The Faith of Biology and the Biology of Faith: Order, Meaning, and Free Will in Modern Medical Science
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. 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. 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 …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.