Thursday, August 14, 2008

Does social Darwinism necessarily result from scientific Darwinism?

Given the discussion on a previous post about the racist nature of the textbook that the Darwinists defended in the Scopes Trial, I should probably mention exactly what I believe about the relation of Darwinism to certain social beliefs, such as racism and eugenics. If I don't, there are a few commenters here at this blog who are always poised to jump to conclusions about what I believe, and they're likely, in their customary manner, to misinterpret what I have said about this issue.

Several readers interpreted what I said a saying that racism was at issue in the Scopes trial rather than creationism. That interpretation is problematic, mostly because that is not what I said. I was observing the irony that the people who view the Scopes trial as this great victory for progress have completely forgotten what was in the book which was being defended in the trial.

There are two mistakes you can make about the connection between Darwinism and racism: the first is to say that the two are scientifically or philosophically connected; the second is to say that the two are not historically connected. The first mistake is often made by opponents of Darwinism; the second by its advocates.

Darwinism does not necessarily entail racism, and yet it is clear that the two have been historically connected. In other words, while Darwinism might not logically imply racism, it was seen to imply it by many people throughout recent history. You don't have to take Richard Wickert's word for it: just read Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian who was probably the most widely regarded historian of the progressive era in America.

The question that arises, of course, is whether, by virtue of this historical connection, Darwinism itself is implicated in the uses to which the theory has been put. After all, if the harnessing of a belief for unjust causes makes that belief itself unjust, then what about Christianity, which has been used as an excuse for bad behavior on a number of occasions itself.

Is that a relevant comparison?

In the case of Christianity, there is nothing in the religion itself--other than the passionate devotion people have to it--that lends itself to warfare or persecution. It would be hard to glean that such things are the proper activity of a Christian, for example, from the teachings of Christ. And, in fact, the commonest means of criticizing Christian behavior has traditionally been an appeal to Christianity itself. Christians are seldom criticized for following their religion by the religion's detractors: they're much more often criticized for not following it. Hypocrisy is the commonest charge against the misbehavior of Christians, a criticism that would not be possible if the alleged practitioners of it were seen as really acting on their faith.

With Darwinism, however, the case is less clear.

We know that as a matter of historical fact that social Darwinism finds fertile soil in secular or atheistic belief systems. Social Darwinism often (though not always) results from putting one part scientific Darwinism with one part philosophical naturalism. And those who are interested in guarding against the cultural virus of social Darwinism can be excused for being just a little concerned when they see similar cultural alignments forming in their own time.

In the past, the danger has come from a sort of secular conservatism. Hofstadter points to people like William Graham Sumner as the chief culprits: men whose conservatism consisted solely in their aversion to accelerated social change and egalitarianism, and who championed the "bring yourself up by your bootstraps" individualism that you hear so much of from some conservative quarters today--but who had no use for either of the foundational pillars of morality: revealed religion and natural rights. It was a philosophy that thrived during the industrial revolution. This was in stark contrast to the traditional Burkean conservatives who, unlike Sumner, believed in the authority of tradition rooted ultimately in divine revelation and the rejection of rationalism. The difference mirrors in some ways the differences we see today between neoconservatives and traditionalist conservatives.

Today, however, the threat is much different--although just as potent. I have said before that when the idea that humans are no different fundamentally from animals gains acceptance, there are two possible results: either animals must be treated like humans or humans can be treated like animals. The first result we see in much of the modern environmental movement; the second we see in the increasing devaluation of human life. Often, in fact, we see a bizarre combination of both: the person who is appalled at the killing baby seals, but who has no problem with, say, partial birth abortion. One of our two major candidates for the presidency falls into this category.

In the 20th century, Darwinism was hijacked by the advocates of the Superman. In the 21st century, it is not the believers in any Nietzschian faith intent on enslaving the living who pose a threat, but the more apparently civilized proponents of biotechnology who would enslave--or eliminate--the yet to be born.

The old allies of Darwinism thought that the theory implied that some men are lower than others; the new allies of Darwinism are much more egalitarian. We are no longer dealing with those who believe that some men are like animals: we have advanced beyond that. We are now dealing those, more civilized some thing, who hold that all men are like animals.

Such is cultural progress in our time.

"The greatest evil is not now done," said C. S. Lewis,
in those sordid "dens of crime" that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even on concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted ofices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.
When such distinctions become fuzzy, as Darwinism can reasonably be said to do in the case of man and animal, there's danger on the horizon. And the problem becomes even more severe when you add to this new anti-human attitude the powers acquired from biotechnology. Armed with both a philosophy that undervalues human life, and a technology to change that life, are we supposed to feel safe?

The great British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once appeared on a BBC program featuring South African surgeon Christian Barnard, who performed the world's first heart transplant. Why, Muggeridge wondered, had the first heart transplant been performed in that particular country? Ian Hunter, the author of Muggeridge's biography, relates the story:
Muggeridge ventured to enquire whether the first heart transplant had been done in South Africa because the research, personnel, and surgical facilities were better there than anywhere else in the world, or because the vile doctrine of apartheid had so devalued human life that human beings could be seen as spare parts for experimentation. (Malcolm Muggeridge, p. 216)
The same question could now well be asked about procedures such as cloning, and some forms of stem cell research, as well as abortion, one of whose staunchest institutional supporters, Planned Parenthood, was founded by a woman who a prominent advocate of eugenics: Margaret Sanger. Is it purely a coincidence that those who are the most prominent advocates of abortion and human cloning find themselves on one side of the evolution issue and those who oppose them on the other?

It could be plausibly argued that Darwinism is not at fault for being so easily employed in such deadly causes. Abusus non tollit usum: "the abuse of a thing is not an argument against its proper use." Yet there is something disconcerting about a philosophy that so easily lends itself to such repeated complicity in assaults on human dignity.

The problem is that the people who are the most vociferous in the defense of Darwinism against such charges, saying that it is the philosophy of scientific materialism that is at fault, not the scientific theory of Darwinism itself, are occupying the same offices as those who adhere to the offending philosophies. And they're not occupying themselves with restraining their colleagues since they're too busy looking for creationists under the bed.


Anonymous said...

Martin Cothran said:
"The problem is that the people who are the most vociferous in the defense of Darwinism against such charges, saying that it is the philosophy of scientific materialism that is at fault, not the scientific theory of Darwinism itself, are occupying the same offices as those who adhere to the offending philosophies. And they're not occupying themselves with restraining their colleagues since they're too busy looking for creationists under the bed."

Actually, the vast majority of evolutionary biologists ignore you to the same extent that geographers ignore flat earthers and astronomers ignore astrologers. The ID creationism movement has had ziltch impact on science and is seen as a political attack on science education. The reality is Martin that vast majority of scientists are ignoring you and only a handful of educators bother to respond to the absurd slanders you make on "darwinism" (whatever that happens to be). However, I'm certain your efforts play well with the rest of the Family Foundation.

Martin Cothran said...

Oh, well in that case, thank you for telling me that people are not responding to me by getting on my blog and responding to me.