Sponsored by the Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture

Why Darwinism Matters

Washington DC Policy Briefing, May 10, 2000


By Nancy R. Pearcey

Tracing out the implications of Darwinism for just about every area of life has become a cottage industry. If you haven't kept up with it, take a look at a new book series from Yale University Press called Darwinism Today. The books cover such topics as "an evolutionary view of women at work" and "a Darwinian view of parental love" and even a Darwinian approach to leftist political philosophy. There's no part of life, it seems, where Darwinism is not being applied today. You might call the subject of my talk Applied Darwinism: not science per se, but its implications for other areas of life.

A few months ago, talk shows were boiling over with a controversial discussion of a new book on the subject of rape. It was titled The Natural History of Rape , and the two authors were university professors who made the rather inflammatory claim that rape is not a pathology, biologically speaking--rather it is an evolutionary adaptation, a strategy for maximizing reproductive success. In other words, if candy and flowers don't do the trick, some men may resort to coercion to fulfill the reproductive imperative. The book calls rape "a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage," just like "the leopard's spots and the giraffe's elongated neck."

The authors were genuinely surprised by all the hoopla the book caused, because after all they were expounding a theory that has been debated in academic circles for several years. It's called "evolutionary psychology," which a new form of sociobiology, a term that may be more familiar. It's the theory that if natural selection produced the human body, then it must also have produced human behavior. Any behavior that survives today must have conferred some evolutionary advantage, otherwise it would not have been preserved by natural selection.

One of the authors, Randy Thornhill, appeared on NPR, where he was badgered repeatedly by critics until finally, in exasperation, he insisted that, look, the logic is inescapable: Since evolution is true, it must be true, he said, that "Every feature of every living thing, including human beings, has an underlying evolutionary background. That's not a debatable matter." In other words, proponents of evolutionary psychology are doing us the favor of spelling out the logical consequences of the Darwinian premises.

Other proponents of evolutionary psychology have claimed to discovered an evolutionary advantage in a such things as jealousy, depression, and even infanticide. A few years ago (November 1997) in the New York Times, Stephen Pinker of MIT claimed that "The emotional circuitry of mothers has evolved" by natural selection to leave their babies to die in certain circumstances.

What these examples remind us is that Darwinism is not only a scientific theory but also the basis of a worldview--and it has implications for the way we define human nature and morality and a host of other worldview questions. Of course, this is where the rubber hits the road for most of us who are not scientists. What we want to know is, what difference does Darwinism make, and what impact has it had, on questions like morality and the law, the family and education?

Let's start with education. One of today's most popular pedagogical techniques is called "constructivist" education. It's based on the idea that knowledge is not objective but a social construction; therefore children should not be given the "right" answers but they should be taught to construct their own solutions within a group. As one proponent puts it, "Constructivism does not assume the presence of an outside objective reality . . but rather that learners actively construct their own reality." In order to teach children how to "construct their own reality," teachers encourage students to invent their own spelling systems, their own punctuation, even their own math rules.

Where do such ideas come from? The roots go back to John Dewey, often considered the "father" of American education, whose explicit goal was to work out what Darwinism means for the learning process. He argued that if human beings are nothing but a part of nature, then the mind is simply an organ that has evolved from lower forms in the struggle for existence, just like a bird's wing or a tiger's claw. Now, a wing or a claw is preserved by natural selection only if it functions well, if it does it job, if it enables the animal to adapt and survive. By the same token, Dewey said, the ideas in the mind are worthwhile if they work, if they help us survive. He called for a "new logic" that treats ideas merely as hypotheses about what action will get the results we want.

We see the results of this "new logic" especially at the higher levels of education, which today is awash in postmodernism. The core of postmodernism is the rejection of any objective or universal truth: There's only the feminist perspective or the homosexual perspective or the Hispanic perspective, and so on. The typical college curriculum today includes offerings like UCLA's "Chicana Lesbian Literature." Or Brown University's "Black Lavender: A Study of Black Gay/Lesbian Plays." Stanford has a course called "Eco-Feminism." Frederic Sommers of Brandeis says today most educators no longer even define education as a search for truth but as a way to "empower students in the struggle against patriarchy, racism, and classism."

