Of all the names that echo across the 20th century, it is interesting that perhaps the two loudest should belong to men born in the 19th; Darwin and Hitler. They occupy the diametric positions of what evolution has allowed human intelligence to achieve - sublime beauty and sublime evil. But once you've chucked in a shared penchant for facial topiary, that is where the similarities end. Darwin had arguably the greatest idea to ever occur to a human being, with a simple elegance comparable to any great work of art, and Hitler, well, he had a moustache. The theory of evolution by natural selection has only ever been a scientific idea and has never been a guide for how society should organise and conduct itself.
Andre Pichot, in his book The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler, somehow misses this important point and tries to make the case that Darwin's idea is somehow responsible for all manner of dangerous policies from Nazism to racial apartheid. This fundamental error means that an impressively researched and passionately argued book, and a readable example of history of science covering a remarkable breadth and depth of material, ultimately falls down.
The book begins with a long introduction entitled "A hard subject to tackle", which lays out the framework for Pichot's argument before being divided into three sections of increasing intensity: "Sociology and biology", "Genetics and eugenics" and "Taxonomy, evolution and racism". Pichot starts to construct his argument with a clever (albeit debating-society type) comparison between the work of Claude Bernard, Louis Pasteur and Darwin. All three made a major contribution to the development of science, but he argues that only Bernard and Pasteur's work had practical beneficial applications to society while Darwin's idea only had deleterious societal results.
In this lies the foundation of the many flawed and confused assertions that turn a fascinating history of the misapplication of science into a jumble of ill-thought-out conclusions and strange statements - not least the frankly laughable assertion that the writings of Richard Dawkins and E.O. Wilson have parallels with those of Nazi scientists.
Pichot includes a revealing caveat in his rationale for the book - the statement that it is outside the area of his own expertise. This warning is no false modesty, since here is a book that leaves the reader wondering time and time again if the author is serious. While no credible scientist would deny that in the past scientific ideas relating to evolution and humans have been misunderstood with sometimes appalling results (eugenics and the pseudo-science of racism being the two most obvious examples), the author labours under the misapprehension that there is a grand conspiracy of silence within biology that seeks to keep this dark history buried.
He cites examples of scientists whose writings, when their elements are scrutinised under the bright light of 21st-century knowledge and values, are problematic and unpalatable, and claims that these uncomfortable aspects of their predecessors' work are ignored by modern scientists. It is certainly true that men like R.A. Fisher made assertions that are not acceptable today because we have a better understanding of our own species' biology, but this does not render their contribution to science null and void. Consider the recent comments made about race by James Watson. His work on DNA is no less valid because of ludicrous statements made in the twilight of his career.
Pichot also appears to be irritated by modern biology's attitude to race. His vitriol is aimed at the modern concept that separate biological human races do not exist - rather that we are merely one species that displays variation related to historical population distribution. He sees this as an attempt to negate racial problems and atone for a dark past through semantic games, but once more he misses the point in spectacular fashion. That there are no separate human races is a statement of biological fact, demonstrable through genetic analysis, and not a belated attempt to reshape society.
This is essentially the fundamental flaw in Pichot's argument. Science itself is ultimately a "pure" pursuit. Sometimes it has direct applications that can be helpful to society in a Baconian fashion (such as the work of Pasteur), but on other occasions it has a more tangential application and this skews how science and society interact. One can certainly make a very strong case for science not always considering how, once outside the scientific "box", its ideas can be appropriated, contorted and abused. Yet it would not be fair to lay the blame totally at the door of the lab.
If one returns to the concept of Nazi crimes sprouting from Darwinian seeds, then the central fallacy of Pichot's argument is clear. The Nazis were criminals: totalitarian, industrialised and with the apparatus of a modern European state behind them, but essentially criminals. They occasionally used pseudo-Darwinian ideas to lend a veneer of respectability and rationality to their actions, tossing them into the melting pot of Nazi ideology along with mutated forms of philosophy, history and archaeology as well as science. Pichot would persuade us that the Holocaust was the inevitable result of Darwin unleashing his ideas on the world. Nonsense: one could no more blame Prometheus for arson, than Darwin for Hitler.
The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler
By Andre Pichot
Verso, 336pp, £19.99
Published 20 April 2009