The Pure Society

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André Pichot, Verso; £19.99

Charles Darwin's legacy has been much celebrated recently, this year being the bicentenary of his birth. However, according to this book, there is a much darker side of evolutionary thought that should not be forgotten.

Pichot shows how Darwin's name has been invoked in support of the reactionary theory of "eugenics". Invented in 1883 by Francis Galton, Darwin's cousin, and derived from the Greek word meaning "well born", eugenics was used to justify some of the worst crimes of the 20th century. These include sterilisation of those considered to be of low mental or moral capacity in the US, Switzerland and Scandinavia, and the murder of mentally and physically disabled people, alongside Gypsies and Jews, in Nazi Germany.

I found this book both useful and infuriating. It was useful in showing just how prevalent eugenic ideas used to be among the scientific community, at the same time as highlighting the nonsensical and self-contradictory nature of such ideas. For Nazi theorists the gene was far more a mystical than a scientific concept, twisted to suit their own warped aims. But they had the compliance of a wide layer of German scientists and doctors who believed in eugenic principles in line with many of their contemporaries in other countries. Interestingly, Pichot finds the same mystical concept of the gene in the British "sociobiologist" Richard Dawkins, which may explain the latter's popularity among the National Front in the 1970s.

What I found infuriating about this book was the way it seems incapable of distinguishing such nonsense from Darwin's own revolutionary scientific theory. A basic flaw in eugenic ideas is their allegiance to the idea that evolution is guided by some "ladder of progress", in a racist's view this being occupied by people of different "races" at a higher or lower level.

In contrast, Darwin's theory of natural selection was shocking to many of his contemporaries precisely because it showed that evolution was guided by blind chance, not any teleological principle. In addition, for all that Darwin sometimes displayed the prejudices of his time in talking about European "superiority", he viewed all existing human beings as derived from the same genetic stock.

In both aspects of his theory Darwin has received valuable recent support from genetics. Thus the human genome has been shown to be an unplanned mish-mash of past events, while recent identification of many of the genes involved in determining skin and hair colour has revealed how superficial the apparent differences between people of different continents are in genetic terms, making a mockery of the idea that "race" has any scientific foundation.

Curiously, Pichot seems dismissive of much of this recent work. In contrast, I would argue that such scientific discoveries are valuable ammunition in refuting racist eugenics but the only way of preventing a repeat of the atrocities of the past is to actively combat racism and fascism wherever they raise their ugly heads.