As I wrote here last week, Peter J. Bowler’s new book Darwin Deleted: Imagining a World Without Darwin (University of Chicago Press) is an extended complaint directed at Darwin’s critics and forms an unconvincing historical apologetic for the social ramifications of the evolutionary theory that bears his name. (PopSci has published a brief excerpt from the book, which you can read here. Go here for the admiring review in New Scientist.) The fact that Darwinism is in need of an apologetic for its social record should give its supporters (including Peter Bowler) more than momentary pause. But alas not so!
An historian of biology, Bowler attempts to imagine a non-Darwinian world, one where Darwin fell overboard on the Beagle and never wrote his famous books. That world, Bowler assures us, would have been full of all the horrific consequences of eugenics, racism, imperialism, cutthroat capitalism, and crude materialism, had the Down House patriarch never produced Origin of Species, Descent of Man, or his other massive body of writings.
Yet Bowler admits, “This argument is not meant to absolve Darwinism from all responsibility. The theory was used to justify all the policies mentioned” (27). So one is left wondering, what is Bowler’s point? In part, evidently, it is to create a vehicle for extended whining about those creationists and intelligent design advocates (whom he consistently conflates with one another) who refuse to join Darwin’s varsity booster team. Beyond that, the question is worth examining because Bowler’s fussing and fuming exposes some of the misconceptions and confusions to which Darwinists are prone.
Bowler states his object at the outset: “My interest in exploring what happens in a world without Darwin is driven by the hope of using history to undermine the claim that the theory of natural selection inspired the various forms of social Darwinism” (2). But is this really the issue? For Darwin critics, the real culprit is not natural selection per se but Darwin’s larger claim that the diversity of life can be thoroughly explained by unguided selection operating on random/chance variations. Natural selection alone does not necessarily entail this latter notion. The co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, didn’t think so, nor does Michael Behe as he has demonstrated in The Edge of Evolution: the real question at stake in the evolution debate is not necessarily common descent, random mutation, or natural selection, but their powers altogether to explain the diversity of life. The fundamental claim of most social Darwinists was (and is) that the old social mores and ethical prescriptions guiding human behavior (largely defined through traditional Judeo-Christian concepts) were (and are) outmoded and inapplicable in a world governed by the wholly blind operations insisted upon by Darwin’s metaphysic now redefined as science.
Bowler scoffs at Darwin’s critics for being ideologically inconsistent, noting that Leftists have attacked Darwin for his theory’s support of ruthless capitalism and creationists have attacked it for its materialism. Why is rejection of ruthless capitalism inconsistent with objecting to rank materialism? The ugliest manifestations of materialism can actually be an expression of unrestrained capitalist competition (one is reminded of Christ’s admonition, “You cannot serve God and Money” [Matt. 6:24]). The problem really isn’t a free market economy or free enterprise or individualism; it is a larger worldview that permits an easy elevation of any or all of these into ends in themselves. Social Darwinism permitted this by supplanting the Judeo-Christian ethical tradition in which each of these could be placed within a context of philanthropy and charity instead of mere biological determinism.
As if this weren’t enough, Bowler chides Darwin’s critics for making “one-to-one relationships between scientific theories and their philosophical or ideological implications. For example, if you are a scientific Darwinist, you must be an atheist and/or a social Darwinist” (209). Of course there really are prominent scientific Darwinists who are also social Darwinists (Peter Singer, Steven Pinker, and James Watson come to mind), and as for Darwinism and atheism, it must be admitted that among biologists, Francis Collins and Ken Miller notwithstanding, statistics would suggest that most really are atheists.
Things don’t get any better when theism is grafted onto Darwinian evolution. For example, when Ken Miller tries to launch a defense of Darwinism and religion (as in his Finding Darwin’s God), he only seems able to do so by jettisoning whole books of the Bible, such as when he calls for “Eden’s children” to “place Genesis alongside the geocentric myth in the basket of stories that once, in a world of intellectual naivety, made helpful sense” (56). We’re so much “smarter” now thanks to “science,” so Miller tells us. When they’re not slicing up the Bible to suit their theory, Darwinists are concocting improbable scenarios in support of unlikely historic church leaders like John Wesley. So perhaps Darwin’s critics can be forgiven if they see close relationships between a theory that purports to be scientific on the one hand and yet has strong philosophical implications that lead to conclusions consistently hostile to traditional religious belief on the other.
So what is Bowler’s real beef? It seems to be that despite more than 150 years of Darwin’s theory, objections and doubts persist. Despite insistent claims that Darwinism is as certain as Newton’s gravity, a moment’s reflection on the long and sustained literature contra-Darwin is enough to strongly suggest otherwise. As David Berlinski has noted,
Within the English-speaking world, Darwin’s theory of evolution remains the only scientific theory to be widely championed by the scientific community and widely disbelieved by everyone else. No matter the effort made by biologists [or historians], the thing continues to elicit the same reaction it has always elicited: You’ve got to be kidding, right?
There is an air of desperation in Bowler’s effort to make the world safe for Darwin by imagining that he never existed. Counterfactual history of this kind is an odd strategy that ranks among David Hackett Fisher’s Historian’s Fallacies and, he reminds us, of the exchange between Tweedledum and Tweedledee: “I know what you’re thinking about,” said Tweedledum; “but it isn’t so, nohow.” “Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”
Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.