fixing or replacing." But given his contention that our mental constructs of good and evil are just useful fictions, what is the basis for identifying the units (persons) that are working from those that need "fixing or replacing"? Aren't they all working just as they "should" according to his "scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system," and his purely materialistic view of the origin of all life?

Finally, according to how Dawkins sees things, is not Cho Seung-Hui's evaluation of the moral significance of his own behavior closer to "that level of enlightenment" of which Dawkins speaks?

Every time I comment on such effects of Darwinism, I feel that I have to anticipate a misunderstanding. Please note: the ramifications of Darwinism do not undermine the truth of the theory. But they should inform our public policy, including how zealously we preach it to high school kids and whether we ban the evidence that does undermine the theory.

HT: Uncommon Descent

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