Precis of talk given by Denis Sewell
November 08th 2010
Report on Speaker’s Talk on Wednesday 8th September
Dennis Sewell: Darwin and the Political Gene. A resumee of his talk.
On Wednesday 8th September, our speaker was Dennis Sewell, author of Darwin and the Political Gene (and earlier, of a book about Catholics in Britain). Dennis is a producer at the BBC – he produces political programmes on Radio 4, currently doing a reprise of What the Papers Say. He is also a contributing editor to The Spectator. He went to school at Stoneyhurst and then joined the army where he served in the Cavalry Regiment, and subsequently went into journalism. He is married and the father of two twin girls, aged five and a half.
Dennis began by speaking about the way in which Darwinism has profoundly affected the wider values of our society, although it took about a hundred years for this to occur. From the behaviour of banks to the extolling of secularism, all these have their roots in Darwinist political theory. When Benjamin Disraeli asked whether we were apes or angels, it seems, now that we are now rather more posited on our similarity to apes.
It has become the default position of reasonable people to dismiss religion as deluded, and that is very much part of the Darwinist legacy,
Dennis Sewell did not discourse upon Darwin as a natural scientist – of course we accept he was a remarkable man. It took about fifty years for some of the outcomes of Darwinism to be manifest. In New York in 1906, for example, a human person, a pygmy African from the Congo was exhibited in a cage, next to an orang-utan. The Professors of Biology applauded this and the New York Times regarded it as a “good story”: it was praised as scientific. Some clergymen objection and some arguments ensued, but the New York Times thought it ridiculous that we should speak of “the rights of man” – man was an animal. The African pygmy was a “less evolved” creature.
Eugenics – the so-called scientific biology proceeded apace. Men of science set out to remake society. Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, developed the idea of eugenics: Galton’s ideas were that you could breed better humans, like thoroughbred racehorses. There was a consensus of science around this idea, and a social consensus followed. Certain traits like fecklessness, alcoholism, idleness – it was desire to breed these out of the human race. Social problems of all kinds could be bred out, just as veterinary scientists could breed out certain spots on a Dalmatian. The poor could be stopped from breeding, according to the Eugenics Society. Scientists were to be empowered to arrest certain people for “scientific” reasons – “imbeciles”, those who had begot a child out of wedlock, those who abused alcohol, those who were “moral imbeciles”. Some 20,000 people were locked up without evidence.
The founders of the Welfare State, such as Beveridge and Richard Titmuss, were committed members of the Eugenics Society. A main thrust was to reduce the breeding of poor people: this was much supported by the Fabian Society.
Darwinism also fed into racism. It was a “scientific fact” that there were “inferior” races. Such theories were brought to a halt by the emergence, in 1945, of the facts about the “final solution” imposed by the Nazis, on those they considered “inferior” races. The Third Reich was politics as applied biology. (Marie Stopes, the birth control pioneer, had been a great attender at Nazi rallies.) Jews were considered to be “imbeciles” by this “scientific racism”. These ideas had spread to the United States and refugees were restricted as immigrants for fear they might be dysgenic.
We should be careful about accepting notions that are justified as “scientific” – such as that religion should be banned from the public square because it is not “scientific”. The narrowing of horizons always ends by the denigration of human rights.
There was an interesting discussion afterwards, and it was noted that Chesterton had seen many of these ideas coming and his writings on eugenics are inspiring to this day.
Roger gave the vote of thanks. Father Charles, in the absence of Father Peter, had said grace and opened the proceedings with a prayer.