Norm Geras, whom I usually rely on to write thoughtful exercises in clear thinking, has let me down by praising a review by Marilynne Robinson. It’s not that I disagree with the point that attracted Geras to the review in the first place. Robinson was reviewing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion for Harper’s, and she made the fair point that,
[I]n comparing religions, great care must be taken to consider the best elements of one with the best of the other, and the worst with the worst, to avoid the usual practice of comparing, let us say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie with the Golden Rule. The same principle might be applied in the comparison of religion and science. To set the declared hopes of one against the real-world record of the other is clearly not useful, no matter which of them is flattered by the comparison.
Now, naturally, I agree completely with this statement, and I also agree that Dawkins warrants the criticism. I was flabbergasted when Dawkins hosted a television series on religion called The Root of All Evil? Now it seems to me that calling religion the root of all evil is about as silly and unhelpful as the Biblical quote that love of money is the root of all evil, thereby neglecting such crimes as rape, negligent homicide, and suicide bombing–although to be fair to St Paul, he was probably mistranslated. Dawkins himself claims that the title was not his choice and that the only concession he wheedled out of Channel 4 was the question mark. But, you know, as the writer and presenter, it was Dawkins’ name and face emblazoned on the DVD cover, and I find it hard to believe that Channel 4 would not have acquiesced to a principled stand.
But that is as far as my agreement with Robinson goes. Behind this fair criticism, Robinson hides a cohort of fallacies and misrepresentations and it irks me to see Norm Geras quote her at length on matters of which she is clearly ignorant and intellectually dishonest. For instance,
Dawkins deals with all this in one sentence. Hitler did his evil “in the name of… an insane and unscientific eugenics theory.” But eugenics is science as surely as totemism is religion. That either is in error is beside the point.
I’ve now read at least a dozen critics of The God Delusion complain that Dawkins did not expand at length on their particular pet subject. I can only surmise that had Dawkins done what his critics wanted of him, The God Delusion would have been 1,200 pages long and as gripping as an oiler’s handshake and nobody would have read it. Exactly what Dawkins’ critics would have wanted.
And how exactly is totemism “in error?” I can only assume that totemism is in error because Robinson doesn’t believe in it. By any sensible measure, totemism is a form of religion. It is practised in Japan’s Shinto temples, and although the Catholic Church would deny it, the concept of patron saints is totemism in a monotheistic wrapping.
But more to the point: Dawkins is absolutely right about eugenics. Eugenics was not and never was a science. And Hitler’s version of eugenics had even less to do with science than anyone else’s. I’ll come back to this point later, but it should serve as notice of Robinson’s poor intentions, especially as Robinson counters Dawkins’ one-sentence dismissal of eugenics as science with a one-sentence assertion that it is too science. More on that later. Robinson actually ought to have stuck to blind assertion because her problems really come out when she tries to explain herself, no more starkly illustrated than by this:
If the only bad effect of the notion to yield a highly selective reading of the past by dismissing the modem horrors as anomaly, that in itself would he grounds for objection. But it enables a misreading of the history it chooses to acknowledge. For example, Dawkins quotes a passage from an essay by T. H. Huxley, Darwin’s contemporary and champion, in which Huxley says the black man will not “be able to compete successfully with his bigger-brained and smaller-jawed rival [that is, the white man], in a contest which is to be carried on by thoughts and not by bites.” Dawkins cringes at this, but, he says, “good historians don’t judge statements from past times by the standards of their own.” He finds evidence for his advancing moral Zeitgeist in the crudeness of Huxley’s racism: “The whole wave keeps moving, and even the vanguard of an earlier century (T. H. Huxley is the obvious example) would find itself way behind the laggers of a later century.”
But was Huxley in the vanguard? The essay from which Dawkins quotes, “Emancipation — Black and White,” published in 1865, is an explicit rejection of the belief in racial equality active in America before and for some time after the Civil War. Huxley dismisses “standards” that had long been salient among his contemporaries. He is saying that emancipation may well prove to have very mingled consequences — “emancipation may convert the slave from a well-fed animal into a pauperised man” — and that the egalitarian hopes the movement inspired should be rejected. This was the crucial period of Reconstruction and of the ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which established the full rights of citizenship to everyone born or naturalized in this country. Its passage was the work of emancipationists, and it was meant to create meaningful political equality for African Americans, among others. The vanguard in the period in which Huxley wrote were those Christian abolitionists whose intentions he dismissed as, of course, at odds with science. Huxley’s racism, like Hitler’s, is not a standard from which ineluctable progress can be inferred but instead a proof of the power of atavism.
Except that this is a complete misrepresentation of Huxley, and given Robinson has clearly read his essay, I am struggling to find a way to consider this an innocent mistake. To correct Robinson’s misrepresentation: Huxley was indeed a racist, like almost everyone of his era, including abolitionists. But rather than being opposed to emancipation as Robinson implies, Huxley was a firm abolitionist. His full argument, which Robinson doesn’t want you to know, is that slavery is immoral and blacks deserve full freedom even if they are inferior to whites. His point about the downside of emancipation was not that emancipation was a bad thing, but that it was not enough. Simply freeing blacks would turn them from slaves into paupers, still at the mercy of the landowners by virtue of their poverty, and that what was needed was a “double emancipation” to protect blacks from economic pseudo-slavery. As the history of post-emancipation Confederate states shows, Huxley was rather insightful on this point. This is the last line of Huxley’s essay, pointedly unquoted by Robinson:
The duty of man is to see that not a grain is piled upon that load beyond what nature imposes; that injustice is not added to inequality.
