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Wednesday, January 14, 2004
Darwin's a Tory at heart

As (definitely-not-one-to-bear-a-grudge) Tom Watson pointed out, Richard Dawkins had a special programme on Channel Five last week. Unfortunately, Dawkins is now known best for his evangelical atheism, which probably means many Britons think of him as merely a well-spoken member of the Secular Society. But he originally made his name in the field of Darwinian evolution with his book The Selfish Gene, in which he took a very clear and somewhat extreme line: the first thing visiting aliens will ask about humans is whether we understand evolution; each individual gene exists to survive and replicate itself, even at the expense of its host; a huge amount of human behaviour can ultimately be traced back to our evolutionary inheritance. It's a solid scientific judgement, and one supported by much theory and evidence - and some beautiful exposition.

However, Dawkins' programme seemed at first sight to be a departure from this thinking. It centred around how important he feels it is to separate a scientific understanding and appreciation of the Darwinian mechanism from a reverence for it in political or social terms. He was clear that one must not believe that merely because natural selection has particular effects and results, then we should accept that state of affairs as something to admire or even emulate in our social interactions.

This has been a consistent position for Dawkins for as long as he has been a prominent Darwinist. He went so far as to end The Selfish Gene with these words:

We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.

So just because intelligent life evolved through the survival of the fittest does not mean we should in any way seek to replicate this brutal system in our ordinary affairs. Further to that: if, as evolutionary psychology and sociobiology suggest, our natural instinct is to be protective first of ourselves and our families, to be indifferent to the collective good save when levelled up against another group, to seek chaste, maternal, beautiful wives and hard-working, wealthy, dutiful husbands, then that too should not be regarded as a state of affairs we should passively accept.

Now in fairness it is important to state that this position is perfectly consistent with Dawkins' science and his political convictions. For a socialist who is happy with the idea of radical change and a whole remodelling of society, the mere discovery of obstacles deep within human nature should not necessarily be any sort of barrier to that quest. A left-winger who discovers that human nature is firmly rooted against him need not give up in despair. Like Dawkins, he can equally reasonably take that as evidence of just how hard he needs to work, of just how necessary his goals are. If nature be sexist, homophobic and anti-collectivist, then so much the worse for nature!

But for someone of a conservative disposition, such discoveries ought to promote a very different reaction. For anyone who sees the best government and worldview as one that goes with the grain of human nature and everyday instinct, sociobiology opens up a whole new perspective on the same social and political questions. As the National Review's Steve Sailer puts it:

The left has long denounced sociobiological research for validating what conservatives have assumed all along: that human nature - with its sex differences and its stress on individual, family, and ethnic self-interest - is an innate heritage, not a blank slate that can be wiped clean by speech codes, sensitivity workshops, and re-education camps.

This is a point of profound importance, and which has implications for all of politics. It has regularly astounded me when discussing cultural and social issues not that people often disagree with the conservative perspective, but that they tend to do so in such a way as to suggest they think it has all simply been pulled out of the air as an arbitrary edict. Do they really think a father is superfluous in the raising of children?, I ask myself. Do they honestly think marriage is merely a piece of paper, that the link between sex and procreation is a thing of the past? Can they possibly believe that a marriage of multiple men and women would work just as well if social conventions only changed a little? From the Marxist, postmodernist and liberal left to the libertarian right, such blank slate attitudes are commonplace. But then I realise that without a basic grounding in sociobiology, I would likely think the very same.

The perspective sociobiology and evolutionary psychology open up on human affairs is one that is likely to shake and enhance the entire worldview of the person who discovers it. In retrospect, I can say that it certainly did mine. Why else are liberals so fervent in their attacks on the science than their horror at its power to chip away at so many of their cherished notions? I have spent spare moments in the last few days simply reading the first hundred entries on a Google search for 'sociobiology+right-wing', and examining these criticisms. If you doubt just how angry the science of examining the evolutionary origins of human thought and behaviour makes the left, I advise you to do the same. At its simplest level, liberal fury comes down to Zoe William's attack on all sociobiological study:

[T]his whole line of enquiry is geared towards explaining why men fancy young hotties, and why they're quite within their cavemen rights to pursue them. Further, with the trenchant assertion that all sexual behaviour is, with no nuance, determined by the search for strong (rich) babies, scientists can get away with calling homosexuals deviant long after they've been compelled by law to stop beating them up in car parks.

While it's probably best not to dwell on precisely when she believes it was ever legal to beat homosexuals in car parks, these few lines do encapsulate the left's horror at the implications of the science for their own projects of permanent revolution, social radicalism and sexual egalitarianism. For while they can still hold to those goals, sociobiology certainly undermines a thousand claims that it is simple prejudice, custom and social convention that prevents them being realised. This liberal horror should be matched on the right by quiet satisfaction from all those who have no interest in the remodelling of human nature nor faith in the power of the state to make us all perfect little citizens, devoid of all the self-interest, distrust and unkind judgement that makes the liberal dream so unachievable. It is only a small exaggeration to say that nature is on our side.

UPDATE: Mrs Tilton disagrees.

UPDATE II: David Aaronovitch is more accepting.

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