May 18, 2008

What’s So Scary About Evolution?”€”For Both Left and Right, a Lot

Around June 17 or June 18, 1858 “€” which is to say, a hundred and fifty years ago, less a few days “€” the mail delivery at Charles Darwin’s house south of London included a package from Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist doing field work in Indonesia. In the package was Wallace’s paper On The Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely from the Original Type, spelling out in brief but clear terms a theory of the origin of species, a theory congruent with the one that Darwin himself had been assembling for 20 years out of his own observations.

Darwin, distracted by the grave illness of his youngest son, asked friends to arrange for joint publication, Wallace’s work and his own to be presented together as short abstracts to a learned society. This was done on July 1 with neither author present, Darwin being grief-stricken “€” his son had died on June 28 “€” and Wallace being still in Indonesia. A year and a half later, Darwin published his great book On the Origin of Species. Our view of the world of living organisms changed radically and for ever.

We shall therefore be in Darwin commemorative territory this next year or so. To the scientifically literate portion of humanity this will be an occasion to acknowledge with gratitude and respect one of the giants of our understanding, a figure to rank with Newton, Gauss, and Einstein. Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection supplied an elegant explanation for the great variety of living things on Earth. No alternative explanation (other than the miraculous) has ever been offered, and a century and a half of inquiry has produced not a single observation that contradicts Darwin’s basic principles. Those principles form the foundation of the life sciences. As the great biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky framed it: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

So much for the clear breezy uplands of history and science. Down in the rain forest of actual human society, Darwin has had a more mixed reception. Strict fundamentalists in all three of the big Abrahamic religions regard his theories with loathing. The degree of loathing is different among the three faiths, being highest among Muslims, lowest among Jews, and intermediate among Christians. The loathing is real, though, and among some groups of believers, it is very intense.

There are two reasons for this. In the first place, Darwin’s theories contradict the holy books, if those books are read with a close and literal meaning. In the second, the broad outlook on human nature implied by Darwinian ideas contradicts the notion of human exceptionalism, without which the Abrahamic religions lose their point. To put it crudely, those big old Western faiths see humanity as a Chosen Species, uniquely gifted by God with powers of moral discrimination and (though there are sectarian differences here) with the prospect of an afterlife. To modern biologists, informed by Darwin, we are merely another branch on Nature’s tree, our particular mental and social gifts in plain line of descent from homologues among the higher animals.

The social phenomena engendered by these stresses are well known. The Scopes “monkey trial” of 1925 is part of collective memory in the U.S.A., though of course interpreted variously according to inclination. Probably because of that trial, and a popular movie about it released in 1960, at the height of our country’s post-Sputnik science anxiety, hostility to Darwin’s ideas was for a long time associated with hillbilly fundamentalism in the imaginations of educated Americans.

That association is now out of date. In the soft languor of post-industrial society, with its vast cohorts of articulate and leisured drones half-educated in the swollen Humanities departments of over-endowed colleges, science is taken blithely for granted and nature is far away. When did you last meet a person who declared botany to be his hobby? Any provincial English town in Darwin’s time could have produced hundreds. I spent many hours of my youth in second-hand bookstores in England. Pulling down from the shelves any book bearing a publication date before 1900, you could be pretty sure to find a pressed flower or leaf in its pages.

Nature’s blind uncaring ruthlessness is even further from our sensibilities than its merely structural aspects. In the middle of writing this essay I paused to dispose of a large rat who had shown up in one of my garden traps, which are of the cage type. The disposal was by my customary brisk method: I drop the unopened cage, frantic rat inside, into an old driveway-sealant bucket filled with water. This operation aroused hysterical objections from my 15-year-old daughter. “Please, Daddy. Can’t you drive out with it somewhere and let it go?” Me: “It’s a rat, honey. Read up the Black Death.” What do we know of reality any more? Of Darwin’s 10 children, three died from disease”€”a modest degree of loss for those times.

And so, as physical and biological reality recedes from our senses, replaced by flickering images and airy verbal constructions wafted to us across air-conditioned college classrooms, science ceases to be seen as an edifice of useful intellection, arduously assembled by observation, experiment, and discussion, and repeatedly tested against reality. It becomes instead just one more thing to have an opinion about, a lifestyle choice. There are of course prudent limits to our insouciance. Nobody who flies at all will strike a critical pose towards aerodynamics, nor will recreational rock climbers indulge themselves in skeptical thoughts about gravitation. Where the connections between reality and ideas are less plain, though, all theories are equal, Evolution by Natural Selection as much a Po-Mo lifestyle-menu item as Post-Colonial studies or Queer Legal Theory.

