Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Darwin's views of the American Civil War

Charles Darwin relied upon four close friends as he developed his theory of natural selection. Charles Lyell, Joseph Hooker, and Thomas Huxley in England, and Asa Gray in America were his four stalwarts.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Darwin's fervent anti-slavery position brought him to disappointment in Lincoln, and conflict with his American friend Gray. A Lincoln man, Gray drew Darwin's ire for supporting the Union over immediate abolition. He lost all enthusiasm for the North when Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in those rebelling states, but not the loyal border states of Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, and Missouri.

Writing to Gray in 1863, he declared:

Some few, and I am one, even wish to God, though at the loss of millions of lives, that the North would proclaim a crusade against slavery. In the long run, a million horrid deaths would be amply repaid in the cause of humanity...Great God how I should like to see that greatest curse on Earth, slavery, abolished.

Darwin's willingness to sacrifice millions of American lives comes across as quite shocking a century and a half later. The statement reenforces the thought that great scientists may be great in science, but no more qualified to comment on other matters -- theology, or public policy-- than the average Joe.

There are hints here of the kind of totalitarian "greater good" that sacrificed individual rights for some noble concept of the welfare of all. Those kinds of experiments end in the horrific excesses of communism and fascism that we know so well.

And it also brings to mind Sam Harris' recent comments complimenting the fascists in Europe for their approach to dealing with the rise of Islam in Europe.

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