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Dawkins against the LSE 

I heard Richard Dawkins lecture last night on “Is evolution predictable”. He’s famously good as a speaker: not as flamboyant as some, but wonderfully relaxed and literate. Of course he has perhaps the most extraordinary tale the world has to offer us to tell, but he does tell it well.

The lecture was at the London School of Economics, as part of its Darwin@LSE series. What I didn’t know beforehand was that there is a culture of anti-Darwinism at the LSE, and the Darwin programme is in part a reaction against that tradition.

It’s not, needless to say, the anti-Darwinism of the creationists, who would get as short shrift at the LSE as at any place of intelligence. Instead, it’s a left-wing critique of Darwinism that seems to have its roots in the distortions of social Darwinism earlier in the twentieth century.

Dawkins told me afterwards that his view was that social scientists that choose to ignore Darwinian thinking need to explain why, since evolution provides the fundamental explanation of why we are what we are.

That much is understandable. But John Ashworth, a former director of the LSE, told me a quirkier reason for the hostility. When William Beveridge was director of the LSE, he hired Lancelot Hogben to bring some dash of scientific thinking into the institution. Aside from his famous works popularising mathematics, Hogben’s own work concentrated on a particularly large kind of toad. As happens, Hogben’s toads started hopping about the LSE, getting everywhere they weren’t supposed to be.

When Ashworth asked Helena Cronin to start the Darwin series in the early ’90s, the first question Ashworth was asked at a faculty meeting was, “Does she work on toads?”

Whether it’s toads or social Darwinism, the result is that important, developing fields like evolutionary psychology and behavioural economics seem to be passing the LSE by.

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