Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

Darwin and Mao

Reader Paul Burnett taunts me:

Go ahead, David, say it: “Darwin taught Hitler (and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot) how to kill millions of people.”

That is of course a ridiculous parody of what I’ve written on Darwinism and its historical consequences, and I’ve never written a word about Darwin-Mao, but…now that you mention it, Paul, I just so happen to have before me on my desk China and Charles Darwin, by China scholar James Reeve Pusey of Bucknell University, published in 1983 by Harvard University Press. Pusey is a son of the illustrious late Harvard president Nathan Pusey. (They don’t give people names like that anymore, do they? Too bad.) Let’s just look up his conclusion, shall we? Hm, what’s this? He writes:

Mao Tse-tung finally claimed that Marxism-Leninism could all be boiled down to one sentence, tsao fan yu li — “To rebel is justified” — but that standard translation obscures the force of the li (reason or principle) that rebellion was now said to have. That Neo-Confucian word in [its] new context really meant that rebellion was a natural law, and that lesson had been taught to Mao Tse-tung not by Marx but by Sun Yat-sen and Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, who had learned it, rightly or wrongly, from Darwin. For the li of revolution, they had said, lay in evolution.

Darwin justified revolution and thereby helped the cultural revolutions of Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, Hu Shih, and Mao Tse-tung (and, of course, so many others), and the political revolutions of Sun Yat-sen, Chiang K’ai-shek, and Mao Tse-tung. As things turned out, therefore, he seemd to help Mao Tse-tung the most, and indeed he did. He helped make the Marxists the fittest.

Darwin created the ideological vacuum [by undermining traditional ideas] that cried out for something like Marxism, and he established criteria for what that something should be. The new fit and fittening ideology had to be based on the Western science of evolutionary progress. It had to identify inevitable, natural stages of human social development. It had to promise historical inevitability and yet at the same time recognize the vital importance of human action. It had to be based on struggle and yet stress mutual aid among members of the ch’un. It had to provide a non-racial enemy to explain China’s inner and outer troubles without damning the Chinese — and it had to give the underdog a chance.

That last stipulation was not Darwin’s by any stretch of the imagination, but every Chinese Darwinist we have seen forced Darwin to give the underdog a chance….


The notion that one can be prescient of evolution’s Way has led some to feel that the prescient have special rights, if not duties, in the struggle they believe that Way requires. And so Darwin has ironically helped produce a new kind of religious know-it-all-ism, and a concomitant new kind of religious self-righteousness and religious intolerance….


Mao Tse-tung in an angry moment (as late as 1964) swore that “all demons shall be annihilated.” He dehumanized his enemies, partly in traditional hyperbole, partly in Social Darwinian “realism.” Like the Anarchists he saw reactionaries as evolutionary throwbacks, who deserved extinction. The people’s enemies were non-people, and they did not deserve to be treated as people.

Pusey writes on the same theme, more briefly, in the November issue of Nature.
Don’t get me wrong. Pusey is full of fair-minded and appropriate scholary qualifications about all this. Darwin had a real impact, yet he was also misunderstood in specifically “Chinese directions.” Of course. Mao comes into his story only at the tail end, anyway.
Yet I’m guessing that this is the first time you’ve heard of the Darwin-Mao connection, as most people don’t know about the Marx-, Lenin-, and Hitler-Darwin connections. Most who’ve heard of it, dismiss it since that’s the prestige attitude to take.
I just wonder why this thread of history is suppressed. I mean, the abuses of religion are well known. The Crusades are part of the Christian legacy, despite the fact the nothing at all in the New Testament would lead you to expect such an abuse. Before 9/11 when bashing Christianity was at the height of its popularity, you rarely heard such qualifications applied to judging that faith’s responsibility for historical atrocities. Now that Islam-bashing is the rage, you rarely hear people say that Arabs or Iranians misunderstand Islam in specifically “Arab” or “Iranian directions.” Or if you do, they are mocked as soft on “Islamo-fascism.”
When it comes to evaluating the relationship between ideas and their consequences, why does Darwinism always get a free pass and a whitewash while religion is held to strict account? This is not a rhetorical question. Please do help me understand.
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posted December 10, 2009 at 10:08 am

