October 9, 2001

My return to public lecturing, and the New York Review of Books plays its part in the Wedge strategy

On October 4, I gave my first public lecture since my July 13 stroke, to a very attentive audience of about 350 (paid admission) in Marin County, California. Topic: "Who are We, How did we get here, and why does it matter?" This was the first event in a lecture series inspired by the book How Now Shall We Live, by Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey. Subsequent lecturers in the series are David Aikman, Nigel Cameron, and Os Guinness. The leaders of Marin Covenant Church deserve enormous credit for sponsoring this outreach to a highly secularized (or New Agey) community.

Fred Crews bashes Intelligent Design and Theistic Evolution in the New York Review of Books

The October 18, 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books contains the second part of a two-part defense of Darwinism by Berkeley English professor and Freud-basher Frederick Crews. I commented on the first part here two weeks ago. There, Crews dismissed the Intelligent Design literature with the sort of sarcastic, question-begging sneer that is about all that Darwinists have to fight with these days. In the second part, he gives similar treatment to the accommodationist efforts of John Haught, Michael Ruse, Stephen Jay Gould, and Kenneth Miller, agreeing with William Provine that "If you want to marry Christian doctrine with modern evolutionary biology, you have to check your brains at the church-house door." Crews disregards the important consideration that Darwinists need theistic evolutionists for the same reason that Leninists needed fellow travelers. He writes that "As even Phillip Johnson concedes, most of our religious sects are formally opposed to the campaign against Darwinism. Various church councils have avowed that evolution poses no threat to supernatural belief, and the same position is eagerly endorsed by scientific bodies." The bottom line of Crews' argument is that those church councils are composed of fools, and the scientific bodies, of liars. I wonder if he imagines that, in scorning both, he is playing a winning hand. One of my objectives has been to drive a wedge between the manipulative metaphysicians of big science and their religious dupes, and it looks as if Fred Crews wants to help me. I ought to present Fred with an autographed copy of The Wedge of Truth. Now that he has written so many words about the new challenge to Darwinism, perhaps he will think it is at last time to read one of the books he has reviewed.

In short, Crews thinks that the Old Princeton theologian Charles Hodge had it right at the beginning. Hodge asked "What is Darwinism?", and replied, "It is atheism." In part one of his review essay, Crews repeated with approval Daniel Dennett's dictum that the Darwinian outlook is potentially a "universal acid" penetrating "all the way down" to the origin of life on earth, and "all the way up" to a satisfying materialistic reduction of mind and soul. (Dennett was recently featured in the PBS Evolution series, the first episode of which was named after Dennett's book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea.) Yet in part two, Crews has only sarcasm for those who worry that a universal acid might dissolve some things that are worth preserving. He writes that "One doesn't have to read much creationist literature, for example, before realizing that antiDarwinian fervor has as much to do with moral anxiety as with articles of revealed truth..... Creationists are sure that the social order will dissolve unless our children are taught that the human race was planted here by God with instructions for proper conduct.... Crime, licentiousness, blasphemy, unchecked greed, narcotic stupefaction, abortion, the weakening of family bonds -- all are blamed on Darwin, whose supposed message is that we are animals to whom everything is permitted.... This is the 'fatal glass of beer' approach to explaining decadence.... . Take one biology course that leaves Darwin unchallenged, it seems," and you're on your way to nihilism, Eminem, and drive-by shootings."

Even the editors of the New York Review of Books know that concern over the moral implications of reductionism is not so easily trivialized. The October 4, 2001 issue has a review by John Banville of J.W. Burrow's majestic intellectual history The Crisis of Reason: European Thought, 1848-1914. A major theme is the rise of scientific materialism. Banville observes that "This is the paradox of the mid-nineteenth century materialist bid to take over the world... The more matter assumed the properties of everything in existence, the less like matter it looked; the more the scientific view of the world seemed to replace religion, the more of its predecessor's metaphysical and emotional and even ethical responsibilities it seemed to have to assume."

Among those who ought to be worried about the intellectual implications of reductionism, we should include rationaliststs like Fred Crews. Crews rightly says that the eventual reduction of mind and soul was prefigured in The Origin of Species, where Darwin commented that, when his research program had advanced sufficiently, "much light will be thrown upon the origin of man and his history." The trouble is, the scientific mind itself does not look so impressive after it has been soaked in universal acid. "With me the horrid doubt always arises, Darwin wrote in a letter, whether the conviction's of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.... Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind...?" In that light it is no wonder that, when Crews looks around for suppport in this fight against creationism, he discovers that many of his former allies have lost their taste for battle. Conservative Jews are more interested in correcting current cultural decline than in old quarrels with Christians. What about the secular left? "Liberals and radicals who have been taught in college to believe that scientific paradigms are objectively incommensurable, [and] that the real arbiter between theories is always sociopolitical power... will be lukewarm at best toward Darwin." Those students may just be following Darwin in concluding that monkey fights are not settled by reason.

Phillip Johnson

Copyright 2001 Phillip E. Johnson, Paul Nelson. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 10.09.01

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