The Spectacle Blog

Scientism

By on 12.4.05 | 2:40PM

Gertrude Himmelfarb has an excellent review-essay in The New Republic (subscription required) dealing with the philosophical shortcomings of Darwin-anthologists Edward O. Wilson and James D. Watson. Here is her conclusion:

The editors of these new editions of Darwin may have taught us more than they know. A non-scientist may well stand in awe of the enormous achievements that they as individuals, and science in general, have to their credit. They have learned a great deal, and we have learned a great deal from them. But what they have evidently not learned is humility--an appreciation of the limits of science, of what science does not know and cannot know. This is what they now inadvertently remind us: that there are, after all, other modes of knowledge, other scholarly disciplines--philosophy, history, literature, theology--that have taught us a good deal, over the ages, about human nature, social behavior, ethical principles and practices. There are even non-scholarly, non-professional sources of knowledge that do not come within the purview of science--wisdom, experience, common sense.

In Darwin's day, some eminent scientists--T. H. Huxley, most notably--were distressed by the mechanistic and reductivist interpretation of evolution itself. Today we have even more cause to be concerned about the mechanistic and reductivist interpretation of all of human life, including its emotional and intellectual dimensions, in the name of Darwinism. This is more than science. It is scientism--and scientism with a vengeance, for it is not only science that is now presumed to be the only access to comprehensive truth, but also that sub-category of science known as Darwinism.

Not least for this reason, it is finally to Darwin and the Darwinians of his own time that we must turn--to the conquistador who was personally modest even as he was bold in imagination and conception, and to his bulldog who tried to restrain the irrational exuberance of some of Darwin's disciples. We may recall Huxley's advice to Paley's successors, that they follow his example by refraining from "rushing into an antagonism which has no reasonable foundation." All the parties in the current controversies could profit from that wise counsel.

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