This skepticism about truth is also a direct consequence of Darwinism--so says the well-known deconstructionist Richard Rorty. Rorty devised his own philosophy by asking, what are the intellectual consequences of Darwinism? His answer was that ideas must be treated problem-solving tools that help us get ahead in the struggle for existence. In a New Republic article, he wrote that "Keeping faith with Darwin" (notice the term there: "Keeping faith with Darwin"), means understanding that the human species is not oriented "toward Truth" but only "toward its own increased prosperity."

Rorty is not the only one who says this. Philosopher Patricia Churchland says the human mind has evolved because more complex cognitive faculties "enhance the organism's chances of survival. Truth, whatever that is, definitely takes the hindmost."

Interestingly enough, Darwin himself wrestled with the question of truth as well--not just once, but several times. In one typical example he wrote: "With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy." What's significant is that Darwin always expressed this "horrid doubt" in the context of admitting that he couldn't quite shake an "inward conviction" that the universe cannot be the result of chance after all, but requires an intelligent Mind, a First cause. In other words, he applied his skepticism selectively: When his mind led to a theistic conclusion, he argued that after all the human mind cannot give us any real truth. But since his own theory was also a product of the human mind, he was cutting off the branch he himself was sitting on.

One of the most vexing questions since Darwin's own day is what his theory means for religion. Not long ago, I picked up a nature book for my little five-year-old about the Bernstein Bears, the highly popular picture-book characters. In this book, the Bear family invites us on a nature walk, and as you read you suddenly come across a two-page spread with a startling slogan sprawled across both pages with capital letters: Nature is "all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE."

Have we heard that somewhere before? The words echo the well-known line from Carl Sagan's PBS show "Cosmos": "The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be." Sagan was echoing the classic Christian liturgy ("as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever well be"), and what he was offering was nothing less than a religion of naturalism--where nature takes the place of God as the ultimate and eternal reality. What Sagan did for adults, the Bernstein Bears are doing for young kids.

Does Darwinism necessarily mean philosophical naturalism? Or can we fit the two together somehow? It's a good idea to start with asking what Darwin himself hoped to do--and there's no doubt that he crafted his theory specifically to supplant the God hypothesis. He proposed that chance and law--random variations and natural selection-could mimick the work of a mind. In which case, of course, you don't need a mind to govern the process any more. You see, natural selection acts as a sieve, sifting out the harmful variations and letting only the good variations through. But Darwin argued that if God was guiding the process, then He would create only good variations in the first place--and there would be no need for any sifting, no need for natural selection. Putting God over the process would make natural selection unnecessary--"superfluous," as he put it. He clearly saw that you can't have both, that either God or natural selection becomes superfluous.

If you follow Darwin and make natural selection the creator, then where does religion come from? It too must be explained as a product of evolution. God is merely an idea that appears in the human mind when the nervous system has evolved to a certain level of complexity. Harvard professor E.O. Wilson in his latest book Consilience, says that religion evolved because belief in God gave early humans an edge in the struggle for survival. And he says today we must abandon the traditional religions and develop a new unifying myth based squarely on evolution--a religion that deifies the process itself; one where no teaching, no doctrine, is true in any final sense because all ideas evolve over time. Some even say God Himself evolves--God is not an infinite being but a finite spirit, who is immanent within the universe and evolves along with it. This is the view of process theology, the fastest growing theology in seminaries today.

At a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), participating scientists were startled to hear a clear, sweet voice rising above the group as they assembled on Sunday morning, singing a hymn called "The Handwriting of God." The singer was the wife of a well-known cosmologist, and her hymn celebrated the residual cosmic background radiation from the Big Bang. "God's secrets are written in the first light," announced the refrain.

