Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:48 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of Lord Haskel Lord Haskel Labour 1:48 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on introducing this extraordinarily interesting debate. It is topical not only because it celebrates Darwin's bicentenary but in other ways to which I shall draw your Lordships' attention. As the noble Baroness explained, Darwin made a wonderful discovery and his scientific principle is full of depth and subtlety—other noble Lords will be able to explain the science far better than I can—but it is also a powerful idea that when removed from the subtlety of science to the bluntness of politics becomes a pretty blunt political instrument.

There are no special ethics for science. As the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, said, science deals with the "how", so it does not need its own ethical system. It is when you move on to the "therefore" and what follows the science that ethics and morality enter the equation. Because there is no special morality attached to how nature works, unscrupulous people extend the absence of the need for special ethics to the "therefore" and to what follows.

That was used to justify slavery and colonialism by Europeans. If only the fittest survive, there is no point in helping the less fit or the feeble-minded to survive, argued Malthus. If Darwin is right, why not use eugenics to breed better humans and to help natural selection along? It is to the great credit of this Parliament that a Bill to that end was talked out in 1912. Not so in the United States. There, the Supreme Court agreed that it was legal to use sterilisation by force to strengthen the US breeding stock. As we know, those ideas reached a climax in Germany with the ideas of the master race and the elimination of the Untermenschen. All that was justified by Darwin's theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest and the use of Darwin's theory as a means to view other people as fundamentally inferior and not like us.

Sadly, those ideas are still around. Only last week, my noble friend Lord Layard, writing in the Financial Times about the need for a fairer and less competitive form of capitalism, stated:

"We do not need a society based on Darwinian competition between individuals".

Fortunately, our parents and grandparents understood that Darwin's theories are more subtle and less violent. That we are all equal was understood and celebrated in 1945 with the declaration of fundamental rights at the United Nations, repeated and reinforced by the charter of human rights that each member of the European Union must sign up to.

We have to be very careful about applying Darwin's theories to the human race. As many scientists have pointed out, adaptation in nature is through genetic change, but it is through co-operation that most human societies have been successful. There has been a lot of talk about adaptation and survival in the face of climate change: yes, adaptation through co-operation and survival by not polluting our environment and destroying our resource base, which might imply shared interest in the rather subtle Darwinian way, all in the spirit that we are one species.

We may be doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Remember all those millions who have suffered by the application of Darwinian theory to the human race in the past. No to that. Adaptation and preservation in climate change are right for moral and ethical reasons and for survival reasons: the ethics and morals of doing good. Darwinian science will help to teach us how to do it; morals and ethics will teach us why we should do it. We confuse the two at our peril.