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Saving Us from Darwin, Part II

1.

In a recent essay in these pages I argued that “intelligent design”—the theory that cells, organs, and organisms betray unmistakable signs of having been fashioned by a divine hand—bears only a parodic relationship to a research-based scientific movement.1 In a world where empirical issues were settled on strictly empirical grounds, ID would be a doctrine without a future. But scientific considerations can take a back seat when existential angst, moral passions, and protectiveness toward sacred tradition come into play.

One doesn’t have to read much creationist literature, for example, before realizing that anti-Darwinian fervor has as much to do with moral anxiety as with articles of revealed truth. Creationists are sure that the social order will dissolve unless our children are taught that the human race was planted here by God with instructions for proper conduct. Crime, licentiousness, blasphemy, unchecked greed, narcotic stupefaction, abortion, the weakening of family bonds—all are blamed on Darwin, whose supposed message is that we are animals to whom everything is permitted. This is the “fatal glass of beer” approach to explaining decadence. Take one biology course that leaves Darwin unchallenged, it seems, and you’re on your way to nihilism, Eminem, and drive-by shootings.

Crude though it is, such an outlook is not altogether dissimilar to that of prominent American neoconservatives who see their nation as consisting of two cultures, one of which is still guided by religious precepts while the other has abandoned itself to the indulgences of “the Sixties.” Whatever the descriptive merits of that scheme, it exhibits the same foreshortened and moralized idea of causality that we see among the creationists. If the social fabric appears to be fraying, it’s less because objective conditions have changed than because the very principles of authority and order have been gradually undermined by atheistical thinkers from Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud through Herbert Marcuse, Norman Mailer, and Timothy Leary. And Darwin, despite his personal commitment to duty, sometimes makes his way onto the enemies list as well.

The most articulate proponent of the “two cultures” theory is the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, who also happens to be the author of a learned study of Darwin and his milieu, published in 1959.2 Like her husband, Irving Kristol, who has declared “the very concept of evolution questionable,” Himmelfarb showed no patience with natural selection in her book. She aimed to prove that Darwin’s “failures of logic and crudities of imagination emphasized the inherent faults of his theory…. The theory itself was defective, and no amount of tampering with it could have helped.” Himmelfarb’s Darwin remains an indispensable contribution to Victorian intellectual history, but its animus against Darwin and Darwinism makes the book read like a portent of the neoconservatives’ realization that, by liberal default, they must be the party of the creator God.

In recent decades both Kristol and Himmelfarb have been ideological bellwethers for the monthly Commentary, which, interestingly enough, has itself entered combat in the Darwin wars. In 1996 the magazine caused a ripple of alarm in scientific circles by publishing David Berlinski’s essay “The Deniable Darwin,” a florid and flippant attack that rehearsed some of the time-worn creationist canards (natural selection is just a tautology, it contravenes the second law of thermodynamics, and so forth) while adding the latest arguments from intelligent design. And as if to show how unimpressed they were by the corrections that poured in from evolutionists, the editors brought Berlinski onstage for an encore in 1998, this time declaring that he hadn’t been taken in by party-line apologetics for the Big Bang, either.3

In answering his dumbfounded critics, Berlinski—now a fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, an organization founded to promote anti-Darwinian ideas—denied that he is a creationist. What he surely meant, however, was that he isn’t a young-Earth creationist. His Darwin essay called Paley’s 1802 argument from design “entirely compelling,” leaving us with no reason to look beyond the following explanation of life: “God said: ‘Let the waters swarm with swarms of living creatures, and let fowl fly above the earth in the open firmament of heaven.’” By his fellow anti-Darwinian Phillip Johnson’s definition—“A creationist is simply a person who believes that God creates”—Berlinski is no less a creationist than every other member of the ID movement.

