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Darwin & Political Correctness

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

By Daniel Dennett

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Pages: 586

Price: $30

Review Author: Gary Mar

Gary Mar teaches philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Public perception of the battle between evolution and creationism was shaped by the movie version of Inherit the Wind, a morality play about the triumph of science over narrow-minded, antiscientific, fundamentalist faith in a literal Genesis. Although the play was inspired by the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial which pitted legal titans Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, reality is more complicated than myth.

The real John T. Scopes, a substitute gym teacher who agreed to be a defendant for the ACLU, worried that the case would be dismissed because he could not remember ever having taught evolution in the classroom. William Jennings Bryan was not a young-earth creationist, but believed that evolution up to man was consistent with the truth of Genesis. Clarence Darrow, unlike his counterpart played by Spencer Tracy, was allowed to enter scientific testimony into the record. However, the evidence cited as evolutionary proofs — the Piltdown Man and the Java Man — are now regarded as hoaxes. The textbook Scopes allegedly used, Hunter’s Civic Biology, was not only scientifically inaccurate but also included blatantly racist statements such as that “the highest [race]…of all, the Caucasians, [is] represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America.”

Del Ratzsch’s The Battle of Beginnings is a systematic “challenge [to the] mythologies of various sides of the creation-evolution debate.” He examines the historical and scientific context of Darwinism, the simplistic conceptions of science appealed to by both sides for “shortcut” victories, and the errors in reasoning committed by both sides. Ratzsch does not claim to resolve the debate. His purpose is more modest — to expose the fallacies committed by both the creationist and evolutionist.

To take one example, creationists and naturalistic evolutionists agree on very few things except their eagerness to eliminate theistic evolution. Both sides commit the “two models” fallacy which goes like this: “The naturalistic evolutionary world view is inherently contradictory to the theistic creationist world view; therefore, theism is logically incompatible with the biological theory of evolution.” To find out what is wrong with this, and a host of other fallacies, the reader is referred to Ratzsch’s useful book, which not only diagnoses the fallacies but also provides historical background to the debate.

“Darwinian evolution,” says Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson in Reason in the Balance, “is not primarily important as a scientific theory but as a culturally dominant creation story.” In his previous book Darwin on Trial, Johnson critiqued the scientific theory of evolution. In his new book he extends his critique to expose the catastrophic consequences of the prevailing naturalistic world view for education, law, and ethics. Metaphysical (as opposed to methodologicabpnaturalism is the view that only the material universe exists and that it is a closed system of causes and effects. As Carl Sagan has put it, “the cosmos is all there is, or ever was, or ever will be.” According to this “Grand Metaphysical Story,” God does not exist except as a subjective belief, which will be eradicated by the march of science (“the Death of God”). Darwinism, in the words of one of its apostles, Richard Dawkins, “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Religious views on morality and politics, moreover, are oppressive because they promote “patriarchal gender oppression.” The Constitution protects the public with a wall of separation from the influence of religious views. Only science is objective; moral values are subjective. Since there is no common ground for arguing rationally about values, the educational and legal systems should aggressively promote a progressive (“politically correct”) agenda.

The trouble with this, however, is that metaphysical naturalism isn’t proven, but presupposed from the outset. Competing myths about the beginnings of life, Johnson argues, are at the root of our current culture wars. Johnson illustrates his point by analyzing the 1993 Supreme Court case of Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches School District. Lamb’s Chapel petitioned to use school facilities after hours to show a film series by the Christian profamily spokesman, James Dobson. The school had already opened its doors after hours to New Age groups and had actively promulgated the New York school system’s “relativistic approach to sexual morality.” The constitutional issue was this: In banning the film series, was the school district discriminating against a viewpoint on a secular subject merely because it was religious?

