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A Firewall Between Science and Culture? Questions and Answers with John West, Author of Darwin Day in America

Evolution News

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ENV: What is "Darwin Day," and why is your book titled Darwin Day in ?America?

West: "Darwin Day" is Charles Darwin’s birthday, February 12. There is a growing movement around the world to turn the day into a kind of secular holy day complete with its own rituals to honor Darwin. These Darwin Day celebrations expose just how much Darwinian evolution is like a secular religion for many of its proponents. At the same time, I think Darwin Day provides a metaphor for how our public policy and culture have been influenced over the past century by Darwinian biology and similar kinds of reductionist science. In many respects, Darwin Day is every day in America right now, because Darwinism and scientific materialism have reshaped virtually every area of our culture and politics.

DDA Cover.jpegENV: What inspired you to write your book?

West: A lot of my interest dates back to my reading of C.S. Lewis and his perceptive little book The Abolition of Man as a college undergraduate. Back in the 1940s, Lewis prophetically warned about the dangers of misusing science to debunk traditional morality and treat human beings like automatons to be manipulated by scientific conditioners. I started to investigate whether the dangers Lewis warned about in Britain could be found in America, and I soon discovered that they could. I initially became fascinated by efforts to misuse science to debunk free will and personal responsibility in the legal arena — the abuse excuse, the insanity plea, the diminished capacity defense, and so forth. Then I started to look to other areas, and the more I looked, the more I found. What I didn’t realize at first was the culpability of many scientists in what was going on. I originally thought that scientific materialism was largely a case of non-scientists misusing science for their own political ends. But it soon became clear to me that scientists themselves — often the leading scientists of the time — were at the forefront of trying to use science to impose a reductionist vision of human beings in the public arena.

ENV: Your book targets the impact of both "scientific materialism" and "Social Darwinism" on public policy and culture. Can you explain those terms?

West: Put baldly, scientific materialism is the attempt to prove that human beings are merely meat in motion — that we have no free will, that we have no souls, that morality and religion are simply evolutionary artifacts programmed by our genes for our survival, and that our very thoughts and ideas can be fully explained by our brain chemistry. Darwin’s theory of unguided evolution made scientific materialism credible by purporting to offer a scientific explanation of how human beings (and their minds and morals) could be generated through a blind material process of random variation and natural selection. Social Darwinism is the effort to remake public policy by applying Darwinian principles to welfare, economics, business, criminal justice, education, and medicine. My book documents how scientific materialism in general and Darwinism in particular have had momentous consequences for the rest of our culture. Those who think there is some sort of firewall between science and culture need to read my book.

ENV: What is different in the expanded paperback edition?

West: Thanks to the book’s publisher, ISI Books, I was able to add a major new chapter. Titled "Scientism in the Age of Obama — and Beyond," the chapter describes developments since the book’s original publication in 2007. Today we have a President who wraps himself in science like no other president in American history, and overreach in the name of science is surging. As I explain in the chapter, some of this overreach has come directly from the Obama Administration itself, like efforts to withhold from the public the scientific data used to develop environmental policies, the misuse of current events to overstate what the science actually shows regarding climate change, and — worst of all — the repeated invocation of "science" to override personal freedoms and ethical concerns on issues ranging from school lunches to medical experiments involving infants. But in many ways, the actions of the Obama Administration are merely symptomatic of a broader rise in our culture of what might be called "totalitarian" science — science so totalistic in its outlook that its defenders claim the right to remake every sphere of human life, from public policy and education to ethics and religion. We can see this surging scientific totalitarianism among evangelizing atheists who claim that science overturns religion, among the increasing number of professors and journalists who want to censor or even criminalize scientific dissent, and among certain techno-utopians who want to re-engineer the human race to create a breed of "post-humans."

ENV: Your book criticizes the role of scientific experts in politics. But shouldn’t public policy be based on the consensus view of the scientific community?

West: The consensus view of science is important, and it merits respect. But the consensus view can be wildly wrong. That’s why policymakers also need to listen to thoughtful dissenters on major scientific questions — whether the issue is Darwinian evolution, the extent of global warming, or embryonic stem cell research. As my book recounts, throughout history the "consensus" of the scientific community has often embraced what today would be regarded as junk science — from eugenics to lobotomies to Kinsey’s junk research on sexual behavior. Dissenters in the scientific community have been invaluable to exposing the scientific majority’s blind spots and promoting genuine scientific progress.

ENV: Is your book anti-science?

West: Actually, I view my book as pro-science: It’s a plea to rescue contemporary science from the stranglehold of the ideological materialists. Most of the founders of modern science believed that nature was open to rational investigation because it was the product of an intelligent, rational creator. In other words, they accepted as their premise the idea that the universe was purposeful, and so was human life. But somewhere along the line — and Darwin is a key part of the story — science was hijacked by those who think that nature is fundamentally the product of the blind material interaction between chance and necessity. In this respect, outspoken biologist Richard Dawkins — author of The God Delusion — is more the rule than the exception in his views. Especially in the field of evolutionary biology, Dawkins’s belief that science somehow verifies the materialist worldview is pretty much the received wisdom by leading scientists. Some evolutionary scientists doubt Dawkins’s prudence in making his assertions, but fewer than one might think actually reject his underlying philosophy. Fortunately, outside of biology — in fields like physics and astronomy and engineering and math — scientists are far more open to the idea that nature displays the hallmarks of purpose, of design. Thankfully, even in biology there are now scientists who are reopening the debate of purpose in nature. One of the most exciting developments in recent years is the discovery that at the bottom of matter is information — which some see as evidence that mind and purpose are an irreducible property of our universe just like matter and energy.

I describe these new developments at the end of Darwin Day. But most of my book is focused on exploring the tragic consequences of ignoring human uniqueness in the name of science. I think C.S. Lewis was right: If we treat human beings like mere machines or animals, that’s what they will tend to become — and our culture will begin to resemble a factory or a zoo, not a civilization made up of rational and accountable beings.

Image: � Fisher Photostudio / Dollar Photo Club.

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Evolution News & Science Today (EN) provides original reporting and analysis about evolution, neuroscience, bioethics, intelligent design and other science-related issues, including breaking news about scientific research. It also covers the impact of science on culture and conflicts over free speech and academic freedom in science. Finally, it fact-checks and critiques media coverage of scientific issues.

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