Thursday, November 4, 2010

Thoughts on "A Response to "Religion, E. O. Wilson, and Darwinism""

 From Darwin's Reactionaries: A Response to “Religion, E. O. Wilson, and Darwinism":

" it a truth that Darwinism is responsible for the use of eugenics? The answer is clearly no. Darwinism does not make any claims about what ought to be. It is not a theory of ethics, and has no opinion on the matter of public policy. Darwinism's limits are to providing a possible account for the mechanism by which we experience diversity of life on earth, and is not a treatise on how to govern a society. As a result, it is most certainly not responsible for the application of eugenics. Darwinism does hold that a eugenics program would likely work, but that is entirely different from arguing that it ought to be done."

I really appreciated this article, because it illuminates an issue that I think is very much worth discussing. The distinction between developing a theory of mechanism, and the actual application of that mechanism (and so the weight of ethical responsibility for the effects) is a very important one to make. Moreover, credit seems to be due to Darwin himself, who would have been extremely offended by the interpretation of 'survival of the fittest' in eugenics. However, I think the writer of this post slightly misdirected their criticisms, because the actual point of disagreement between myself and this member of Darwin's Reactionaries is on how the term 'Darwinism' is to be defined.

First of all, I think it's worth saying that I assumed a distinction between the theories and writings of Darwin himself, and what I termed to be 'Darwinism' - "ways of thinking that grow out of Darwin's theories and writings". I categorized eugenics under the latter umbrella, though it's up for debate whether this definition of 'Darwinism' is too broad and ungoverned a category to actually deserve Darwin's name. In any case, I would like to make it clear that I never said Darwin would have endorsed the Holocaust or genocide. Of course that is an offensive statement, and I never made it.

My criticism was hinged on the assumption that the term 'Darwinism' encompasses eugenics, and not necessarily the opinions of Darwin himself. However, the writer of the critique of my article likely does not agree with my line-drawing regarding what's Darwinism and what isn't. This, I think, is the source of contention more than anything else. I'm guessing this person thinks that Darwinism is more narrowly defined as the espousal of that which is to be found in the work produced by Darwin. And if after more inquiry and debate it is decided that the term 'Darwinism' does not actually apply to all ways of thinking that grow out of Darwin's theories and writings, then eugenics is not Darwinism, and I concede that what I said was absurd.

The problem though is that the use of terms like 'Darwinism' cannot really be governed particularly well. I tried to define my use of 'Darwinism', I don't think my definition was off-the-wall ridiculous, and my article has to be read in light of that definition. Eugenics clearly fits that definition, because it did grow out of 'survival of the fittest'. It follows then that eugenics is a (particularly immoral and offensive) brand of Darwinism, and so within the very broad category of Darwinism there is some blame to be directed. Ultimately, I think any disagreement here is based on semantics, and not the fact that I don't understand the distinction between the holding of ideas and the application of ideas. I simply defined "Darwinism" to include both of these positions.

In fact, I understand the distinction between these two positions quite well, and think that it applies equally well to E. O. Wilson's criticisms of religion. Should those who hold certain religious ideas (in that group's entirety) be held responsible for the actions of a few who acted in the name of that brand, (mis)applying certain ideas found therein? To borrow a page from my criticizer, just as Darwin and probably the majority of Darwinists (as I define them) are not responsible for the Holocaust, an emphatic no is in order. But some are responsible, just like some Darwinists are responsible for eugenics.

Now, if the debate is about to begin regarding the validity of how I defined 'Darwinism', I think I ought to preface the discussion. This blog was assigned the task of finding ways to criticize Darwinism. The term was not defined for us upon arrival, and so it was left up to us to figure out what the word means and what it doesn't mean. Since we are trying to find fault with 'Darwinism', it seems as though the broader the definition of the word, the most possibilities for discussion there are. In my opinion, a broad definition is only fair, in the pursuit of engaging writing.

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