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At the heart of the neoconservative attack on Darwinism lies the political philosophy of Leo Strauss. Strauss was a German political philosopher who fled the Nazis in 1938 and began teaching at the University of Chicago in 1949. In an intellectual revolt against modernity, Strauss focused his work on interpreting such classics as Plato's Republic and Machiavelli's The Prince.
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. "What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that `the truth will make men free.'" Kristol adds that "Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences."
Kristol agrees with this view. "There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people," he says in an interview. "There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn't work."
In crude terms, some critics of Strauss argue that he interpreted the ancient philosophers as offering two different teachings, an esoteric one which is available only to those who read the ancient texts closely, and an exoteric one accessible to naive readers. The exoteric interpretations were aimed at the mass of people, the vulgar, while the esoteric teachings--the hidden meanings--were vouchsafed to the few, the philosophers. Philosophers know the truth, but must keep it hidden from the vulgar, lest it upset them. What is the hidden truth known to philosophers? That there is no God and there is no ultimate foundation for morality. As Kristol suggests, it is necessary to keep this truth from the vulgar because such knowledge would only engender despair in them and lead to social breakdown. In his book, On Tyranny: An Interpretation of Xenophon's Hiero, Strauss asserts with unusual clarity that Socratic dialogues are "based on the premise that there is a disproportion between the intransigent quest for truth and the requirements of society, or that not all truths are always harmless."
Political scientist Shadia Drury, a passionate critic of Strauss, puts it this way: "For Strauss, the ills of modernity have their source in the foolish belief that there are no harmless truths, and that belief in God and in rewards and punishments is not necessary for political order....[H]e is convinced that religion is necessary for the well-being of society. But to state publicly that religion is a necessary fiction would destroy any salutary effect it might have. The latter depends on its being believed to be true....If the vulgar discovered, as the philosophers have always known, that God is dead, they might behave as if all is permitted."
Thus, to preserve society, wise people must publicly support the traditions and myths that sustain the political order and that encourage ordinary people to obey the laws and live justly. People will do so only if they believe that moral rules are divinely decreed or were set up by men who were inspired by the Divine.
Kristol restated this insight nearly five decades ago in an essay in Commentary dealing with Freud: "If God does not exist, and if religion is an illusion that the majority of men cannot live without...let men believe in the lies of religion since they cannot do without them, and let then a handful of sages, who know the truth and can live with it, keep it among themselves. Men are then divided into the wise and the foolish, the philosophers and the common men, and atheism becomes a guarded, esoteric doctrine--for if the illusions of religion were to be discredited, there is no telling with what madness men would be seized, with what uncontrollable anguish."
Thus, following the lead of Strauss and Kristol, those who support the attacks on evolutionary biology may be reasonably suspected of practicing a high-minded hypocrisy. They want to bolster popular morality and preserve social order. Attacking Darwin helps to sustain what Plato regarded as a "Noble Lie"-- in this case preserving the faith of the common people in Genesis, and thus the social order.
But perhaps this analysis is too cynical. Perhaps Darwinism really is being challenged by new scientific evidence. In that case, the neoconservative intellectuals would be on the cutting edge of a reassessment of evolutionary biology. Kristol certainly seems to think that Behe's and Berlinski's attacks on Darwin have "fractured the dogmatism of the neo-Darwinian synthesis," and he believes that as a consequence "there is room for metaphysical and theological speculation." Let's take a look.
Mathematician David Berlinski's Commentary article, "The Deniable Darwin," has been warmly embraced by conservative intellectuals. The magazine published a voluminous correspondence concerning the piece in a subsequent issue, including letters from both critics and supporters. Hoover Institution fellow and longtime anti-Darwinian Tom Bethell, for example, commended Commentary. "Now we no longer believe in the idea of progress," he wrote, "and faith in biological evolution may be jeopardized as a result." Rabbi Daniel Lapin, head of the politically conservative Jewish organization Toward Tradition, hailed the Berlinski article as "a shot in what is becoming a great moral revolution." He added, "Discovering that Darwin is deniable might tell us a little of how primitive life began. It would tell us everything about how modern life should continue. Today's greatest question is whether humans have been touched by the divine and thus possess moral judgment or whether we are just sophisticated animals."
But Berlinski stoutly declares in Commentary that he is no creationist. He claims merely to be engaged in critiquing the failures of Darwinism. Berlinski is particularly savage about what he regards as Darwinism's tautological character. "Time and again, biologists do explain the survival of an organism by reference to its fitness and the fitness of an organism by reference to its survival, the friction between the two concepts kindling nothing more than the observation that some creatures have been around for a very long time."
In Berlinski's view, evolutionary theory simply says that the ones that survive are the ones that survive. But that is not quite right. Darwinian natural selection sifts for useful variations among mutations, thus natural selection generates increased fitness, not just preserving the fittest. This process generates new species, species B being the descendant of earlier species A. This claim is clearly more than a tautology.
Berlinski also contrasts geological theory with evolutionary theory. He argues that geological theory offers general rules that, for example, exclude the possibility of "a mountain arranging itself in the shape of the letter `A'." He then grandly proclaims that "the theory of evolution, by contrast, is incapable of ruling anything out of court [emphasis his]."
The comparison between geology and evolutionary biology is particularly apt, but not in the way Berlinski thinks. Geology, like evolutionary biology, is to a considerable extent a historical science which tries to analyze unrepeatable events that happened in the distant past. Events in geology, like those in evolution, are compounded of myriad facts, contingencies, and details that simply cannot be completely accounted for. Despite geology's general and well-understood principles--the operation of faults, plate tectonics, upthrust, etc.--geologists are still unable to predict an earthquake's strength, time, or location. But Berlinski certainly never says that geology is not a science.
Berlinski is simply wrong when he claims that evolutionary biology "is incapable of ruling anything out of court." Two examples: Darwinians would confidently predict that fossilized human skeletons will never be found among undisturbed Jurassic fossils. Also, biologists agree that a general principle of evolutionary biology rules out the possibility that there are organisms that will sacrifice their own reproductive success in order to enhance the reproductive success of some other species.