Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics
Evolution Icon Evolution

Hugh Hefner, Charles Darwin – The Connection

Hugh Hefner

The death, yesterday at age 91, of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner calls to mind a piece several years ago by Michael Zimmerman of the Clergy Letter Project. In “Charles Darwin, Hugh Hefner and High Quality Science Education,” published in the Huffington Post, Zimmerman rejected any idea that there was a meaningful connection between Hefner and Darwin. They only shared the coincidental fact of having “spent a good deal of their professional lives writing and thinking about sex.”

But their respective foci were quite different. Darwin wrote about the consequences of sex — about differential reproduction and the dramatic evolutionary impact that such a difference plays over time. Hefner wrote about the voyeuristic aspects of sex — about the titillation associated with bringing human sexuality into the open and the large amount of money to be made by doing so.

So why bring up Hefner at all in relationship to evolution? Zimmerman merely wanted to offer fulsome congratulations to evolution activist Zack Kopplin on winning the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award, from the Hugh M. Hefner Foundation. Kopplin is best known for his crusade against the Louisiana Science Education Act, which guarantees academic freedom for science teachers in that state.

What’s wonderful about this award is that it recognizes Zack’s actions to safeguard the portion of the First Amendment that is often overlooked. When people think about the First Amendment they typically think about three of the freedoms guaranteed: freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom to assemble. Lost is the separation of church and state that the amendment also ensures.

Despite the fact that so many creationists claim that keeping creationism out of our public schools is an attack on their religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court and many federal district courts have concluded exactly the opposite. Zack’s work falls squarely in the center of settled case law and it is fabulous that the Hefner Foundation recognized his efforts for what they are.

We’ll pass over the fact that the LSEA has nothing to do with teaching “creationism,” a favorite item of disinformation that Kopplin has spent years spreading, as well as the topsy-turvy logic in the assertion that assailing academic freedom makes you a champion of the First Amendment.

Contrary to Zimmerman’s claim that no connection exists between Hefner and Darwin other than writing about sex, in fact Hefner was a modern-day exponent of the evolutionary philosophy, which he restyled as the “Playboy philosophy.” National Review Online today offers a 1966 column by William F. Buckley Jr. outlining that philosophy and its consequences.

Mr. Hefner’s Playboy is most widely known for the raciness of its prose and the total exposure of the female form. It is more than that, Mr. Hefner insists — and many agree, including professors and ministers and sociologists. It is a movement of sorts, and its bible is an apparently endless series, published monthly by Mr. Hefner, entitled “The Playboy Philosophy,” the key insight of which is that “a man’s morality, like his religion, is a personal affair best left to his own conscience.” The phrase sounds harmless enough, and the tendency is to cluck-cluck one’s agreement to it.

The trouble with Hefner’s law is that society is composed of nothing more than a great number of individuals, and if each man’s morality is defined merely to suit himself, then everyone will endure the consequences of the individual’s autonomously defined ethics.

Charles Darwin was a homebody, a kindly man, and a traditional husband and father. He both embodied and praised  bourgeois Victorian morality. No doubt a time-traveling visit to the Playboy Mansion would have flabbergasted and dismayed him. But as scholars including our colleagues Richard Weikart, John West, and Benjamin Wiker have pointed out, the ethical impact of his writing, in The Descent of Man in particular, was to thoroughly undercut any notion that morality could be more than an evolutionary byproduct.

If that was the case, with no transcendent basis, how could morality be other than a “personal affair best left to [an individual’s] own conscience”? The conclusion is inescapable and it has left some of the more candid evolutionists unable to condemn anything, any behavior, any ethical system, at all. As Dr. Weikart has written here:

I have encountered some true believers in Darwinism who have told me that their Darwinian-inspired moral relativism leads them to the conclusion that Hitler was neither right nor wrong. I once held a conversation with a philosophy graduate student who defended moral relativism on Darwinian grounds. After I pressed him to see if he was willing to be relativistic about Hitler’s atrocities, he uttered the stunning words, “Hitler was OK.”

Maybe you think this student was just off his rocker. However, the leading evolutionary biologist and world famous atheist Richard Dawkins took a similar position in an interview, where he was being questioned about his moral relativism. Dawkins asked, “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.” If this is a tough moral question for Dawkins, he should stop pontificating about how religions are “the root of all evil,” especially since he doesn’t believe that evil actually exists!

Most Darwinists, however, including those who believe in the evolution of morality, do not have consciences as dead as Dawkins, so they are genuinely outraged by the historical connections between Darwin and Hitler. They consider Hitler truly evil, and they don’t want their positive image of Darwin tarnished by any association with this evil man.

However, why do they care about this at all? If they believe, as many do, that morality is simply “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes,” as evolutionary biologist E.O. Wilson and philosopher Michael Ruse famously put it, then what makes the illusions of some people superior to Hitler’s illusions?

In a Discovery Institute report of new survey data, “Darwin’s Corrosive Idea,” John West quantified the influence of this way of thinking about ethics:

[E]volutionary thinkers such as Dennett and Dawkins have claimed that Darwin’s unguided version of evolution means that the universe itself provides no evidence of any permanent, transcendent standards of good and evil. How widespread is this view? Some 72% of atheists and 39% of agnostics say they agree with Richard Dawkins that “the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” By contrast, only 15% of theists adopt this view.

As far as I know, Hugh Hefner’s libertinism stopped short of Dawkins’s confused refusal to condemn Hitler. Or is it confused? Come to think of it, it is not. If right and wrong are an “illusion fobbed off on us by our genes,” which is simply a modern translation of Darwin’s account in The Descent of Man, the evolutionist who affirms absolutes can do so on only a purely arbitrary basis. Grant him this: Dawkins, when questioned, was honest enough with himself to recognize what lies downstream from his Darwinism. To judge from his writing, Darwin himself was not.

It would have been interesting to put the same question directly to Hugh Hefner, see what he’d have to say. It’s too late now.

Photo: Hugh Hefner and cover model Cynthia Maddox, 1962, by BE075403 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.