Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Egalitarianism

Kristof.Slide.3

Nick Kristof opens The Secret Genocide Archive:
This archive, including scores of reports by the monitors on the scene, underscores that this slaughter is waged by and with the support of the Sudanese government as it tries to clear the area of non-Arabs. Many of the photos show men in Sudanese Army uniforms pillaging and burning African villages. I hope the African Union will open its archive to demonstrate publicly just what is going on in Darfur.

The archive also includes an extraordinary document seized from a janjaweed official that apparently outlines genocidal policies. Dated last August, the document calls for the “execution of all directives from the president of the republic” and is directed to regional commanders and security officials.

“Change the demography of Darfur and make it void of African tribes,” the document urges. It encourages “killing, burning villages and farms, terrorizing people, confiscating property from members of African tribes and forcing them from Darfur.”
There are a lot of reasons to take the time to look at these pictures. Look at the man with his crown of thorns. See the toddler sinking in the sand while his brother and mother rot next to him. Watch wind-bleached bones come out of camouflage. Ponder the man with his blood-soaked pants around his ankles.

These are people whose only offense was that they were African.

At least some of the anti-science crowd like to claim that evolution, and not Nazism, caused the Holocaust. Without delving into the murky depths of Holocaust denial, I want to address this claim.

It's not wrong to say that the lessons of artificial selection were part of the motivation for various eugenicists. The reasoning was that if undesirable traits were genetic, regulating childbearing would be a way of eliminating these characteristics. That's why Colorado sterilized retarded women in the 1930's, and why the disabled were among the first sent to concentration camps.

But that doesn't mean that evolutionary biology takes the blame. While forced sterilizations would eradicate Huntington's disease, that doesn't mean we are compelled to sterilize those with genetic diseases.

And the argument falls apart on genocide. To justify genocide on these grounds, you have to argue that, based on genetics, race, color, or religion, on group is inferior. And evolutionary biology won't take you there.

One of the hardest things for people to understand about evolution is that it isn't a progression from bad to good, and that every surviving taxon, the tip of every branch in the tree of life, is equal.

Think about that.

Humans have evolved as long as fruit flies and bacteria. While apes are in decline worldwide, insects are ever more diverse and numerous. A phylogeny doesn't let you call one branch better than another. That's a radical egalitarianism, and it applies at all levels. You respect all people, and all life, because every being is a result of an incredible process, extended in time and space – a struggle against oblivion.

That means that evolutionary biologists, like all reasonable people, will oppose genocide. Evolutionary biology tells you why things work. It isn't a prophecy or a commandment. “Survival of the fittest” doesn't mean that the weaker should die. It means that on average, they will. And we don't have to like it.

Ms. TfK studies war. She opposed the invasion of Iraq. I study competition, but I'd rather cooperate. Science is a tool. Believing in things doesn't make them so. Science is about what is, not what should be.

Goodbye Again” by John Denver from the album John Denver's Greatest Hits (1973, 3:41).