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More on the Darwin (and Obama) Angles in the Discovery Channel Hostage Episode

A line that's being widely offered on James Lee, who took hostages at the Discovery Channel on Wednesday before being shot and killed, fastens on his debt to Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth. The connection to Darwin, pushed heavily in Lee's list of demands, goes on being ignored. (No surprise.) But there's even more to the Darwin angle than I previously realized.

Lee's manifesto has otherwise been dismissed as mostly "a big bag of crazy." Not so fast. Lee was obviously disturbed, but the document he left behind makes sense in its weird way -- providing that you've dipped a bit into the ideas of his guru. No, not Al Gore. Daniel Quinn, whose book My Ishmael Lee insisted must become the focus of daily programming on the Discovery Channel. With Quinn, evolution and natural selection are a theme that, in turn, helps makes sense of James Lee's writing.

What seems crazy falls into place. For example, what is it that Lee had against farmers? ("All human procreation and farming must cease!" On his MySpace page, he denounces Genesis 1 as "obviously written by a totalitarian farmer.") It's very simple.

In Quinn's telling of history, agriculture was the beginning of the end for humans. Or rather, our accustomed "Totalitarian Agriculture." Here he is in a video interview talking about it with Alan D. Thornhill, then a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Rice University, now -- rather interestingly -- science advisor to the director of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior. Agriculture allowed the human population to grow and grow, since to feed more people, all you have to do is grow more food. Before that, human beings followed natural selection. We lived in tribes -- a social form that is itself a product of natural selection, he emphasizes. This, and the more natural non-Totalitarian Agriculture, put an automatic cap on the number of us that could survive.

Quinn divides humanity into two groups, Takers and Leavers. The Takers, the bad people, as he writes in his earlier book Ishmael, were the ones who first said, "No more natural selection for us, thanks very much" (p. 238). Evolution came to a stop, since we were no longer subject to the winnowing effects of natural selection. Before, the good people, the Leavers, lived in nature as primitive tribalists: "Pre-man evolved into early man because he didn't take himself out of the competition, because he was still in the place where natural selection is going on."

Having done this, we humans condemned ourselves. As Malthus inspired Darwin himself, he inspires Daniel Quinn (and James Lee). Quinn comments in an interview:

I (and a relatively small number of others) have AS YET been unable to shake the commonly held Malthusian vision of the relation between population growth and food production. So it continues to be seen that it is completely inevitable that our population must continue to grow to 8 billion, 10 billion, 12 billion. If this happens, I'm afraid I see no hope for our species.
He's very down indeed on the production of food: "Food production is under our control; if we cease increasing food production, then our population will of necessity cease to grow." Quinn looks back fondly on food gathering.

Daniel Quinn, whose books James Lee professed to have read obsessively, compares his own insights, and the process of their formation, to Darwin's. In the same 2000 speech, he chides "creationists" for doubting:

This is what creationists say of evolution, that it's "only a theory, it hasn't been proved," as though this in itself is grounds for dismissal. This misrepresents the point of formulating a theory, which is to make sense of the evidence. So far, Darwin's theory remains the very best way we've found to make sense of the evidence, and my own theory has to be evaluated in the same way.
In another address, he praises animal and primitive human forms of social organization -- the flock, the tribe -- compared to our current culture:
They've each survived millions of years of testing by natural selection. It's no wonder they work well for their members. They work as well as eyes work, as well as beaks work, as well as nests work, as well as hands work.

But our social organization isn't the product of natural selection. It's a product of the Rube Goldberg school of design, a contraption cobbled together out of spare parts.

On his MySpace page, James Lee writes of "going over the Daniel Quinn books over and over....To be honest, the Daniel Quinn books are what I have been looking for for the better half of my life." This is far more adulation than he devotes to Al Gore, whose film he finds only "half good."

Lee writes about the need to "disassemble civilization," exposing it "for the filth it is." Quinn doesn't say exactly that, but you can see how a disturbed personality would easily draw the inference.

You see too why Lee was so up on his Darwin. As he put it in his list of demands:

Develop shows that mention the Malthusian sciences about how food production leads to the overpopulation of the Human race. Talk about Evolution. Talk about Malthus and Darwin until it sinks into the stupid people's brains until they get it!!
No, Quinn can no more be blamed for Lee's tragic death than Al Gore can. Nor can Charles Darwin for that matter. Quinn is not a nut -- he merely takes his Darwinian materialism to its logical intellectual destination. And I hasten to add he uses none of Lee's horrendous language about human beings as "filth" in need of sterilization. Quinn is an effective writer, and comes across as quite civilized and grandfatherly. He's also well connected with the Obama Administration, being an old collaborator with Dr. Thornhill, who receives credit as the "founding and former webmaster" of Quinn's website. (What is it, incidentally, about science advisors in this Administration and extreme overpopulation views?)

Yet this much is evident. A line of intellectual descent, such as it is, runs clearly from Malthus to Darwin to Quinn to Lee. At the Discovery Channel headquarters, that line came to an abrupt end.