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Up From Evolution

Reflections on a new book about C.S. Lewis, science, and society.

By 9.21.12

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The Magician's Twin: C.S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society.
Edited by John G. West
(Discovery Institute Press, 350 pages, $24.95)

We normally associate C.S. Lewis with Christian apologetics, English literature, and the Narnia stories; less so with science and questions about evolution. But as the Discovery Institute's John G. West points out in The Magician's Twin, throughout his life Lewis was concerned about the abject submission of culture and politics to the growing authority of science. Lewis respected science, but he rejected the idea that it is the only reliable method of knowledge about the world. He called that error scientism. As for evolution, his skepticism about it increased over the years.

In this anthology, John West and his co-authors gather material primarily from four books by Lewis: Miracles, The Abolition of Man, That Hideous Strength and The Discarded Image. Their findings are enhanced by West's research into Lewis's papers and correspondence, now at Wheaton College in Illinois. He also made good use of unpublished annotations and underlined passages in books preserved from Lewis's own library.

Lewis well understood the cultural dominance of the theory of evolution in his day and was at first reluctant to criticize the theory. He also tended to assume, as so many others have since, that Darwinism was better confirmed than it really was (or is). In fact, since Lewis's death in 1963, the new findings of molecular biology have made the theory look a good deal less plausible than it did 50 years ago.

In the past, some evolutionists claimed Lewis as an ally. National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, a Christian who admired Lewis and was influenced by him, believed that Lewis accepted that "Christians should accept the animal ancestry of humans." But he neglected to study Lewis's published comments. Others have openly misrepresented what he believed on the subject.

Lewis was "a thoroughgoing skeptic of the creative power of unguided natural selection," John West points out, and as the years passed he became increasingly critical.

Lewis further argued (in Miracles) that the human faculty of reason is itself supernatural and that it is impossible to rely on our mental processes if they are the product of the random motion of molecular particles. Belief in materialism is therefore self-defeating. On that point, at least, C.S. Lewis and the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane were in agreement.

Of particular interest are Lewis's comments in his posthumously published book, The Discarded Image. He notes the shift in recent centuries "from a devolutionary to an evolutionary scheme"; from a cosmology in which it was once considered axiomatic that "all perfect things precede all imperfect things." That is a quotation from the sixth century philosopher Boethius, who wrote the Consolation of Philosophy, a work widely read in the Middle Ages. Today, in biology at least, "the starting point is always lower than what is developed," Lewis commented.

The modern intelligent design movement has raised a related question: How did we ever acquire the information that is essential for an organism to develop in stages from amoeba to Man? No such progression has ever been observed, experimentally, and the question raised by the advocates of intelligent design has never been answered.

Lewis anticipated that our own "model" is also likely to change. We can see why, and perhaps it is already doing so. One big social change in the 150 years since The Origin of Species was published is that the old faith in progress has been lost. At the end of The Origin Charles Darwin wrote: "As natural selection works solely by and for the good of each being, all corporeal and mental endowments will tend to progress toward perfection."

Improvement was thought of as having been built into the Cosmos. That faith endured throughout the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th. But we no longer believe in the doctrine of progress. The Holocaust, the Gulag, and two world wars didn't help, of course. But for their own reasons, often inexplicit, intellectuals now see the world in a much more pessimistic way than they formerly did.

Environmentalists in particular view humans as little more than polluters who should reproduce less frequently -- or perhaps stop entirely. Nature might then be restored to its pure and unsullied state. A surprise best seller in 2007 was The World Without Us, from which human beings have disappeared, for unexplained reasons. The book was greeted as a new vision of Utopia.

But absent a robust faith in progress, I suspect, people will not easily believe in evolution either. Evolution is a theory that arose with the Enlightenment, when change came to be equated with progress. But that vision is remote from our own world and there have been other such U-turns. For example, who in C.S. Lewis's day would have predicted the abrupt return of Islam within four decades of his death?

The idea that progress can no longer be relied upon has seeped into corners of the academy, where we are finding calls for the renewal of eugenics. If Man will not improve on his own, then he must be remade, willy-nilly. A chapter in The Magician's Twin tells us about Julian Savulescu, the head of something called the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics at Oxford University. He was a student of the Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer, who earlier called for the extension of human rights to animals. "Bioethics" may be on its way to becoming the polite new word for eugenics.

Darwin became uncomfortable later in life because he believed that social reformers in England were undermining natural selection (the "survival of the fittest") by introducing what we would call welfare programs. Darwin's cousin Francis Galton launched eugenics as a corrective and it was later adopted by National Socialists in Germany. That discredited eugenics, but Julian Huxley (the grandson of Darwin's strongest supporter) was still backing the movement as late as 1960.

Today, Julian Savulescu is called a trans-humanist. According to The Magician's Twin chapter, written by James Herrick, Savulescu

"is a leading proponent of human enhancement, the school of thought that promotes the progressive use of biotechnologies to improve human intellect, moral reasoning and other traits such as physical strength. Savulescu has argued that deep moral flaws and destructive behaviors point to the need to employ technology and education to change human nature; either we take this path or we face extinction as a species."

There are striking similarities between the goals of today's trans-humanists and the technological future envisioned by C.S. Lewis, both in The Abolition of Man and in his novel That Hideous Strength. (Both were written in the 1940s.) As with other writers such as Aldous Huxley in Brave New World, Lewis assumed that progressive opinion would try to incorporate the latest technology into society. Whatever seemed old fashioned would be displaced by something more up-to-date and scientific. Some developments such as the recent enthusiasm for stem cell research have indeed borne that out. (But embryonic stem cell research, which was initially and misleadingly sold to the public by the New York Times as an immortality project, has gone almost nowhere because no one has been able to master the science; it seems to have been mainly a fantasy to begin with.)

In other ways, however, progressive opinion has headed in an unanticipated direction. Consider the global warming scare. Today's Greens, who are driving this debate, yearn for an old fashioned world with windmills and warmth collected directly from the sun; not a world of big power stations and oil companies. Every excuse to eliminate or postpone nuclear power is seized upon, however low its carbon emissions. Germany is now heading down that self-destructive path and Japan will possibly follow suit. (China, not!)

The new direction of the intelligentsia is elitist to be sure, as it was in Lewis's day, but it also harbors these anti-technological sentiments. Progressive characters in That Hideous Strength disparage an old fashioned village pub in England and plan to eliminate such anachronisms when they come to power. Today's intellectuals would be shocked by that. "Ye olde" things appeal to us, we admire old structures and consistently try to preserve them. C.S. Lewis would have been pleased.

The great thrust of the new technology today has been in the making of ever smaller personal computers and the development of a digital world -- the world wide web in particular. This momentous development was of course unforeseen, and it has no particular ideology. But its effect is to decentralize power and decision-making and that will continue for years to come (perhaps eventually rendering print obsolete). This direction, too, is inimical to the world planned by experts that Lewis envisioned (and dreaded) in his critique of scientism.

One could say a lot more about this outstanding new book. It is valuable precisely because so little attention has been paid to C.S. Lewis's views about science and society. It will be of interest not just to students of C.S. Lewis but to anyone following the controversies surrounding intelligent design, the faculty of reason, and the mysterious history of human life. 

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About the Author

Tom Bethell is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, and most recently Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (2009).