The Universal House of Justice
Feb 5, 2012. Know thyself! So goes the ancient Greek aphorism. Even if you don’t see your flaws, others do.
Consider evolutionism the worldview (as opposed to evolution, the science). To its supporters – including many in the scientific establishment – it is a scientifically informed understanding of the world. To some philosophers of science, it is a substitute religion (see, for example, the 1st blog in this series). To American evangelicals, it is secular ideology and its flaws are not only readily apparent but have debilitating consequences. American evangelicals have responded to those flaws by rejecting evolutionism and by rejecting evolution.
A word about nomenclature. By evolution, I mean the extraordinarily wonderful and successful science of evolution, now sometimes called the modern evolutionary synthesis. By evolutionism, I mean the ideological worldview derived from evolutionary thought. Michael Ruse, in Is Evolution a Secular Religion? describes this as a “secular religion, generally working from an explicitly materialist background and solving all of the world’s major problems, from racism to education to conservation.”
What if secular thinkers – biologists, educators, media folk, scientists, and leaders of thought in general – were to fully grasp the difference between evolution – the science – and evolutionism – the secular quasi-religion?
What if evangelicals and their leaders were to separate the two in their minds, and teach that there was a distinction?
Wouldn’t this go an incredible distance towards eliminating the divisiveness, the mutual distrust, even hatred and contempt, that the two sides hurl at each? Wouldn’t it start the healing of this enormous divide, this debilitating conflict of science and religion that is polarizing our country?
But for this to happen, there needs to first be an understanding of the role that social Darwinism – a source of horrific evil in the first half of the 20th century – played in bringing about creationism (and intelligent design, its most recent update). This is the topic of today’s blog.
Social Darwinism is the dark side of evolutionary thought, little spoken of and barely taught in school. So it is vaguely understood, as are its relationships to the horrors of 20th century civilization. But you cannot understand creationism – or even such things as the depth of popular anger against abortion, contraception, and family planning – without knowing about it. So, a short historical introduction from a distinguished historian.
Daniel Kevles is a leading American historian of science and author of In the Name of Genetics, the standard introduction to the American eugenics movement – a central component of early 20th century social Darwinism in the United States. The following is excerpted from In The Name of Darwin, an overview of social Darwinism and eugenics on the PBS evolution website:
[Social Darwinism emerged] in the late 19th century, a period in which notions of fitness, competition, and biological rationalizations of inequality were popular. At the time, a growing number of theorists introduced Darwinian analogies of “survival of the fittest” into social argument.
In the United States, eugenics was the primary manifestation of social Darwinism.
The word “eugenics” was coined in 1883 by the English scientist Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, to promote the ideal of perfecting the human race by, as he put it, getting rid of its “undesirables” while multiplying its “desirables” – that is, by encouraging the procreation of the social Darwinian fit and discouraging that of the unfit.
Many social Darwinists insisted that biology was destiny, at least for the unfit, and that a broad spectrum of socially deleterious traits, ranging from “pauperism” to mental illness, resulted from heredity.
Eugenicists [in the United States] promoted the passage of eugenic sterilization laws that disproportionately threatened lower-income groups. The laws and programs they fostered supplied a model for the Nazis, who sterilized several hundred thousand people and, brandishing their research into the genetics of individual and racial differences, claimed scientific justifications for the Holocaust.
Social Darwinism reached its apogee in Germany. There, Darwin’s thought was popular and culturally influential from shortly after the publication of the Origin of Species (1859). Social Darwinism, initially taken as support for laissez faire competition between individuals, developed into ideas of collectivist competition between groups of people, races and nations, and into “scientific racism.” Here is how the historian Richard Weikart describes it in his The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany, 1859-1895:
In its early phase Social Darwinism served primarily as a justification for ideas of laissez faire, since it stressed individualist competition. Later in the nineteenth century, however, advocates of imperialism, racism, and eugenics began relying on Darwinian arguments. This second phase of Social Darwinism emphasized a collectivist struggle and arose in conjunction with progressivism.
Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), the influential German biologist (and “naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor and artist”) was the leading promoter of Darwinism in Germany. It was Haeckel’s embrace of polygenism, the idea that “human races evolved independently and in parallel with each other,” a concept contrary to Darwin’s thinking, that most successfully captured the German view of their own racial superiority. Wikipedia describes his view as follows:
Haeckel divided human beings into ten races, of which the Caucasian was the highest and the primitives were doomed to extinction. Haeckel claimed that Negros have stronger and more freely movable toes than any other race which is evidence that Negros are related to apes because when apes stop climbing in trees they hold on to the trees with their toes. … Haeckel also believed Negros were savages and that Whites were the most civilised.
Thinkers ranging from Hannah Arrendt (one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century) to Ian Kershaw (the author of numerous volumes on Hitler and the 3rd Reich) are in unanimity about the importance of social Darwinism in the development of Nazism and its pursuit of the final solution we know as the holocaust. But note, they almost uniformly make the same distinction that I am arguing for, namely that evolution – the science – is not the cause of atrocities committed in its name. Rather, it is the emergence of ideologies where Darwinist thought played a formative role as a “narrative” about the nature of things that are the cause of these problems.
William Jennings Bryan (1860 -1925) – the populist, liberal Democrat, fighter for women’s suffrage, secretary of state under Woodrow Wilson, and three time Democratic candidate for the presidency of the United States – is the unlikely instigator of modern American creationism.
Of course there is more to the picture than William Jennings Bryan (for an excellent and complete overview, see The Creation-Evolution Debate: Historical Perspectives). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes the conditions that led to beginning of creationism as including
- The rise of literalist interpretations of the Bible, leading to the need to take science into account,
- The harnessing of enthusiasm created by successful evangelical lobbying for the prohibition of alcohol,
- The growth of the public school system and the consequent collision of evolution education with evangelicalism,
- The rise of new evangelical currents of thought, especially the 12 volumes of the Fundamentals published from 1910 to 1915, and
- “The identification of evolution — Darwinism particularly — with the militaristic aspects of Social Darwinism, especially the Social Darwinism supposed embraced by the Germans in the First World War.”
But it took William Jennings Bryan – the man of action – to create a movement that was successful at stopping the teaching of evolution in public schools. And it was Bryan who won the famous Scopes trial (1925).
Bryan believed, Wikipedia writes, that “a materialistic account of the descent of man through evolution undermined the Bible.” He also saw “Social Darwinism as a great evil force in the world promoting hatred and conflicts, especially the World War.” At his instigation, several American states passed laws against the teaching of evolution.
The rest, as they say, is history.
After the Scopes trail, the teaching of evolution was expunged from high school curricula in most American states, to return only after the Sputnik scare of the late 1950s triggered an emphasis on science education.
But the price paid for this was very high, and we are still paying it. The national press turned the Scopes trial into a media circus, viciously lampooning Bryan, his supporters, and the evangelical movement. As a consequence, evangelicalism and fundamentalism retreated from the public eye – boiling in anger – until the 1960s when it supported full-fledged creationism theories. This anger – and the distrust of evolution and its supporters – is stronger than ever, even though fundamentalism and evangelicalism have gone on achieve victory after victory, spreading all over the world and becoming a major force in American politics.
Next week, we review the evangelical critique of evolution and modern secular thought. Our aim in doing so is to encourage the search, along lines consistent with the Baha’i teachings on the unity of science and religion, for a common ground between evangelical views and secular understandings of evolution and evolutionism.
This is the 2nd in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he is author of Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution. He did worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.