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.