Starting in 2006, a raft of volumes by the so-called New Atheists generated a tremendous cult around a clique of nonbelievers which includes British biologist Richard Dawkins, author of the altogether droll The God Delusion. On February 16, he decided to show his mallard and Tweet out an endorsement of eugenics, the completely discredited and phony scientific racist misconception of genetics.
This declaration was not merely a one-off honk, it came in the midst of a minor row taking place at 10 Downing Street over British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s hiring of Andrew Sabisky, a 27-year-old contractor with a bibliography articulating various eugenicist notions.
Furthermore, Sabisky himself is no rogue actor. Instead, he emerges from a larger, frightening project that includes amongst its participants Steve Bannon, the Breitbart organization, and other elements of the alt-right.
These various outlets and actors operate on a certain strategic playbook, originally developed by academics in Cultural Studies and Media Theory departments of the Liberal Arts schools (like the one that I did my undergrad studies in), that is indebted to the works of Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci. While incarcerated by Mussolini, Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks an explanation of how ideas become mainstream in popular discourse and eventually are made hegemonic. The author was trying to articulate an explanation why Communism has succeeded at its revolutionary project in Russia while it had failed in Italy and Germany, developments that catalyzed the ascension of fascism. In the postwar era, these Notebooks became popular textbooks for Left-leaning thinkers (as well as those studying film and media) who were trying to propagate ideas and notions that would eventually become commonplace conventional wisdom.
Using the Breitbart website, podcasts, and the cottage industry of conservative documentary cinema via production companies such as Citizens United (yes, that Citizens United), Bannon and his comrades in the alt-right, backed by mysterious hedge funders like Robert and Rebekah Mercer, have staged what Gramsci called a war of position. Their goal, set on a timetable of years, has been to reintroduce notions of scientific racism, such as eugenics, into the popular discourse. The connection between Bannon and the Brexit project that now finds Boris Johnson as its avatar is well-documented.
Whether Dawkins knowingly or unknowingly decided to endorse this political trend is frankly a moot point because, regardless, it offers a sheen of legitimacy to an extremely dangerous effort.
What makes this all the more despicable is how much academic literature has been dedicated in the past few decades to once and for all consigning eugenics to the dustbin of history alongside medical leeching and homeopathy, a corpus that any serious British biologist like Dawkins would be obliged to be familiar with. A 2008 article in the medical journal Lancet authored by Drs. Nancy E Hansen, Heidi L Janz, and Dick J Sobsey titled “21st Century Eugenics?” thoroughly dissects these efforts:
Although Darwinian theory remains fundamental to the theory and practice of both [medicine and the related discipline of bioethics], we contend that there has been limited critical analysis of the troubling notion that the common understanding of the “naturalness” of natural selection appears to be fundamentally disconnected from the daily lived experience of the human species. Impairment and disability are not commonly understood as natural variants in human biology but rather as biology “gone wrong.”
An essentialist Darwinian approach to bodily differences fundamentally ignores, and denies, the inherent transience of the corporeal state of all human beings. Distinctions between “fit” bodies and “unfit” bodies are functionally based on the fallacy of presumed stasis, with the assumption that the line separating able bodies from disabled bodies is fixed, uncontested and impenetrable.
[There] are disturbing similarities between Nazi arguments concerning “quality of life,” “useless eaters,” or “lives less worthy” and discussions of disability currently taking place among “mainstream” geneticists and bioethicists advocating a value scale of humanness.
Disabled people are rarely included in these debates. The rationality of science ostensibly evident in contemporary bioethical debates provides the impression of impartiality and equilibrium, just as it did in Nazi Germany. However, past practice and strongly ingrained social beliefs can have a profound impact on contemporary and future medical and bioethical procedures.
Although eugenic practices are commonly seen as applications of Darwinism, they may be better termed as meta-Darwinism. Natural selection in a strict sense implies that selection is natural and that whoever survives is fit. In sharp contrast, eugenics requires that natural selection be replaced by intentional human control, Survival in a eugenics-based milieu is artificially manipulated according to some judgment or consensus on what constitutes fitness.
Put succinctly, eugenics is underwritten at its foundation with subjective judgements that are fundamentally racist, ableist, sexist, and classist, the complete and total opposite of what the scientific method defines as its catalytic endeavor, a search for objectivity divorced from such notions. Dawkins, whose unprecedented snobbery is premised upon his quasi-evangelical verisimilitude to that method, absolutely understands this and knows better than to traffic in such dangerous notions.
But this should be no surprise. Since their debut, the New Atheists, while posturing as a reiteration of a certain Progressive-era intellectual current, have been uniform in providing cover for neoconservative policy initiatives, with a substantial animus reserved for Islam. The late Christopher Hitchens was a shameless cheerleader for the Iraq invasion while Sam Harris advocated for torture of incarcerated “enemy combatants” in his volume The End of Faith. More recently, Dawkins has endorsed transphobe Jordan Peterson’s self-generated tempest in a teapot over student pronoun preferences. Chris Stedman at Vice even wrote a report a several years ago about the convergence of the New Atheists and the alt-right, a theme picked up by several other reporters as the trend continues to grow.
And this, ironically, is the final condemnation of the New Atheists. Their social agenda is itself a cult, one that disproves their secularism.