Darwinism, Secularism, and the Decline of the West – Part 3: The Impact of Darwinism

Darwinism, Secularism, and the Decline of the West – Part 3: The Impact of Darwinism

Through the end of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of scientists were at least deists and more likely Jewish or Christian theists. In fact, in 1872, Charles Darwin’s cousin, Francis Galton (1822-1911), one of the founders of quantitative psychology and an outspoken atheist and enthusiastic advocate of eugenics, conducted a survey of “English men of science” to determine whether youthful religion had a deterrent impact on the freedom of their scientific research (Galton 1875). To his dismay, not only did over ninety percent of the respondents—including Charles Darwin himself—respond in the negative, almost every respondent indicated a church affiliation. In 1914, in another effort to establish the irreligiosity of scientists, the American psychologist James Leuba conducted a more rigorous survey (Leuba 1916 [1921]). He found that 41.8 percent of his sample group believed in a God who answered prayer, another 41.5 percent had a more deistic view, and 16.7 percent had no belief in God whatsoever. If Leuba’s results are restricted to “leading scientists,” however, the number holding some substantial form of religious belief dropped to 30 percent. When Leuba’s exact survey was repeated in 1996 the results remained much the same, except that the number of leading scientists—represented by members of the National Academy of Sciences—having strong religious beliefs dropped below 10 percent (Larson and Witham 1997).

A broader survey of religious belief by scholarly field that included 60,028 academics was conducted by the Carnegie Commission in 1969. It indicated levels of religious belief among natural scientists in the 55 to 60 percent range, with about two-thirds of these being orthodox. The percentage of religious believers in the social sciences was much lower, however, averaging around 45 percent, with the worst field being anthropology, where only 29 percent had any manner of religious belief at all, and only 11 percent were orthodox (see Stark 2003: 194). The moral of these surveys seems to be that while religious belief persists among scientists and academics in general, it has declined precipitously since the nineteenth century, especially in its orthodox form, and especially among those regarded as being at the “top” of their field. So what happened to bring this about? What has led to the tremendous changes in the social and cosmic imaginaries that have overtaken Western civilization in the last century, changes that have given rise to the widespread and presumptive acceptance among the intellectual elite of the causal closure and self-subsistence of material reality—what Charles Taylor (2007) calls the “the causal closure of the immanent frame”?

Part of the explanation is no doubt to be found in unwarranted conclusions drawn from the efficacy of the mechanical philosophy; another part undoubtedly lies with the social impact of false narratives alleging a state of “warfare” between science and religion, a misperception given considerable impetus by Andrew Dickson White’s dissembling tomes at the end of the nineteenth century. But we should also not underestimate the impact of Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of universal common descent, which purports to offer an explanation of speciation and growth in complexity in the history of life solely by means of natural selection acting on random variation in populations. What “random variation” is conventionally taken to mean, of course, is an objectively undirected process without discernible purpose. That this was Darwin’s intent seems clear, for he remarked in 1876 that “there seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows” (Darwin 1876 [1958], p. 87). Indeed, until Darwin’s theory gained wide acceptance—an eventuality given a boost by the discovery of the genetic basis of inheritance and a neo-Darwinian synthesis in which natural selection sifts random genetic mutations—design was regarded as the formative principle in biology. What Darwin is thought by many to have provided, as Richard Dawkins has gone to great lengths to emphasize, is a way of explaining the appearance of design in organisms without recourse to actual design. In light of this, Dawkins has no compunction about claiming that “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist” (Dawkins 1986, p. 6). It is for this reason, and others, that Daniel Dennett describes Darwinism as a “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view” (Dennett 1995, p. 63). By Dennett’s account, of course, that revolutionized worldview is a radical philosophical naturalism in which traditional religion is preserved only as a curiosity in a “cultural zoo” (1995, p. 520).

This disavowal of design and purpose is, to be sure, fundamentally a philosophical stance. Even if the neo-Darwinian picture were accepted, the assertion that genetic mutation as the basis of variation is ontologically random and that environmental selection is absolutely blind is an unverifiable and gratuitous postulation. The gratuitousness of this assertion has not stopped its appearance in a wide variety of textbooks used in secondary and tertiary education, however, which as an expression of the mindset of the authors of these educational materials, speaks to the pervasive influence of philosophical naturalism in most institutions of higher learning and the broader cultural impact of Darwinism. It is also revelatory of Darwinism’s fundamental transformation of the way that humanity conceives of the universe and our place in it that has been effected in the last century. If we are looking for the historical locus at which formal and final causes were purged from the “scientific” view of reality, it clearly was not with the mechanical philosophy, which retained formal causes in the design plan of the mechanism and final causes in the purposes they were intended to serve; rather, as we have seen, formal intent realized through purposeful implementation was banished by the advent of Darwinism and the evolutionary naturalism it made conceptually possible.

