National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 84, 2011


Demolition of fashionable fallacies



by David Stove

Edited by Andrew Irvine

With a preface by Roger Kimball

(Piscataway, New Jersey: Transaction Books, 2002)
Hardcover: 185 pages
ISBN: 9780765801364
RRP: AUD$69.90
Available at News Weekly Books


Reviewed by Peter Barclay, PhD


Australian philosopher David Stove died in 1994, This book is a collection of essays, many of which have some connection with the Enlightenment. It is not a history of the Enlightenment, but a perceptive assessment of some of its ideas.


“We should all be equal in every way”

First, Stove said that total equality is not possible. Human biology will not allow it. No one is exactly the same as anyone else. For this reason, no workable egalitarian system ever has been, or ever could be, successful.

Second, the fact that people are not equal allows human knowledge to increase. “Are you an opponent of privilege? It is 10,000 to one that you are. In that case you are, though you may not know it, an opponent of learning too. The reason is simple: leisure, quiet and access to the learning of others are privileges and they are also three things without which learning cannot exist … a society must be barbarously ignorant, if there is no privilege in it at all, only equality all around” (p. 3).

Third, all attempts to introduce egalitarian societies have begun in bloodshed and ended in dictatorships. This is because those who have less, take from those who have more. Both the French and the Russian revolutions were initiated by large-scale massacres. Karl Marx knew his ideas presupposed this. As a child he earned the nickname “Destroy”, because he used that word so often.

Fourth, attempts to remove alleged inequality lead to a decline in excellence. Stove did not expect much support for his belief that staff at Sydney University should be chosen on merit, not on their sex. “… [C]ontemporary feminism is not 64 percent not 97 percent, but all rubbish, and destructive rubbish at that. But how many will (except in private) agree with me? I will be lucky if my motion even finds someone to second it” (p. 161). As modern society rewards or compensates some groups of people who are supposedly being discriminated against, “new forms of under-privilege are discovered or invented every day” (p.18).

Fifth, egalitarianism leads to poverty. “Malthus’s Essay on Population in 1798 was an anti-communist and anti-socialist tract. He didn’t use these words because they didn’t exist in his day. He believed schemes for community of property and equalisation of wealth ‘would replace the existing comparative poverty of most by the absolute poverty of all’ and that it would, in the process, destroy ‘everything which distinguishes the civilised from the savage state’.” (p. 75).


“Knowledge automatically leads to an increase in human happiness”

Between 1570 and 1770 there was an explosion in knowledge, but none of it made life happier for people. “Britain was transformed between 1770 and 1850 from a predominantly agricultural country into a predominantly industrial one” (p. 36). There were improvements in cotton mill machinery, as well as the production of iron and steel and steam energy, but the Enlightenment’s promise was not realised. Work was longer, harder and unhealthier, housing was worse, and all of this led to an increase of misery. Stove believes just two inventions (the internal combustion engine and electricity) are behind the easier and more comfortable lifestyle we now enjoy.

Condorcet was one of the ideologues of the Enlightenment. “He was a philosopher, mathematician and aristocrat, and above all a ‘Friend of Humanity’: in short, an extremely dangerous man” (p. 60). His book Progrès de L’Esprit Humain was “the most perfect possible compendium of utopian-revolutionary absurdities. In other words, almost everything he wrote would now seem not only true but platitudinous, and the rest would seem reactionary, to the readers of the New York Times, the Guardian in Britain and the Sydney Morning Herald … Condorcet does not actually say the Enlightenment is going to cure wooden legs, though I think it would have pained him to have it denied. He does say that the length of human life will be indefinitely increased.… Malthus on the other hand, believed that human beings had been placed by God in a state of imperfection which that while there are on earth is altogether inescapable. He meant imperfection both as to knowledge and happiness. We cannot know nearly as much or be nearly as happy as we are apt to imagine we could” (p. 61).”


“Religion is dangerous”

The Enlightenment idea that religion was dangerous is carefully analysed on pages 31-34. “It does not come easily to us now to think of religion as a source of misery. We are far too familiar with the immense amount of misery that has resulted from an absence of religion. We therefore think of religion as a source of happiness, or at least of comfort. And so it is to many countless victims of 20th-century atheist-terrorist governments and to a few people in the post-religious societies of the West. But those governments, and those societies are themselves among the products of the Enlightenment’s assault on religion.… The Epicureans in antiquity could not lighten the labour of a single peasant, increase a harvest by one ounce, or prevent or cure a single illness; and no more could the Enlightened in the 18th century. The one thing they both could do was to expel from some minds the misery which arises from religion. So they had to exaggerate beyond recognition the amount of misery which does arise from that source.… As well as this sizeable suggestio falsi, the Enlightened were obliged to engage in a certain suppressio veri: they had to keep quiet about the suffering that arises from the actual process of losing religion.… It was a question often pressed upon the Enlightened, how they reconciled their professed concern for human happiness, with their wilful assault on the principle comfort of human life.… It is not easily answered, at least while the justification of the Enlightened is given as being that it increases happiness. Accordingly, the Enlightened never did answer that question” (p.31-34). Unfortunately Stove died before Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris got to work, as he would have made short of their superficial and spiteful attacks on Christianity.

