I think you may have confused the word “humanities” with “humanism”

by James Thorniley

A famous liberal British thinker who specializes in secular morality has founded a university in Bloomsbury, central London, and it’s all over the news. Weirdly, this has happened before, sort of.

University College London was founded in 1826 just down the road from AC Grayling’s “New College of the Humanities“. It was the first university in Britain to accept students regardless of faith. Jeremy Bentham, though not technically its founder, was a major influence. He says (ta, Wikipedia):

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure. It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do, as well as to determine what we shall do.

Yeah screw you, God!

Bentham didn’t know about Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, because at the time of UCL’s founding, he hadn’t come up with it yet (Darwin was in Scotland learning taxidermy). But by the early twentieth century, UCL had become one of the focal points (in Britain at least) of perhaps the most notorious offshoot of Darwin’s theory: eugenics. They set up a centre for it, the “Eugenics Society”, and employed some of its strongest proponents, including this blog’s favourite statistical cartoon villains Karl Pearson and Ronald Fisher.

Eugenics, crudely put, was the idea that you should sterilize the weak, disabled and those deemed less intelligent in order to “speed up” human evolution. It’s not a particularly nice idea by most peoples’ standards.

In the second half of the twentieth century eugenics rapidly became unfashionable. A more popular focus of research was the idea of inclusive fitness or gene centred evolution, usually credited to W. D. Hamilton (another sometime UCL academic). More famous living proponents of this idea include Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker and Steve Jones, the latter being the current head of the UCL Galton Institue, formerly known as the UCL Eugenics Society.

What these three people share, apart from a fondness for what Dawkins calls neo-Darwinism (i.e. gene centred evolution), is a professorship in Grayling’s new university. Well, nothing wrong with that I suppose.

Also, let’s be clear, I’m not calling anyone a eugenicist, or going to do some sort of shrieking  “neo-Darwinism = eugenics” post. Steve Jones gets very upset when you say that. He’s right, too – they aren’t the same thing. I’m just pointing out there is a kind of historical link back to UCL, nothing more.

Anyway, this place is called the “New College of the Humanities”. So the first question is why are these scientists involved? Aren’t humanities and science, um, different? Well yes, but then I think we can agree that science does impinge on philosophy in all kinds of ways. The particular way that seems relevant here is in terms of ethics. Thanks to Bentham, we have the imperative to do the greatest good, and thanks to Fisher and Pearson (from the statistics, not the eugenics), we have the belief that science can tell us how to achieve that.

Ok fine, teach that. But what I find odd is the fact that these three – Pinker, Dawkins and Jones – are all a particular kind of scientist, i.e. evolutionary biologists (ok, perhaps Pinker should be called a psychologist, but he’s a neo-Darwinian one). I should mention there is one other scientist on the list: physicist Lawrence Krauss – not an evolutionary biologist but has been known to weigh in on the whole intelligent design thing.

Now, given that the courses are apparently carbon copied from neighbouring Birkbeck university, lets assume these professorships are more a PR stunt “figurehead position” than standard teaching and research positions. You probably aren’t going to get regular lectures on ethics from Dawkins. But in that case, what message is the university trying to send by employing these people in this way? They could have picked any superstar scientists, but they picked a very particular four.

Let’s see… Dawkins and Jones signed a letter to the Guardian last year, protesting the Pope’s visit to the UK. Pinker seems to be less of an outspoken atheist, but can be found at humanist conferences alongside Dawkins. Krauss acknowledges that you can be religious and be a good scientist, so long as you don’t mix the two too much, but it still seems fair to point to him as part of the “new atheism”.

Not all scientists are atheists, by any stretch, but the ones deemed by the university to have something worth saying on ethics are. Maybe it’s just a coincidence, or maybe, like Bentham, Grayling doesn’t much like the idea of the old religious elites telling us the difference between right and wrong.

Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Fine, but this isn’t humanities, it’s humanism. Get it right. As Grayling says on the new university’s website:

Your core courses will include Science Literacy, Logic and Critical Thinking, and Applied Ethics. This is a novel and highly important feature of the New College education.

Screw you, God!

3 Comments to “I think you may have confused the word “humanities” with “humanism””

  1. When did Pearson become a villain here? “…science is in reality a classification and analysis of the contents of the mind….” “In truth, the field of science is much more consciousness than an external world.” (wikipedia ftw), Maybe a bit extreme, but I like the cut of his jib.

    I’m undecided on Fisher – I don’t think he really fits into a whig/comic book history.

  2. I’m talking about hypothesis testing. I thought Pearson was one of the main people. Could be wrong. As for whig history, frequentist vs bayesian is a false dichotomy, as is connectionist vs symbolic ai, or science vs postmodernism. I admit its lazy, not a proper analysis, but still gives a little context perhaps.

  3. Also, I may have got the wrong Pearson, was thinking of his son :/ Ignore me…

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