Sunday, July 19, 2009

Such purificatory feats

In the latter half of the nineteenth century, biology experienced a 'golden age'. Claude Bernard pioneered physiology and experimental medicine. Louis Pasteur invented microbiology. Charles Darwin invented evolutionary biology. Of these three breakthroughs, only the latter had no immediate technological or scientific implications. Indeed, until complemented by the genetics of Weismann and especially Mendel, the scientific basis for Darwin's theory was far weaker than its widespread acceptance would have inclined one to believe. In fact, it was precisely because its immediate technological applications were non-existent that its social implications came rapidly to the fore: it had direct implications for the political order, which were rapidly expressed in various doctrines of 'social Darwinism'. Indeed, Darwin's account of his own theory was that it extended the theories of the economists to the natural sciences, and that he had been influenced by Malthus. Subsequent popular interpretations, from Bagehot to Ammon to Lapouge, saw in Darwinism the basis for interpretation and reformation of the social order.

But this should not obscure the fact that the other innovations so far mentioned also had profound ideological ramifications. If Bernardian physiology annihilated vitalism and expunged the 'spirit' from biology, Pasteurian principles introduced compulsory vaccination and quarantine, reinforcing a 'biologization' of politics and implying a 'herding' vision of society. This ought to remind us of how thoroughly ideological and normative the atomic assumptions of our scientific weltanschauung are. Such is theme of André Pichot's The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler.

Pichot is an historian of science based in Strasbourg, and I think this may be his first book translated into English. Some of the research I did for Liberal Defence involved considering the impact of social Darwinism on left-wing and liberal discourses about war and empire. As such, I had encountered Georges Vacher de Lapouge of the French Socialist Party before and was familiar with some of the extent to which such ideas percolated in 'progressive' and socialist opinion (Shaw's fondness for the gas chamber, for example). What Pichot does is to demonstrate how much mainstream scientific theory was implicated in racist and eugenicist ideas, and his thesis is that the suppression of this fact has disguised how much contemporary biology is indebted to those same ideas.

Social Darwinism maintained that human behaviour could be explained by the same evolutionary pressures of struggle, competition and selection as exerted . This meant that there was a constant struggle between different biological entities, whether individuals or groups, for survival and supremacy. Both the defenders and opponents of social Darwinism discerned in it a defence of bourgeois economic interests, even if it stripped away some forms of bourgeois idealism. It also had powerful martial, colonial and racial inflections. Thus, Bagehot (a moderate by the standards of his age): "In every particular state of the world, those nations which are strongest tend to prevail over the others; and in certain marked peculiarities the strongest tend to be the best." And again: "Each nation tried constantly to be the stronger, and so made or copied the best weapons ... Conquest improved mankind by the intermixture of strengths; the armed truce, which was then called peace, improved them by the competition of training and the consequent creation of new power."

And Lapouge (the starkest defender of social Darwinism): "The most ancient songs of the poets and the oldest historic documents show the constant war of all against all. Homer’s blonde warriors, like the Gallic and Scandinavian heroes later on, most often died a violent death. Each tribe was at war with its neighbours, and the main occupation seems to have been that of destroying those nearby. Rereading the heroic songs of the early Aryans, we may ask ourselves in amazement how female fertility was sufficient to make up for the ceaseless destruction of the adult population. There was nothing but massacre and butchery..." And again: "I am convinced that in the next century, millions will be slaughtered for one or two degrees more or less in the cephalic index; this is the sign that is replacing the biblical shibboleth and the linguistic affinities by which people recognise one another ... The last sentimental individuals will witness copious exterminations of peoples". Even non-Darwinists couldn't resist its bleak allure: the Lamarckian biologist Felix La Dantec adopted the Darwinian principles of struggle, competition and selection when he wrote that "To be is to struggle, to live is to conquer."

Eugenics, based on the precepts of social Darwinism, proposed a fable that seemed to resonate with the racist and imperialist culture of the era: the human species was degenerating because of the wrong kind of breeding. The process of selection had somehow gone awry, and the wrong genetic entities were winning the survival game. The solution was to bolster the genetic stock by removing those elements deemed dysfunctional to evolutionary progress, and by the proper regulation of breeding habits. Despite the appalling political consequences of such doctrines, the opponents of eugenics were few and far between. The Catholic church opposed eugenics: though it was complicit with Nazi crimes, it didn't accept the scientistic basis for them. The Soviet Union adopted its own quack science in response to low crop yields, and the urgent drive to industrialise the society and build up its military capacities - but even before that low comedy and high tragedy, it had come to reject eugenics as a bourgeois deviation in genetics. Beyond these two countervailing pressures, there was some suspicion from liberals who saw eugenics as a statist project. Jacques Novicow, the liberal French sociologist, was perhaps the most vociferous opponent of the doctrine, arguing that: "Social Darwinism may be defined as a doctrine that views collective homicide as the cause of the human race’s progress". But social Darwinism, and the eugenicist policies that generally followed from it, was mainstream.

