Friday, January 26, 2007

Lazy Dawkins? Scary Dawkins?

Sorry to keep taking potshots at such an obvious target. But he is quite capable of defending himself, and he even has tribes of henchmen who view it as their responsibility to do it for him. David Heddle reacts to a quote from Richard Dawkins, from the Sunday Herald on why eugenics may not be bad:
I wonder whether, some 60 years after Hitler's death, we might at least venture to ask what the moral difference is between breeding for musical ability and forcing a child to take music lessons. Or why it is acceptable to train fast runners and high jumpers but not to breed them. I can think of some answers, and they are good ones, which would probably end up persuading me. But hasn't the time come when we should stop being frightened even to put the question?
This intrigued me - it was presented as though this actually represented the heart of a basically solid argument, with - as he said earlier in the piece, "I suspect that the idea is too dangerous for comfortable discussion, and my conjecture is that Adolf Hitler is responsible for the change" - the only reason it is unthinkable being because Hitler is viewed as a Bad Thing.

Let's think a little more carefully about this.

To an extent, it is possible to argue that "breeding for musical ability" already occurs. If the ability to play music is a desirable quality for somebody in a mate, and assuming that the ability to play music is a heritable characteristic (which is assumed by Dawkins anyway), it is fairly likely that their offspring will also have a well-developed musical ability.

But what is important about this "breeding" (if we reduce family life to such labels) is that it is the choice of the parents. It isn't the choice of the state, or the Academy, or an intellectual elite. This is what differentiates eugenics from the accepted norms of society.

If Dawkins is suggesting we think through the concept of eugenics, he is in effect saying that we should consider the possibility of the state "breeding" for traits, because it is the same as parents "forcing a child to take music lessons". Notice when teased out just a little, we start to see a very startling inference in the argument - that the state being involved in "breeding" is the same as parents rearing children.

Next, let's think about this issue of parents "forcing a child to take music lessons" - or, for that matter (because it also relates to Dawkins' thinking) parents bringing their children up within a particular religious context. Why not take the argument just a little bit further? Why should parents force their children to go to school? Why should parents force their children to clean their teeth? Why should parents force babies to change their nappies when they are soiled?

These questions are, of course, absurd. There is a kind of Rousseau-ist assumption here, that in actual fact children are quite capable of looking after themselves, and if we just allow them to develop as they wish, the world would be a much happier place. But they aren't. They don't have the maturity to know what is good for them, and it is the responsibility of parents to bring up their children as best they can so that when they are able to make decisions for themselves, they will make wise ones. Obviously, if there is no objective difference between "wise" and "foolish" - which may be what Dawkins thinks, given the assumption that we are ultimately no more than the product of chance - then there is no point in doing this. (Incidentally, the fact that people take their responsibilities seriously, by and large, is more evidence that there is more to us than a philosophical "zero". But if we are a philosophical zero, then what is the value of "improving the breeding stock", anyway? Why bother?)

We may not agree with somebody's religious views, and we may wish that an absolute tolerance is inculcated into people alongside their absolute beliefs (or more likely, these days, we may wish that everybody is taught that such beliefs are all relative). However, the reason for this form of upbringing isn't for the gratification of the parents (which is what is normally characteristic of abuse, from the abuser's perspective), but the desire in the parents to teach the child the right way to live.

What about forcing children to have music lessons, then? Well, in some families that happens. And if it is really against the will of the children, then in the fullness of time, they will rebel and never touch a musical instrument again. But that's not how it's supposed to be - and to use something that should not be the case as an argument for something else is yet another gaping hole in Dawkins' reasoning. It's like saying - "Well, people are murdered anyway, so capital punishment is okay." There are sensible arguments for capital punishment - but that certainly isn't one of them.

In our family, we took our son seriously when he said he wanted to play the violin. For five years, we have encouraged him to practise on a near-daily basis. He now makes a pleasant noise. In the first couple of years in particular, he didn't really want to practise. So we said to him: "That's no problem - but if you don't practise, you can't have lessons. Do you want to stop having lessons?" And the answer that he came back with was: no - he wanted the lessons to continue. So we persisted - if you want to learn, then you need to practise. This is something that as a younger child, he wasn't able to understand or enjoy - but now we are reaching the dizzying heights of Grade 3 (!), he is used to, and can see the benefit of.

The same argument holds in relation to the difference between breeding fast runners and training them. It is the question of who is doing what.

If Dawkins is prepared to ignore the difference between what a family might do and a state doing the same thing, then he is either incredibly lazy, or he is becoming almost as scary as Hitler.