Richard Dawkins’ cultural eugenics

I stopped to buy a copy of Harper’s — for Marilynne Robinson’s review of The God Delusion — in Penn Station on Friday night. I was glad I took the detour; my train was delayed, and the article did not disappoint. Here’s an excerpt. (Pick up a copy for the rest.)

There is a pervasive exclusion of historical memory in [Richard] Dawkins’s view of science. Consider this sentence from his Preface, which occurs in the context of his vision of a religionfree world: “Imagine no persecutions of the Jews — no Jews to persecute indeed, for, without religious taboos against marrying out, the diaspora would long ago have merged into Europe.” It is of course no criticism to say that he values the tradition of Judaism not at all, since this is only consistent with his view of religion in general. He seems unaware, however, that there was in fact significant intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles in Europe as well as secularism and conversion among the Jews, and that this seems only to have fired the anti-Semitic imagination.

While it is true that persecution of the Jews has a very long history in Europe, it is true also that science in the twentieth century revived and absolutized persecution by giving it a fresh rationale — Jewishness was not religious or cultural but genetic. Therefore no appeal could be made against the brute fact of a Jewish grandparent.

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. Science quite appropriately acknowledges that error should be assumed, and at best it proceeds by a continuous process of criticism meant to isolate and identify error. So bad science is still science in more or less the same sense that bad religion is still religion. That both of them can do damage on a huge scale is clear. The prestige of both of them is a great part of the problem, and in the modern period the credibility of anything called science is enormous. As the history of eugenics proves, science at the highest levels is no reliable corrective to the influence of cultural prejudice but is in fact profoundly vulnerable to it.

There is indeed historical precedent in the Spanish Inquisition for the notion of hereditary Judaism. But the fact that the worst religious thought of the sixteenth century can be likened to the worst scientific thought of the twentieth century hardly redounds to the credit of science.

Robinson’s argument culminates with the observation that Dawkins essentially is advocating a meme version of eugenics. And “when the Zeitgeist turns Gorgon,” she says, “the impulses toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same.” (Thanks to Ed for mentioning the Harper’s piece on Friday; image modified from one on the Humboldt site.)


You might want to subscribe to my free Substack newsletter, Ancestor Trouble, if the name makes intuitive sense to you.