For Pichot, the scientific basis of Darwinism was so weak that its enthusiastic uptake as a potential basis for social engineering is suspicious. This is not, I hasten to add, an invitation to dismiss the theory of evolution. But why did such threadbare assumptions and the social theories extrapolated from them become so widely accepted and so well-funded? Why did the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Institute, for instance, throw millions of dollars at institutions and scientists promoting eugenic theories based on social Darwinism across America and Europe in the early twentieth century, right until the Holocaust? Pichot notes that their own explanations adverted to social crises, crime, poverty and so on, as well as the general confusion and turmoil of the interwar period that seemed to demand a 'new Man'. The idea of refashioning human beings to meet the demands of the society, rather than contrariwise, apparently appealed to the philanthropists of capital.

Now, Pichot is less concerned with the material basis for such ideas than with tracing their lineage, from a scientifically barren but ideologically potent set of texts, to a widespread set of state practises, to the supreme barbarism of the Nazi regime. And he generally offers intellectual explanations for ideational ruptures. Thus, according to Pichot, and contrary to conventional wisdom, eugenics was not decisively broken by WWII and the defeat of the Nazi regime. Rather, advances in molecular genetics gave the theory of evolution the kind of basis that it required to make advances as a science, and leave its "ideological buttress" behind. There is a sort of negative proof offered, namely that no one went on the offensive against eugenics - even erstwhile opponents such as pro-Soviet communist parties or the Catholic church said little about it. Eugenic legislation remained in force in some countries, and very prominent eugenicists such as the social democrat and humanist Julian Huxley were, so far from discredited, actually promoted. Huxley, who had favoured 'voluntary' sterilisation to stop the lower classes breeding too fast and degenerating the race, became the head of UNESCO in 1948, despite his continuing support for eugenics. He would go on to become president of the Eugenics Association from 1959 to 1962, before becoming the first president of the British Humanist Association in 1963. In fact, Pichot notes, had eugenics been targeted after the war, or outlawed, quite a few prominent personages would have found themselves standing in the dock. I am not sure how persuasive I find Pichot's argument here. More advanced molecular genetics did not stop Crick and Watson from espousing eugenicist views, as Pichot himself points out. The fact that it gradually became less popular to do so explicitly, or to ground scientific arguments on such dogma, surely has something to do with the association of 'scientific racism' and similar ideas with a defeated and hated regime. Still, it is important to be reminded that there was nothing inevitable about the (temporary) retreat of eugenics.

What is also useful is to note how eugenic activism was able to re-orient itself in a Malthusian way toward population control in the post war setting. The American ecologist William Vogt outlined the basis for this new turn. The advances made by Pasteur et al had removed a vital check on the control of the world's population, he said, and placed an insupportable burden on the earth's resources. Rather than sustaining the incompetent, the senile, the incurables, the insane, the paupers etc. as "public charges", Vogt advocated treating such people as "ecological Typhoid Marys". America, as the richest country in the world, should use its position to force the recipients of aid to adopt population stabilization programmes. "The greatest tragedy that China could suffer," he argued (this was in 1948), "would be a reduction in her death rate." But increasingly, the kinds of eugenics that has come to the fore was associated with 'euthanasia' and abortion: the killing of those whose lives are deemed no longer worth living, or the termination of pregnancies where a genetic deficiency is expected. This reflects the shift from the phenomenalist and mathematical approach to eugenics, 'population' eugenics, to molecular approaches that focus on the individual. Much of the contemporary material is drawn from French examples: Daniel Cohen, founder of the charity, Telethon, endorsing eugenic programmes, or P.-A. Taguieffe boosting eugenics as a form of progress against Catholic obscurantism. But then Edwin Black has dealt prolifically with the rise of eugenics on the other side of the Atlantic. Pichot argues that part of what is happening is that geneticists, with connections to pharmaceutical businesses, are massively amping up the scariness of genetic diseases - supposedly some 5,000 of them - which don't actually appear to contribute substantially to the death rate. The over-estimation of genetics as a potential medical resource has little to do with the rate of advance in genetics and must therefore result from a combination of material interests and ideological shifts.

