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Evolution & The Culture War

The reader Thursday commented on an earlier thread: I believe evolution by natural selection is true, but the evolution wars are mostly about symbolism. Most people who say they believe in evolution would be aghast at the actual implications of the theory. Devoted followers of Steve Sailer they ain’t. That link takes you to a […]

The reader Thursday commented on an earlier thread:

I believe evolution by natural selection is true, but the evolution wars are mostly about symbolism. Most people who say they believe in evolution would be aghast at the actual implications of the theory. Devoted followers of Steve Sailer they ain’t.

That link takes you to a 1999 Steve Sailer piece in which he observed that many on the left embrace Darwinian evolution not so much because Science as because it gives them a point of view with which to bash the troglodytes of Jesusland. Excerpts:

Although the Darwinian demolition of Old Testament fundamentalism was logically irrelevant to the question of whether all souls are of equal value to God, it made the whole of Christianity seem outdated. Thereafter the prestige of evolutionary biology encouraged egalitarians to discard that corny creed of spiritual equality – and to adopt the shiny new scientific hypotheses that humans are physically and mentally uniform. And that eventually put Darwinian science on a collision course with progressive egalitarians.

For Darwinism requires hereditary inequalities.

The left fears Darwinian science because its dogma of our factual equality cannot survive the relentlessly accumulating evidence of our genetic variability. Gould, a famous sports nut, cannot turn on his TV without being confronted by lean East Africans outdistancing the world’s runners, massive Samoans flattening quarterbacks, lithe Chinese diving and tumbling for gold medals, or muscular athletes of West African descent out-sprinting, out-jumping, and out-hitting all comers. No wonder Gould is reduced to insisting we chant: “Say it five times before breakfast tomorrow: … Human equality is a contingent fact of history” — like Dorothy trying to get home from Oz.

Darwin did not dream up the Theory of Evolution. Many earlier thinkers, like his grandfather Erasmus Darwin and the great French naturalist Jean Baptiste Lamarck, had proposed various schemes of gradual changes in organisms. Darwin’s great contribution was the precise engine of evolution: selection. Lamarck, for example, had believed that giraffes possess long necks because their ancestors had stretched their necks to reach higher leaves. This stretching somehow caused their offspring to be born with longer necks. Darwin, however, argued that the proto-giraffes who happened to be born with longer necks could eat more and thus left behind more of their longer-necked children than the proto-giraffes unlucky enough to be born with shorter necks.

And what selection selects are genetic differences. In “The Descent of Man,” Darwin wrote, “Variability is the necessary basis for the action of selection.”


As Sailer points out, it is perfectly possible to reconcile the spiritual and moral equality of humanity with what science tells us is true about human biological variability. The problem, I think, is that we humans are bad at this. Given the history of the 20th century, I flat-out don’t trust our species to handle the knowledge of human biodiversity without turning it into an ideology of dehumanization, racism, and at worst, genocide. Put another way, I am hostile to this kind of thing not because I believe it’s probably false, but because I believe a lot of it is probably true — and we have shown that we, by our natures, can’t handle this kind of truth. We will use it to construct ideologies that justify inhumanity with the authority of Science.

I once wrote in this space:

Whenever a partisan says, “We should trust science” as a guide to how politicians should vote, I want to say: “Oh? Should we have trusted science 100 years ago, when the scientific consensus favored eugenics?” As I’ve written here in the past, one of the best lectures I ever heard was Dame Gillian Beer’s presentation at Cambridge University several years ago in which she discussed how various factions in Victorian England took up Darwin’s findings as support for their political cause. Abolitionists said that science clearly showed that we were all brothers under the skin, and slavery should end. Imperialists said that science made obvious that some races were fit to dominate others. And so forth. Science holds authority today that the Church did in ages past, and can be invoked to support good causes and bad.

I am quite certain that if Science were able to demonstrate conclusively that there are measurable differences in cognitive abilities between the races, that no liberal would support making public policy on the basis of this research. And you know what? Neither would I. Science cannot be the final arbiter in deciding what is right and what is wrong. It is an important source of knowledge, but to say that it is the exclusive source of knowledge in all things is scientism, which is a form of idolatry.

