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History and human nature
Nicholas Humphrey was enjoying Niall Ferguson’s “punk Gibbon” account of the horrors of the 20th century—until his semi-educated foray into evolutionary psychology
WRITING IN RESPONSE to history,” so be it. It certainly THE WAR OF THE WORLD Germany’s invasion of makes for good reading. Niall Ferguson Belgium in 1914, James Barr, Punk Gibbon is ﬁne, provid(Allen Lane, £25) a physician and former presed there’s enough Gibbon— ident of the British Medical and there is. Association, had this to say: “The German Kultur So, I would gladly have left my review of the must be exterminated, and this savage breed as book at this point, with a wholehearted recomfar as possible wiped out… Germany has promendation of it as an important new analysis of duced no genius, there is no scope for individualthe social, economic and political causes of the ism, her work is the collective wisdom of combreakdown of civilised values, if only Ferguson monplace savants, she has never produced nor is had left it there himself. But he has not. He has ever likely to produce a super-man… The Allies written an introduction of 70 pages, in which he have shown their manhood and the capacity to reaches out to evolutionary psychology for furrule, we must therefore… raise healthy men and ther scientiﬁc insights into the historical process women who will hold their own in the battle of he describes. He regards this not just as an extra life… This can all be rapidly attained by intelliafterthought but possibly as the most important gent artiﬁcial selection, and the nation which contribution he has to make (see his Guardian produces the ﬁnest, noblest and most intellectuarticle of 11th July 2006). And, to judge by other al race will win in the long run.” reviews, his peers have taken him at his own As Niall Ferguson relates, by the ﬁrst years of word as a bridge between history and scientiﬁc the 20th century the idea that human races must psychology. I and others on the psychology side struggle for biological supremacy—the “meme” have certainly been hoping for just such a rapof racism, he calls it—was spreading round the prochement between our science and theirs. world. Ways of thinking about humans that The racial world view, Ferguson writes, is “a would have been inconceivable 100 years earlisingularly successful ‘meme’ that was already er—survival of the ﬁttest, selective advantage, replicating itself all over the world by the start of biological dead ends and supermen—were being the 20th century.” But here, I’m afraid, he is touted as scientiﬁc truths. already off to a bad start. For what is he adding of Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, explanatory value by calling it a “meme”? Well, came up with the idea of eugenics; Herbert what he might be adding would be the alarming Spencer championed social Darwinism. Yet it possibility that racist ideas are self-serving: that was not in Britain that these ideas found greatthey owe their success to their peculiar capacity est favour. Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, to turn men’s minds to serve the ends of racist Turkey and Serbia were soon showing how the ideology rather than human beings themselves. racist game could be played once people got That is roughly what Richard Dawkins meant really serious about it. when he coined the term “meme”—an element of The War of the World tells what happened next. culture that works in the mind something like a In this long but gripping survey of “history’s age virus, changing the behaviour of the individual it of hatred” Ferguson piles fact upon fact, horror infects in such a way as to help spread itself from on horror, to make the case that racism was a key one mind to another, even though the carrier may ingredient in most if not all of the 20th century’s get no beneﬁt and may actually be harmed. In his uniquely devastating wars across the globe. He Guardian article Ferguson explicitly uses the does not say that racism was ever the sole cause: phrase “a virus of the mind,” suggesting he does economic uncertainty, the breakdown of empires, indeed think of racism as something that has accidents of history all played a part. The tecspread between people, not because it beneﬁts tonic plates of the old world order were already people but because it beneﬁts racism. on the move. But racial antipathy was a big comThis suggestion is not such an outlandish one, ponent of the subsequent conﬂicts. in theory. Daniel Dennett, for example, has The history is raw, revealing, carefully argued argued persuasively that just such an analysis and surprising. This is a revisionist account, with might help explain certain aspects of religious little respect for what have become standard belief. But could it possibly be a helpful explanaassumptions. The writing is opinionated and tion in the case of racism? On the evidence of laced with withering criticism of those with Ferguson’s book, the answer is no. As he shows whom the author disagrees. If this is “right-wing again and again people have in fact adopted racist
66 PROSPECT September 2006