Hence the resurgence of anti-Darwin sentiment, marked most recently by Ben Stein’s movie “Expelled.”€ “Anti-Darwin,” note, not merely “anti-Darwinian.” The animosity is just as personal as that. In this age of celebrity culture, it’s not just the theories, it’s the old boy himself. Anyone who writes about these topics can tell you “€” I certainly can “€” that large numbers of Americans regard Charles Darwin as a very wicked man. In fact the biographies show him as a kindly and honorable Victorian gent, who nursed the common prejudices of his time in their mildest forms. No matter: biography is tossed into the postmodernist blender along with history and science, rendered down to make another draught of lifestyle latte.

(This is not the least of the indignities the old naturalist has had to endure. In Robert Ferrigno’s recent novels about a part-Islamicized future U.S.A., Darwin is the name of an exceptionally ferocious assassin. From the general tenor of the novels, however, I should guess the author’s intent to be ironical, not antiscientific. Ego te absolvo>, Bob.)

As I said, American anti-Darwinism has drifted far from its original home in back-country Christianity. Ben Stein’s Jewishness is a leading indicator here. When intelligent Jews sign on to a lifestyle-statement pseudoscience, you know the thing has legs. Stein’s movie was favorably reviewed by David Klinghoffer, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award and author of a shelf of books justifying the ways of God to men. David Berlinski, another Jewish author, has recently joined the ranks of Darwin-slayers. I don’t know what William Jennings Bryan would have had to say about this development, though I think I can imagine what the older Great Generation of American-Jewish scientists and mathematicians would have said. (A yet older generation, the supersitious shtetl peasants portrayed by Isaac Bashevis Singer, might have been more sympathetic.)

The placing of anti-Darwinism on a political scale is usually considered a no-brainer. The phenomenon belongs, of course, on the political Right, along with most forms of anti-modernism and religious enthusiasm. On closer inspection, matters are by no means so simple. The aforementioned Bryan, who argued the anti-Darwin side in the Scopes trial, would certainly not have thanked you for calling him a conservative. Bryan was a populist Progressive, given to thundering against “the idle holders of idle capital.”
Contrariwise, when celebrity atheists”€”Darwin enthusiasts all”€”sit around chatting, the occasion will not pass without one or other of them slipping in a firm denunciation of the proposition that human races differ in any way other than the merely visible. That proposition is, however, exceedingly probable on Darwinian principles, and it is likely Darwin himself believed it. Recall the full title of his book: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

The race issue in fact presents a conundrum for Darwinists of the political left, a conundrum eagerly exploited by religious anti-Darwinists keen to don the mantle of Political Correctness. Evolution is racist! Darwin was a racist! Darwinism inspired the Holocaust!  In reply to these gleeful denunciations, the poor Darwinist can only mumble, with perfect truth but rhetorical feebleness, that as a scientific theory, Darwin’s is as ethically neutral as Newton’s or Faraday’s. It prescribes no human action or attitude, neither “racism” nor “anti-racism” nor any other.

It cannot be denied, though, that Darwinism’s metaphysical implications are hard to square with any view of human nature not flatly biological; and this applies as much to the “blank slate” egalitarianism of the irreligious Left as to the soul-based universalism of the religious Right. This is inevitable. As an empirical view of living matter, chasing down its truths one by one through thickets of patient observation, Darwinism is bound to offend systems derived from introspection, revelation, or social approval.

Here are the three prevalent views of human nature, in chronological order by origin. The
“Abrahamic” view is the one promoted by the big old Western faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The Darwinian view is the one implied (though not dispositively proved) by Darwinism. The third view I have labeled “Boasian” after anthropologist Franz Boas, who was the first to use it as basis for a comprehensive modern account of human nature.

Abrahamic:  Our species homo sapiens is the special creation of God, either as a one-off miracle or by God-guided evolution. Human nature is a mix of attributes, some biological, some inserted by God. The God-given attributes are unique to our species. They are the same in all human populations, forming the foundation of our essential equality. Their existence is independent of our biological nature, even to the degree that they can continue to exist after our deaths. Being non-biological, they certainly do not evolve, even if other features of the living world do, so that our evolution, if it ever took place, ended (except perhaps for some incidental biological features) when God decreed we have these attributes. God rules!

