Saturday 23 March 2013

Darwin, Lubbock, Liberalism and the meaning of progress

"It is surely unreasonable to suppose that a process that has been going on for so many thousand years should have now suddenly ceased... The future happiness of our race, which poets hardly ventured to hope for, science boldly predicts.  Utopia, which we have long looked upon as synonymous with an evidence impossibility, which we have ungratefully regarded as 'too good to be true', turns out on the contrary to be the necessary consequence of natural laws, and once more we find that the simple truth exceeds the most brilliant flights of the imagination."

The 'process' means evolution.  'Our race' is the human race.  This was how John Lubbock ended his 1865 book Prehistoric Times, and I heard it yesterday in a fascinating lecture by Janet Owen today (her book is out shortly), at a special day of lectures on Lubbock at the Royal Society

I was particularly excited to hear this for two reasons. 

First, because it was what Janet called an ‘overtly political’ extension of Darwin’s evolutionary message – human progress was heading towards happiness. And Lubbock was in a position to understand evolution: he was Darwin’s neighbour, his pupil, his great popular interpreter, and a pallbearer at his funeral. 

Lubbock died a century ago (hence the Royal Society’s celebration), the originator of bank holidays, the doughty fighter for the first Ancient Monuments Bill, the saviour of Avebury circle – and of course the grandfather of our own brilliant and pioneering Eric Avebury

It is no coincidence that The Origin of Species and the Liberal Party both emerged in 1859. The party was and is bound up with the idea of enlightened human progress – human evolution in its broadest sense. 

The second reason I was fascinated by all this is that Lubbock was my great-great-grandfather. His daughter Ursula was his secretary in the later years of his life, and was my great-grandmother. She held me at my christening and always had a copy of Liberal News in her handbag, along with some knitting (perhaps this is what really made me editor of Liberal Democrat News, as I was for six wonderful years). 

She continued the family tradition as the liberal wing of the eugenics movement (yes there was one), as a leading feminist and by campaigning against the misuse of nuclear technology. It was a Liberal tradition too, of the central belief in the perfectability of humanity – based on what Darwin called the "mutation of species".

I’ve been thinking about the belief in evolution in the broadest sense at the heart of the Liberal soul because of a note on Facebook by a friend of mine, boasting that she had voted Labour for the first time – and wondering why I could never do that. 

It is because, however cross or exasperated by the party I am occasionally – specifically about the government’s support for nuclear energy and its failure to build a new local banking infrastructure – I am and will remain a Liberal. 

But what I have always found most exasperating – most of the time – is the party’s failure to see beyond the immediate and to articulate their purpose and central beliefs. 

Luckily, I had reckoned without the multi-talented Mark Pack, who has created one of his brilliant visual representations of what the party is for. It is an important breakthrough and, although it doesn't mention Darwin, I very much recommend it.  Here it is.


mike cobley said...

An interesting viewpoint but, unfortunately, one that has two crucial stumbling blocks. First, the notion that history is working, progressing from higher to lower, from basic forms to those more sophisticated is basically an historicist one which is logically flawed: the Marxists couldnt see the flaws in the idea of the iron laws of history and have stumbled as a result of it. The second, I suppose, imputes to you a hankering for Utopia - but utopias are instrinsically authoritarian since they deny change, indeed, have to deny change in order to maintain their perfect state. One could imagine the leading lights of a Utopia locking up dangerous types to stop them contaminating the rest of society.

As for your impatience at the partys inability in articulating its purpose and central beliefs, I think that task is now out of our hands since it is on our actions that we will be judged, and from our actions that our purpose and central beliefs will be inferred. Nothing that the party says, or indeed says about itself, can drown out the distress and heart-rending suffering now being felt by disabled benefit claimants. I could name a range of other slices of society who have been dealt with harshly by this government, but it is the disabled whose terrible experiences fill me with rage. And that is why, as a party member, I insist that I am a social democrat.

David Boyle said...

Mike, I agree with you about utopias, which are indeed authoritarian by their very nature. But I'm not sure that a sense of evolution - and to be optimistic about its direction - is really like the Marxist laws of history. Evolution meanders after all.