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“No Real Conflict When One Side Gives Up”: Richard Weaver and the Darwin Debate

Richard M. Weaver, who died at age 53 in 1963, effectively launched modern philosophical and political conservatism in the United States. Everyone cites one of his titles, Ideas Have Consequences, but too few bother to read his actual works. In reading him now I’m struck by what a brilliant ally he would have made in the current debate over Darwinism. Though a philosopher and a professor of English stationed at the University of Chicago, he anticipated not only the major outlines of contemporary thinking about why the evolution debate matters. He also foresaw the outlines of the scientific critique of Darwinian theory. I’ve been writing about him the past week in this series (whose Parts I through IV are here, here, here, and here.)

In Visions of Order, he noted three plausibility problems with Darwin’s theory. First, it is “a form of the question-begging fallacy.” Darwinism is the best explanation of how life got to be as it is only if you take a materialist world picture for granted:

It demands an initial acceptance of the doctrine of naturalism before any explanation is offered. Specifically, when the biologist is faced with the fact of the enormous differentiation and specialization in nature, he says that these were caused by the proximate method which nature would use, assuming that nature is the only creative force that exists….Again and again in the literature of evolution one finds that things are viewed as “necessary” because they come from this assumed natural cause rather than as proved because they come from a known cause. In other words the fact that things have come into being is used as evidence that nature must have used the evolutionary process to bring them into being.

Second, he cites evolutionary biologist Theodore Dobzhansky on the weird way mutations seem to occur before they are actually needed by the Darwinian process:

What this suggests is a kind of preadaptation, with the species being armed far in advance for some crisis it will meet in the future….But this is the kind of providence that might suggest to our total awareness an inscrutable purpose.

Third, as an “insuperable” obstacle to believing in Darwinism, he notes “the mystery of the origin of language.” Human language is inescapably metaphorical, whereby things are designated by verbal symbols. But the intervening symbol “detaches the word from the thing.” How could a naturalistic evolutionary scheme, that can get a grip only on physical things, produce a language of non-material symbols and metaphors? The father of modern linguistics, Noam Chomsky, who can’t be imagined sympathizing with anything else Weaver had say, would nevertheless go on some years later to express parallel doubts about the ability of natural selection to account for the existence of human language.

It was as if Weaver had in mind the ambitions of the contemporary intelligent design movement when he called for “some genius of thought who will bring all these concepts together and show how that unique condition of entropy which is man owes its existence to something more than a blind swirl of protoplasm.”

He could have had the advocates of theistic evolution in mind when he wrote immediately after, “We hear smooth words to the effect that there is no real conflict between science [as understood by Darwinists] and religion….There is no real conflict anywhere when one side gives up. The question still at issue is whether the facts and the logic dictate so complete a surrender as has been urged on one party.”

Take that, Francis Collins, Kenneth Miller, BioLogos Foundation, et al.! I will wrap up and suggest some concluding thoughts on Weaver and conservatism in my next post.

David Klinghoffer

Senior Fellow and Editor, Evolution News
David Klinghoffer is a Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute and the editor of Evolution News & Science Today, the daily voice of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture, reporting on intelligent design, evolution, and the intersection of science and culture. Klinghoffer is also the author of six books, a former senior editor and literary editor at National Review magazine, and has written for the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Seattle Times, Commentary, and other publications. Born in Santa Monica, California, he graduated from Brown University in 1987 with an A.B. magna cum laude in comparative literature and religious studies. David lives near Seattle, Washington, with his wife and children.



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