Another factor that has eroded the metaphysical foundations of human freedom and the mindset of classical liberalism in Western culture, of course, is the modern embrace of methodological naturalism as normative for science and scholarship, since it insists that all explanatorily relevant causality is found in the immanent frame. Methodological naturalism has a long history (Numbers 1977; Dilley 2007) throughout which it has gradually acquired a stranglehold on science—even though it was emphatically rejected by Newton, whose presence towers over physics even today. The effect of Darwin’s insertion of it into biology as a catalyst for the spread of irreligion/secularism cannot be underestimated. What especially strengthened its impact was the fact that the presence of discrete intentional design in the biological realm had been one of the mainstays of natural theology (Roberts and Turner 2000, pp. 28-29, 47, 91-92, et passim). Darwin did more than introduce methodological naturalism into biology however; he contended that the exclusion of non-immanent causation was an indispensable criterion for any theory to be regarded as scientific (Darwin 1859 [1964], p. 488; see also the epigraphs opposite the title page). As William North Rice, a professor of geology at Wesleyan University and a Methodist Christian, stated the matter:

The great strength of Darwinian theory lies in its coincidence with the general spirit and tendency of science. It is the aim of science to narrow the domain of the supernatural, by bringing all phenomena within the scope of natural laws and secondary causes (Rice 1867, p. 608).

Rice was not alone among Christians in advancing this conception of science. There were a good many Christian thinkers who regarded methodological naturalism as a principle for discovering the laws by which God governed creation, and this understanding has provided and still provides a context for justifying it within the broad framework of a Christian metaphysics. It is an intellectual stance that is as unnecessary by way of its heuristic restrictions, however, as it has been unfortunate in terms of its broader effects. In conjunction with Darwinism, methodological naturalism had the unintended consequence of screening off the theological basis of natural science from the practice of science in a way that has led to a definitive intellectual “lopping off” of theistic metaphysics. This severance completed the causal closure of the immanent frame in the realm of natural science—which, by the end of the nineteenth century, was regarded as the paradigm intellectual activity and the model for epistemic rigor that represented the standard to which all other academic disciplines should aspire—and it contributed mightily to the current pervasive influence of an evolutionarily-framed philosophical naturalism and concomitant exclusive humanism in the academy. This was particularly manifest in the fledgling human sciences of anthropology, psychology and sociology, which felt bound, in their quest to be truly “scientific,” to emulate the natural sciences and endorse the principle of methodological naturalism (Roberts and Turner 2000). In their desire for scientific “respectability,” anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists so thoroughly naturalized the study of humanity that we became nothing but the material products of our environment—in short, we were denatured—and thus lost our humanity.

Working in concert with the Darwinian drift of science were broader intellectual developments in the academy that drew together the varying shades of evolutionary historicism inherent in the thought of Hegel, Comte, Marx, and Nietzsche (Ceaser 2010; Cohen 1978; Comte 1844, 1853, 1891; Hegel 1807, 1821; Marx 1843; Miller 2009; Nietzsche 1882, 1885, 1886, 1887, 1888; Pestritto and Atto 2008; Singer 1980). These European thinkers had a profound influence on the American academy in the post-Civil War era, and their ideas found intellectual and sociocultural expression in the rise of “progressivism,” a school of thought hostile to the natural right and natural law principles of the American founding enshrined in the Constitution. Progressives have consistently sought to change the conception of the Constitution from a fixed framework of foundational laws that places limits on government by a separation of powers and a system of checks and balances, to an evolving structure of case law amenable to an unbridled expansion of government capable of transforming society in accordance with progressive goals (Goldberg 2007, 2009; Pestritto 2005; Watson 2009, 2010; West 2006, 2007; Wilson 1912).

Nowhere have progressive ideas been more evident and influential than in the philosophy and social policy of John Dewey, whose primary formative intellectual influences were Hegel and Darwin, and whose role, along with William James, in establishing pragmatism as a major school of philosophical thought in America gave rise to the spread of relativism in American universities and its infestation of the broader culture in a variety of guises (Dewey 1916, 1920, 1930, 1934, 1935; Goldberg 2007, 2009; James 1977; McDermott 1973; Miller 2009; Pestritto and Atto 2008; Rorty 1982; 1989, 1998, 1999, 2000; Siegel 2009). As Dewey himself stated:

Darwin was not, of course, the first to question the classic philosophy of nature or knowledge…But prior to Darwin the impact of the new scientific method upon life, mind, and politics, had been arrested, because between these ideal or moral interests and the inorganic world intervened the kingdom of plants and animals. The gates of the garden of life were barred to the new ideas; and only through this garden was there access to mind and politics. The influence of Darwin upon philosophy resides in his having conquered the phenomena of life for the principle of transition, and thereby freed the new logic for application to mind and morals and life (Dewey 1910, pp. 1-19; the title essay was reprinted in McDermott, ed. 1973 [1981], pp. 31-41, see p.35).

When we resume our discussion, it will be reasonable to ask, therefore, what has been wrought by progressivist philosophy through its appropriation and application of Darwinian principles, and begin a dark journey into what C.S. Lewis called “the abolition of man.”

For further reading:

Ceaser, J. (2010). ‘The Roots of Obama Worship: Auguste Comte’s “Religion of Humanity” finds a 21st-Century Savior,’ The Weekly Standard 15 (18), January 25, 18–21.