Interesting stuff. Sure, I’ll help you understand it.
You seem to want to make the comparison between the arguments regarding evil effects of religion, which you resist, and arguments regarding the evil effects of Darwin, which you tout.
The whole enterprise is juvenile, in this case, because the aim is to direct blame according to preconceived notions of who is right and who is wrong. It is the cheapest and shallowest form of political commentary, because the conclusion is foreordained: there is no chance you will give Darwin or religion an impartial appraisal. Indeed, the process of evaluation is replaced by a hunt for the information that apparently backs up your views, and is contrary to those of your opponents. It is a tarted-up version of graffiti: “Darwin sucks.”
Finding an author who apparently argues that Darwin had some sort of impact on Mao changes nothing. If that book did not exist, you would simply find another source that you could use to buttress your views and attack those of your opponents.
Hope that helps.

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Philip Koplin

posted December 10, 2009 at 10:22 am

You give away the game when you say that Darwin was misunderstood by the Chinese Communists. When Pusey says that Darwin “rightly or wrongly” taught that “rebellion is a natural law,” he has the responsibility to show how his use of the word “rightly” in that statement might be construed to be correct, otherwise it’s dishonest to include it.
In addition, if anyone read his work as justifying revolution, creating an ideological vacuum that “cried out” for something like Marxism, and demonized and justified the murder of class enemies, that’s truly a “ridiculous parody” of what Darwin actually wrote, and to blame Darwin for those misreadings is as illegitimate as blaming Jesus for the Crusades or the burning of heretics.

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Philip Koplin

posted December 10, 2009 at 10:45 am

To clarify, in my first paragraph, I should have written that when Pusey says the notion that “rebellion is a natural law” is something the Chinese “rightly or wrongly” learned from Darwin, he has the responsibility to show how his use of the word “rightly” might be construed to be correct, otherwise it’s dishonest to include it.

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Ray Ingles

posted December 10, 2009 at 12:53 pm

When it comes to evaluating the relationship between ideas and their consequences, why does Darwinism always get a free pass and a whitewash while religion is held to strict account?
When evaluating a social scheme like, e.g., Marxism, looking at its consequences makes sense. Does it deliver what it promises? Religions – at least their social aspects – can also be evaluated on similar grounds. Does a religion that promises to enhance moral behavior and promote justice actually do so in practice?
But scientific theories can’t be evaluated on such grounds. Geology, for example, tells us why there are a lot of diamonds in Africa. But the horrors inflicted over ‘conflict diamonds’ don’t call geology into question. Meteorology can tell us why hurricanes form near the equator, but what Katrina wrought in New Orleans doesn’t hint that meteorology is false.

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Ray Ingles

posted December 10, 2009 at 12:56 pm

(Oh, and actually, rejection of Darwinian evolution caused a huge fraction of the deaths under Mao. Look up the relationship between Lysenko and the Three Bitter Years…)

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posted December 10, 2009 at 4:21 pm

The intellectual excellence published by gifted, brilliant scientists is defiled and adulterated when Nature decides to print the useless word vomit of Pusey.
In the same Nature issue, Eva Andrei describes experimental evidence for the fractional quantum Hall Effect observed in graphene.
Pusey’s dribble clearly rests in sharp intellectual contrast.

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Your Name

posted December 10, 2009 at 4:43 pm

The folks running Nature assuredly expected people like Dan to say empty criticisms like that, and said to themselves, “He just can’t handle an opinion that goes against what he already believes, when it’s printed by someone he respects.”

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Philip Koplin

posted December 10, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Pusey’s article is about what some people have made of their reading of Darwin. It does not establish that they correctly got what Darwin was saying. It’s ridiculous to blame Darwin for people who misunderstood and twisted his ideas to suit their own ideology, just as it would be ridiculous to blame the Bible for slavery, the murder of religious dissenters, and anti-semitism, all things that people have used it to support.

