by M.K. Anderson
To call Richard Dawkins “controversial” would give him too much credit. A noted evolutionary biologist and more noted racist, Dawkins’s brand of rhetoric is deliberately inflammatory. Recently, he applied it to the topic of eugenics in a Twitter thread. So that nobody can claim I’ve taken him out of context, here are the screenshots:
As I covered in a previous piece in this magazine, eugenics never really went away. Especially in America, mainstream political candidates propose re-institutionalization while alt-right figures like Richard Spencer adopt a tweedy intellectualism for their public face while espousing old fashioned violent white supremacy in private. And so, while I don’t suggest we debate Dawkins or the alt-right figures who have copped his style, I do believe it’s worthwhile for the left to inoculate ourselves and others against this kind of rhetoric. Dawkins, taken in context here, appears to be defining eugenics as a kind of human husbandry. Mere artificial selection, where people are bred or culled to bring out specific traits. There are several things wrong with this.
Artificial selection has historically selected measurable traits, like size of a farmed turkey’s breasts, or the cultivation of teosinte until its small kernels multiplied and swelled into corn. The two examples I gave are no longer able to reproduce without human assistance. Farm turkeys don’t live long and can’t move much compared to their wild counterparts. If we breed any animal selectively for a trait, including humans, we will propagate that trait—though artificially selecting for desirable traits tends to introduce undesirable ones. Does that mean it “works”?
But here, we’ve fallen into a trap. I am arguing within the boundaries Dawkins set—eugenics as synonymous with artificial selection. Dawkins has pulled a sleight of hand by defining eugenics in a way that it’s never been used. The objective, physical traits selected for in farm animals were never the ones eugenics concerned itself with. Eugenics targeted people for extermination, sterilization, and segregation, “selecting” to enhance or eliminate things like poverty and disability, or largely subjective, pseudoscientific traits like intelligence or inherent “goodness.” It targeted races and ethnicities for their supposed inferiority. Even traits like mental illness are far, far more subjective and difficult to select for than, say, milk production.
Ideology, according to Dawkins, is any substantive disagreement with Dawkins.
Those goals are political—that is, they are concerned with power and who has it. Eugenics has always been an atrocity perpetrated against the powerless to benefit the powerful. The historical example of the Holocaust overshadows all others, and I would be remiss in not mentioning it first. Let us also consider segregation under Jim Crow, the forced sterilization of Native American women in the 1960s and 1970s, and the segregation of the mentally ill population during institutionalization. There are more examples than I could possibly include, but I must stop somewhere. All of these examples were violent; all deprived their victims of resources for the material benefit of eugenicist perpetrators. That is political.
I won’t say Dawkins misunderstood the term. He’s an adult man in the sciences and is capable of comprehending the distinctions in these concepts. If he has chosen not to, it’s to an ideological end. Dawkins is unconcerned with the material realities of eugenics. Because he sees it as separable from the historical moments and movements in which it has been applied, he can treat the ethics and the practice of eugenics is an entirely different topic from the idea of it. This separation of the definition of eugenics from its actual practice allows him to define eugenics in this ahistorical way. He can then treat us all as sentimental children for (correctly) saying eugenics can’t be defined as mere artificial selection, since that is far outside of its actuality, in theory and in practice.
But the right does not really love or understand rhetoric. They have logos without ethos, logos without pathos, logos without facts, logos fed only by a self-flattering, twisted subjectivity.
The function of this separation is to reduce the question of whether we ought to practice eugenics to merely an ethical one. But ethics are deeply subjective. Whether Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist, thinks eugenics (which he has defined as artificial selection) is effective is far more important information than whether Richard Dawkins thinks it’s unethical. He’s an expert in biology, not ethics. If eugenics “worked,” that would lay the foundation for a strong utilitarian ethical argument in its favor.