The contemporary part of the story does have its share of fun. Pichot is pleasurably intolerant of drivel, and he really lays into E O Wilson and Richard Dawkins, the latter particularly for his "idiotic hawking" and anthropomorphism. Given that Dawkins is being represented as an avatar of reason and enlightenment against those of too much faith, and given that the 'new atheists' are all too often susceptible to reductionist and sociobiological platitudes, this would seem to be a good moment to consider the merits of selfish-gene theory. The actual theories of sociobiology, Pichot says, are ephemeral, which is why their progenitors barely take them seriously enough to give them a proper exposition (he notes that actual biological theory only takes up a small part of Wilson's magnum opus). The attempt, as with previous 'bio-sociology', is to explain social behaviours in 'Darwinian' terms. Thus, altruistic behaviour is explained by relegating the egoism of individuals to the level of the gene. The gene acts in each body in such a way as to programme it to maximise its reproduction in all bodies, and can thus programme the body to be altruistic in certain circumstances. For Wilson, this process is governed by the limbic system: the reason why this programming is attributed to the limbic system is because it supports emotion, which is the only plausible source of altruism, whereas rationality is the domain solely of egoism. In this way, altruism is just a ruse by the selfish gene to perpetuate itself through geological time. In theory the mechanics of this process should be mathematically calculable. Dawkins postulates that a gene "for suicidally saving five cousins would not become more numerous in the population" because it wouldn't result in the gene becoming more numerous in the gene pool. The "minimum requirement for a suicidal altruistic gene to be successful is that it should save more than two siblings (or children or parents)..." etc.

Borrowing a phrase from the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, Pichot describes this as "genetic capitalism", redefining life as "the maximization of genetic inheritance, on the economic model of the maximization of capital". But once these assumptions are asserted and accepted, which they can be given a revival of the ideological traditions of which they are a part, the underlying 'science' becomes superfluous. But it's even worse than that. The underlying scientific arguments, says Pichot, echo those of Nazi biologists such as Otmar von Verschuer, for whom genetic inheritance is also preeminent in much the same way. They resonate with the far right, because they share assumptions about how evolutionary altruism works. Predictably, a certain mysticism comes with this vulgar, reductionist materialism, with the sacralization of the genome and the immortal gene taking the place of the immortal soul.

One curious aspect of the book is Pichot's arguments about racism and taxonomy. He is by no means happy with how the category of race has been used, nor does he think it particularly robust. He makes a good argument that the influence of Gobineau has been over-stated, while the influence of Darwin and his students has been under-stated, in the development of race 'science'. He undermines the myths that have helped insulate biology and the sciences from the kinds of criticism levelled at those whom he thinks of as scapegoats. Yet, in reacting against the bad faith of those eugenicists such as Julian Huxley who tried to overcome their association with racism by referring to 'ethnic group' or 'people' or some synonym, he concedes the idea that the category of race has some validity on the question-begging grounds that people can perceive race. Far better, he says, just to accept that the category has some applicability and just refuse to accept that society or morality can be based on some loose biological characteristics. Yet I know of people who perceive the mother of Christ in a wafer, but I don't assume that their fancy corresponds to a coherent and existing entity. It is easy enough to concede that the key point is not to conflate two separate orders: the political is not the biological, and vice versa. The attempt to base one in the other yields a series of arbitrary 'therefores' at the level of polemic, and a monstrosity at the level of politics. But if racists do operate on the assumption that there is a taxonomical category with a set of socially relevant properties, then it does make sense to challenge and interrogate that category. And it does actually turn out to be pseudoscientific cant, as much of the material in The Pure Society suggests.

Notwithstanding such caveats, there is something very interesting and radical going on in Pichot's book. As a revisionist reading of the legacy of Darwin, it is clearly a punctual intervention into a debate that is relapsing into pre-war classifications, with corporate 'progressivism' on the one hand, and religious 'regression' on the other. In the ethical debates about 'designer babies' and so on, we are encouraged to concentrate on the dilemmas of technology versus morality - in so doing, we lose sight of the fact that genetics actually doesn't explain anywhere near as much as we would like to think, and that the excessive attention to genetic inputs is part and parcel of the revival of particularly savage variety of capitalist ideology.