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posted December 11, 2009 at 1:16 am

Sigh. Another diatribe by Mr. Klinghoffer on the supposed evils of “Darwinism”. To hear him tell it, the theory of evolution is the root of all evil nowadays. It seems that all evildoers who have ever heard of the theory of evolution have been infected by some sort of satanic disease. No matter how demented the thinking, no matter how peripheral evolution is to their thoughts, somehow “Darwinism” is to blame.
Mr. Klinghoffer loves to bring up the mantra that “ideas have consequences”. He then places the blame on the idea instead of on the people who misuse the idea. That means no one is personally responsible for their acts. Hitler didn’t kill Jews because of some misguided hatred and wanting a scapegoat to gain power, somehow “Darwinism” told him that is what he should do. Ideas only have consequences when someone acts on them, AND the acts are rarely based on a single idea. Read the ramblings of any of the people that Mr. Klinghoffer says have done evil in the name of “Darwinism” and you will see that it is only vaguely used as an excuse to do whatever they wanted to do anyway. Mr. Klinghoffer is just grasping at straws to explain HIS idea.
Mr. Klinghoffer wants to know “why does Darwinism always get a free pass and a whitewash while religion is held to strict account?” The short answer is that, NO “Darwinism” doesn’t always get a free pass. Mr. Klinghoffer is hardly the first person to want to blame Hitler (and other evils) on the theory of evolution and I have read just as much by people trying to say that the evils done in the name of religion shouldn’t be blamed on religion. It is NOT the idea that has consequences, it is the way some people misuse it.
The problem dear Mr. Klinghoffer isn’t in the ideas, it is in the people who use them to justify their own evil.

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Steven J.

posted December 11, 2009 at 2:58 am

David Klinghoffer asks: “When it comes to evaluating the relationship between ideas and their consequences, why does Darwinism always get a free pass and a whitewash while religion is held to strict account? This is not a rhetorical question. Please do help me understand.”
Well, first, Marxism antedates Darwinism, and would therefore seem unlikely to be a consequence of it. Revolutionary movements in China antedate Darwinism, and hardly require Darwinian excuses, much less causation by evolutionary theory.
Second, Mao didn’t, Hitler didn’t, Stalin didn’t, claim to be acting in the name of evolutionary theory or cite Darwin to justify, e.g. invading Poland or staging the Great Leap Forward. The crusaders did claim to be acting in God’s name and on Christianity’s behalf; Christian preachers advocated and defended them. Muslim terrorists claim to be acting in the name of Islam and cite the Qur’an in justification of their actions.
Surely it is not impossibly difficult to see how direct and repeated citations of and appeals to an idea by the perpetrators of some atrocity carry more weight than the fact that you can trace some fragment of their total ideology, tenuously and indirectly, to that idea.
Third, evolutionary theory claims to explain various features of biology; like other scientific theories, it describes, rather than prescribes. Religion claims to tell men how to live; it may contain descriptive elements but is largely prescriptive. If evolutionary theory can’t prevent non-scientists from distorting its ideas to evil ends, well, that is not a failure of the theory as a description of nature and is irrelevant to its scientific validity. If a religion can’t prevent its putative followers from committing atrocities in its name, that does not speak well of its divine inspiration or divine guidance given to its followers.

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John Koster

posted December 25, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Reinhard Heydrcih specifically used the Darwinian term “natural selection’ in the actual orders for the Holocaust, Wannsee, January 20, 1942, text available on the web and in Shirer’s book, “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” I think that confirms where the idea came from. PS: Heydrich was a atheist and may have been in extreme denial because he was said to be of mixed Jewish and Aryan antecdents. He was NOT influenced by the Old Testament, the New Testament, or Martin Luther’s crabby letter. He was influenced by Darwin. Period.

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