Niall Ferguson's "punk Gibbon" account of the horrors of the 20th century is enjoyable—until his semi-educated foray into evolutionary psychologyby Nicholas Humphrey / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
The War of the World by Niall Ferguson (Allen Lane, £25)
Writing in response to Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914, James Barr, a physician and former president of the British Medical Association, had this to say: “The German Kultur must be exterminated, and this savage breed as far as possible wiped out… Germany has produced no genius, there is no scope for individualism, her work is the collective wisdom of commonplace savants, she has never produced nor is ever likely to produce a super-man… The Allies have shown their manhood and the capacity to rule, we must therefore… raise healthy men and women who will hold their own in the battle of life… This can all be rapidly attained by intelligent artificial selection, and the nation which produces the finest, noblest and most intellectual race will win in the long run.”
As Niall Ferguson relates, by the first years of the 20th century the idea that human races must struggle for biological supremacy—the “meme” of racism, he calls it—was spreading round the world. Ways of thinking about humans that would have been inconceivable 100 years earlier—survival of the fittest, selective advantage, biological dead ends and supermen—were being touted as scientific truths.
Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton, came up with the idea of eugenics; Herbert Spencer championed social Darwinism. Yet it was not in Britain that these ideas found greatest favour. Germany, Italy, Russia, Japan, Turkey and Serbia were soon showing how the racist game could be played once people got really serious about it.
The War of the World tells what happened next. In this long but gripping survey of “history’s age of hatred” Ferguson piles fact upon fact, horror on horror, to make the case that racism was a key ingredient in most if not all of the 20th century’s uniquely devastating wars across the globe. He does not say that racism was ever the sole cause: economic uncertainty, the breakdown of empires, accidents of history all played a part. The tectonic plates of the old world order were already on the move. But racial antipathy was a big component of the subsequent conflicts.
The history is raw, revealing, carefully argued and surprising. This is a revisionist account, with little respect for what have become standard assumptions. The writing is opinionated and laced with withering criticism of those with whom the author disagrees. If this is “right-wing…