arroba Email

I’m a Reformist Conservative – and I Doubt Darwin

FrumForum is one of my favorite news and opinion venues, a model of intelligent and responsible conservatism, but the site has lately featured an essay series that illustrates the barriers to critical thought about an issue — Darwinian evolution — where skepticism should have a lot more traction on the Right than it actually does. Trying to explain why students at Ivy League and other prestigious colleges are even more disenchanted with the Republican Party than they used to be, author Nils August Andresen chalks it up largely to “anti-science rhetoric” (“Why America’s Top Students Tune Out the GOP”).

Darwinists were understandably delighted with Andresen’s pronouncement. University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne’s braying blog, Why Evolution Is True, trumpeted Andresen’s article under the headline “It’s the Science, Stupid,” and reproduced the key passage:

Today’s top students are motivated less by enthusiasm for Democrats and much more by revulsion from Republicans. It’s not the students who have changed so much. It’s the Republicans. … Under Presidents Eisenhower and Nixon, Republicans championed science and knowledge. But over the past 30 years, national Republicans have formed an intensifying alliance with religious conservatives more skeptical of science and knowledge. I don’t know whether discarding evolution goes against common sense; but I’m pretty sure it goes against most Ivy League-educated senses.

Andresen is supposed to be lamenting anti-intellectualism, but those last couple of sentences are hopeless.

The issue for him seems to come down, preeminently, to skepticism about Darwinian evolution. But how does doubting neo-Darwinism make you “skeptical of science and knowledge”? The question driving the evolution debate is whether the cause of scientific knowledge is well served by a dogmatic insistence that 19th-century materialism, amended by an increasingly outmoded picture of what DNA is and how it works, continues to provide the most rigorous and satisfying account of life’s development over the course of billions of years.

Apparently, among those high-achieving students for whom Andresen is all aglow, being on the side of “science and knowledge” means to accept whatever a self-perpetuating technocratic priesthood happens to say at a given moment. This implies that we may never doubt what “the scientists” say, lest we be accused of being “anti-science.” In fact, Darwin doubters ask, “What is the best science? What is the truest account of life’s evolution?” Knowledge is acquired through the judicious application of skepticism. For educated people, that should be regarded as a good thing.

And look at that last sentence: “I don’t know whether discarding evolution goes against common sense; but I’m pretty sure it goes against most Ivy League-educated senses.”

Andresen tars Darwin skeptics and other supposed anti-intellectuals as “anti-science,” but he never tells us what definition of evolution he has in mind. The word is used to mean many different things — most, in fact, perfectly acceptable to virtually everyone who has registered a view in the Darwin debate. No one I know is talking about “discarding evolution,” only a particular creaky understanding of how evolution works.

But never mind that. Andresen heaps blame on us for the GOP’s sagging appeal on campus. Presumably, he would be happier if more Republicans swore allegiance to Darwin, since to do otherwise violates “Ivy League-educated senses.” But Andresen himself, in saying he doesn’t “know whether discarding evolution goes against common sense,” seems to indicate he hasn’t given the issue the mature study it deserves.

Either Darwin-doubting “goes against common sense” or it doesn’t, but surely if he is going to write an essay like this, a thoughtful person should have an informed opinion on the question. Frankly, anyone at all who considers himself thoughtful should have such an opinion on what is, after all, an ultimate question: the source of life.

Yet most folks on the Right who bristle at Darwin-skepticism have not given the matter much if any critical, independent thought. Neither have most Ivy League students. They give every indication of responding instead to considerations of prestige — the idea’s but also their own. And that’s how an educated person chooses his beliefs?

The notion that Darwinism and conservatism make a natural pair would, in any event, surprise the man who sparked the modern conservative movement: Richard Weaver, who wrote a famous and hugely influential little book whose title is often invoked, Ideas Have Consequences (1948).

In another book, the posthumous Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Times, Weaver explains why even a layman who is a serious person has a right to question prevailing scientific opinion, on Darwinian theory in particular. Man, Weaver explains, has periodically gone through “dark nights of the mind” in which he seemed to understand less about himself than previous generations did. Darwin had drawn down another dark night.

Weaver, a philosopher and literary scholar at the University of Chicago, wrote: “The dominant mood has been to accept what ‘science says’ as an ipse dixit and then to see what, if anything, can be salvaged after its pronouncements have been conceded. It is my conviction that we do not have to fall back so far. We can offer defense and even attack at some of the outer works….[W]e can show that some of the scientific claims are not scientifically based or are not rationally argued.” Weaver proceeded to lay out his own grounds for doubting Darwin.

Besides Richard Weaver, Andresen could take a lesson from another conservative icon, Whittaker Chambers. The idea of purpose in the cosmos is central to the conservative vision. Chambers described in his 1952 memoir, Witness, the moment he awoke from his earlier Communism: It was upon looking closely one day at his young daughter’s ear. As he was noting the exquisite beauty, the evidence of “immense design” shook him.

Darwin’s idea — that all of life’s history can be explained as the product of unguided random variations selected by mindless nature for “fitness” — has come under assault from a vocal minority of critics in the scientific community. The alternative isn’t Biblical-literalist creationism but an honest admission that we stilldon’t know by what mechanism, agency or design life has assumed its endlessly variable forms.

If such an admission seems too much to realistically hope for, I would argue that there are grounds for optimism. They lie in the fact that scientific materialism and the theories that spin off from it (most notably, those of Darwin, Marx and Freud) are a human construct, and therefore no match for nature itself.

Materialism is the belief that the universe is a closed, entirely material system, that generates itself from itself without guidance, purpose or meaning. That idea looked very solid until the 20th century came along.

Until then, for example, science “knew” that the universe always had existed, had no beginning, and so on. Lord Kelvin is quoted as summarizing, in 1900, the view of many physicists when he said, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” That was 15 years before Einstein revealed the theory of general relativity, which implied an expanding universe that had a beginning. Then Edwin Hubble, without intending to do so, discovered through his direct observations that the universe in fact was expanding and could be traced back to a primordial point from which it exploded.

Scientific opinion resisted this revelation for decades. It was a powerful stab at the heart of materialism, since matter itself was generated in what came to be called the Big Bang and so it wasn’t a material force that set off the eruption of existence from nonexistence. Only the detection of cosmic background radiation in 1965 by Bell Lab researchers — who also weren’t looking for it — decisively proved that the universe had a beginning.

Other scientific verities have had to retreat under the pressure of reality. The discovery of ultra fine-tuning in cosmology, the discovery that the cell (contra Darwin’s German disciple Ernst Haeckel) isn’t a “homogeneous globule of plasm” but an intricate marvel of nanotechnology, the discovery that the linear code of DNA does not explain anywhere near everything about us or any creature — but rather, that some immaterial source of information seems to be at work in the genome — all these spooky revelations have combined to seriously undermine the foundations of materialism.

That is the secret that’s just now beginning to sneak out from behind the closed doors of scientific disciplines like biology, physics and cosmology. Ivy League students, and even the GOP, would do well to take note.