Darwinian: Our species homo sapiens arose, like all other species, from the ordinary processes of evolution, which have continued to the present day. Human nature is a collection of characteristics all susceptible to biological explanation. These characteristics show variation in any one population. A human population that breeds mostly within itself for many generations will develop distinctive profiles of variation, as a result of ordinary biological laws, causing it to diverge from other such populations. Neither individual human beings nor human populations are equal. Some human-nature characteristics can be shaped to some degree by “cultural” (i.e. social or environmental) forces; some cannot. Biology rules!

Boasian: Our species homo sapiens arose, like all other species, from the ordinary processes of evolution. However, these processes ceased in the very early history of the species, leaving us with a human nature uniform across all populations and unchanging over time, forming the foundation of our essential equality. This human nature is infinitely resilient, like a water-filled balloon. Any of its characteristics can be pushed into almost any shape by “cultural” forces (see above), but will submit to radical re-shaping if different forces are applied. Observed variations in human-nature characteristics have probably (in the case of individuals) and certainly (in the case of populations) no biological foundation. Culture rules!

A thing you notice when these three views of human nature are lined up is how far the Darwinian explanation stands from the other two. I have worked my phrasing somewhat to bring this out, but it wasn’t difficult to do so. A Darwinian view of human nature really is quite sensationally revolutionary. In particular, it makes a hash of intrinsic human equality. We may of course”€”and we should, and I hope we ever shall! “€” hold equal treatment under the law to be an organizing principle of our civilization; but that is a social agreement, like driving on the right, not a pre-existing fact in the world.
We might even speculate that the Abrahamic and the Boasian views are really the same, or that the second is a scientistic nineteenth-century derivative of the first, as Marxism was of traditional religious millenarianism. As the authors of math textbooks say: I leave this as an exercise for the reader.

The Boasian view of human nature is still the consensus one in Humanities and the social sciences. This is so much the case that it has been completely internalized by pretty much everyone, even children. Here is a story from last week’s news.

Sophomore holds an A-plus average in subjects like algebra, astronomy

With the end of another school year approaching, college sophomore Moshe Kai Cavalin is cramming for final exams in classes such as advanced mathematics, foreign languages and music.

But Cavalin is only 10 years old…

Our little prodigy is particularly interested in spacetime wormholes, a speculative area in General Relativity Theory. But:

First, he has statistics homework to finish. Later, he’ll work with his mother, Shu Chen Chien, to brush up on his Mandarin for his Chinese class. Then it’s over to the piano to prepare for his recital in music class.

In matters educational, little Moshe is a Boasian blank-slater:

He says other students can achieve his success if they study hard and stay focused on their work.

One of his teachers inclines the same way:

“€˜He sees things very simply,”€™ says Judge, his statistics teacher. “€˜Most students think that things should be harder than they are and they put these mental blocks in front of them and they make things harder than they should be …”€™

You see, it is wrong, wrong, wrong to think that anyone”€”even Moshe Kai Cavalin”€”is smarter than anyone else. That would be educational nihilism, a denial of human equality. We are all equally smart. Some people just take the wrong approach to learning, that’s all.

You may have noticed there that little Moshe’s Mom is Chinese. From his forename you may further have deduced, what is in fact the case, that his Dad is Jewish. Chinese … Jewish … super-smart … What is at work here: God, biology, or culture? CULTURE! screams back the entire world of right-thinking people, and who dares deny it? Well, a legendary geneticist might, but what does he know?

Only one view of human nature can be correct. Either we are the ensouled favorites of an omniscient deity; or we are biology and nothing else; or we are biological vehicles for a perfectly plastic uniform essence whose every trait is a consequence of the world immediately around us. The first option, in current American society, is largely the property of the political Right; the third, of the political Left. The middle option has no true political home, any more than Pythagoras’ Theorem has. Like Pythagoras’ Theorem, it is much the most useful of the three, and very likely true. Unlike the theorem, though, it tells us things about ourselves we cannot bear to hear. For that reason, it will probably never have wide acceptance.

John Derbyshire is a contributing editor of National Review and the author of, most recently, Unknown Quantity: A Real and Imaginary History of Algebra.

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