Samurai Bioethics

John G. West on a Noble Defense Doomed by Darwinian Materialism
John G. West
Touchstone
August 1, 2009
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Near the end of the film  The Last Samurai, a forlorn but heroic group of Samurai mount a final desperate assault against opponents who have armed themselves with weapons produced by Western science and technology, especially the Gatling gun. The charge by the Samurai ends as one might expect, with the warriors mercilessly (but efficiently) cut down by the Gatling guns.

The scene came to mind when I was pondering the approach adopted by conservative bioethicists Yuval Levin and Eric Cohen in their recent books: Levin’s  Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, and Cohen’s  In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (both from Encounter Books).

Both books represent noble efforts to inject moral sanity into debates over bioethics. Covering such topics as embryonic stem-cell research, genetic engineering, the overuse of psychoactive drugs, and the “new eugenics,” the books offer profound insights into the dangers of scientific utopianism, the value of democratic politics as a moderating influence on science, and the need for science to be guided by moral purposes. Levin and Cohen should be lauded for their attempts to defend human dignity by asking deep questions about what it means to be human.

Darwinian Reductionism

At the same time, it is difficult not to feel that they are somewhat like those last Samurai going up against the Gatling guns. They spend considerable time delving into Aristotle, the Bible, and the finer points of political philosophy. But they largely ignore the Gatling gun in the living room: Darwinian biology, which purports to show, on the basis of science, that human beings (and their behavior and beliefs) can be reduced ultimately to the blind products of a non-teleological process of natural selection acting on random variations. To cite the words of the late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, in the Darwinian view, “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” 

The problem is not that Aristotle et al. have nothing important to tell us about bioethics, but that if Darwinism is true, why should anyone bother to listen?

Appeals to “unchanging human nature,” the “soul,” or traditional morality are tantamount to fairy tales in the Darwinian worldview. According to Darwinism, there is nothing unchanging about human nature; it continues to evolve, along with the conditions for survival. Likewise, a nonmaterial soul is sheer fantasy because (to cite the late Stephen Jay Gould) “matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.” Even morality is simply an unintended byproduct of the material struggle for survival. As leading Darwinists E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse argue,

Morality . . . is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. . . . In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.

Anti-Anti-Darwinists

Confronted by such claims, the best way to gain a fair hearing for the wisdom of the past is to challenge the scientific pretensions of Darwinism head-on. Only then can there be a realistic possibility that the teachings of the philosophers and prophets will be taken seriously again. Alas, Levin and Cohen seem more interested in criticizing their fellow conservatives who challenge Darwinism than in criticizing Darwinism itself.

Levin, in particular, chides conservatives who “accept the proposition that the claims of evolution are in direct competition with the claims of Biblical religion or traditional morality, when in fact each offers answers to a different set of questions altogether.” Levin’s announcement of the compatibility of Darwinism with “Biblical religion” would be news to Charles Darwin, whose private musings show how his biological theory eroded his own religious faith and whose book The Descent of Man outlined the radical implications of his theory for morality, sex, religion, and society.

Levin concedes that Darwinists “sometimes go too far,” but assures readers that the “excesses” of evolutionists can be sharply distinguished from the “facts of evolution.” Unfortunately, he never spells out what he considers the “facts of evolution” to be, nor does he show how the “excesses” of evolutionists can be separated from the “facts” of their theory. Instead, Levin simply asserts that this is the case—as when he insists that eugenics was inspired by “crude misapplications of Darwinism.”

Logical Outgrowth

One suspects that Levin has never read the passage in The Descent of Man where Darwin himself lamented how “civilised men” were undermining the law of natural selection by helping the poor, healing the sick, caring for the mentally ill, and inoculating people against small pox. “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man,” Darwin wrote.

True, Darwin added that we cannot simply follow these dictates of “hard reason” without destroying the “noblest part of our nature,” our sympathy. But this was a rather lame objection on Darwin’s part. If Darwin believed that society’s efforts to help the impoverished and sickly “must be highly injurious to the race of man” (note the word “must”), then the price of preserving compassion, in his view, appeared to be the destruction of the human race. Framed in that manner, how many people could be expected to reject the teachings of “hard reason” and sacrifice the human race?

Far from a “crude misapplication” of Darwinism, eugenics was in fact a logical outgrowth of it, which is why most of the leading evolutionary biologists of the early twentieth century promoted eugenics so avidly, with Harvard biologist Edward East going so far as to insist that “eugenics tenets are strict corollaries” of “the theory of organic evolution.”

To his credit, Cohen is more willing than Levin to acknowledge that many of the unsavory implications of Darwinism stem from the theory’s core and even from Darwin himself. Cohen also points out that Darwinian biology offers no explanation for the origin of matter or “the source of nature’s fixed laws.” Yet in the end, he embraces the blind Darwinian mechanism of selection and mutation as the “likely” explanation for the emergence of man on the earth.

