Tom Bethell is the Washington correspondent of the American Spectator, for which he has been writing since 1978. His interests are wide-ranging, but the politicization of science has been an abiding interest. Bethell was raised in England and graduated from Oxford University in 1962.
The most important claim by evolutionists is that all of life on earth evolved over a long period as a result of a series of random events. To come straight to the point, the big cultural implication of such a doctrine is simply this: If the neo-Darwinian claim is true and all creatures great and small are here on earth as a result of a long chain of improbable accidents, then we have little reason to believe that God exists or that life has any meaning whatever. I would put it as starkly as that.
In fact, it is important to frame the issue starkly to help us see what is at stake. As Phil Johnson of U.C. Berkeley has pointed out, we should be grateful for, not critical of, such neo-Darwinist dogmatists as Will Provine of Cornell, Richard Dawkins of Oxford, and Daniel Dennett of Tufts. In drawing atheistic conclusions from Darwinian theory, they introduce a much-needed element of clarity into what had become a hopelessly fuzzy debate. The key question then becomes whether Darwinism is true.
It's true, of course, that the major Christian denominations have long ago come to terms with godless evolution. Even as the scientists were proposing their theories as to how life appeared on earth, the supporters of Darwinism offered the faithful a tiny little consolation prize. God did not have to disappear entirely, they reassured us, because it was always possible to say that His creative modus operandi was the very step-by-step process of evolution that science now claimed to have discovered.
In the ensuing hundred years, most churchmen of whatever denomination gratefully accepted this loophole. Hallelujah! They were allowed to believe that God existed after all. But they were also expected to bear in mind that he was a passive deity who forever remained discreetly in the background. In fact, he had the good sense to allow life to develop of its own accord by Darwinian methods rather than get into the "creationism" business himself. In general, the greater the intellectual pretensions of theologians, the more readily they accepted the new dogmas of evolution and looked back with abject embarrassment upon their old dogmas of creation.
Underlying their capitulation was an attitude of great deference to science and to the claims that were being made in its name. The general outlook of churchmen was that the scientists who were making these bold and sweeping new claims about the origins of life surely knew what they were talking about. Churchmen and laymen alike knew they had not studied these specialized fields of biologypaleontology, geology, taxonomyso they did not feel qualified enough to question the claims that were being made. If these rather imposing figures like Thomas Henry Huxley said that evolution had happened in such and such a fashion, using only the blind impersonal forces of random variation and natural selection, who were mere churchmen to disagree?
My own belief is that the faithful should have been far more circumspect about accepting as true any of these new claims about evolution. Moreover, the "loophole" that they were offered was far from satisfactory and they could perhaps have foreseen where it would one day lead.
Our reasons for believing in God in the first place are derived from our own consciousness and being, from our powers of reason and our appreciation of the beauty, design and purpose that are so evidently built into the world around us. But if all of these things arose by blind chance, as so many scientists in the last hundred years have claimed that they did, what reason was there for believing in God in the first place? Very little, as far as I can see. If the blind interplay of forces (as it was sometimes called) could account for everything, what need was there for any heavenly or spiritual hypothesis?
The same thought was expressed by the essayist and historian Thomas Macaulay, who wrote in 1840:
"A philosopher of the present day . . . has before him the same evidences of design in the structure of the universe which the early Greeks had, . . . for the discoveries of modern astronomers and anatomists have really added nothing to the force of that argument which a reflective mind finds in every beast, bird, insect, fish, leaf, flower, and shell."
Darwin's Origin of Species lay less than 20 years in the future, and that really did change everything. "Now," as Stephen Barr wrote in a recent issue of The Public Interest (reviewing Michael Behe's book, Darwin's Black Box), "not only the discoveries of astronomers and anatomists, but those of researchers in every field, from information theory to molecular biology, are marshaled to attack (and to defend) the Argument from Design."
The Argument from Design, of course, is an argument for the existence of God. We may better appreciate its importance by looking briefly at St. Thomas Aquinas's proofs of the existence of God. There were five of them, he argued in his Summa Theologica. Looked at today, most of them seem very weak. Here, for example, is his first proof: "Where there is motion there is a mover, and ultimately a first mover, itself unmoved. This is God." To the 20th century mind, this is not persuasive. The same is true of his third proof, the argument from contingency, which goes like this: "Contingent things do not have to exist; they are non-necessary; they come into existence, undergo change, and pass away. Now contingent things demand as their ultimate explanation a noncontingent being, a necessary being. This is God." (These quotations are taken from A Tour of the Summa edited by Msgr Paul J. Glenn, 1960, pp. 4-5).
But Aquinas's fifth proof does still resonate with us, and it is the only one that does, I believe. "Things act in a definite way, and were manifestly designed to act so," he wrote. "Through their nature (that is, their active or operating essence) they are governed in their activities. Thus there are design and government in the world. Hence there are ultimately a first designer and first governor. And since both design and government involve intelligence, there must be governor and designer who is the first and absolute intelligence. This is God."