“If’ priests, kings, soldiers, doctors (and so on) were nothing more than the Enlightenment can see in them — if they were, in plain English, confidence men — then virtually the whole of human history would be unintelligible. If one side of the Enlightenment was embodied in Voltaire’s demand ‘ecrasez l’infâme’, another side was embodied in the French Revolution and its witches’ brew of ‘revolutionary republicanism, regicide, anti-religious terrorism and the deliberate destruction for the sake of equality of thousands of innocent people and of high culture in any form’” (pp.xi-xii).


“Our characters are determined by our environment”

The big discoveries have usually been made by single gifted individuals, often with very little help. He called this “The Bateson Fact”, after the English biologist William Bateson (1861-1926), who enunciated it. He quotes one striking example of it. “In 1696 the famous Swiss mathematician John Bernoulli published throughout Europe a request for solutions to two mathematical problems that he had been unable to solve. He originally allowed six months for their solution, but when Leibnitz asked for 12 months in order to solve just the second of the two problems, he granted the extension. Newton solved both in 24 hours. His solutions were sent anonymously but, as Bernoulli said afterwards ‘the lion can be recognised by its claw’.” (p. 52).

“Bateson opposed the ‘externalism’ of the Enlightenment, the belief that ‘the characters of men originate in their external circumstances’” (p. 53).“Stalin’s favourite biologist Lysenko … [behaviourists and] most anthropologists” believe in externalism. “… [W]ithin contemporary faculties of Arts, it is a belief de rigueur” (p. 53).

But you do not make geniuses like Newton by controlling their environment or by education or by money. Speaking of electricity, Stove writes, “all this knowledge and technology, or near-enough all, can be traced back along lines of causation which are as plain as day, not to ‘the needs of imperial expansion in 1850’ or any such professional puerility, but to the astounding intellectual gifts of one man: Michael Faraday — a man, it may be worthwhile to add, who possessed no advantage whatever except his exceptional gifts. He was the son of a blacksmith, attended school briefly if at all, and was from the age of 13 to 21, nothing more than a book binder’s apprentice” (p. 54).


“The main goal of life is to be happy”

Stove does not regard happiness as the main goal of human life. “That our primary obligation is to increase human happiness or decrease misery is an idea of only the last 10 minutes. The human race in general has always supposed that its primary moral obligation lies elsewhere: in being holy, or in being virtuous, or in practising some specific virtue: loyalty or courage for example” (p.178).


The following are some other thoughts that appear in these essays:

1) We are not controlled by our genes

Stove noted that the natural selection posited by Darwin depends on competition. But what is the unit of competition? He gives reasons why it can’t be a single individual, a single family, or a single adult male, and he points out the advantages of co-operation, rather than competition, for each of those. While originally those who stressed the role of competition believed it was mainly for food, some present-day neo-Darwinians believe that “all competition is (‘ultimately’) competition-to-reproduce. But the same kind of problem recurs. It is just as hard to find among actual organisms perfect demons for reproduction, as it is to find among actual humans perfect demons for food consumption. It was therefore a welcome suggestion that Professor Richard Dawkins made in The Selfish Gene (1976) that it is not organisms at all, but their genes which are ideally selfish reproducers and the competitors whose competition was the real motor of evolution” (p. 69). Later Dawkins modified this. “It is only certain small parts of genes, he says, which really do so. There is an obvious danger however that Professor Dawkins will find that these parts in turn are not as diligent in reproduction as they might be, and that he will then conclude that they too, like organisms and whole genes, are just another smoke-screen behind which the really selfish reproducers are tirelessly at their work. William Bateson used to say that genetics is scientific Calvinism, but Professor Dawkins carries this half-joke altogether too far. Like the 17th-century Christian demonologists who searched for ‘succubi’, and the 20th century socialist demonologists who search for ‘Zurich gnomes’, he searches for beings which are immoral, hidden and omnipotent. But common sense says that omnipotence, or perfection of any kind, is not to be looked for in this world” (p. 70).

