Friday, August 15, 2008

Dawkins on Darwin, economics and Hitler

Dawkins Episode 2

I am just about to disappear off on holiday for a week, but last night my wife pointed out that the blog was getting a lot of traffic from a comment I posted on Sneer Review saying that I would blog on Dawkins, Darwin and Hitler, so I thought I would deliver on my promise and squeeze in one last quick post before a week off.

This week saw the second episode of Dawkins’ series The Genius of Charles Darwin. It seems that copyright counts for nothing these days, as the episode is already available on YouTube and even for download (the same site makes Dawkins reading The Origin available, but it looks like it takes a long time to download; buy from iTunes instead). Plus the show was live-blogged on the Beagle blog.

The response to the second episode has been a bit more muted than it was to the first episode. The one clear opinion from Laelaps dovetails with my own, which is that it was all rather so-so. My children came away confused as to what point was being made and there was certainly a lot of sloppy use of language. Laelaps has already pointed out the teleology in Dawkins description of hominin evolution. Plus for me Dawkins' use of the value-laden word “misfiring” to describe the neural/evolutionary basis of our moral instinct goes against the very point that he is trying to make towards the end of the show: that civilised values can and should be uncoupled from natural selection.

Also the use of the term “fifth ape” confused me. Initially I thought he was being clever and remembering to count the two species of chimpanzee (common chimp and bonobo) in his reckoning of the great apes (hominidae), but then it turned out he was adopting an idiosyncratic anthropocentric view of ape taxonomy, evaluating the great apes at genus level but lumping all four genera/thirteen species of gibbon together as just one of his "five" apes!

I was also somewhat taken aback by Dawkins very superficial treatment of social Darwinism and eugenics-and-the-Nazis. I appreciate that one can only say so much in a one hour show, but why bother at all if it can only be done so superficially?


Starting with social Darwinism, Dawkins dismissed the use of evolutionary thinking in economics with two put-downs: use of a ruthlessly selectionist regime at Enron led to its downfall and in any case applying evolution to economics is only an exercise in metaphor or analogy. I don’t know whether the point about Enron was well made, but the latter point seems rather feeble, as there is nothing wrong with the use of metaphor and analogy, when appropriately applied. After all, Darwin’s conception of natural selection was a metaphor drawn from the artificial selection employed by animal and plant breeders. In fact, it seems rather odd to dismiss all the influences of evolution on economics and cross-fertilisation between the two fields in quite such an offhand manner.

For example, just as Darwin is seen as the father of modern biology, the Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723–90) is credited with laying the foundations of economics with his 1776 masterpiece The Wealth of Nations. In this highly influential book, Smith analysed and defended free market economics, arguing that, although a free market appears chaotic and free of restraints, with each man acting for himself, the market is in fact steered by an “invisible hand” to a rational outcome, producing just the right amount and variety of goods at the right price. 

There is a clear analogy between the undirected effects of Smith’s invisible hand in the creation of wealth and the designer-free biological adaptations forged by Darwin’s natural selection and I think the argument has even been made that Smith’s arguments directly fed into Darwin’s thinking . Similarly, competition can still be seen as a driving force in both economics and evolution, even if one dismisses the crudities of social Darwinism. And it seems to me that the division of labour and diversification in an economic setting are highly analogous to adaptive radiations seen during biological evolution. 

For more information on the influence of evolutionary thinking on economics, see the wikipedia article on Evolutionary Economics or take a look at  the work of Richard Nelson/Sidney Winter in the US and Geoffrey Hodgson in the UK or at Howard Aldrich’s Organizations and Environments (1979) and Organizations Evolving (1999). Or ask an expert in game theory or agent-based modeling—approaches which amply straddle the divide between economics and evolution.

So instead of, like Dawkins, dismissing the influence of evolution on economics as just so much analogizing, we should be celebrating the fecundity of Darwin’s thought and influence in this field!

The Nazis

Moving on to the eugenics/Nazi issue, one wonders whether Dawkins is right to give the oxygen of publicity to this attempt to discredit evolution though guilt by association, as seen in the 2004 book From Darwin to Hitler, by Discovery Institute historian Richard Weikart and in the recent film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. But having raised the issue, is Dawkins right to dismiss it in just a few words, along the lines of the Nazis, like Darwin, drew inspiration from animal and plant breeders, but didn’t get their ideas directly from Darwin. This strikes me a rather simplistic response (and where did Dawkins get it from?) to the equally simplistic claim that Darwin led to the Nazis and can be blamed for the Holocaust.

In fact this claim can be dismissed on a number of grounds...