Cohen, G. A. (1978). Karl Marx’s Theory of History. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Comte, A. (2009) [1844]. A General View of Positivism. Translated by J.H. Bridges. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

_____. (2009) [1853]. The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, 2 volumes. Translated by H. Martineau. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

_____. (2009) [1891]. The Catechism of Positive Religion. Translated by R. Congrev. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Darwin, C. (1964) [1859]. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life (facsimile edition, edited by Ernst Mayr). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Darwin, C. (1958) [1876]. The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882. N. Barlow (Ed.). London: Collins.

Dawkins, R. (1986). The Blind Watchmaker: Why the evidence of evolution reveals a universe without design. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Dewey, J. (1910). The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy: And Other Essays. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, Inc.

_____. (1944) [1916]. Democracy and Education. New York: The Free Press.

_____. (1948) [1920]. Reconstruction in Philosophy. Boston: Beacon Press.

_____. (1999) [1930]. Individualism Old and New. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

_____. (1962) [1934]. A Common Faith. New Haven: Yale University Press.

_____. (2000) [1935]. Liberalism and Social Action. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Dilley, S.C. (2007). Methodological Naturalism, History, and Science. Tempe: Arizona State University, Ph.D. dissertation.

Galton, F. (1875). English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Goldberg, J. (2007). Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. New York: Doubleday.

__________. (2009). ‘Richard Ely’s Golden Calf,’ National Review, 61 (24), December 31, 33–36.

Hegel, G.W.F. (1977) [1807]. Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by A.V. Miller. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

_____. (1952) [1821]. Elements of the Philosophy of Right (translated by T.M. Knox). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

James, W. (1977) [1906]. ‘The Moral Equivalent of War,’ in J.J. McDermott (Ed). The Writings of William James: A Comprehensive Edition (pp. 660-671). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Larson, E.J. & Witham, L. (1997). ‘Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith,’ Nature, 386 (April 3), 435.

Leuba, J. (1921) [1916]. The Belief in God and Immortality. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Co.

Lewis, C. S. (2001) [1944]). The Abolition of Man. New York: Harper Collins.

Marx, Karl (1977) [1843]. Critique of Hegel’s ‘Philosophy of Right’. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDermott, J.J. (Ed.). (1981) [1973]. The Philosophy of John Dewey (Two Volumes in One). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Miller, T.J. (2009). ‘John Dewey and the Philosophical Refounding of America,’ National Review, 61 (24), December 31, 37–40.

Nietzsche, F. (1974) [1882]. The Gay Science (translated by W. Kaufmann). New York: Vintage Books.

_____. (1967) [1885]. The Will to Power (translated by W. Kauffman & R.J. Hollingdale). New York: Random House.

_____. (1966) [1886]. Beyond Good and Evil (translated by W. Kauffman). New York: Random House.

_____. (1967) [1887, 1888]. On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecco Homo (translated by W. Kaufmann). New York: Vintage Books.

Numbers, R.L. (1977). Creation by Natural Law: Laplace’s Nebular Hypothesis in American Thought. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Pestritto, R.J. (2005). Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Pestritto, R.J. & Atto, W.J. (Eds.). (2008). American Progressivism: A Reader. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Rice, W.N. (1867). ‘The Darwinian Theory of the Origin of the Species,’ New Englander, 26, 603–635.

Roberts, J.H. & Turner, J. (2000). The Sacred and the Secular University. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rorty, R. (1982). Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

_____. (1989). Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

_____. (1998). Truth and Progress. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

_____. (1999). Philosophy and Social Hope. New York: Penguin Books.

_____. (2000). ‘Universality and Truth,’ in R.B. Brandom (Ed.), Rorty and His Critics (pp. 1-30). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, Inc.

Siegel, F. (2009). ‘Herbert Croly’s American Bismarcks,’ National Review, 61 (24), December 31, 43–45.

Singer, P. (1980). Marx: A Brief Insight. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stark, R. (2003). For the Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-Hunts, and the End of Slavery. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Taylor, C. (2007). A Secular Age. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Watson, B.C.S. (2009). ‘The Curious Constitution of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.,’ National Review, 61 (24), December 31, 41–42.

_____. (2010). ‘Darwin’s Constitution: Why progressives took it upon themselves to purify our founding charter of its meaning,’ National Review, 62 (9), 28–34.

West, J. (2006). Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest. Seattle: Discovery Institute Press.

_____. (2007). Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. Wilmington: ISI Books.

Wilson, W. (1961) [1912]. The New Freedom (with an introduction and notes by W. Leuchtenberg). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

2 responses

  1. If you really knew what you were talking about you could make an argument in terms that people don’t have to look up in a dictionary. And if you really know what your talking about you’ll allow this post and respond in a dialogue. This was sent to me by a friend who believes in creationism and I would like to respond by acknowledging the facts of evolution rebuttled by your counter-argument. He knows I sent this, follows your post and will see if you respond. I hope positive internet post’s are not your prerogative and you allow this dialogue to continue.

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