“I am not an admirer of Dawkins’ selfish-gene theory. It is simply another one of those ‘people are mere puppets’ theories, which everyone has met dozens of, and which philosophers have met more than other people do. The suggestion that we are not causal agents only patients, that whatever we do or say it is not really us saying or doing but God, or gods, or Satan, or demons, or history, or our diet, or our sex drives, or our parents, or the climate, or the ruling class… etc… etc… What a bore!” (D. Stove, p. xviii, in an unpublished letter to a regular correspondent of his named Guy Richards, May 9, 1990).


2) Darwin was a Social Darwinian

Annie Besant and Charles Bradlaugh taught contraception and sought Charles Darwin’s support. He did not give it. Besant reported, “he disagreed with preventative checks to population on the ground that over-multiplication was useful since it caused a struggle for existence in which only the strongest and ablest survived …” (p. 101). Darwin “did not shrink from saying in print that vaccination against smallpox, the Poor Laws, hospital for imbeciles, etc., ‘must be highly injurious to the race of man’. In private, however, he often let his social Darwinism really rip” (p. 120).


3) Social Darwinism is morally corrupt

“Well, at one point Wilson [E.O. Wilson] describes certain species of ants which, having no worker caste of their own, hijack the worker-ants of another species, and put them to work looking after their young. To detach the workers from their former allegiance, the parasite queen infiltrates the other species’ nest and kills the host queen.” Dawkins, in The Extended Phenotype, comments on this. “In some species the method adopted is as follows. ‘The parasite queen rides about on the back of the host queen and then, in Wilson’s (1971) delightful description, ‘begins the one act for which she is uniquely specialised; slowly cutting off the head of her victim.’” Now, Stove asks, “what is there about Wilson’s description of how the parasite queen kills the host queen that is delightful? It is no more distinguished from an aesthetic or literary point of view, than the text of the book in which it occurs. [Stove had previously said that Wilson was not a particularly good writer, “just average professional”.] Though the vanity of authors knows no bounds, I do not believe for a moment that even Wilson would claim any particular merit for this description. Yet Dawkins finds it delightful. What can we think except that it is not really the description, but what is described that he finds delightful? This will be agreed, I believe, to give a sufficiently pungent whiff of the moral atmosphere of social Darwinism: though no doubt my earlier comparison of social Darwinism with garlic was too favourable. It must be realised that Dawkins gives us this whiff deliberately: he is much too conscious a writer not to have chosen the word ‘delightful’ with care. This deliberateness just adds to the pungency” (pp. 137-138).

These and other comments leave me with the impression that David Stove regards Richard Dawkins as a very low form of life.

Unlike Darwin and Dawkins, Thomas H. Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”) opposed Social Darwinism, although it was not called that in his day. He thought we should oppose the effects of natural selection, as it only preserves the strongest and most selfish (p. 132). Huxley could never reconcile himself with nature’s brutality; he believed man had to combat it with good ethics. Huxley saw “human ethics as ‘part and parcel of the general process of evolution’, evolved by natural selection to defy natural selection.… But by refusing to see human ethics as absolute or God-given, he nonplussed many critics who saw him plunging into paradox” (A. Desmond, Huxley: Evolution’s High Priest, Michael Joseph, London, 1997, p. 216). Huxley believed that there were three overlapping aspects of personal integrity: religion for morality, science for factuality and love for sanctity.


4) Altruism is a fact

“In many species of animals including man, there are surrender signals which once received make it difficult or impossible for fighting to continue. E.O. Wilson writes that this fact poses ‘a considerable theoretical difficulty. Why not always try to kill or maim the enemy outright?’ Why not indeed, if conspecifics are always engaged in merciless struggle for survival?... It is … a considerable theoretical difficulty why Professor Wilson does not always try to kill or maim his enemies” (p. 131).

“Darwinism is false if man is now exempt from natural selection. It is false again, if man is not everywhere dependent upon ruthless competition for survival. The Social Darwinian concludes, with consistency on his side, that human altruism is a delusion. But a rational person will conclude, with equal consistency and far more credibility, from the obvious fact of human altruism, that Darwinism is a delusion” (p. 136).

“There is only one theory which makes a ‘problem’ out of all forms of altruism, whether it be parental in humans, horses or herring gulls, or loyal soldiers, celibate priests or honest doctors. This is the theory that all organisms are naturally or essentially or radically selfish: devoted above all to maximising their own individual well-being. Rather than embrace this theory and thereby create insoluble but entirely imaginary ‘problems’, a rational mind goes precisely the opposite way: from such obvious facts as parental altruism, honest doctors and loyal soldiers, it safely concludes that the theory of universal organic selfishness is false” (p. 129).