Also, I wrote a while back about the importance of maintaining the concept of forbidden knowledge, that is, things that can be known but should not be known because of what we are likely to do with that knowledge. Unless you believe that plans for building atomic bombs and how to poison a city’s water supply with ricin should be distributed freely on the Internet, then you too believe in the concept of forbidden knowledge. If you believe the government has no right to vacuum up your private information, then you believe that some things shouldn’t be known because of what use we are likely to make of the power that knowledge gives us. My point is simply that all of us believe that some facts are too dangerous to be known; they are like the Ring Of Power, in that the temptation to abuse them is too great for our natures to bear.

Admittedly, this puts me in a tight spot. Am I saying that we should ignore reality? I suppose I am. One of the things that keeps drawing me to Steve Sailer’s writing is that his beliefs on human biodiversity sometimes lead him to point out inconvenient truths about ideologies informing our common life. I don’t read him often enough to say for sure, but I take Sailer’s general viewpoint to be that many of our contemporary follies are due to our ideological inability to face the scientific facts of human biodiversity. Though I’m a theist, and therefore one who believes that all life is ultimately of divine origin, I also believe that evolution is the best available explanation for how life in all its diversity came to be. I don’t see how evolution could be right and Sailer be wrong. I like reading Sailer because he forces me to see things I would often prefer not to see.

Again, for me, moral and spiritual equality is a fact, but it’s not one that can be grounded in science. If everybody believed that moral and spiritual equality was a fact, I would be more comfortable with the discussion of genetic differences and their effects on us. But you don’t have to go far in the HBD discussion to find some pretty nasty stuff. This does not, let me be clear, demonstrate that what the HBD people claim is false (though it may be, or parts may be); but it does demonstrate to my satisfaction that it is impossible for most people to talk about this stuff without using it to justify some nasty prejudices. Within living memory, we have seen where this sort of thing goes. You start out exploring the science of genetic differences, which is, or ought to be, a neutral thing, and before you know it you have the greatest scientific authorities in the world coming up with eugenic theories supporting the idea of “life unworthy of life,” and then you end with Auschwitz.

Yet liberals who love to put the Darwin fish on their cars and rail against fundagelicals who want to teach Creationism in public schools should be honest with themselves and admit that they don’t really want to teach Science and nothing but either. Their enthusiasm for just-the-facts science typically stops the moment science tramples upon one of their sacred principles. That doesn’t make liberals bad, but it does make them human, and it ought to cause them to be more humble about these things. What they’re doing in cases like this is imposing a moral framework on the interpretation of scientific data. That’s normal; that’s good. Everybody does it, and it has to be done. Many liberals mistakenly believe their worldview is neutral. It grates when they put down fundagelicals for defending their sacred beliefs against the claims of Science, but refuse to see that they do the same thing (though their self-imposed blindness is far easier to justify than fundagelicals’).

Thursday is right: wars over evolution are not really about science, but about culture and authority. As Gillian Beer teaches, Science is never received in a vacuum; Science does not interpret itself; Science offers us no uncontentious principles for how its findings should be applied. People always bring their cultural values to it, and often use it to justify their own beliefs — even as they tell themselves they are simply following the Science where it leads them. It is self-deception. Liberal or conservative, the minute Science contradicts something we hold sacred, we turn away from Science.

I don’t have a problem with this as a matter of general principle, and you shouldn’t either; a prudential refusal to know the whole truth is a necessary condition for civilized life. But we have to be honest with ourselves about what we’re doing. When it comes to the classroom instruction of my children, I am on the side of the evolutionists, not the creationists. The evolutionists have the better case by far. This should be sufficient to make the case for privileging the teaching of evolution in public schools (or in any school, frankly); one doesn’t have to buy into the progressive, scientistic narrative to support teaching science in science class. We must not, however, be subject to the illusion that the culture war over evolution is a matter of the forces of Enlightenment fighting the forces of Darkness And Ignorance. It’s like this: I believe democracy is a better form of government than dictatorship, but I don’t believe the narrative that should the United States attack another country, it is doing so for the sake of democracy. That may be part of it, but it’s far too easy to accept that narrative to justify our own hegemony over the weak by giving a raw act of the assertion of power a moral gloss, and telling ourselves that we are on the side of the angels.

That’s what we humans do, all the time. Hence the danger of making Science a god, and telling ourselves that we must follow scientific knowledge wherever it takes us. We lie to ourselves about our real intentions.



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