Was Huxley racist? Indeed. Very much so. He was also very sexist. But note that nowhere in the essay does he claim that his view is more scientific, nor that abolitionists had unscientific intentions. His argument is that the issue of emancipation is a moral issue rather than a scientific one. That is, even though Huxley believed blacks (and women) were inferior to whites (and men), he pointed out that this was no scientific reason to oppose emancipation. He also argued that a mere legislative fiat was not sufficient to give blacks a fair chance of reaching their full potential.
Robinson also misrepresents the prevailing emancipation movement. Far from Huxley being a retrograde influence, his opinion that blacks were inferior and yet still deserved citizenship was exactly that of Abraham Lincoln, and indeed most other abolitionists. Lincoln not only held that blacks were inferior, but also that blacks should not intermarry with whites, should not have the vote (later he changed his mind and decided that some blacks could have the vote if they were considered up to it or if they had fought for the Union), and that freed blacks should be packed off to colonise Liberia so as to keep them separate from whites. While I am not aware of anything Huxley said about the Liberian experiment, he was most definitely in favour of universal suffrage. Thus Huxley was more modern in his views than almost anyone of his time, including his fellow abolitionists. Again, Robinson does not want you to know that. She wants you to think that Huxley was a source of friction to emancipation, slowing things down.
Huxley was, contra Robinson, an extremely active proponent of human rights, as evidenced by his role on the Jamaica Committee that sought unsuccessfully to have Governer Edward John Eyre tried for murder for putting down a slave uprising in Jamaica with savage violence and extra-judicial killings. Huxley wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette in 1886,
Sir–I learn from yesterday evening’s Pall Mall Gazette that you are curious to know whether certain “peculiar views on the development of species,” which I am said to hold in the excellent company of Sir Charles Lyell, have led me to become a member of the Jamaica Committee.
Permit me without delay to satisfy a curiosity which does me honour. I have been induced to join that committee neither by my “peculiar views on the development of species,” nor by any particular love for, or admiration of the negro–still less by any miserable desire to wreak vengeance for recent error upon a man whose early career I have often admired; but because the course which the committee proposes to take appears to me to be the only one by which a question of the profoundest practical importance can be answered. That question is, Does the killing a man in the way Mr. Gordon was killed constitute murder in the eye of the law, or does it not?
To me, it means something that the members who fought alongside Huxley on the Jamaica Committee included Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer, and they were generally vilified for considering blacks too deserving of freedom and equality before the law even by other emancipationists. Or to put it another way, contra Robinson, the most ardent proponents of scientific Darwinism were on the side of universal human rights, as opposed to the dignitaries who argued that the rule of Empire was more important than bringing a governor to justice, numbering among them such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, the fiery anti-atheist and anti-Darwinist John Carlyle, and even (against all expectations) Mr Charles Dickens. Now I don’t present this information to argue that scientists are better than non-scientists or that religion is worse than non-religion. There were clergymen on the Jamaica Committee and the opposing Eyre Defence Committee entertained at least one anti-clerical Christian in John Ruskin, and one defender of scientific Darwinism in Charles Kingsley. But it does show that Robinson has no knowledge of the history she draws upon, which is particularly egregious given the accusations of historical ignorance she launches at Dawkins. Talk about your “highly selective reading of the past.”
Perhaps most saliently, it should be noted that over time Huxley changed his mind about race. After 1867, he became increasingly concerned to point out in scientific meetings that most of the differences between groups of humans were due to environmental or cultural factors, and eventually came to the conclusion that there was little biological difference between the various races. Far from being an example of a racist and anti-abolitionist who used science to bolster his grandfather’s prejudices (that’s what “atavism” means), Huxley was a vehement abolitionist, a supporter of female suffrage, a leading figure in the opening of British universities and colleges to female students, and although undeniably a racist, a man whose views moderated over time in response to increasing weight of evidence against his prejudice. Huxley summarised his lifelong political passion as having three planks:
…equal freedom to share the necessaries of life; equal freedom of opportunity to advance; equal freedom to shape individual thought and action within the necessary limitations of political organisation.
Through Robinson’s pen, Huxley comes to stand square against himself. I find it illuminating to read about the criticism John Stuart Mill received when he was on the Jamaica Committee. From Utilitarianism and Empire:
Thomas Beggs, a contemporary of Mill, complains that Mill’s opponents took extracts from Mill’s books “which without the context, were made to read very differently to the author’s intentions. Nothing but blank pages could save an author under such treatment.”
Sadly familiar, no?
 St Paul probably said “the root of much evil is the love of money,” but due to contextual ambiguity in the original Greek this became “the root of all evil.”
Next: Was eugenics a science?