Right from the start, Darwin’s theory was about much more than scientific truth. Darwin himself believed that evolution by natural selection refuted the idea that nature displayed evidence of purposeful design. Writing near the end of his life, he wrote that “the old argument from design in Nature . . . fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered.” He recalled poignantly the sense of wonder that as a young man he once experienced in a Brazilian rainforest, which inspired in him a “conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” “But now,” he concluded, “the grandest scenes would not cause any such convictions and feelings to rise in my mind.”
Darwin also believed that his theory diminished the case for human uniqueness, writing in one of his notebooks that “it is absurd to talk of one animal being higher than another” and complaining that “people often talk of the wonderful event of intellectual Man appearing” when, in fact, “the appearance of insects with other senses is more wonderful.”
This led him to grim conclusions about social policy. In The Descent of Man, he fretted that civilized societies undermined natural selection by caring for the poor, saving the sick, and even vaccinating people to protect them against smallpox. “There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox,” he wrote. “Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind.” In his view, the result of this interference with natural selection was likely to be catastrophic: “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. . . . Hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.”
A kindly man, Darwin was ambivalent about applying the dictates of natural selection to human society, worrying that it would erode “the noblest part of our nature.” Despite those qualms, he ended up insisting that if man “is to advance still higher he must remain subject to a severe struggle.”
It can be debated whether all of the subsequent examples of social Darwinism during the past 150-plus years were logically connected to Darwinian theory or only to illegitimate extrapolations of it, but one thing is indisputable: Darwin’s ideas were understood by many scientists as well as many nonscientists to have wide-ranging application to human society. Darwinian rhetoric permeated debates over eugenics, imperialism, immigration, sexuality, medicine, and criminal responsibility.
Nowhere did Darwinian thinking exert a more powerful influence than in Germany, where it was enthusiastically employed to justify world conquest, genocide in southwest Africa, the killing of the handicapped, and ultimately the extermination of the Jews. Darwin no doubt would have been horrified. But in retrospect it is still hard not to be chilled by the hopes he expressed to one of his German correspondents in 1868: “The support which I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail.” German scientists and social thinkers ended up embracing Darwinian ideas with fanatical zeal, but not in the way Darwin might have wished.
In our own day, evangelistic “new atheists” have continued to make unguided Darwinian evolution the cornerstone of their gospel of secular materialism. Last year, University of Washington evolutionary psychologist David Barash boasted in the New York Times about “The Talk” he gives to students each autumn, when he tells them: “The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator.”
Harvard evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson similarly proclaims that the existence of a God “who directs organic evolution and intervenes in human affairs . . . is increasingly contravened by biology and the brain sciences.” No wonder that in an interview earlier this year he argued that “for the sake of human progress, the best thing we could possibly do would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths.”
Barash’s and Wilson’s views are not exceptional. A survey by researchers at Cornell University of leading scientists in the field of evolution showed that 87 percent denied the existence of God, 88 percent disbelieved in life after death, and 90 percent rejected the idea that evolution was directed toward an “ultimate purpose.” More recently, a survey released in late January by the Pew Forum revealed that only 8 percent of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science believe that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form [in which] it exists today.” In academic circles, Darwin’s version of haphazard and unguided evolution reigns supreme.
It shouldn’t have happened this way. Only by forgetting the limits of scientific theory were Darwinians able to extend natural selection to irreligiosity. Only by losing the distinction between inquiry and speculation could they fuse biological evolution with materialism. What if they had chosen a different path?
It is certainly possible to conceive of the evolutionary process as compatible with the Judeo-Christian tradition. There is nothing intrinsically anti-Christian or antireligious about a long history for nature, change over time, or even the idea that humans descended with modifications from prehuman animals. A theory of evolution need not rule out planning and purpose in the development of the wonders of life. Others have recognized this fact even if Darwin did not.
Robert Chambers, one of the most noted proponents of evolution prior to Darwin, argued that the natural laws that produced nature were the means of implementing the overarching and preordained plans of a designer. According to Chambers, “the whole plan of being is as symmetrical as the plan of a house, or the laying out of an old-fashioned garden! This must needs have been devised and arranged for beforehand. And what a preconception or forethought have we here!”
Perhaps an even more intriguing figure is the scientist who shared credit with Darwin for developing the theory of evolution by natural selection—Alfred Russel Wallace. Much to Darwin’s dismay, Wallace eventually embraced a purposeful version of evolution that historian Michael Flannery has aptly called “intelligent evolution.”
Wallace expounded his views at length in two scientific books near the end of his life: Man’s Place in the Universe (1903) and The World of Life (1910). He saw evidence of purpose in the functional complexity of the cell, the exquisite design of biological structures, and the rare constellation of physical factors that allows life to exist on the earth in the first place. “Everywhere, not here and there, but everywhere, and in the very smallest operations of nature to which human observation has penetrated, there is Purpose and a continual Guidance and Control.”
In our own day, Lehigh University biochemist Michael Behe and geneticist Michael Denton are prime examples of scientists who, like Wallace, see evolution as a fundamentally purposeful process. That they are regarded as beyond the pale by most current evolutionary biologists reflects the triumph of the metaphysics of Darwinism enforced by academic pressures of conformity that oppress dissent rather than consider evidence. The Church of Darwin is so narrow today that even the cofounder of the theory would have to be declared a heretic.
Fortunately, in the world of ideas, there are second chances, and we may be experiencing one right now in debates over the nature of nature. In recent years, experimental studies have raised serious doubts about just how much innovation unguided processes like natural selection can actually produce. At the same time, continued discoveries of exquisite fine-tuning throughout nature—from the laws of nature that make life possible to the protein sequences inside our cells—have reopened vigorous discussions of purpose in nature among physicists, mathematicians, philosophers, and, yes, some biologists. One knows that something significant is surely afoot when a prominent atheist like philosopher Thomas Nagel can announce that the materialist worldview spawned by Darwinian theory “is ripe for displacement.”
The reaction to Nagel’s book, which Leon Wieseltier compared to a mob attack, proves its importance as a spur toward ongoing scientific thought as opposed to dogmatic catechesis. A story in Prospect magazinehad to assure readers with its title “Thomas Nagel is not crazy,” while a notice in Wilson Quarterly bore the subtitle “Philosophers cast a notable dissenter into the outer darkness.” Darwinian atheism has become an orthodoxy, the contrary of scientific method. Doubters aren’t brave Galileos. They are heretics.
Given the ways in which evolutionary materialism has provided pseudoscientific justifications for some of the most barbaric and inhumane social and political policies of the last century, I certainly hope Nagel is right.
John G. West is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and author of Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science.