Let us dismantle that argument: eugenics does not work. It pursues the improvement of humanity by defining what is good and bad in highly subjective, culture-bound terms and then inflicts immense suffering (murder, sterilization, segregation) on people who fall outside of its arbitrary metrics of superiority. To ground this in a real example: Nazi Germany sterilized or murdered between 71% and 100% of its schizophrenic population, but immediately after the war, the prevalence of schizophrenia was higher, not lower. I am by no means suggesting that eradicating schizophrenia is a worthwhile goal. It is obviously unethical to murder schizophrenics in the hope of ending schizophrenia entirely. But it does matter that, in addition to that high cost in human suffering, it was all for nothing but the enrichment of a few evil men. It allowed them to confiscate their victims’ resources and devote no resources to their care. No matter how hard Dawkins or the rest of the “logic and reason” crowd insist upon it, ignoring history is not rational.
Dawkins doesn’t care, and neither would his fans. It is exhausting to explain to bloody-minded (mostly) grown (mostly) men that it is bizarre and irrational to define eugenics apart from its historical context. It is tempting to cede the claim to logic itself—rhetoric itself—to the right. Let Twitter users and Youtubers call anything they don’t like “ad hominem” and make their avatars into bleached marble busts of men who died 3,000 years ago. But the right does not really love or understand rhetoric. We don’t need to give it to them. They have logos without ethos, logos without pathos, logos without facts, logos fed only by a self-flattering, twisted subjectivity, where Dawkins’ aesthetic preference for church bells over a call to prayer matters in the slightest, where he may declare eugenics is synonymous with artificial selection because it feels correct to him.
“Eugenics works” is ugly, mushy, vacuous prose. As a self-proclaimed lover of words and political philosophy nerd, Dawkins’s use of a broadly defined word like “works” to obfuscate his meaning so he can later blame everyone else for misinterpreting him is inelegant to the point of ugliness. It’s shitty rhetoric. This isn’t limited to Dawkins, of course. Jordan Peterson is a master of constructing sentences with so many possible meanings he can claim to be perpetually misunderstood while saying nothing at all.
But whether I like it or not, this vacuous aesthetic quasi-intellectualism has broad appeal. It’s easy to adopt because it doesn’t demand much of the adoptees. Dawkins doesn’t require himself to be knowledgeable, he merely claims an innate superiority that lets him see through all the bullshit quicker than those pencil-pushing history-knowers. Therefore, he doesn’t require that of you, either, to join him. There is a seductiveness to that, a declaration of superiority without a demonstration of it. Maybe more insidious is that herein lies the implication that superiority is what we should aspire to at all. We are Marxists, and so must reject that sort of egotism. Who is our movement for, if not for the least of us?
There’s a reason why this fragmented, idealistic style Dawkins popularized as part of his participation in New Atheism was widely adopted by the alt-right. It is precisely because it fails when discussing historical atrocities while still maintaining a veneer of superiority, of intellectualism, of objectivity. Most of all, it positions itself as apolitical. Ideology, according to Dawkins, is any substantive disagreement with Dawkins. This gives him a lot of power. It makes him both a person making an argument and the referee defining the boundaries of the argument. Dawkins encourages us to abandon good arguments against eugenics in favor of relatively weak ones because his own vacuous, idealistic style of rhetoric doesn’t permit him to mount a strong opposition (and of course, if it’s his style, it must be the best one).
That’s a big reason why he and other New Atheists have become a conduit for radicalization—not just the indoctrination to extremist ideas, but to a manner of thinking that does not have the tools to oppose extremism. Dawkins may disclaim eugenics on the basis of personal distaste, but he simultaneously clears the way for those who don’t share his distaste. Personal, subjective distaste should not be the only thing that prevents us from committing atrocities. New Atheism may or may not have started out as reactionary, sexist, white supremacist movement, but the lack of materialism and rigor in its founders’ thought made that slide into extremism inevitable. As Marxists, we must reject this rhetorical style so our movement doesn’t fall prey to the same reactionary tendencies. To us, the past matters. History matters. If we allow Dawkins to define the boundaries of the discussion, to consider atrocities in a decontextualized, fragmentary way, then we have allowed him to defang our rhetorical opposition to injustice. ♦
M.K. Anderson is a writer with several short fiction credits. She has worked as a direct care provider and a coordinator of care for individuals with dual diagnosis developmental disabilities and mental illness in an ICF/ID institution. Later, she worked as a financial analyst overseeing the administration of Medicaid insurance contracts. She can be found at mk-anderson.com.