Render Unto Darwin That Which Is Darwin’s
Posted on May 11, 2008
By Chris Hedges
When Darwin published “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favored Races in the Struggle for Life” in 1859, he named natural selection as the mechanism that drives and defines life. Evolutionary science, however, swiftly became for many a surrogate religion. It was used to promote racism and pseudo-science, such as eugenics, a theory of biological determinism invented by Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin. It was turned like a club on religion and used to justify exploitation and neglect of the poor and disadvantaged.
There are unfortunate implications in Darwin’s theory of evolution. Darwin believes in the possibility of compassion and benevolence. He argues that these adaptations give one species advantage over another. He uses compassion to insist that sooner or later the “superior” races—those with compassion—will exterminate the “more savage” races. Compassion, he implies, does not exist, or certainly not in the same abundance, in others as it does in us. But Darwin left the championing of these implications to others such as Herbert Spencer, a utopian and a doctrinaire Malthusian. It was Spencer, not Darwin, who argued that step by step we were progressing as a species and would end with the perfect human being. And it was Spencer who coined the phrase “survival of the fittest.”
The atheists, while they do not endorse the hierarchy of races or espouse the crude racist doctrines of earlier Social Darwinists, continue to argue that natural selection is social selection. They continue to create moral hierarchies among human beings and use these hierarchies to sanction violence. They do this because they insist we are moving toward a final good. This is not a position supported by human history, human nature or evolutionary biology.
Wilson, in his book “On Human Nature,” uses evolutionary biology to justify power structures such as the subjugation of women and social inequality. All behavior in society, he argues, has a genetic basis. Religious belief exists, he writes, only because it gives humans a biological advantage. Religion helps “congeal identity,” provides “unquestioned membership in a group claiming great powers” and gives to a human being “a driving purpose in life compatible with his self-interest.” Wilson, while correct in assuming that many of the laws that govern animals also govern the behavior and habits of the human species, goes much further. He leaps from science to the unscientific propositions that evolution means we can, as a species, morally advance. He dreams of a day when the human race, having jettisoned religion and embraced science and reason, will be able to alter human nature and control its own destiny:
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Dawkins writes that the human species, unlike other animals, can transcend its biological map. “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators,” he says.
This leap by Wilson and Dawkins is not science. It certainly is not Darwinian science. Darwin wrote nothing to indicate that the human species had risen above its biological composition. He argued that human morality was linked to the behavior of animals. The social instincts that constitute humankind’s understanding of moral behavior can be found, he wrote, in monkeys, pelicans and dogs, as well as other animals.
Wilson and Dawkins build their vision of human perfectibility out of the legitimate theory that human beings are shaped by the laws of heredity and natural selection. They depart from this position when they assert that we can leave that determinism behind. There is nothing in science that implies that our genetic makeup allows us to perfect ourselves. Those who, in the name of science, claim that we can overcome our imperfect human nature make a leap of faith. In this leap they leave the realm of science. They operate on a belief system that functions like religion. It gives meaning. It gives purpose and hope. But it is a myth. It is not true. And there is nothing, when you cut through their scientific jargon, which supports their absurd proposition.
The attempt to impose the methodology of science onto collective and personal relationships also has grave consequences. If a scientific hypothesis does not work it is discarded. Pluralism has no place in science. Neither do competing truths. Science, when set up as a model for our moral and social existence, implicitly banishes compromise and tolerance. Scientific ideas, because they can be demonstrated or disproved, are embraced or rejected on quantifiable evidence. But human relationships and social organizations interact and function effectively when they are not rigid, accept morally ambiguity and take into account the irrational. Politics, for example, is about channeling and managing human drives and desires. It is only fitfully in contact with reason. This profound understanding of the irrational element in politics led Sigmund Freud to write his masterpiece “Civilization and Its Discontents.” The secular fundamentalists, in a gross misuse of Darwin and of science, turn biological evolution into a methodology to champion moral progress for the human race. They seek to give to their arguments the patina of unassailable truth. But what they sell are myths, bizarre utopian visions of a new heaven and a new earth dressed up in the language of scientific rationalism.
Chris Hedges, who graduated from Harvard Divinity School, is the author of “I Don’t Believe in Atheists.”
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