Marr on Darwin

Andrew Marr’s documentary on Origins was not nearly as irritating or Christian-baiting as I expected it to be.

Ed West

Topics Politics

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When I heard that Andrew Marr was presenting a show about Charles Darwin that would take him off to Germany, Turkey, America and the Caribbean, I wasn’t just angry; I was positively Islamic. Grrgh, I thought, here he is, the face of the New Establishment, the pseudo-socialist libertine-authoritarian Jockocracy, swanning off around the world care of the overtaxed, small-c conservative blue-county English license-payer, and probably getting a few digs in at Christianity in the meantime.

By the end of first episode I wanted him to be my best friend. What a charming man, what an eloquent and thoughtful presenter, I thought; I wish he’d invite me round to dinner, in Islington or Notting Hill or whatever gentrified former inner city his kind inhabit.

And that’s despite the fact that we’ve hardly been starved of programmes to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Messiah of modern atheism, Charles Darwin (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species).

Marr once wrote a brilliant account of journalism, My Trade (1), and Darwin’s story made me proud to be from the country that gave the world the Fleet Street press. Here was a hugely thoughtful man, a Christian and a scientist, a Victorian in all the best senses, who wrote the most Earth-shattering book of all time, about the origin of life itself, at the end of which he wrote timidly: ‘Light will be shed on the origin of Man.’ The press’s reaction: lots of pictures of Darwin dressed as a monkey, in the same way their descendants summed up the debate on genetically modified food with drawings of talking carrots.

It didn’t help, of course, that Darwin did look a bit like a monkey, a solitary and thoughtful chimp stuck in a corner of a zoo wondering what the point of it all is.

He certainly was a sad figure. His theory haunted him for 20 years before he published it. A vicar friend warned that his idea would bring ‘ruin and confusion’ and Darwin dreamed he was being ‘hanged and beheaded’, something his follower Freud would have had great fun with.

Marr makes great play of the Anglican establishment being shaken, and he recalls the Oxford debate between Darwin’s Bulldog, Thomas Huxley (who coined the word agnostic), and the Bishop of Oxford, Soapy Sam Wilberforce.

Wilberforce – according to Huxley’s account – asked whether he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side. Huxley muttered ‘The Lord has delivered him into my hands’, and replied that he ‘would rather be descended from an ape than from a cultivated man who used his gifts of culture and eloquence in the service of prejudice and falsehood’. This event was played out this year at the National Secular Society’s Secularist of the Year awards – if that’s not a passion play, I don’t know what is.

I’m not so sure that this is not a myth – very few Christians took the Bible literally before the late nineteenth century. Many historians suggest that large parts of the Church of England were unfazed by Darwin’s book, even welcomed it as proof of God’s intentions, while the Catholics, who never take the Bible literally and most of whom have never bothered to read the thing, are generally far more concerned about vestments.

But for humanity as a whole it was astounding news, rather like were we to find out today that Scientology was right, or that David Icke was the Messiah after all. And while Marx immediately claimed the theory of evolution as justification for his own theories, the book would have a more profound influence on what would one day be called the radical right.

The First World War seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears about our natural brutality. How could the Germans go around raping nuns and bayoneting babies, they asked? (Simple, 75 per cent of Germans carry the evil gene. Everyone knows that. Besides, those stories were made up.) An American pacifist called Vernon Kellogg, working on a humanitarian mission in Belgium in 1915, spent his evenings dining with the German high command – not admittedly anyone’s fantasy historical party guests alongside Tom Paine or Dr Johnson – and was horrified by the Darwinian philosophy that had become widespread. ‘The creed of natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the Gospel of the German intellectuals’, he wrote, and became a born-again warmonger, convinced that they could only be stopped by force.

In that context must the famous Scopes monkey trial be understood. William Jennings Bryant was horrified by the ‘grotesque Darwinism’ of war and opted for the comfort of Christianity. Out of this was born the Butler Act in Tennessee, which banned the teaching of Darwin, and the famous Scopes trial, in which Jennings argued that: ‘Religion is the foundation of morality.’ The trial divided America, as Marr says, ‘and still does’. (Although Marr makes a glaring omission here: today Islam is by far the world’s biggest font of Creationism.)

Jennings won but looks foolish in retrospect, although atheists have never convincingly answered the morality issue, or at least found a form of social control as effective as religion. Indeed Jack Haldane, who coined the phrase ‘the selfish gene’ after the war, put it succinctly when he said he would not lay down his life for his brother, but he may for two. ‘Or’, he pointed out, ‘for eight cousins’. Hardly a creed to inspire people to die for.

Part two (the final episode, next Thursday, which will deal with the environment) begins with Marr asking what links Anni-Frid Lyngstad (the brunette from ABBA) and Charles Darwin. The answer, of course, is Hitler, Darwin’s most famous fan. Lyngstad’s father was a German soldier, and the warped Nazis, Marr pointed out, plied young men with benefits and money to have as many children by as many different mothers as possible. Sounds quite similar to Haringey Council’s policy.

Working in the religious press I’ve become used to opponents of Richard Dawkins using the false logic of Reductio Ad Hitlerum (2), which goes like this: Hitler was a follower of Darwin, therefore Darwin’s theories inevitably led to Auschwitz just as Pete Townshend’s song-writing led to the horrors of the Sex Pistols (my example, admittedly, not the Catholic Truth Society’s).

Not true, of course. Darwin hated man’s inhumanity to man, but his theories were taken up by arch-conservatives, or ‘the baddies’, as Marr’s subtly suggests to us by putting on stupid voices when reading out their reactionary ideas. Thomas Malthus (boo) believed that welfare simply encouraged the poor to have more children (3). Herbert Spencer (hiss) said ‘imbeciles, idlers and criminals’ shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce, and coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’. In 1912 even Winston Churchill called for the sterilisation of the feeble-minded in the wonderfully un-PC sounding Feeble-Minded Persons Control Bill, the closest Britain came to legalising eugenics (it was voted out).

Personally I think that putting some sort of sterilisation agent in the green room of The Jeremy Kyle Show would probably solve all of society’s problems in a generation, but that would obviously make me as bad as the Nazis, who sterilised 70,000 in their first year of power. This is all a bit reduction in itself – the Americans and Swedes also sterilised thousands without feeling the need to invade Poland.

After the Holocaust came the UN and Darwin’s ideas were used to promote equality (a dogma that has also brought its atrocities and mass failures). Now, however, the debate has come full circle.

Marr – incredibly for the BBC – even addresses the ultimate taboo of racial intelligence, and does not question a recent discovery of a ‘super-intelligence gene’ only found in white and Asian people. Funnily enough Marr, who’s no feeble-minded imbecile himself, does not have it. ‘I can stand with my black brothers’, he says, something I never imagined I’d hear Andrew Marr saying.

Marr concludes, Jerry Springer-style, that survival of the fittest can never be an excuse for murder, and that what makes humans unique is our capacity for kindness and altruism: so whatever our genetic make-up, we should all just love each other. Sounds dangerously like Christianity to me.

Ed West is features editor at the Catholic Herald. See his website here. His brother, spiked TV columnist Patrick West, is away.

Read on:

spiked-issue: TV

(1) My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, Andrew Marr, Macmillan, 2004

(2) Reductio ad Hitlerum, Wikipedia

(3) Thomas Malthus, Wikipedia

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