Entangled in Bioethics

Like Levin, Cohen seems to think that Darwinism ultimately is irrelevant to bioethics because it does not answer our deepest longings or tell us what we are today. But this claim seems muddled. If man—including his mind, his morals, and his spiritual longings—was produced by what Cohen concedes was “the chance unfolding of matter’s aimless history,” then the truth status even of man’s deepest longings would seem to be suspect. Darwinism is relevant to bioethics precisely because it appears to undermine the validity of other ways of knowing about man and his world.

Darwinism poses a similar problem for the idea of an unchanging “human nature.” Both Levin and Cohen seem to want to appeal to human nature as a ground for limiting radical bioengineering, a project that I support. But the Darwinian view makes the traditional view of human nature hard to sustain. Natural selection is a messy, hit-or-miss process of dead-ends and false starts. Why shouldn’t human beings use their reason to direct their evolution in order to produce a new kind of human being? What is so sacrosanct about existing human dispositions and capacities, since they were produced by such an imperfect and purposeless process?

In the Darwinian framework, there is nothing intrinsically right about the current capacities of human beings, so there can be nothing intrinsically wrong about trying to alter them. Moreover, there is nothing sacrosanct about existing moral standards. As Carson Holloway has pointed out in his book The Right Darwin, the Darwinian account of morality all but invites “wholesale biological engineering.”

Because they want to treat Darwinism as irrelevant to bioethics, Levin and Cohen miss how entangled Darwinism actually is in the story they are telling. The debasement of human sexuality in recent decades cannot be fully understood without knowing about the ideology of Harvard-trained evolutionary biologist Alfred Kinsey. University of Texas professor Eric Pianka’s desire to eliminate up to ninety percent of the human population cannot be deciphered without knowing that Pianka is a Darwinian zoologist consumed with fears about biodiversity. And Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer’s radical arguments for killing handicapped human babies while bestowing rights on the lower animals cannot be fully fathomed without knowing about Singer’s belief that “all we are doing is catching up with Darwin. . . . Darwin’s theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe.” Darwinism is an essential thread running throughout many of the key conflicts of modern bioethics.

Dismissing Intelligent Design

Levin and Cohen rightly seek to restore teleology to science, but regrettably they are dismissive of the most powerful recent argument for understanding nature teleologically: intelligent design. Intelligent design theorists argue that a staggering array of positive evidence in nature points to an intelligent cause—from the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, to the biological information encoded in our DNA, to the exquisitely complex molecular machines found inside the cell.

Levin does not broach the subject of intelligent design directly, but his discussion of evolution makes clear he is not sympathetic to it. Cohen’s brief discussion of intelligent design reveals his cursory knowledge of the topic. He mistakenly thinks that intelligent design is primarily a negative argument, and that it is supposed to constitute “proof of God’s existence.” In fact, the primary argument for intelligent design is based on our positive common experience of how intelligent agents act in the world; and although intelligent design certainly makes the idea of God more plausible, its proponents make clear that scientific evidence alone is insufficient to bring one to the God of the Bible.

Cohen further faults intelligent design for having nothing to say about what humans “are designed for.” Apparently he is unaware of such works as Agents Under Fire by philosopher Angus Menuge and What We Can’t Not Know by University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski, both of which seek to apply intelligent design to understanding the human person.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Cohen’s treatment of intelligent design is that some of the points he offers as criticisms of it (e.g., that it does not offer a theology of evil) are points made by intelligent design theorists themselves in explaining the limits of their theory. Unlike Darwinism, intelligent design does not aspire to be a theory of everything. Cohen may be closer to the views of intelligent design proponents than he surmises.

Even as Levin and Cohen dismiss intelligent design from serious consideration, they are working to expand the bioethics debate beyond a narrow scientism in order to incorporate the broad wisdom of the Western tradition as expressed in religion, philosophy, ethics, and the arts. The irony, of course, is that intelligent design itself has played a foundational role in the Western tradition going back at least to Plato. But that is a part of the Western tradition Levin and Cohen apparently have no wish to revive. They should reconsider, because intelligent design would strengthen their arguments.

Feeble Defense

It is easy to sympathize with the reluctance of Levin and Cohen to challenge Darwin. While nineteenth-century giants such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud have been widely discredited, Darwin retains his prestige among the elites as a secular saint, a fact that can be seen in the quasi-religious celebrations of Darwin scheduled throughout 2009, the bicentennial year of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Perhaps because they are trying to avoid the stigma of being associated with “fundamentalists” in the public mind, a number of conservative intellectuals appear all too willing to postpone indefinitely the serious questions raised by Darwinism.

Their reticence, however, provides a feeble defense against the Darwinian Gatling guns, which continue to inflict their damage.