Commentary is not the only rightward- leaning magazine to have put out a welcome mat for intelligent design. For some time now, Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the conservative religious journal First Things, has been using Phillip Johnson as his authority on the failings of natural selection—this despite the fact that Johnson’s willful incomprehension of the topic has been repeatedly documented by reviewers. On the dust jacket of The Wedge of Truth, furthermore, Neuhaus calls Johnson’s case against Darwin “comprehensive and compellingly persuasive,” adding, remarkably, that its equal may not be found “in all the vast literature on Darwinism, evolution, creation and theism.”

Further: when, in 1995, the neoconservative New Criterion sought an appropriate reviewer for Daniel C. Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea—a book that rivals Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker as creationism’s bête noire—it was Johnson again who was chosen to administer the all-too-predictable put-down.4 The New Criterion‘s poor opinion of evolutionism can be traced to its managing editor Roger Kimball’s esteem for the late philosopher David Stove, whose book Darwinian Fairytales (1995) is notable for its obtusely impressionistic way of evaluating scientific hypotheses. But since Kimball and The New Criterion regularly divide the world’s thinkers into those who have and haven’t undermined Western ethics, here once again the ultimate source of anti-Darwinian feeling may be moral gloom.

The case of Commentary looks more significant, however, because the magazine is published by the American Jewish Committee and is much concerned with defending Jewish beliefs and affinities. In lending their imprimatur to intelligent design, the editors can hardly have been unaware that they were joining forces with Christian zealots like Johnson, who has declared the Incarnation of Christ to be as certain as the proposition “that apples fall down rather than up,” or like William Dembski, whose ultimate thesis is that “all disciplines find their completion in Christ and cannot be properly understood apart from Christ.” But Commentary‘s willingness to submerge religious differences for the sake of an imagined solidarity is nothing new. Rallying around both “family values” and the modern state that occupies the biblical Holy Land, the magazine’s guiding figures had previously acknowledged that they share some principles with the evangelical right.5 That realignment reached a memorable climax when, in 1995, Norman Podhoretz extended a friendly hand to Pat Robertson despite the latter’s authorship of The New World Order, a Protocols-style tract against “the Jews.”6

Commentary prides itself on favoring pragmatic realism over wishful thinking; and where science and technology are concerned, you can expect its articles to claim the support of authenticated research. But there is one exception: evolutionary biology has been consigned to the Johnsonian limbo of “materialistic philosophy.” Such, among those who see themselves as guardians of decency and order, is the power of resistance to the disturbing prospect of a world unsupervised by a transcendent moral sovereign. The result is that Commentary, in the company of other magazines that treat natural selection as an illusion, tacitly encourages creationists to advance toward their primary goal: adulterating the public school curriculum so that children and adolescents will be denied access to an empirically plausible understanding of human origins.

But what about the secular left? Surely, one might suppose, that faction, with its reflexive aversion to “faith-based” initiatives, can be counted upon to come to the aid of embattled evolutionism, and doubly so when some of the attacks are mounted in organs like Commentary and The New Criterion. This expectation, however, overlooks the antiscientific bias that has characterized much leftist thought for the past quarter-century.

Liberals and radicals who have been taught in college to believe that rival scientific paradigms are objectively incommensurable, that the real arbiter between theories is always sociopolitical power, and that Western science has been an oppressor of dispossessed women, minorities, and workers will be lukewarm at best toward Darwin.7 The latter, after all, shared the prejudices of his age and allowed some of them to inform his speculations about racial hierarchy and innate female character. Then, too, there is the sorry record of Social Darwinism to reckon with. Insofar as it has become habitual to weigh theories according to the attitudinal failings of their devisers and apostles, natural selection is shunned by some progressives, who are thus in no position to resist the creationist offensive. And while other leftists do broadly accede to evolutionism, much of their polemical energy is directed not against creationists but against Darwinian “evolutionary psychologists,” a.k.a. sociobiologists, who speculate about the adaptive origins of traits and institutions that persist today.

2.

Political suspicion on the left; fear of chaos on the right. Who will stand up for evolutionary biology and insist that it be taught without censorship or dilution? And who will register its challenge to human vanity without flinching? The answer seems obvious at first: people who employ Darwinian theory in their professional work. But even in this group we will see that frankness is less common than waffling and confusion. The problem, once again, is how to make room for God.