Firstly, it is clear that there is no direct link between Darwin and Hitler, as Darwin died before Hitler was even born—a fact parodied in this recent spoof letter from Darwin to Hitler’s mother. 

And one looks in vain in anything Darwin ever wrote or did for any direct support for anti-Semitism. In fact, Darwin had Jewish friends and admirers. In discussing The Origin in his autobiography, Darwin seemed pleased that “Even an essay in Hebrew has appeared on it…!” For eight years, Darwin corresponded with the German Jewish bacteriologist Ferdinand Cohn (1828-1898) and he received a visit from Cohn at Down House in 1876. And just once in all the millions of words that he wrote does Darwin slip into the language of cultural stereotyping—in one letter in which he writes “we are as rich as Jews”.

But what about an indirect link? Well, here one is on very shaky ground

Is it ever fair to hold a historical figure personally responsible for all the future unbidden and unforeseeable consequences of all that he or she has said or done? Was Jesus responsible for the Inquisition or Muhammad for 9/11? Can we blame Newton and his laws of motion for the damage caused by cruise missiles? And even where one can establish a chain of causal links between scientific discoveries and their subsequent abuses, does this mean that we must belittle the discovery or close down future research?

Protestant Christians are on the shakiest ground when using this argument, as it allows us to indict Martin Luther for the Holocaust, with his On The Jews and their Lies (1543), which was avidly quoted by Hitler. Chillingly, the first of ten recommendations from Luther was “First to set fire to their synagogues or schools...” Should we really blame Luther for Kristallnacht?

In fact, Nazi ideology was derived from a range of ideas and beliefs, which included anti-Semitism, militaristic Nationalism, anti-Capitalism and anti-Communism. The Nazis also blended a distorted German Christian tradition with Nordic mythology and derived their zest for eugenics as much from ancient Sparta as from any modern sources. The influence of evolutionary thinking on Hitler was, if anything, very minor: nowhere in Mein Kampf does he mention Darwin, natural selection or biological evolution. In fact, in the first edition of the book, Hitler comes across as a young Earth creationist, claiming at one point that “this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men”.

As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his essay The most unkindest cut of all, the Nazis did cite an evolutionary principle at one important point, at the Wannsee conference in 1942, where they chose mass murder of remaining Jews on the grounds that

 “[t]he possible final remnant will… have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as a the seed of a new Jewish revival.” 

But here the argument seems to be that the Nazis should be wary of the effects of natural selection, rather than try to emulate it. And in any case, is this one fleeting reference – which some might see as a unnerving prophecy of the subsequent re-birth of a Jewish homeland in Israel – really enough to damn Darwin for Dachau?

I leave the last word to the Jewish Anti-defamation League, who issued this press release in response to Expelled:

The film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed misappropriates the Holocaust and its imagery as a part of its political effort to discredit the scientific community which rejects so-called intelligent design theory.

Hitler did not need Darwin to devise his heinous plan to exterminate the Jewish people and Darwin and evolutionary theory cannot explain Hitler's genocidal madness.

Using the Holocaust in order to tarnish those who promote the theory of evolution is outrageous and trivializes the complex factors that led to the mass extermination of European Jewry.



Charlotte said...

I find the economics question interesting. If we accept that a form of natural selection acts on businesses, then is it possible to manipulate it? Clearly Enron thought they were making their company 'fitter', and so do a lot of companies who are downsizing, outsourcing, etc, sometimes with very negative effects.

Are we just bad at deciding what 'fit' is? Does the business 'environment' change too rapidly? Or is there a more fundamental problem? Natural selection acts on random variation, but the distribution of business models/structures is far from random, after all, it's chosen to try to be well adapted.

I haven't watched all the Dawkins, (no TV and a slow connection) so sorry if this is covered elsewhere. Have fun in Somerset, which is indeed sunny today :)

RBH said...

While one can draw analogies between biological evolution (and the theory that explains it) and socio-cultural phenomena like economics, and while those analogies are sometimes fruitful of hypotheses, one has to stay aware of the fact that the transmission of characters in cultural systems is very different from transmission in biological systems. Niles Eldredge has done work on the phylogeny of cultural artifacts (pdf) and finds that the biological model of descent with modification is not applicable across the board.

Anonymous said...

There was a blog posting linked to from the comments of this Pharyngula post citing Hitler's own words about his religion, which cites from Mein Kampf some paragraphs which certainly proffer ideas that look like those of creationists. Specifically, the struggle for existence (microevolution; adaptation) contrasted with a fixity of species (no macroevolution!).