Darwinian politics

September 3, 2009

In his obtuse review of Andre Pichot's The Pure Society: From Darwin to Hitler ("Allocating blame in a selective way", August), Simon Underdown indulges in the pop-science fantasy that a clear line can be drawn between science and politics. Too bad the scientists discussed by Pichot did not seem to think so.

The racial hygiene movement was prominent in German medical research a half-century before the rise of Hitler, and it was quite explicitly based on Darwin's views - not on older racist ones. The principle of natural selection itself is a generalisation of an argument about human population tendencies. Moreover, while Underdown is correct that the non-existence of human races in the traditional sense is a "demonstrable biological fact", that is only because scientists have now discovered subtler forms of genetic discrimination.

That Darwin himself was reluctant to comment on the public-policy implications of his views reflected a belief less in the purity than in the impotence of science. His more ambitious followers thought otherwise, of course, and Pichot is simply the latest in a long line of historians of science from all political persuasions to make this point.

Steve Fuller, Professor of sociology, University of Warwick.

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