The performance highlighted a session on the relationship between science and religion, with workshops on topics such as "The Religious Significance of Big Bang Cosmology" and "Scientific Resources for a Global Religious Myth." Most of the speakers argued that traditional faiths must give way to "a science-based myth," and they urged their listeners to elevate cosmic evolution into a "compelling 'religious' narrative" with "the power to bind humans together in a new world order." The end product of Darwinism may not be naturalism but a new paganism.

Since religion is often the grounding for morality, what does all this mean for morality? Ever since Darwin's day, people have been concerned that his theory undercuts morality in the traditional sense--and they are right. If you listen to radio, you might have heard a song that's climbing rapidly up the charts these days by a group called The Bloodhound Gang. The song has a refrain punched out over and over: "You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals; So let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel." A video for the song features band members dressed as monkeys simulating sexual relations with one another.

On a more sophisticated level, in a recent book called The Moral Animal, Robert Wright says that for the Darwinist, morality is merely an illusion produced by natural selection. As he writes, "There is definitely no reason to assume that existing moral codes reflect some higher truth apprehended via divine inspiration." Instead, the reason we believe certain moral ideas is that they make us adopt behaviors that help our genes survive--like taking care of our children. "What is in our genes' best interest is what seems 'right'--morally right, objectively right."

In other words, morality is nothing but a trick of the mind produced by natural selection. To quote Wilson again, it "is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes."

If this is so, what becomes of the moral basis of the law? A legal system is based on a set of normative propositions-a series of oughts. If "morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes," what happens to the moral grounding of the law?

Already a century ago, the implications were foreseen by Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was a committed Darwinist and who argued that there is no moral foundation for the law--that law is merely the science of state coercion: the ways government uses it coercive power most effectively. More recently, legal scholar Richard Posner says there can be no such thing as "natural law" in the moral sense because we now know that "nature is the amoral scene of Darwinian struggle."

But perhaps the best description of what all this means for the law is a much-quoted article by Arthur Leff, of the Yale Law School. Leff points out that the only way to have ultimate moral norms is if there exists an unquestioned final guarantee of those norms-"an unjudged judge, an uruled legislator, . . . an uncreated creator of values." "Now, what would you call such a thing if it existed?" Leff asks. "You would call it Him."

In other words, only if there is a God who is Himself ultimate Goodness and Justice is there any ultimate moral grounding for the law. And if there is no God, Leff argues, then nothing and no one can take His place. Nothing else can function as the grounding of morality--no person, no group, no document--because all of these can be challenged. All of these are susceptible to the defiant challenge you hear kids say to their parents or on the playground: "Sez who?" Everything except an infinite God is susceptible, he says, to "the grand sez who?"

Now, Leff himself does not believe such a God exists, and so he concludes that "we are all we've got"--and that therefore that there are no objective, universally binding moral norms, that "Everything is up for grabs."

And yet, and yet. He ends his piece by saying, "Napalming babies is [still] bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. This is such a thing as evil. All together now: Sez who? God help us."

This is the postmodernist impasse in the law. Americans want to feel that we are free to choose our own values, that no one can tell us what to do. And yet, at the same time, we want to be able to say that certain things are genuinely wrong, objectively evil. Harvard professor Michael Sandel, in Democracy's Discontent, says the major political divide in America today lies precisely here--between those who believe that morality is indeed up for grabs, something we construct for ourselves and, on the other hand, those who believe morality is "given" in some way--grounded in divine relevation or human nature or in some other objective manner. Sandel traces this deep divide in several policy areas, such as the family, abortion, and economics, and you will find a more detailed policy discussion there.

And so I would suggest that the scientific issues we've heard about today have profound consequences for our understanding of a host of worldview questions--which in turn spill over into policy issues. If we want to understand the deep divides within the American polity today, we can do no better than to examine the view of science that each one is based upon.