25 March, 2009

How to be Perfect Men

Yet another piece of the BBC's ongoing double celebration of Charles Darwin (200 years since his birth, 150 years since The Origin of the Species - do keep up), I found part 2 of Andrew Marr's "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" to be a decent hour's diversion. Telling the story of natural selection's place within political thought in the past 150 years, Marr rattles through the development of the depiction of natural selection as "Survival of the fittest," and the development from there of 'social darwinism.' Tracing this fibre leads us to some dark places: first to some 'harmless' eugenics, then the extremely harmful variety, from which we emerge to view a 'rehabilitation' of the theory in the service of equality and universal human rights. In polished, professional OU style Marr gives us a glimpse of the ever-shifting future before saying his adieus.
Marr is on good form, actually. He's a very likeable presenter, suitably wry for dealing with the charming Olde Worlde racism of the 19th Century gentlemen we encounter, but with the necessary solemnity for the more weighty and grave matters. And he does a pretty decent job with the science! There were a couple of mis-cues that niggled, but nothing terribly important. Towards the end he gets a bit eager over some recent research and starts talking about "joining his black brothers," but there's a scientist on hand to calm him down, thankfully. It's all rather endearing.

Well, maybe one thing. This Darwin season has been a bit of a mixed blessing. Fantastic that it gets people talking about important science, certainly. However, I have misgivings - increasingly one wonders if viewers grasp the separation between the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, and its originator, or its applications. These are separate things, and for the same reason I dislike terms such as "Darwinism," because we don't understand evolution as Darwin did. Indeed, we should to hone our understanding, not immortalise it.

After all, if Evolutionary theory best describes how the diversity of life on the planet came about, then its implications, applications or fanbase is irrelevant. Not that this will sink in with the sort of people who'll cheerfully tell you Hitler's acceptance of evolution is a dent to its credibility. Hardly a battle worth fighting.

Marr's story takes us from the entry of Darwin's theory into public understanding and explains its mutation by liberal thinkers into a eugenics movement. Improving the underclasses for work or war piqued many interests at the time, as did ridding the wealthy nations of the "feeble-minded" once and for all. This is an interesting segment. Bluff casual-racists take it in turns to say hopelessly un-PC things that a modern audience can chuckle at. We end up wondering about comparitive, situational morality, whether simply not-being-a-racist was truly saintly behaviour for the 19th century.

But of course these ideas are not as innocuous as they first seem. With a new age of understanding beckoning in genetics, the heinous acts when these ideas were last in vogue are an important reminder of why we do view eugenics as being as sinister as it is outdated. The Holocaust throws a large shadow over proceedings, as it must. As a culmination of 'bad Darwinism,' the most evil occurence in human history came about. Shortly afterwards, the UN considers common human descent a key part of the puzzle where human equality is concerned.

And like that, we're into the present, seeing how a gene database and genetic counselling service has allowed the near-elimination of Tay-Sachs disease in New York. This case is interesting, although it has much more to do with Mendelian genetics or Watson-Crick DNA modelling than it does Darwin! Still, as an illustration of the "personal genetic decisions of the future" it's a good point. The combination of modern technological advancement with a more traditional pro-life mindset is an interesting one, and the self-denial involved, in an age where we are meant to be able to have children as we like with whoever we like, is remarkable.

Finally, a consideration for the post-genomic age which will be upon us sooner than we think. Marr picks up on a "new intelligence gene variant" which has been proposed and may be more prevalent in Europeans than those of African descent. That's a maybe, controversial and recent. But with sequencing and bioinformatics getting cheaper and quicker, accurate and studies into the genetic basis of intelligence are virtually inevitable. The underlying fact is that we cannot naively wait for the new genetic technologies to creep into our lives. DNA analysis will have wide-ranging effects from job recruitment to health insurance. Coupled with IVF technology, gene manipulation can go further still, going beyond the boundaries of disease into realms that earlier eugenics proponents never dreamed of. Before too long we could find ourselves attempting to define 'feeble-mindedness' again, and our society needs to be robust enough to withstand that in advance.

Ultimately, we are still putting words in Darwin's mouth. Nice words, true, but just as the Nazis spun evolutionary theory into something terrible, we're taking the truth and reading it how it suits us. Which is a shame, really. If the history of science can teach us anything, it's that truths can be discovered, but that values must be hard-won.

The 3 episodes of Darwin's Dangerous Idea are available on BBC iPlayer here for a very short while, I'd recommend episode 2 mostly, but it's all good stuff.

1 comment:

sarah expletive said...

or, the adaptation and appropriation of darwin's evolution.