How does naturalism support viewpoint discrimination against religion? First, the Attorney General’s argument assumed that religious advocacy is valueless and irrational, presumably because only science is objective whereas religion is merely subjective. Although the Dobson film was directed at ordinary parents, the Attorney General issued a sweeping dismissal: “religious advocacy…serves the community only in the eyes of its adherents and yields a benefit only to those who already believe.” Secondly, religious viewpoints were marginalized (i.e., categorized in such a way that they were excluded from serious consideration without being refuted) under the pretext that the exclusion of religious speech is required by the Constitution. Thirdly, a subtext of contempt for “Christian theism often lies behind the purportedly neutral [judicial] decisions.” A friends-of-the-court brief defending the school district argued that if the principle of viewpoint neutrality were applied, then “the use of school facilities would have to be made available even to groups which, for example, preach racial intolerance in contravention of the educational mission of our public school system to teach pluralism and mutual respect for all people.” Instead of denying the school district was engaged in viewpoint discrimination, the brief attempted to justify viewpoint discrimination: Religious views are as extremist or irrational as the viewpoint of the neo-Nazis on racial issues.

Once naturalism undermines the objectivity of moral values, moral relativism is the result. Moral relativism, however, does not lead to tolerance. As Cornel West has written: “When there is no vision the people perish; where there is no moral reasoning, the people close ranks in a war of all against all.”

Does Darwinism really have such far-reaching consequences? Philosopher Daniel Dennett in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea concurs, but from a different point of view: “Darwin’s dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted…. God…, like Santa Claus, [is] a myth of childhood, not anything a sane, undeluded adult could literally believe in. That God must either be turned into a symbol for something less concrete or abandoned altogether.”

Dennett refuses, however, to argue for his view. Instead, he tells a long story, in three parts.

In the first part, Dennett presents Darwin’s idea as an algorithm, “a certain sort of formal process [like long division] that can be counted on — logically — to yield a certain result.” The evolutionary algorithm operates whenever there is variation, replication, and differential fitness. The problem with Dennett’s idea is that it seems to be either disingenuous or not dangerous. If evolution is just a mindless, mechanical process guaranteed only to produce something or other, the claim that evolution is an algorithm seems empty. (Even Dennett admits that “you could treat any process at the abstract level as an algorithmic process.”) Dennett’s notion of an algorithm, moreover, is not the standard mathematical one. Consequently, his charge that Stephen Jay Gould, one of the world’s leading evolutionists, and Roger Penrose, one of the world’s leading mathematicians, are “confused about the nature of algorithms” is unfair.

The second part of Dennett’s story is an extended attack on Stephen Jay Gould’s “non-orthodox” additions to Darwinism. However, since he has no alternative scientific account to offer, Dennett’s constant claim that the Darwinian algorithm together with chance and long stretches of time is sufficient to explain away any anomalies appears to function in his naturalistic world view much the same way as the “God-of-the-gaps” did in previous theistic world views.

The third part of Dennett’s story applies Darwinism to the human species — to the mysteries of consciousness, language, mathematics, and morality. These mysteries are even more wonderful, says Dennett, when they turn out not to be “sacred” but scientifically explicable using only evolutionary “cranes” without any pseudo-explanatory “skyhooks” (Dennett’s metaphor for a deus ex machina). Embracing Dawkins’s notion of a “meme” as a distinct memorable unit or “gene” of cultural knowledge, Dennett speculates that the invasion of human brains by culture in the form of memes created human minds. Even Dennett admits, however, “I am not initially attracted by the idea of my brain as a sort of dungheap in which the larvae of other people’s ideas renew themselves, before sending out copies of themselves in an informational diaspora.” Yet since naturalism is true, Dennett argues, what other account could there possibly be?

In the past theists have argued for even bad philosophical positions because they assumed it was religiously necessary. Today theists are more likely to beat a hasty retreat and reconceptualize the fundamentals of the faith at the mere hint that some view might be inconsistent with the prevailing presumption of naturalism. Neither approach is intellectually honest. Could it be that the doctrinaire atheism, which motivates the disciples of Darwinism, insulates naturalistic presumptions within science, law, and education from competition with other intellectually viable points of view? If so, Darwinism may no longer be fit to survive. Those who have attempted to confine intellectual respectability within the walls of metaphysical naturalism may be troubling their own house. Perhaps they, too, shall inherit the wind.

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