What Darwin did, then, was undermine the Argument from Design. That was his great or infamous contribution to Western thought, depending on your point of view. Perhaps it is too much to say that he did so deliberately, but his comments about religion in his autobiographycomments that were carefully expurgated by his family and not published anywhere until 1958suggest that he was not merely a detached agnostic seeking only the truth (which was his public pose) but a bitter antagonist of Christianity. He wrote (probably in 1876):
"Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so, the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine."
The Old Testament seemed to him no more credible than "the beliefs of any barbarian." He was buried in Westminster Abbey nonetheless (Autobiographies/Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, edited by Gavin de Beer, Oxford University Press, 1974, p.49-50).
If Darwin's most notable contribution was to undermine belief in God and Christianity in particular (for his doctrines about evolution had very little impact in the non-English speaking world and none whatever in the Muslim world), then we do not have to look very far to see the social consequences of this fractured faith. It brings to mind the essay by Dean Swift in which the country yokel listens solemnly to the arguments of a new-fangled atheist. The yokel concludes: "Why sir, if it be as you say, I can drink and whore and defy the parson."
I was about to say that we have been defying the parson ever since. But that is, if anything, a sanguine interpretation of recent events. It would be more accurate to say that parsons themselves have increasingly been defying the parson. In ever-increasing numbers, it seems, clergymen have been repudiating the moral standards that they once upheld. We read of priests with AIDS and the fatal acceptance by mainline Christian denominations of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality and divorce. Our modern, suicidal determination is to be "non-judgmental" at all costs.
Another social consequence is this: The whole idea of evolution was closely connected to the idea of progress. This was a strong tenet of the 19th century faith, but (since World Wars I and II, the Holocaust and the atom bomb) it is viewed much more skeptically today. But the belief that humans can be reformed by a manipulation of their environment, whether by legislation or within the laboratory, does still endure. We no longer believe that as history unfolds, things will automatically get better, as Hegel, Darwin, Marx and Thomas Huxley believed. But political elites today have very much retained their faith in the malleability of human nature. Many differences between men and women are thought of as culturally engendered and therefore eradicable; only among the old-fashioned is "human nature" still thought of as a permanent thing.
A legacy of Darwinism, then, is that just as organisms are said to "adapt" to their environment, so a change in the political, legal and cultural environment will force change upon the stubbornly recalcitrant, non-progressive human population. Everything can be reformed by a combination of good will and the judicious use of political force. Political liberals today are probably going to have to abandon their favorite project of reforming the poor by putting them on welfare (because that has backfired horribly), but there are always new worlds to conquer. The military has now become the great new arena of social engineering (be prepared for a sharp decline in our military readiness as a consequence). The recent advances in animal cloning should remind us that the eugenic impulse, which seemed discredited in the aftermath of World War II, is still very much with us today. If God does not existand most Darwinians believe that He does notthen anything that is mechanically possible becomes morally permissible.
If the neo-Darwinian anti-faith endures, be prepared for any number of new horrors in the future. For that reason it is comforting to see that it has now come under serious attack. Professor Behe's Darwin's Black Box, published last summer by the Free Press, was, I believe, the first anti-Darwin book to be published by a major New York publishing house since the 1920s. It was a watershed, and a whole movement of scientists and philosophers has coalesced around law professor Phil Johnson. There will be more books like Behe's.
It turns out that the evidence for the theory of evolution was all along much more sparse than we had been told by the custodians of scientific orthodoxy. In fact, in the mid 1980s the senior paleontologist at the British Museum of Natural History, Colin Patterson, raised the interesting question whether there is any real evidence for the theory at all. (If it is not true, we should not expect there to be any. The evidence for evolution cited in biology textbooks is so feeble that we should all have been much more on our guard against the theory than we have been.)
We are now seeing in the news media a systematic blurring of this "scientific" questioning of evolution. The new criticism is represented as nothing more than Inherit the Wind revisiteda second wind for sentimental fundamentalists who prefer the old-time religion to the brave new world of neo-Darwinism. It is important for Christians today, if they read about this growing controversy, to realize that what is at issue is not the preference by some for religion over science but the reluctance of othersmainstream evolutioniststo allow themselves to be drawn into a discussion about the scientific status of evolutionary theory. Some of them no doubt realize just how weak their own position is.
It is predictable that this topic will become much more heated in the years ahead. The Darwinians are not going to give up easily because what is at stake for them (or a good many of them) is not scientific rigor but a philosophic worldviewan idealogy. This is materialism, sometimes called naturalism. Its central tenet is that the universe consists of nothing but atoms and molecules in motion. Consciousness itself is nothing more than a peculiar vibration of electrons, in this view. Professor Philip Johnson has done a good job of pointing out that this ideology is the real driving force behind evolution. In fact, the theory of evolution is nothing more than a deduction from this philosophy. Organisms really do exist in this world, and how else could they have arrived here, except by evolution, if all other methods of creation are ruled out a priori?