Origin of the Specious

Why do neoconservatives doubt Darwin?

Darwinism is on the way out. At least, that's what Irving Kristol announced to a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington not long ago. Darwinian evolution, according to the godfather of neoconservatism, "is really no longer accepted so easily by [many] biologists and scientists." Why? Because, Kristol explained, scientifically minded Darwin doubters are once again focusing on "the old-fashioned argument from design." That is to say, life in all its apparently ordered complexity cannot be understood in terms of chance mutation and the competition for survival. There must, after all, be a designer. So, exit Darwin; enter--or re-enter--God.

This may seem to some readers to be a personal quirk of Kristol's. Perhaps as he approaches Eternity (he's 77), he may want some grand company there. But Kristol's friend and colleague Robert Bork is claiming the same thing: Charles Darwin and his theories are finished. In his new work, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline, Bork pins his own anti-evolutionary attack on Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution, a recent book by biochemist Michael Behe. Bork declares that Behe "has shown that Darwinism cannot explain life as we know it." He adds approvingly that the book "may be read as the modern, scientific version of the argument from design to the existence of a designer." Bork triumphantly concludes: "Religion will no longer have to fight scientific atheism with unsupported faith. The presumption has shifted, and naturalist atheism and secular humanism are on the defensive."

Are these merely two isolated intellectual voices preaching that old-time design? Hardly. Last summer, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank devoted to studying the role of religion in public policy, and now headed by neoconservative Elliott Abrams, called together a group of conservative intellectuals, including Kristol, his wife, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Hoover Institution fellow Tom Bethell, to listen to anti-Darwin presentations by Behe and Michael Denton, author of Evolution: A Theory in Crisis. Himmelfarb has told at least one colleague that she, too, thinks the Behe book "excellent."

There's yet more. The neoconservative journal Commentary, of all periodicals, joined this attack last June with a cover essay, "The Deniable Darwin," written by mathematician David Berlinski.

"An act of intelligence is required to bring even a thimble into being," wrote Berlinski, "why should the artifacts of life be different?" Berlinski warmly endorsed Behe's book, praising it as "an extraordinary piece of work that will come to be regarded as one of the most important books ever written about Darwinian theory. No one can propose to defend Darwin without meeting the challenges set out in this superbly written and compelling book." Commentary Editor Neal Kozodoy says he was "delighted" that his magazine served as a "forum for airing this issue." Berlinski "hit a nerve," according to Kozodoy, not only among the scientists he criticized, but "out there, among general readers, many of whom seem preoccupied with the issues he raised."

What's going on here? Opponents of Darwin traditionally have been led by biblical literalists, whose "arguments" on the subject have been generated mostly by the Book of Genesis. Now their camp includes some of the most prominent thinkers in the conservative intellectual movement.

As a matter of historical curiosity, this new turning of neocon eyes toward heaven comes just as Pope John Paul II has officially recognized that "the theory of evolution is more than an hypothesis." Indeed, it comes as evolutionary thinking itself is shedding considerable light on an array of questions and problems, from brain growth to the development of immune systems, from sociobiology to economics, from ecology to software design. Such research is yielding anti-designer results. F.A. Hayek long ago recognized the phenomenon of "spontaneous order" and described how it arose in markets, families, and other social institutions. Now, ingenious computer models are confirming Hayek's insights. It is increasingly obvious that social systems, from commerce to language, evolve and adapt without the need for top-down planning and organization. Order in markets is generated through processes analogous to Darwinian natural selection in biology. In other words, we can indeed have apparent design without a designer; the world is demonstrably brimming with just such phenomena.

But the neocon assault on Darwinism may not be based on either science or spirituality so much as on politics and political philosophy. That is the view of Paul Gross, a biologist and self-described conservative. Gross is much concerned with the interplay of science and politics--he is the co-author of the 1994 book, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science--and is puzzled by the attacks on evolutionary biology by people whose political views he largely shares. Regarding Commentary's anti-Darwin article, he says he is mystified that the magazine "would publish the damned thing without at least passing it by a few scientists first."

