I have been reviewing Carl Weinberg’s recent book, Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America (Cornell University Press, 2021). (See my previous post here.) For the most part the book is not a diatribe (except for the Epilogue, which is a virulent rant against Trump and his supporters). Nonetheless it is not too difficult to figure out who the heroes and villains are. The heroes are Marxists, communists, and their progressive allies, who are represented as believers in biological evolution and proponents of social evolution. According to Weinberg (in the third to the last sentence of the book), “Their [progressives’] deeds convey the contention that social norms, morals, and institutions can change so that the world might become a better place for human beings to live and flourish.” (283)
The Fit and the Unfit
That sounds good, but this Indiana University historian seems to forget that Darwinian natural selection involves competition-to-the-death within species, so among humans, oppressing the poor, waging warfare, and racial extermination are perfectly natural ways for some humans to triumph over others in this struggle for existence. The “fit” survive and the “unfit” perish. Charles Darwin himself once wrote to a colleague that trade unions are harmful, because they diminish competition between humans. A world of Darwinian competition does not seem to be the “better place for human beings to live and flourish” that Weinberg favors.
Also, Weinberg’s claim that morals can change seems at odds with his progressive political stance, which seems to presuppose that some things — such as oppressing the poor — are objectively immoral. In the Darwinian scheme of things, morality itself is merely a tool for organisms to survive and reproduce more prolifically than their competitors. As Darwin explained in The Descent of Man, cooperation among humans in a society arose as a way for that society to out-compete less cooperative societies, and Darwin even specifically mentioned warfare as one of the ways that more cooperative humans win the struggle for existence over less cooperative people. Darwin also claimed that a superior race exterminating an inferior race is simply part of the evolutionary process that brings biological improvement (the first chapter of my book Darwinian Racism discusses Darwin’s views on race and racial extermination).
In the words of the evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson and the philosopher of science Michael Ruse, “ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.” If there is no objective morality, then oppressing the poor is not objectively wrong, and if such oppression enables the “fit” to survive and reproduce, then so be it. It is what it is. There’s no sense in condemning oppression as somehow immoral, if morality does not exist.
Weinberg plays down the way that many Marxists historically rejected the Darwinian brand of evolution in favor of Lamarckism or some other non-Darwinian theory of evolution (a point I explain in my book, Socialist Darwinism: Evolution in German Socialist Thought from Marx to Bernstein, available online here). He mentions Stalin’s embrace of Lamarckism, but wrongly portrays it as an aberration in an otherwise stellar communist performance in embracing what he calls “Marxist-Darwinism.”
Influenced by Non-Scientific Factors
Many communists (including Marx) accepted evolution with alacrity, but were wary of Darwinism, because they didn’t like the idea of the human struggle for existence that was central to Darwin’s theory of human evolution. Thus, communists often rejected a scientific theory — Darwin’s theory of natural selection through the struggle for existence — because it clashed with their ideology that stressed cooperation instead of competition. This is ironic, because Weinberg seems critical of creationists for letting non-scientific factors influence their beliefs about evolution. Apparently, creationists are not the only ones influenced by non-scientific factors.
The villains in Weinberg’s account are creationists, whom he generally paints not only as anti-communist, but also anti-union, anti-sexual liberation, anti-gay, and anti-abortion. Many of the figures he examines were southern fundamentalists, mostly Baptists (especially in the early to mid 20th century), and he continually reminds us of their segregationist stance, their closeness to the Ku Klux Klan, and in some cases their support for Hitler or their penchant for conspiracy theories.
However, while constantly reminding us of the racism of some anti-evolutionists, he conveniently fails to mention the anti-racist writings of the creationist leader Ken Ham, and he shows no awareness that many African Americans (not to mention black Africans) do not believe in evolution. He also fails to note that most evolutionists — including Darwin himself — in the late 19th and early 20th century were racist, too.
Beyond the Pale
In a couple of cases, Weinberg goes beyond the pale in villainizing creationists by making accusations that are bizarre and even slanderous. In one passage Weinberg explains that the leading young-earth creationist Henry Morris in a 1989 book included a chapter dealing with both right-wing and left-wing movements that were influenced by belief in evolution (this, by the way, undercuts Weinberg’s thesis, because for Morris it wasn’t just about communism, if right-wing movements were being criticized, too). Morris, Weinberg admits, distanced himself from Hitler by denying that Hitler was a Christian. So far, so good.
But then Weinberg goes off the rails with this follow-up statement that completely misrepresents Morris: “Morris offers no additional information to his readers about Hitler’s anticommunism — an essential ingredient in Nazi ideology. In effect, Morris admits that Hitler was ‘one of us’ in his militant anti-communism but fails to explore the damaging implications. It was precisely that common ground that had led William Bell Riley — who had chosen Morris as his heir apparent at Northwestern — to praise Hitler and led others to sympathize more quietly with him.” (241) First of all, the whole point of Morris’s claiming that Hitler was a fruit of evolution was to warn against Hitler, not to claim he is “one of us,” as Weinberg states. Second, by linking Morris to Riley, Weinberg is committing the logical fallacy known as “guilt by association.” Morris was clearly rejecting Hitler, and Weinberg owes him a posthumous apology for claiming the opposite.
A Bizarre Argument
Weinberg makes a similar bizarre statement about Answers in Genesis (AiG). He notes that in their museum about creation the only political reference is about Hitler and Nazism. This undermines Weinberg’s point about the centrality of anti-communism in the creationist movement, so (apparently to salvage his thesis despite the countervailing evidence), he makes this non-sequitur statement: “And yet, the reference to Hitler — given the creationist movement’s constitutional inability to distinguish Nazism from communism — turns out to be a clue that AiG had not dropped anti-communism from its creationist arsenal.” Huh? Whenever creationists condemn Hitler, they are engaging in anti-communism, because they don’t know the difference between Nazism and communism? What a convoluted and bizarre argument!
Stay tuned for my next post, where I will discuss Weinberg’s misguided attack on Discovery Institute.