Darwin Day in America tells the disturbing story of scientific expertise run amuck, exposing how an ideological interpretation of Darwinian biology and reductionist science have been used to degrade American culture and fuel a relentless march from democracy to technocracy in criminal justice, welfare, business, education, and bioethics. Originally published in 2007, the book was re-released in an expanded paperback edition in 2015 featuring a new chapter on “Scientism in the Age of Obama — and Beyond.”
At the dawn of the last century, leading scientists and politicians giddily predicted that science — especially Darwinian biology — would supply solutions to all the intractable problems of American society, from crime to poverty to sexual maladjustment.
Instead, politics and culture were dehumanized as scientific experts in thrall to the assumptions of philosophical materialism began treating human beings as little more than animals or machines. In criminal justice, these experts denied the existence of free will and proposed replacing punishment with invasive “cures” such as the lobotomy. In welfare, they proposed eliminating the poor by sterilizing those deemed biologically unfit. In business, they urged the selection of workers based on racist theories of human evolution and the development of advertising methods to more effectively manipulate consumer behavior. In sex education, they advocated creating a new sexual morality based on “normal mammalian behavior” without regard to longstanding ethical and religious imperatives.
Based on extensive research with primary sources and archival materials, Darwin Day in America reveals how American politics and culture have been corrupted by massive abuse of science. West’s narrative explores the far-reaching consequences for society when scientists and politicians deny the essential differences between human beings and the rest of nature. It also exposes the disastrous results that ensue when experts claiming to speak for science turn out to be wrong. West concludes with a plea for the restoration of democratic accountability in an age of experts.
Interview with the Author
What is Darwin Day, and why is your book titled “Darwin Day in America”?
“Darwin Day” is Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12. As I explain in my book, there is a growing movement around the world to turn the day into a kind of secular holy day complete with its own rituals to honor Darwin. These Darwin Day celebrations expose just how much Darwinian evolution is like a secular religion for many of its proponents. At the same time, Darwin Day provides a metaphor for how our public policy and culture have been influenced over the past century by Darwinian biology and similar kinds of reductionist science. In many respects, “Darwin Day” is every day in America right now, because Darwinism and scientific materialism have reshaped virtually every area of our culture and politics.
Your book targets the impact of both “scientific materialism” and “Social Darwinism” on public policy and culture. Can you explain those terms?
Put baldly, scientific materialism is the attempt to prove that human beings are merely meat in motion—that we have no free will, that we have no souls, that morality and religion are simply evolutionary artifacts programmed by our genes for our survival, and that our very thoughts and ideas can be fully explained by our brain chemistry. Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution made scientific materialism credible by purporting to offer a scientific explanation of how human beings (and their minds and morals) could be generated through a blind material process of random variation and natural selection. Social Darwinism is the effort to remake public policy by applying Darwinian principles to welfare, economics, business, criminal justice, education, and medicine. My book documents how scientific materialism in general and Darwinism in particular have had momentous consequences for the rest of our culture. Those who think there is some sort of firewall between science and culture need to read my book.
What inspired you to write the book?
A lot of my interest dates back to my reading of C. S. Lewis and his perceptive little book The Abolition of Man as a college undergraduate. Back in the 1940s, Lewis prophetically warned about the dangers of misusing science to debunk traditional morality and treat human beings like automatons to be manipulated by scientific conditioners. I started to investigate whether the dangers Lewis warned about in Britain could be found in America, and I soon discovered that they could. I initially became fascinated by efforts to misuse science to debunk free will and personal responsibility in the legal arena — the abuse excuse, the insanity plea, the diminished capacity defense, and so forth. Then I started to look to other areas, and the more I looked, the more I found. What I didn’t realize at first was the culpability of many scientists in what was going on. I originally thought that scientific materialism was largely a case of non-scientists misusing science for their own political ends. But it soon became clear to me that scientists themselves — often the leading scientists of the time — were at the forefront of trying to use science to impose a reductionist vision of human beings in the public arena.
Your book criticizes the role of scientific experts in politics. But shouldn’t public policy be based on the consensus view of the scientific community?
The consensus view of science is important, and it merits respect. But the consensus view can be wildly wrong. That’s why policymakers also need to listen to thoughtful dissenters on major scientific questions — whether the issue is Darwinian evolution, the extent of global warming, or embryonic stem cell research. As my book recounts, throughout history the “consensus” of the scientific community has often embraced what today would be regarded as junk science — from eugenics to lobotomies to Kinsey’s junk research on sexual behavior. Dissenters in the scientific community have been invaluable to exposing the scientific majority’s blind spots and promoting genuine scientific progress.
Is your book anti-science?
Actually, I view my book as pro-science: It’s a plea to rescue contemporary science from the stranglehold of the ideological materialists. Most of the founders of modern science believed that nature was open to rational investigation because it was the product of an intelligent, rational creator. In other words, they accepted as their premise the idea that the universe was purposeful, and so was human life. But somewhere along the line — and Darwin is a key part of the story — science was hijacked by those who think that nature is fundamentally the product of the blind material interaction between chance and necessity. In this respect, outspoken Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins — author of The God Delusion — is more the rule than the exception in his views. Especially in the field of evolutionary biology, Dawkins’ belief that science somehow verifies the materialist worldview is pretty much the received wisdom by leading scientists. Some evolutionary scientists doubt Dawkins’ prudence in making his assertions, but fewer than one might think actually reject his underlying philosophy. Fortunately, outside of biology — in fields like physics and astronomy and engineering and math — scientists are far more open to the idea that nature displays the hallmarks of purpose, of design. Thankfully, even in biology there are now some scientists who are reopening the debate of purpose in nature. One of the most exciting developments in recent years is the discovery that at the bottom of matter is information — which some see as evidence that mind and purpose are an irreducible property of our universe just like matter and energy. I mention these new developments at the end of Darwin Day. But most of my book is focused on exploring the tragic consequences of ignoring human uniqueness in the name of science. I think C.S. Lewis was right: If we treat human beings like mere machines or animals, that’s what they will tend to become — and our culture will begin to resemble a factory or a zoo, not a civilization made up of rational and accountable beings.