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“Gatling Gun in the Living Room”: Two Missed Chances to Defend a Humane View on Bioethics

David Klinghoffer


Is it possible to defend a humane view in bioethics without challenging the dominant theory of biological origins? You can try, but the attempt won’t be very persuasive. At Touchstone Magazine, John West reviews two books by conservatives, Yuval Levin and Eric Cohen, who “seem more interested in criticizing their fellow conservatives who challenge Darwinism than in criticizing Darwinism itself.”

Their books, Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy (Levin) and In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (Cohen), fail because they refuse to recognize what Dr. West, in a very telling cinematic analogy, calls the “Gatling gun in the living room.”

Near the end of the film The Last Samurai, a forlorn but heroic group of Samurai mount a final desperate assault against opponents who have armed themselves with weapons produced by Western science and technology, especially the Gatling gun. The charge by the Samurai ends as one might expect, with the warriors mercilessly (but efficiently) cut down by the Gatling guns.

The scene came to mind when I was pondering the approach adopted by conservative bioethicists Yuval Levin and Eric Cohen in their recent books…

Both books represent noble efforts to inject moral sanity into debates over bioethics. Covering such topics as embryonic stem-cell research, genetic engineering, the overuse of psychoactive drugs, and the “new eugenics,” the books offer profound insights into the dangers of scientific utopianism, the value of democratic politics as a moderating influence on science, and the need for science to be guided by moral purposes. Levin and Cohen should be lauded for their attempts to defend human dignity by asking deep questions about what it means to be human.

Darwinian Reductionism

At the same time, it is difficult not to feel that they are somewhat like those last Samurai going up against the Gatling guns. They spend considerable time delving into Aristotle, the Bible, and the finer points of political philosophy. But they largely ignore the Gatling gun in the living room: Darwinian biology, which purports to show, on the basis of science, that human beings (and their behavior and beliefs) can be reduced ultimately to the blind products of a non-teleological process of natural selection acting on random variations. To cite the words of the late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, in the Darwinian view, “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

The problem is not that Aristotle et al. have nothing important to tell us about bioethics, but that if Darwinism is true, why should anyone bother to listen?

Appeals to “unchanging human nature,” the “soul,” or traditional morality are tantamount to fairy tales in the Darwinian worldview. According to Darwinism, there is nothing unchanging about human nature; it continues to evolve, along with the conditions for survival. Likewise, a nonmaterial soul is sheer fantasy because (to cite the late Stephen Jay Gould) “matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.” Even morality is simply an unintended byproduct of the material struggle for survival.

Find the whole article here. Here’s the scene from The Last Samurai.

It makes me sigh, far from the first time, at the way many otherwise thoughtful conservatives refuse to see how their case is weakened, in many arguments, not just on bioethics, by a refusal to think seriously about serious challenges to reigning Darwinism, or alternatives to it. Unfortunately, I could have predicted this:

Dismissing Intelligent Design

Levin and Cohen rightly seek to restore teleology to science, but regrettably they are dismissive of the most powerful recent argument for understanding nature teleologically: intelligent design. Intelligent design theorists argue that a staggering array of positive evidence in nature points to an intelligent cause — from the fine-tuning of the laws of physics, to the biological information encoded in our DNA, to the exquisitely complex molecular machines found inside the cell.

Levin does not broach the subject of intelligent design directly, but his discussion of evolution makes clear he is not sympathetic to it. Cohen’s brief discussion of intelligent design reveals his cursory knowledge of the topic. He mistakenly thinks that intelligent design is primarily a negative argument, and that it is supposed to constitute “proof of God’s existence.” In fact, the primary argument for intelligent design is based on our positive common experience of how intelligent agents act in the world; and although intelligent design certainly makes the idea of God more plausible, its proponents make clear that scientific evidence alone is insufficient to bring one to the God of the Bible.

Cohen further faults intelligent design for having nothing to say about what humans “are designed for.” Apparently he is unaware of such works as Agents Under Fire by philosopher Angus Menuge and What We Can’t Not Know by University of Texas professor J. Budziszewski, both of which seek to apply intelligent design to understanding the human person.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Cohen’s treatment of intelligent design is that some of the points he offers as criticisms of it (e.g., that it does not offer a theology of evil) are points made by intelligent design theorists themselves in explaining the limits of their theory. Unlike Darwinism, intelligent design does not aspire to be a theory of everything. Cohen may be closer to the views of intelligent design proponents than he surmises.

Much as you can admire the impulse behind both books, the resulting arguments with their deference to Darwinism are, West rightly says, “feeble” compared to what they could have been. Levin and Cohen are not alone, either — “a number of conservative intellectuals appear all too willing to postpone indefinitely the serious questions raised by Darwinism.”

That was not always the case. William F. Buckley Jr., a heroic figure, was very strong on intelligent design, and debated against Darwinism alongside our Discovery Institute colleagues David Berlinski, Michael Behe, and Philip Johnson. See, “How the Evolution Debate Devolved.” Times change, though, things change, and not always for the better.

Photo: A Gatling gun, by martin_vmorris [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.