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From Linnaeus to Ayn Rand
Robert J. Maxwell22 October 2012
I used to show this in a class, Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, but, the university not being, say, MIT or Harvard, quickly found that it went too fast for many of the students. The shared cultural data base that was taken for granted when I was a child had eroded. My working-class mother, who never got past the third grade, had a favorite novel, "The Great Gatsby," which high school students now read in Advanced Placement classes. My working-class aunt, who managed to reach the eighth grade before having to leave school in order to work, corrected me once when I made a misstatement about Machiavelli's background. That was then; this is now. I couldn't depend on my students having a grasp of just what Charles Darwin was famous for, and I had the impression that some of them had to stretch to identify Hitler. Thereafter, the showing of this episode was always accompanied by a simple chart showing how Darwin came by his ideas and what their impact has been on the modern world.

Darwin was responsible for the overthrow of the strictly Biblical view of the universe. Or, rather, he began a controversy that persists to the present day. I mention "intelligent design" in passing.

More than that, he generated a set of simplified beliefs -- "the survival of the fittest", "nature red in tooth and claw" -- that was interpreted by various nations in accordance with the beliefs of their leaders. It led to Aryan supremacy in Hitler's Germany (and World War II), rampant and individualistic materialism in the US, and to Lenin and communism in the USSR. In all cases, the fittest were to survive -- and the fittest were defined by the most powerful: Goebbels, Stalin, John D. Rockefeller. And, "What does one social class owe to the others?", asks Burke. "Absolutely nothing." Well, today, Hitler and communism are toast, but Social Darwinism seems to be undergoing a Great Reawakening in America. Ayn Rand has divided society into a few "creators" and many more "leeches." We're beginning to get a glimpse of how the fittest are going to treat the less fit -- meaning the less rich.

But that's my own gloss on our current political and economic circumstances. Burke's series appeared almost thirty years ago and the material is presented dispassionately but with a lot of irony too.

It's a good illustration of the difference between his earlier series, "Discovery," and "The Day the Universe Changed." This episode has practically nothing to do with the technology that dominated the first series. This one is all about ideas, beginning with the certitude of Linnaeus and ending with the contrast between the mistaken application of Darwin's biological ideas to the realm of political culture. There's not a gear in the whole forty minutes. It's all about ideas.

It includes some stunning shots of the castle of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, a huge fairy-tale kind of palace perched on a mountain top. I'd love to own it and live there. What great parties I could throw. I'd see to it that the less fit were well provided for, with jobs as butlers, footmen (what's a footman?), valets, and masseuses. A place for everyone and everyone in his place. A return to the orderliness of Linnaeus's garden.
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