I find Stephen H. Webb’s reflections on Darwinism (“How Darwin’s Wife Saved His Theory”) very interesting, but I think there are questionable assumptions embedded in some of its verbal formulations. Consider the statement, “Critics of Darwinism . . . have long argued that his theory of evolution is inseparable from its moral and philosophical implications.” It is not just critics of Darwinism who would say that; everyone would. It is obvious, indeed trivially true, that an idea cannot be separated from its implications. If A implies B, you cannot have A without B. The question, however, is not whether Darwinism can or should be separated from its philosophical implications, but rather whether it has any clear philosophical implications and, if so, what those implications are.
Webb writes as though Darwin’s theory of evolution leads inevitably to a single set of philosophical conclusions. For example, he speaks of Darwin being compelled to “tone down the implications of his theory,” as though those implications are unambiguous and place everyone in the position of having to either forthrightly acknowledge them or (as Darwin did) conceal them. But rarely is it the case that one can talk about “the” philosophical implications of any scientific theory. The philosophical conclusions people reach from a scientific theory depend to a large extent on the philosophical assumptions they begin with.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many philosophers and theologians saw atomism (i.e. the idea that matter is composed of atoms) as irreconcilable with Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophy and bitterly attacked it as philosophically false and therefore theologically dangerous. I doubt any Thomists today would take the same position. Many people saw in Newtonian physics philosophical implications incompatible with traditional Christian belief, including radically reductionistic materialism and physical determinism. And it is not hard to trace the materialism of such figures as Hobbes, Baron D’Holbach, and La Mettrie in part to the impact of Newtonian ideas. It was, after all, the success of Newtonian physics in explaining the motions of celestial bodies that led Laplace famously to say of God’s existence that he “had no need of that hypothesis.” Does that mean that Newton’s laws of physics are incompatible with orthodox Christian belief? Should the churches have fought tooth and nail against Newtonian physics? That would have been absurd, of course. Newtonian physics was one thing, and what people made of it philosophically quite another.
To take a more modern example, it is well known that Einstein was strongly influenced by the philosophical ideas of Ernst Mach in coming up with the theory of relativity. However, it is very much disputed whether Relativity is really Machian or anti-Machian in character. Mach himself seems to have rejected Einstein’s theory as incompatible with his ideas. (This brings to mind an amusing exchange that took place later between Einstein and Heisenberg. Heisenberg, was using certain epistemological arguments in an attempt to overcome Einstein’s objections to quantum mechanics, and he appealed to the fact that Einstein himself had once used very similar arguments in defending the ideas of relativity theory. Einstein retorted, “I may have used such reasoning; but it is nonsense all the same.”)
Quantum mechanics perfectly illustrates the point I am making. Everyone agrees on quantum mechanics as a physical theory, but it is hard to find two people who exactly agree on its philosophical implications. It can be, and has been, interpreted in diametrically opposite ways: in determinist and non-determinist ways, idealist and materialist ways, realist and instrumentalist ways. The interpretations of quantum mechanics are, notoriously, all over the philosophical map.
It is simply not the case that from a scientific theory, whether in physics or biology, a straight line can be drawn to a philosophical world view.
I have to confess that I don’t think it at all philosophically important what Darwin himself thought about the philosophical implications of his theory. Do we care that Newton was essentially an Arian heretic, or that Maxwell was a devout Presbyterian, or that Einstein was a Spinozist? Among well-known twentieth century physicists there were Marxists and at least one Nazi (Pascual Jordan, who made significant contributions to quantum theory, joined the Nazi Party and became a brownshirt). Scientific ideas are one thing and the philosophical ideas of scientists (which are often very confused or worse) are something else entirely.
The scientific idea of Darwinism is quite simple and in itself quite harmless. It says that natural selection acts upon random genetic variations and causes the forms of life to undergo an evolution, which began with relatively very simple forms of life and led eventually to the forms we see today. That is it in a nutshell. Have some people erected this into a grand metaphysical system? Yes. Does that mean we have to follow them in that direction? Obviously not. Are there lots of atheist Darwinists out there? Yes. Are there also many Darwinists out there who are devout and theologically traditional Christians or Jews? Yes. And, based on my experience, I would say that the great majority of research scientists who are devout Christian or Jewish believers think that the scientific content of Darwinism is essentially correct. (And I am not talking about theological modernists or dissenters. For example, among the many scientists I personally know who are orthodox Catholics, all, with the possible exception of one, believe in the theory of evolution.)
Webb says that “Social Darwinism is merely Darwinism minus Darwin’s scruples about his wife.” The math puzzles me. Doesn’t that mean that Darwinism = Social Darwinism + Darwin’s Scruples about his wife? How is it, then, that there are all these people out there (including many of my Catholic scientist friends) who are Darwinists, but who are not Social Darwinists and who have never heard of and would care not a fig about Darwin’s scruples? The argument seems to be that since some people draw atheistic conclusions from the theory of evolution, evolution can’t be true. Well, people draw atheistic conclusions from all sorts of things. Some people see moral evil in the world and become atheists. Others see the suffering of children and become atheists. Others see the immorality of clergymen and become atheists. That does not mean that the suffering of children, or moral evil, or clerical immorality necessarily have atheistic implications, and even less does it mean that we should make it a policy to deny the facts about these things on the grounds that many people have drawn the wrong philosophical conclusions from them.