This article is taken from the July/August 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
EARLY IN MAY, the American Enterprise Institute held a debate about Darwinism, a faith embedded in many debates, whether scientific, religious, or political. The recent irruption of atheism can be traced to the Darwinian creed, for the well-publicized testimonials of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens all have recourse to Darwinism at various points.
It purports to explain how we got here without any need for God or gods. Darwinism is best seen as 19th-century philosophy — materialism — dressed up as science, and directed against a theological argument for the existence of God. (The only one of St. Thomas Aquinas’s “proofs” that resonates with us today is the “argument from design.”) Richard Dawkins famously said that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
Political theory was uppermost at AEI — it is, after all, a public-policy think tank. The question before the house: “Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes?” The main combatants were Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, and John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Also on the podium were John Derbyshire, who writes books about mathematics and is the “designated point man” against intelligent design at National Review; and George Gilder, the well-known writer who is also with the Discovery Institute.
Arnhart, the author of Darwinian Conservatism (2005), has carved out a nice niche for himself by arguing that conservatives need Darwin. He makes his case by presenting conservative political ideas and arguing that Darwin’s theory of natural selection supports them. Darwinian mechanisms give rise to a “spontaneous order, “he said at one point, contrasting it favorably with the “utopian vision” of liberals.
West argued that the issue is not really amenable to a left-right analysis. He quoted the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a self-described secular humanist, who said last year that our bodies are “miracles of design,” and faulted scientists for “pretending that they have the answer as to how we got this way.”
In Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest (2006), and in his talk, West rejected the claim that Darwinism supports traditional moral teachings. Darwin’s Descent of Man, published 12 years after The Origin of Species, overflows with arguments embarrassing to conservatives and liberals alike. “Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide, “West writes, de-scribing Darwin’s explicit position. “Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be one’s parents.”
The truth is that Darwinism is so shapeless that it can be enlisted in support of any cause whatsoever. Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at AEI, made this clear in his admirable introduction. Darwinism has over the years been championed by eugenicists, social Darwinists, racialists, free-market economists, liberals galore, Wilsonian progressives, and National Socialists, to give only a partial list. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, Communists and libertarians, and almost anyone in between, have at times found Darwinism to their liking. Spencer himself first used the phrase “survival of the fittest, “and Darwin thought it an “admirable” summation of his thesis.
Both selfishness and (with a little mathematical ingenuity) altruism can be given a Darwinian gloss. Any existing psychological trait, from aggression to pacifism, can be deemed adaptive by inventing a just-so story explaining how genes “for” that trait might have arisen. The genes themselves do not have to be identified, nor does the imagined historical scenario have to leave any trace behind.
The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more “fit,” or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is “fit” (otherwise it wouldn’t exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenient-such as the peacock’s tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stag-the existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit.
So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It “explains” everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason. The impact of Darwinism on any and all political groups can be argued any way you want and it’s not very illuminating for that reason. So the AEI discussion frequently veered off into related areas.
INEVITABLY, the subject of intelligent design came up. National Review’s John Derbyshire right away sought to conflate it with creationism. Someone in the front row reminded him that there were no creationists present. Derbyshire replied that a judge had equated intelligent design with creationism and that was good enough for him. There is considerable confusion about the relationship between the two, so let me try to elucidate. Creationists for the most part say: “When it comes to origins, we take our guidance from the Bible. What others say about natural selection, shared ancestry, and so on is of little importance to us. We already have our faith and our Book and we are sticking to it. “It is separatist in spirit. “You scientists can do your thing, just let us do ours, which is study Genesis and pray.”
That was a deal as far as the Darwinians were concerned. The creationists could be ignored.
Intelligent design is not like that. It is aggressive and therefore potentially dangerous. It says to the Darwinians: “You don’t have the evidence to support your claims. Your lab results and fossils don’t support your theory. Organisms are way too complex to have arisen by chance. Take all the time you want, it won’t be enough. Even though we don’t know how it happened, these critters must have been designed somehow.”
It takes the war to the enemy, in other words. So it can’t easily be ignored. It is informed by science, not religion. That is why it has made Darwinians angry, and why they try to identify it with creationism. They have also imposed a rigid orthodoxy upon all whose hiring, credentialing, and promotion they can control. They are not interested in any debate. Discovery Institute people told me that last year a group of graduate students from prestigious universities wanted to learn more about intelligent design. A conference was arranged in which these young people showed up and wore nametags with pseudonyms and all papers were collected up at the end. The students were afraid that their identities would be leaked to their professors. That’s the intellectual climate surrounding this is-sue today. There are parallels with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, who had to communicate by samizdat.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?