Randi on natural selection.

By Keir Liddle

homeopathyNo one doubts the huge contribution that one Randall James Hamilton Zwinge, better known as the Amazing James Randi, has made globally to skeptical thought and inquiry.

He has had a hand in the founding of CSI and is responsible for the worlds most well known Skeptical organisation and conference (the JREF and TAM respectively) and has debunked all manner of celebrity psychics. Most notably spoon bender Uri Geller.

However on occasion his pronouncements can seem a little at odds with the scientific consensus or they can seem controversial or intemperate. For instance he has in the past attracted criticism for his views on global warming being at odds with what the science and evidence suggests.  Though, and all kudos to Randi for doing so, he quickly posted that he was not denying that climate change was happening but that he was confused offer whether or not us humans were the driving force behind it:

“My remarks, again, are directed at the complexity of determining whether this GW is anthropogenic or not. I do not deny that possibility. In fact, I accept it as quite probable.  I remain respectful of science and its participants. I stand outside the walls of academe, in awe.”

Recent comments made by Randi have again been seized upon this time by the quack community as evidence he has a secret eugenics agenda.

Posting in the JREF swift blog regarding an end to drug prohibition Randi states:

“…those individuals who were stupid enough to rush into the arms of the mythical houris and/or Adonis’s they would expect to greet them, would simply do so and die – by whatever chemical or biological fate would overcome them. Third, the principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself for a couple of years, after which Natural Selection would weed out those for whom there is no hope except through our forbearance, and I’m very, very, weary of supporting these losers with my tax dollars…”

This has been seized upon by those who appear want to discredit skeptics and skepticism but any means to infer that Randi supports a form of social Darwinism or Eugenics. Now we were willing to give Randi the benefit of the doubt and assume his comments were simply a crass attempt at humour but alas no it seems to be an outing for that most tired of skeptics memes “just let the stupid people die”.

Not only is this meme tired it’s also ironically stupid itself.

It is often trotted out callously when people are discussing those who use alternative or traditional medicines or refuse to vaccinate. Where someone, who probably thinks they are being quite the wit, says “who cares? Let natural selection take it’s course” presumably forgetting that for much of human evolution and history natural selection did indeed take it’s course while human beings had ONLY alternative and traditional medicines and couldn’t vaccinate because vaccinations didn’t exist. It seems to me sensible to conclude that alternative medicine has had a limited impact on our species ability to survive to breeding age for the majority of human existence.

The blog linked to above also includes sections of Will Storrs new book – The Heretics: Adventures with the enemies of science which makes for some uncomfortable reading.  Firstly it appears to confirm that Randi believes in Social Darwinism and that natural selection should be allowed to act itself out. This in of itself is perhaps unsurprising as there is a strong current of Libertarian political thought in American Skepticism (something that would seem unthinkable here across the pond to most!) and “less is more” models of regulation and control are seen as very attractive. It would be good to leave it at that and presume this is harmless Libertarian nonsense but Randi is also quoted as stating:

“These are stupid people. And if they can’t survive, they don’t have the IQ, don’t have the thinking power to be able to survive, it’s unfortunate; I would hate to see it happen, but at the same time, it would clear the air.”

Which is a regrettable view to say the least but, for me personally as someone with a mental health problem, nowhere near as offensive as the next quote:

“I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating. I think they should be gathered together in a suitable place and have it demonstrated for them what their procreation would mean for the human race.”

Given I have a family history of mental illness (or aberration if we really must call it that) I don’t particularly like being told by someone else I shouldn’t breed regardless of what potentially terrible consequences my spawn could have for the future of the human race.

But asides from the discomfort caused by these views, views Randi is entitled to hold no matter how unpalatable they may seem to many, what basis is there to assume that natural selection would select for intelligence?

I’m not an evolutionary biologist by any means but I would hope that what Randi calls ‘natural selection’ in his post doesn’t resemble natural selection or survival of the fittest as understood by biologists or indeed as the phrase was intended by Darwin.

However I think it is right to highlight when someone “high up” within the Skeptical community makes such pronouncements we can criticise them for their politics as well as their science.

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3 Responses to Randi on natural selection.

  1. Some concerns have been raised on twitter whether or not Will Storrs account of the interview, or indeed his interviewing technique, allows us to take Randis quotes as gospel.

    Some caution is advised in reading too much in to this because of this.

    That said there is a tendency for Skeptics to be highly defensive when they feel they have been handed a raw deal. Though there is also something of an implicit opinion held by many that Skeptics represent the elite and those with power and this often skews their views of skeptics interactions with others.

    So I suppose… caution all round.

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