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Darwinism at AEI

Early in May, the American Enterprise Institute held a debate about Darwinism, a faith embedded in many debates, whether scientific, religious or political. The recent irruption of atheism can be traced to the Darwinian creed, for the well publicized testimonials of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens all have recourse to Darwinism at various points.

It purports to explain how we got here without any need for God or gods. Darwinism is best seen as 19th century philosophy— materialism— dressed up as science, and directed against a theological argument for the existence of God. (The only one of St. Thomas Aquinas’’s “proofs” that resonates with us today is the “argument from design.”) Richard Dawkins famously said that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

Political theory was uppermost at AEI— — it is, after all, a public-policy think tank. The question before the house: “Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes?” The main combatants were Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, and John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Also on the podium were John Derbyshire who writes books about mathematics and is the “designated point man” against intelligent design at National Review; and George Gilder, the well known writer who is also with the Discovery Institute.

Arnhart, the author of Darwinian Conservatism (2005), has carved out a nice niche for himself by arguing that conservatives need Darwin. He makes his case by presenting conservative political ideas and arguing that Darwin’’s theory of natural selection supports them. Darwinian mechanisms give rise to a “spontaneous order,” he said at one point, contrasting it favorably with the “utopian vision” of liberals.

West argued that the issue is not really amenable to a left-right analysis. He quoted the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a self-described secular humanist, who said last year that our bodies are “miracles of design,” and faulted scientists for “pretending that they have the answer as to how we got this way.”

In Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest (2006), and in his talk, West rejected the claim that Darwinism supports traditional moral teachings. Darwin’s Descent of Man, published 12 years after The Origin of Species, overflows with arguments embarrassing to conservatives and liberals alike. “Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide,” West writes, describing Darwin’s explicit position. “Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be one’s parents.”

The truth is that Darwinism is so shapeless that it can be enlisted in support of any cause whatsoever. Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at AEI, made this clear in his admirable introduction. Darwinism has over the years been championed by eugenicists, social Darwinists, racialists, free-market economists, liberals galore, Wilsonian progressives and National Socialists, to give only a partial list. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, Communists and libertarians, and almost anyone in between, have at times found Darwinism to their liking. Spencer himself first used the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and Darwin thought it an “admirable” summation of his thesis.

Both selfishness and (with a little mathematical ingenuity) altruism can be given a Darwinian gloss. Any existing psychological trait, from aggression to pacifism, can be deemed adaptive by inventing a just-so story explaining how genes “for” that trait might have arisen. The genes themselves do not have to be identified, nor does the imagined historical scenario have to leave any trace behind.

The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more “fit,” or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is “fit” (otherwise it wouldn’t exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenient— — such as the peacock’s tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stag— — the existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit.

So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It “explains” everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason. The impact of Darwinism on any and all political groups can be argued any way you want and it’’s not very illuminating for that reason. So the AEI discussion frequently veered off into related areas.

Inevitably, the subject of intelligent design came up. The National Review‘’s John Derbyshire right away sought to conflate it with creationism. Someone in the front row reminded him that there were no creationists present. Derbyshire replied that a judge had equated intelligent design with creationism and that was good enough for him.

There is considerable confusion about the relationship between the two so let me try to elucidate. Creationists for the most part say: “When it comes to origins, we take our guidance from the Bible. What others say about natural selection, shared ancestry and so on is of little importance to us. We already have our faith and our Book and we are sticking to it.” It is separatist in spirit. “You scientists can do your thing, just let us do ours, which is study Genesis and pray.”

That was a deal as far as the Darwinians were concerned. The creationists could be ignored.

Intelligent Design is not like that. It is aggressive and therefore potentially dangerous. It says to the Darwinians: “You don’’t have the evidence to support your claims. Your lab results and fossils don’’t support your theory. Organisms are way too complex to have arisen by chance. Take all the time you want, it won’’t be enough. Even though we don’t know how it happened, these critters must have been designed somehow.”

It takes the war to the enemy, in other words. So it can’’t easily be ignored. It is informed by science, not religion. That is why it has made Darwinians angry, and why they try to identify it with creationism. They have also imposed a rigid orthodoxy upon all whose hiring, credentialing and promotion they can control. They are not interested in any debate. Discovery Institute people told me that last year a group of graduate students from prestigious universities wanted to learn more about intelligent design. A conference was arranged in which these young people showed up and wore name tags with pseudonyms and all papers were collected up at the end. The students were afraid that their identities would be leaked to their professors. That’’s the intellectual climate surrounding this issue today. There are parallels with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, who had to communicate by samizdat.

In the question period, I asked Derbyshire if he could think of any observation that would count as falsifying Darwinism. He said: “I think miraculous creation would do it. The miraculous appearance of an entirely new species.”