5) The Welfare State encourages poverty

The Welfare State “takes money from people in whose hands it might create wealth and instead gives it to people in whose hands it cannot possibly do so: the unemployed, the earners of very low incomes, the aged, the sick, the handicapped, unmarried mothers, etc., etc. Millions more people have to be paid for administering this immense redistribution of wealth.… A system which rewards the economically dependent and penalises the independent must be a ‘positive feed back system’(as engineers say) for the creation of poverty” (pp. 38-39).


6) Philosophers should never run governments

“Until philosophers are kings, Plato said, human affairs will never go right. This is true, only one should add that they never go more wrong than when philosophers are kings. Historical accidents fortunately spared mankind the world rule to which Plato, Comte, and countless other philosopher-megalomaniacs aspired. But our luck ran out at last. In 1917 the throne of the Russian Empire was successfully usurped by a Philosopher — with what catastrophic consequences for the world at large it is hardly necessary to add” (pp. 157-158).

He includes this particularly chilling quote from Gilbert Murray. “I once in my youth met the celebrated Nihilist Bakunin, the unsuccessful Lenin of his day, who was credited with the doctrine that every act of destruction and violence is good because either it does good directly by destroying a person or thing that is objectionable, or else it does good indirectly by making an already intolerable world worse than before, and so bring the social revolution nearer. Since he and his friends had no constructive scheme for the so-called social revolution, the theory is for practical purposes indistinguishable from true Satanism or hatred of the world. One of the deductions made from that in the ordinary workday business of political assassinations, it was far more desirable to murder innocent and even good persons than guilty or wicked ones. For two reasons: the wicked were of some use if left alive in furthering the Revolution, and also to kill the wicked implied no really valid criticism of the existing social order. If you kill an unjust judge, you may be understood merely that you think judges ought to be just. But if you go out of your way to kill a just judge, it is clear you object to judges altogether. If a son kills a bad father, the act, though meritorious in a humble way, does not take us much further. But if he kills a good father, it cuts at the root of all that pestilent system of family affection and loving kindness and gratitude on which the present world is largely based” (p. 20).

Stove wrote, “Defects of empirical knowledge have less to do with the ways we go wrong in philosophy than defects in character do; such things as the simple inability to shut up, determination to be thought deep, hunger for power, fear, especially the fear of an indifferent universe” (p.56).


7) Too much tolerance can destroy a society that extends it

“We set ourselves to achieve a society which would be maximally tolerant. But that resolve only gives maximum scope to the activities of those who have set themselves to achieve the maximally intolerant society. It also, and more importantly, paralyses our powers of resistance to them and evidently must do this. It is this logical problem, as much as anything, which has nullified internal resistance in the West to Communist power” (p. xxxi).

This argument is equal relevant when applied to Communism’s religious counterpart, Islamism.


8) If it’s not broken, don’t fix it

Canadian-based philosopher Andrew Irvine wrote, “Stove’s primary argument in favour of conservatism falls into two main parts. First there is the observation that today’s social structures are so large and so complex that any widespread social reform will have innumerable unforeseen consequences. At the same time, since innovations for the worse always outnumber innovations for the better, these unforeseen consequences will be at least as harmful as they are beneficial” (p. xxv). Stove wrote, ‘If anyone gets to try out in practice his new idea for repairing or improving our society, it is something like billions to one that he will actually make things worse if he changes them at all. Of course, it is possible that he will make things better, but that is trivially true, it is possible, after all, that a furious kick will repair your ailing TV set” (p. 151).


9) People do not always seek the truth

Although Stove was a philosopher, he had no illusions about the power of logical argument when confronted by prejudice and self-interest. “… [A]rguments, especially if they have disagreeable conclusions, are seldom a match for strong feelings” (p. 38).

He opposed modern ideologies that had lost touch with truth, such as Marxism, semiotics and feminism, deploring their effect on universities’ arts faculties. “The result is a disaster area, and not of the merely passive kind, like a bombed building, or an area that has flooded. It is the active kind, like a badly-leaking nuclear reactor, or an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in cattle.… So far as there still survives anything of value from the Western tradition of humanistic studies, it is in spite of most of the people in the universities who are heirs of that tradition” (p. xvii).


This is a wonderful book, well up to the standard of Darwinian Fairy Tales. There is quite a large overlap in ideas in both. He wrote in a letter to Guy Richards, “My estimate of human life is essentially the same as that of (many) religious people” (p. xix). Stove was an atheist with a passionate love of truth and goodness, so it is not surprising that he often comes to similar conclusions as Christians.


About the reviewer

The Revd Peter Barclay, PhD, is a retired Presbyterian minister, living in Victoria, Australia. He frequently writes for Quadrant.


National Observer: Australia and World Affairs, No. 84, 2011