Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Dawkins and the Evil Gene

I suppose I shouldn't use Dawkins' writing as a jumping off point for so many posts. It has a certain shooting-fish-in-a-barrel quality. But while I generally consider it bad form to use the antics of a Michael Savage or Al Franken type as fodder for commentary (on the theory that if one goes into the loony bin for material, one always finds it) Dawkins is considered a terribly clever person my a large number of people. So for the time being I shall continue to indulge myself.

In this case, the fodder consists of an article I noted some time back, but didn't have the chance to blog about at the time. When Saddam Hussein was executed, a number of people had their say as to why it should not have happened. Dawkins, however, had an unusual reaction, he felt that one of the main reasons why Hussein should have been spared was in order to provide a research subject into why some people are evil:
Most people can't even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Saddam Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.... We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.... It is in the nature of research on ruthless national dictators that the sample size is small. Wasn't the judicial destruction of one of the very few research subjects we had – and a prime specimen at that – an act of vandalism?
To a lot of people, this probably sounds foolish right on the face of it. Why were Hitler and Hussein evil? Because they chose to be. Everyone makes choices in life, many choose well, some choose very, very badly.

However, there's another whole school of thought which much more closely follows Dawkins' line of thinking here, though perhaps not often with the scientistic trappings he introduces. It's common to hear Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc. referred to as "madmen" and for people to wonder aloud if there is some deep-seated, even genetic, defect in certain nationalities which makes them subject to a willingness to follow a dictator into terrible deeds.

This is too brief a post to launch into the whole question of whether there can be said to be a single "human nature" which all people have in common. However, there is certainly a respectable intellectual tradition which maintains that there is, and that thus someone who does terrible deeds not because he possesses some nature wholly different from us "ordinary people" but because he makes difference choices than we do.

Dawkins seems implicitly to hold to a deterministic view of human nature and morality. And yet, in this view, is there really very much to learn from history? Perhaps if one could perform enough 'research' to map out based on each person's genetic inputs and experiences and thus extrapolate what that person is likely to do in society, one could then deal with each person accordingly. But there is no lesson of personal responsibility, no "Having seen that others followed charismatic leaders into terrible deeds, I must be aware of what lurks below the rhetoric and national feeling of our choices."

This world view, I think, does not make intuitive sense to many people. Most of us feel instinctively that others humans throughout history are the same sort of creatures, in essentials, as we are. And that what separates us from history's heroes and monsters is not nature, but action. And if this is so, the great criminals of history do not need to be studied, but rather judged.


Arimathean said...

Two quick reactions:

1. I don't think Hitler, Stalin, et al. are necessarily that much more evil than the average career criminal. Fortunately, few criminals can command a national army, so the impact of their evil is limited.

2. I fear there is a societal consensus to demonize Hitler - to depict him as wholly "other" and to resist any attempt to humanize him. Most people prefer to remain in denial about the potential existence of evil, either in their neighbors or in themselves, so they like to imagine that it died in 1945.

CMinor said...

I don't know that the measure of "evil," if such were possible, is nearly as crucial to the development of a Hitler type as are a certain amount of charisma, a capacity for opportunism, and a confluence of external events that allow the despot to build a power base. Hitler or Sadaam born in other places or times might well have been ordinary thugs.

Thuggishness, ruthlessness, and opportunism alone won't make a despot--society to an extent has to let him in. Hitler wouldn't have gotten very far if the philosophies he embraced hadn't been an undercurrent in German society at the time.

Having heard my grandmother's stories of Castro's speeches during his rise to power, I'm inclined to give personal charisma a lot of credit for advancing a person politically who otherwise doesn't have much to offer. (To the fact that Grandma was charisma-proof I probably owe my existence.)

But really, to those who think we need to keep the likes of Sadaam in a lab so we can study what made him that way, I say hooey! Better we should study those that followed him in the first place. Besides, it's been said before of psychopaths that they tend to be phenomenally good at manipulating their handlers.