That answer at least points us in a useful direction. Pursue it, and we might be able to clarify the Darwinian conundrum. The point is that in Darwinism a philosophical assumption, rarely explicit, circumscribes the “scientific” conclusions that are permitted. The assumption is this: Only naturalistic explanations can be allowed within biology. Naturalism implies the exclusion of mind, intelligence, or absolutely anything except atoms and molecules in motion. Nothing else exists. Everything must be explained in terms of physics and chemistry and anything beyond that will be derided as “creationism.” Good Darwinians are not allowed by their own rules even to entertain the possibility that intelligence was involved in the origin or development of life. No research is needed to come to that conclusion. It is axiomatic within the theory.

Derbyshire responded: “Scientists embrace naturalism because science is a naturalistic pursuit. A working scientist is by definition naturalistic.”

That is incorrect. From scraps of unearthed rubble, archeologists infer design when no trace of the designer remains. A scientist investigating how automobiles are made goes to a factory and learns that the assembly-line originated in plans and blueprints, which in turn originated in the minds of men.

Ah yes, the mind! But that, too, consists of nothing but atoms and molecules in motion, no? Which brings us to the Inner Sanctum of the materialist dogma: Mind itself is nothing but matter. Free will is an illusion, and so on. (Darwin accepted these propositions, noting “the general delusion about free will.”)

There is no reason in the world to accept the materialist faith, but once you do, then something very much like Darwinism has to be true. Life exists— — we got here somehow, along with billions of other organisms. So how did it happen? Must have been that animals self assembled a little bit at a time, in a long chain of accidental survivals.

The scientists Derbyshire talks to at Cold Spring Harbor Lab say there is no controversy about Darwinism and so he counseled that “we can only defer to that consensus.” Because every observation they ever make seems to corroborate the Darwinian tautology, most scientists probably do believe that the theory is universally true. But as the philosopher of science Karl Popper saw, the same was true of Freudianism. For good Freudians, everything seems to confirm the theory because it is protected against falsification by its own logic. Likewise Darwinism. “To say that a species now living is adapted to its environment is, in fact, almost tautological,” Popper wrote. “There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this.”

Derbyshire displayed a distressing willingness to slander those he disagrees with. He said of the Intelligent Designers: “You don’’t do any science. You go around the country on your expense accounts, which is one of the things I kick them about. You don’’t do any research.” (Discovery Institute president Bruce Chapman says this is just plain false and lists several ID researchers.)

Derbyshire even accused Michael Behe of Lehigh University of recommending to a hypothetical student with a research proposal that he not carry it out.

Derbyshire recalled that he said to Behe: “If a graduate student came to you and said: ‘You know, I’ve got this great idea for a possible evolutionary pathway for the bacterial flagellum. I think I could figure it out and I’ve got an idea for some experiments that would test this. Would you recommend me to go along with that?’ And Michael said no. Which left me stunned. This is obscurantist.”

George Gilder interrupted. Where was this encounter?

Derbyshire: “At National Review. At that meeting we had.”

Gilder, who was there, questioned whether Derbyshire had given us a correct account.

Derbyshire: “No, it was a plain no. I’m sorry.”

(The curious can listen to the “audio” of the whole conference on the AEI website.)

I sent Behe an email. Could he verify this account? No, he could not. “John Derbyshire is imagining things,” he wrote back. “I would never have said such a thing. I welcome experiments into evolutionary pathways. It has been my experience that the more we know, and the more experimental work is done, the less and less plausible Darwinian mechanisms become.”

Chapman, also present, recalls no such exchange with Behe.

Incidentally, Behe’’s new book, The Edge of Evolution: The Search for the Limits of Darwinism is now out, it reports on new intelligent design research, but I have only started to read it.

I have left Gilder to the end. As always, it was intriguing to hear him grope his way through ideas that he was discovering even as he spoke. “The word comes first,” he said at one point. “The information precedes the proteins.” He has been studying information theory for years, and one of his conclusions is that the information carried by a channel must be distinct and separate from the channel itself. DNA— — a string of nucleotides— — does not explain how the information (needed to construct proteins) got into that DNA in the first place. That, we know nothing about.

He flailed at the “materialist superstition.” He castigated the idea that thought and speech, “originating in human minds, can be reduced to various secretions of the brain.” Emphasizing the hopeless fluidity of Darwinism, Gilder joked that Arnhart has found himself “a beautiful Darwinism, a James Dobson Darwinism, a supply-side Darwinism.” If it’s true, it’s also “trivial.” It fits neatly inside any and every box. Like Freudianism, it’’s a philosophy— and worldview disguised as a science.

Tom Bethell

Tom Bethell graduated from Oxford University and is a long-time journalist who has served as Washington editor for Harper’s, a contributing editor to Washington Monthly, and a senior editor at The American Spectator. He has written articles for many magazines, including Fortune, the New York Times Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly. Praised by Tom Wolfe as “one of our most brilliant essayists,” Bethell is the previous author of The Noblest Triumph: Property through the Ages, Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher, and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science. He resides in Washington, DC.