Gross believes that the conservative attack on Darwin may be a case of tactical politics. Some conservative intellectuals think religious fundamentalists are "essential to the political program of the right," says Gross. As a gesture of solidarity, he says, these intellectuals are publicly embracing arguments that appear to "keep God in the picture."

The end of the Cold War may also be a factor. Marx fell with the Soviet Union; Freud has been discredited by modern psychology and neuroscience. The last standing member of the 19th century's unholy materialist trinity is Darwin. Berkeley law professor Phillip Johnson, author of Darwin on Trial, makes the connection clear: "Darwinism is the most important of the materialist ideologies--Marxism, Freudianism, and behaviorism are others--which have done so much damage to science and society in the 20th century." Kristol agrees. "All I want to do," he told his AEI audience, "is break the bonds of Darwinian materialism which at the moment restrict our imagination. For the moment that's enough."

But something deeper seems to be going on, and the key to it can be found in Bork's assertion in his book that religious "belief is probably essential to a civilized future." These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. Of course, this is not a novel thought. Many others have arrived at the same conclusion. Conservative activist Beverly LaHaye, a biblical literalist who is president of Concerned Women for America, puts the matter directly: "If the biblical account of creation in Genesis isn't true, how can we trust the rest of the Bible?"

Kristol and his colleagues may worry that once this one thread is pulled from the fabric of religious belief, perhaps the whole will become unraveled, with grave social consequences. Without the strictures and traditions imposed by a religion that promises to punish sinners, the moral controls that moderate our base desires will lose their validity, leading ultimately to moral chaos. Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is "the opium of the people"; they add a heartfelt, "Thank God!"

It is no secret that many neocons are in a deep funk over the state of American society. (For an especially glum assessment, dip into Bork's best-seller.) In the 1960s, many of them advocated federal programs to ameliorate such social ills as poverty, crime, racial discrimination, illegitimacy, and drug abuse. But as one social welfare program after another succumbed to its unintended consequences, they recognized the limits of governmental intervention. Having suffered a crisis of faith in the efficacy of social science, they now believe that only the restoration of religious belief among the masses can re-establish order in American society. As David Brooks recently wrote in the conservative journal The Weekly Standard, policy intellectuals used to sound like economists; now they sound like ministers. He's right. At conservative confabs today, the longing for yet one more Great Awakening of religious fervor is palpable.

Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, "If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded--or even if it suspects--that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe."

Another prominent neoconservative, Leon Kass, author of Toward a More Natural Science (1985), and a member of the University of Chicago's prestigious Committee on Social Thought, also believes that evolutionary theory poses a threat to social order: "[T]he creationists and their fundamentalist patrons...sense that orthodox evolutionary theory cannot support any notions we might have regarding human dignity or man's special place in the whole. And they see that Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false."

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  • Lenoxus||

    As far as I can tell, almost every person who posits "vulgar truths" thinks that he or she just happens to be one of the intellectuals whose moral compass and sense of self-worth can withstand these truths' awfulness, in contrast to the perpetually-stupid hoi-pelloi/"sheeple".

    I've yet to encounter someone who says "There are probably true things it would be unhealthy for me to learn, but some other, better people might have the intelligence and fortitude to deal with these facts correctly."

    Or, "There are things I know to be true but prefer not to believe. I know that humans evolved from other primates, but I believe that we were specially created."

  • ||

    @Lenoxus

    You wrote:

    "I've yet to encounter someone who says 'There are probably true things it would be unhealthy for me to learn, but some other, better people might have the intelligence and fortitude to deal with these facts correctly.'"

    That's because what you said was too convoluted and academic.

    You're telling me you've never discussed these ideas with someone and they said, "I prefer not to talk about this. Let's change the subject." ??

    I can't believe that...

  • ||

    @Lenoxus

    It's extraordinarily common for people (even otherwise intellectually curious people) to put up defenses against this sort of thought. It's an understandable and respectable safety mechanism against nihilism.

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