Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Socioeconomic Snake Handling

I've started reading Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam. Robinson, who is a brilliant writer, has produced this collection of essays as a lament over decline in humanism and history. what is particularly concerning to her is the way history is taught now, such that we can throw round words like Calvinism or Darwinism without ever looking at a word Calvin or Darwin wrote. In response, Robinson takes us back to the original texts - texts which she claims to have foundational documents to contemporary American identity. I've read the first chapter, on Darwinism, and particularly appreciated Robinson's approach. She doesn't take issue with the science of evolution, but offers a sustained critique of the philosophy or ideology of Darwinism.
'What magic is there about the word "modern" that makes us assume what we think has no effect on what we do? Bryan wrote, "Science has made war so hellish that civilization was about to commit suicide; and now we are told that newly discovered instruments of destruction will make the cruelties of the late war seem trivial in comparison with the cruelties of wars that may come in the future." This being true, how could a cult of war recruit many thousands of intelligent people? And how can we now, when the fragility of the planet is every day more obvious, be giving ourselves over to an ethic of competition and self-seeking, a sort of socioeconomic snake handling, where faith in a theory makes us contemptuous of very obvious perils? And where does this theory get its seemingly unlimited power over our moral imaginations, when it can rationalize stealing candy from babies - or, a more contemporary illustration, stealing medical care or schooling from babies - as readily as any bolder act? Why does it have the stature of science and the chic of iconoclasm and the vigor of novelty when it is, pace Nietzsche, only mythified, respectablized resentment, with a long, dark history behind it?'
Robinson understands Darwinism as part of the larger picture. It's part of the enlightenment project of progress. It is a dehumanising idea, which, when taken and applied to politics or economics is destructive. It has enslaved to humanity to economic selfishness and ecological tragedy as we seek to exploit and take advantage of the world and each other. How much of the world has been destroyed in the name of progress?

7 comments:

byron smith said...
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byron smith said...

I would need to be convinced that Darwin is responsible for the myth of progress, rather than merely articulating, contributing to and strengthening in certain ways a pre-existing myth. The destructive ideas are already there in Bacon and receive economic justification in Smith. I don't see how we needed to wait for Darwin to become socioeconomic snake handlers.

Matthew Moffitt said...

I think that is Robinson's point. Darwinism emerged out of the prexisting worldview of progress etc. But the idea of all progress is good and survival of the fittest have had a disastrous impact on the world.

blakehatton said...

Thanks Matt, interesting.

Off a little from your central theme - in reference to what you said "...such that we can throw round words like Calvinism or Darwinism without ever looking at a word Calvin or Darwin wrote."

George Whitefield said:
"I embrace the Calvinistic scheme...not because Calvin, but Jesus Christ has taught it to me.”

Actually, he wrote to John Wesley in 1740, “I never read anything that Calvin wrote.”

Matthew Moffitt said...

Thanks Blake. Although I feel that Whitefield would be hard pressed to show that Jesus taught (let alone taught him) Calvinism.

byron smith said...

But the idea of all progress is good and survival of the fittest have had a disastrous impact on the world.
Indeed, but Darwin didn't think of either of these. He did use the slogan "survival of the fittest" (though someone else came up with it), but it is actually not an accurate summary of his ideas. See here for a brief discussion I just came across today that is relevant.

Or is that her point - that Darwin didn't teach (social) Darwinism?

Matthew Moffitt said...

Robinson's aim is to take us back to the original sources. So she quotes slabs of text from The Origin of the Species and The Descent of Man. I found the last book particularly troubling, especially Darwin's comparison with non-Western people with gorillas and his description of the genocide of Tasmanian Aboriginals.

But this Robinson's main point. She traces the development of ideas from Malthus, Darwin etc. through Nietzsche and Freud down to today.