As even Phillip Johnson concedes, most of our religious sects are formally opposed to the campaign against Darwinism. Various church councils have avowed that evolution poses no threat to supernatural belief, and the same position is eagerly endorsed by scientific bodies.8 Creationists who read those declarations, however, always notice that a key question has been fudged. What kind of God is consistent with evolutionary theory? Theistic evolutionism would seem to demote the shaper of the universe to a deus absconditus who long ago set some processes in motion and then withdrew from the scene. And we have already noted that even this faint whiff of divinity is more than the theory of natural selection strictly requires.

Because Americans on the whole profess faith in both science and a personal God, those who experience this conflict are eager to be told that it is easily resolved. The public appetite for such reassurance is never sated. Not surprisingly, then, universities have developed specialties in “science and religion,” and one book of soothing wisdom can hardly be scanned before the next entry appears in print. When coldly examined, however, these productions almost invariably prove to have adulterated scientific doctrine or to have emptied religious dogma of its commonly accepted meaning. And this legerdemain is never more brazen than when the scientific topic is Darwinism.

Take, for example, The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith by Robert Pollack, a molecular biologist at Columbia University and the director of its recently founded Center for the Study of Science and Religion. The title of Pollack’s book appears to promise a vision encompassing the heavens above and the lab below. By the time he gets to evolution on page 2, however, the project has already collapsed. There he tells us that a Darwinian understanding of the natural world “is simply too terrifying and depressing to me to be borne without the emotional buffer of my own religion.” By cleaving to the Torah he can lend “an irrational certainty of meaning and purpose to a set of data that otherwise show no sign of supporting any meaning to our lives on earth beyond that of being numbers in a cosmic lottery with no paymaster.”

  1. 1

    See my essay “Saving Us from Darwin,” The New York Review, October 4, 2001.

  2. 2

    See Gertrude Himmelfarb, Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (1959; Elephant Paperbacks, 1996); On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society (Knopf, 1994); The De-moralization of Society: From Victorian Virtues to Modern Values (Knopf, 1995); One Nation, Two Cultures (Knopf, 1999); and “Two Nations or Two Cultures?,” Commentary, January 2001, pp. 29–30.

  3. 3

    David Berlinski, “The Deniable Darwin,” Commentary, June 1996, pp. 19– 29; and “Was There a Big Bang?,” February 1998, pp. 28–38. In a more recent piece for Commentary, Berlinski quietly backed off from his opposition to the Big Bang but resumed his emphasis on the inability of science to cope with the ultimate mystery of existence and life. See “What Brings a World into Being?,” Commentary, April 2001, pp. 17–23.

  4. 4

    See Phillip E. Johnson, “Daniel Dennett’s Dangerous Idea,” The New Criterion, October 1995, pp. 9–14.

  5. 5

    See, e.g., Irving Kristol, “The Political Dilemma of American Jews,” Commentary, July 1984, pp. 23–29.

  6. 6

    Norman Podhoretz, “In the Matter of Pat Robertson,” Commentary, August 1995, pp. 27–32. For discussion of The New World Order, see Michael Lind, “Rev. Robertson’s Grand International Conspiracy Theory,” The New York Review, February 2, 1995, pp. 21–25.

  7. 7

    It is significant, in this regard, that Phillip Johnson is fond of citing the chief advocates of incommensurability, Paul Feyerabend and Thomas Kuhn, in his own attempts to decertify Darwinism. As he wrote in a newsletter recalling a colloquium with political science professors on one of his campus visits, “I told them I was a postmodernist and deconstructionist just like them, but aiming at a slightly different target.” Quoted by Robert T. Pennock, Tower of Babel: The Evidence Against the New Creationism (Bradford/MIT Press, 2000), p. 210.

  8. 8

    A sampling of these statements can be found in Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, edited by Philip Appleman, third edition (Norton, 2001), pp. 525– 533, 613–623. This volume is the most convenient collection of readings surrounding Darwin’s career and its significance.

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