Books on Science and Religion #19: A Prologue to Social Darwinism

Books on Science and Religion #19: A Prologue to Social Darwinism

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Platopic2Oct 12, 2014

Modern philosophers, leading thinkers, intellectuals, and certain scientists are the public intellectuals of the day. Sometimes, such a role is thrust upon them, or they court it successfully.

We must ask, what is the source of a public intellectual’s leadership? From where does this leadership derive its authority?

And is this leadership the same as that of a priest or a theologian? Is it different?

It strikes me that these are very important questions that we should be asking of – and about – our leaders of thought and their ideas. And we should ask it of the leaders of thought in the 19th century as well, especially those who claim science or philosophy as their source of authority about social and political issues. We cannot ignore the sometimes horrific fruits of their ideas and their labors.

We ask it now because we are soon to explore the dark side of evolution, including the rise of theories of degeneracy of Henry Maudsley, the pioneering British psychiatrist, and the highly influential scientific racism of Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s foremost German popularizer, whose thinking we will describe in the next blog.

But first lets try to answer the question by taking into account the Baha’i point of view.

They have Entangled All Men, Themselves Included, in the Mesh of their Devices

Manikshi Sahib
Manikshi Sahib

Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, touched on the issue of intellectual leadership in the Tablet to Mánikchí Sáhib, written to a prominent Zoroastrian roughly at the same time that Darwin published the Descent of Man. Baha’u’llah encourages his readers to deliberate on the needs of the age, its exigencies and requirements:

Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.

But he warns against those “intoxicated by self-conceit”:

We can well perceive how the whole human race is encompassed with great, with incalculable afflictions. We see it languishing on its bed of sickness, sore-tried and disillusioned. They that are intoxicated by self-conceit have interposed themselves between it and the Divine and infallible Physician. Witness how they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices. They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy. They have conceived the straight to be crooked, and have imagined their friend an enemy.

It is in this tablet that Baha’u’llah announces the well-known Baha’i principle called the tabernacle of unity:

Regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

self-conceitWhat does this mean for our question here?

First of all, Baha’u’llah does not focus on science. Those “intoxicated by self-conceit”, the Baha’i writings make clear, most often refer to the leaders of faith who have failed to maintain the unity and integrity of religion. It is they, through their failures, who have led “men of science” to look elsewhere for answers to questions that religion proved unable, in case after case, to be able to address. Indeed, the intent of most religious leaders seemed to be to maintain their leadership and authority.

But this is not the whole of the answer, for Darwin and many of his followers became materialists, meaning that they came to dismiss religion and the significance of spiritual evolution as important components of the answer to the problems of the day.  In modern parlance, they “threw out of the baby with the bathwater,” rejecting all of religion along with its bad parts.

For an educated evolutionary thinker aware of the similarities of his or her passions and innate tendencies to those in the animal kingdom while at the same time aware of the power of education, rationality, and culture, this is a strange and perverse reaction altogether and evidence of both bias and ideological partisanship. (Obviously, pious proclamations of emancipation from blind belief and dogmatism does not necessary mean a reduced susceptibility to their influence, as the enthusiasm of Marxists, colonialists, nationalists, militarists and others of materialist persuasions clearly shows.)

Science as the Source of Social, Intellectual, and Moral Authority

So, to answer the question about what is the public intellectual’s source of authority, the answer has often been that it is science and philosophy that is the source of his or her authority. From this point of view, the scientific revolution and the European enlightenment overthrew the despotism and dogmatism of religious theology and replaced it with the pure light of science and rational (or empirical, or idealist, or positivist, or whatever the flavor of the day is) philosophical thought.

But suppose the “pure light of science” and the philosophical counterparts of theology were only another dogmatism and the enlightened thinker merely fooling himself that his views were meaningful? (The herselves – with maybe one exception (George Elliot) – were quickly suppressed.) And suppose the eager and grateful audience was merely swayed by blind belief of precisely the variety supposedly swept away in the rejection of religion?  As we will see, the reaction to Darwinism often seemed to be of this later “enthusiast” variety, especially in Germany (although the United States and the British Isles were quite susceptible too).

Ernst_Haeckel_1860And what is abundantly clear – or should be abundantly clear – is that even great scientists like Darwin and Haeckel were seduced into making pronouncements on social and intellectual issues that extrapolated far beyond any conceivable kind of scientific warrant in their theories or the experimental state of the art.

In short, they weren’t being true to their scientific calling. And in doing so “they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices. They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy.”

And the price that we have paid for their doing so has been immense and tragic. If you claim, like Darwin, that a high station is due to evolutionary struggle for supremacy, don’t be surprised if you are judged to have encouraged such struggle and the massive wars and slaughters that it entails.

Next Blog

In the next blog we talk about how Darwinism fared in Germany where it not only became extraordinarily popular but morphed into what we now call scientific racism. We also trace the rise of theories of degeneracy – the idea that whole societies could undergo physical and intellectual collapse if the unfit were allowed to reproduce. Both of these trends were unforeseen by the pioneers of evolution.


This is the 19th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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