Friday, October 26, 2007

All Hail the Darwinian State

Richard Dawkins gave an interview with a German newspaper in which he said, well, something about a "Darwinian state." I don't speak German, but the folks over at Panda's Thumb translate as follows:

Q. In “the Ancestor’s Tale” you mention the Welfare State as a challenge to Darwinism. How can one justify this challenge”

Dawkins: No self respecting person would want to live in a Society that operates according to Darwinian laws. I am an passionate Darwinist, when it involves explaining the development of life. However, I am a passionate anti-Darwinist when it involves the kind of society in which we want to live. A Darwinian State would be a Fascist state.

This quotation got picked up by First Things, and it made its way over to Dembski's blog, where contributor Barry A tries to make rhetorical hay out of it. After quoting a passage from one of his books where Dawkins appers to be saying that we all dance to the music of our genes, Barry claims that Dawkins contradicts himself:

In the last sentence Dawkins asserts that Darwinian determinism is absolute. It is, therefore, incoherent for him to suggest that we can “rise above” our biological nature. For if he is correct then we are nothing but material objects dancing to DNA’s tune, and it makes no sense to suggest that an object can rise above itself.

It is just here that O’Leary’s work in “The Spiritual Brain” comes into play. I can rise above my material body ONLY if an immaterial ”me” exists that is separate from, and superior to, my body.

I think I know what Dawkins meant to say: that belief in Darwinian evolution doesn't entail a belief in some form of crude social darwinism.

But still, he could have chosen his words a lot more carefully. I mean, what the heck is a "Darwinian State" anyway? A state where children face each other in gladiatorial games where the winners are allowed to reproduce? One where everybody gets IQ tests and the low scorers are culled? Nazi Germany? I don't know what a "Darwinian State" entails, and I don't know of anybody who wants one. I don't think it's a coherent or well-specified concept. Tell me what it is, and I will tell you if I like the idea.

Dawkins seems to be saying that belief in evolution is wholly compatible with the sort of European-style Social Democratic welfare state that, as a good left-leaning European intellectual he tends to favor. Which of course is true. But believing in evolution, or being an atheist who also believes in evolution, doesn't necessarily lead to any particular political agenda or economic theory. It is quite possible for somebody to be an atheist, and to believe in evolution, and be a Marxist, or a libertarian, or a Burkean conservative, or even a monarchist. Being an atheist is certainly incompatible with certain political positions -- Sharia law, Christian Reconstructionism, pretty much any other form of theocracy. But it is wholly compatible with a wide range of mutually-incompatible political belief systems.

Like it or not, Richard Dawkins is a big "name" atheist -- probably the most widely-known advocate of atheism on the stage today. He is also a science writer who has written a lot of popular stuff about evolution, and he's a big foil for the creationists. Given that position of notoriety, it is probably a mistake for him to make statements that the creationists can twist into some sort of concession. He can express whatever political views he wants, but he should probably avoid terms like "Darwinian state."


society girl said...

I think it takes a lot of twisting to get an contradiction out of Dawkin's statement. My God (Just had to say that), he is talking about two totally different things - biology and sociology.

Evolution is the biological development of our species over hundreds of thousands of years Wikipedia defines evolution as "the change in the inherited traits of a population from generation to generation. These traits are the expression of genes that are copied and passed on to offspring during reproduction. Mutations in these genes can produce new or altered traits, resulting in heritable differences (genetic variation) between organisms." For a timeline of human evolution see

The various forms of government that a particular society chooses generally is of relatively short duration with frequent interruptions and changes -- with absolutley nothing to do with biology.

Anonymous said...

I do know German and what he compared to a darwinian society (he did not use state here) was a fascist state or when the interviewer asked 'not a neo-liberal state' 'You probably are right with that'.

Just to clarify things a bit,

Greetings from Germany :)

salient said...

"Given that position of notoriety, it is probably a mistake for him to make statements that the creationists can twist into some sort of concession."

I agree in principal. In practice the problem is that religionists will deliberately twist even comments that make sense when taken out of context by inserting the quotes into sense-contradictory statements. If they can't find distortable quotes, then they will simply invent things that the person never said in the first place.

The problem, as all atheists know, is that religionist and creationist polemicists may claim to be devoted to 'Truth', but they have no real interest in truth.

MikeT said...

People like Dawkins do not have the honesty to admit that fundamental truths like Darwinism drive society at a deep level. If most people genuinely believed that the supreme truth about how human life came into existence was Darwinian, well, you could forget any sort of welfare state right then and there. It would lead to a rather cruel state.

You cannot simply say "well, Darwin was right, but the fact is, the truth really hurts. So, we're going to pretend that the parts that we like about Christianity are true!" Unless you want to sound like an idiot on the subject.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps human cooperation is a trait that gives the species, and individuals within the species, a better chance at survival, and some level of cooperative spirit and compassion (which underlies an impulse toward providing some level of a safety net to the less able -- frankly, even self interest can justify providing some level of safety net) makes an individual and a society fitter in a survival of the fittest sense.

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