Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Political Gene - Dennis Sewell

Charles Darwin is a name synonymous with evolutionary biology. When one of his magna opera, Origin of Species was first published in 1859, it propagated many unheard-of ideas like 'natural selection' and 'survival of the fittest' which till date are used to summarise the entirety of this work. The ideas were so drastic and influential that they gave birth to a new school of thought, or rather a fraternity of eugenicists.

The question is whether this new knowledge about human evolution in any way been used for the betterment of  human civilisation by the Gods of Science? Or has it provided the political perpetrators a platform, a license under which to carry out their ruthless regime to feed their self interest? This is exactly what Dennis Sewell attempts to address in his book- The Political Gene: How Darwin's Ideas Changed Politics.

The book provides a revelatory read into the consequences that Darwin's legacy brought about, beginning with the caging of Ota Benga, the so-called missing link, with an orangutan. It also probes into the fact that all the societies formed with eugenics as a foundation were initially operated and led by members of the Darwin clan and later extended to the top echelons of society. It is almost appalling to know how some of the most brilliant minds in human history have endorsed eugenics.

Hate crimes and racial abuse have been prevalent in human history since time immemorial. Darwin's ideas, although unintentionally, only gave them a scientific backing. For example, the Third Reich cognominated their political agenda to obliterate Jewry from all social classes of German society as 'ethnic cleansing'. While Nazis may not have been radically influenced by the idea, they did use it as a smoke-screen. Further misinterpretation also led to heinous events like the displacement and extermination of native races across continents, and persecution of African Americans, the remnants of which still haunt the American society. The book also cites many convincing examples of coercive measures, like sterilisation and lobotomy, undertaken to curb the proliferation of races perceived inferior. It elaborately discusses the preposterous methods employed to stamp people of specific ethnic backgrounds as imbeciles or even morally challenged until late after the second world war. Riveting instances and cases have been included in the book that point out the gaps in the American legal system geared towards the achievement of one ultimate goal: pruning of undesirable subjects.

The author has also produced an elaborate bibliography should readers be interested in delving deeper into the eugenics movement, its methods and consequences. While the reader might identify with being in a quagmire of information, a lot of back and forth, and familiar names popping up every now and then, the book poses a moral question and examines whether any efforts on the part of the eugenicists have paid off or ever will.

Suggestion: If complexity isn't daunting for you as a reader, this should be read in conjunction with The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man which are quoted many times in the book.