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Darwin Agonistes

Darwin Agonistes

5 Mins
June 23, 2010

TNI Spring 2010 -- I’m never impressed by those studies that come out every so often showing that some large percentage of the American citizenry “does not believe in evolution.” Such polls are mostly meaningless, and have little value beyond fuelling a certain kind of cheap snobbery.

In the liberal comedian Bill Maher’s charming rant “America isn’t number one,” he complains that in other industrialized nations:

“Hardly anyone doubts evolution. And, yes, living amidst so many superstitious dimwits is also something that affects quality of life. It’s why America isn’t going to be the country that gets the inevitable patents in Stem Cell research, because Jesus thinks it’s too close to cloning.”

Sadly for Mr. Maher, this thesis took a knock when, after eight years of the Bush presidency, Professor Mario Capecchi took the Nobel Prize in medicine back to the University of Utah for his work on embryonic stem cells.

The only thing that exceeds the pseudo-intellectual commentariat’s certainty that the U.S. is a nation of superstitious knuckle-draggers is the U.S.’s scientific achievement, whose yearly citations are more than six times that of the runner up. This is no paradox. The Maher thesis rests on a false view of what reason is. Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by man’s senses. It is entirely dependent on input. A man’s rationality is not measured by his ability to recite, nor his education, but his willingness to subject the evidence available to him to reason. It is every bit as irrational to accept evolution without evidence as it is to reject it, and while evolution is arguably the most powerful scientific theory devised, it’s subtle. How much evidence does a small town factory worker have for evolution? Little, and the state of State education makes it ever less.

The question is not how many believe in evolution, the question is how many understand it. I should like to see such a poll, but I doubt one will be forthcoming soon, as it would provide less grist to the mills of spite.



While I have little animosity for the run of the mill creationist who simply lacks the facts, I have no such patience for those intellectuals who persist in trying to place science and superstitious flummery on the same level. The Theory of Evolution does not have the same barriers to understanding as do quantum physics or the Theory of General Relativity. There are many accessible primers available, and Darwin’s own writings remain a joy to read. It is the businesses of intellectuals to deal with abstract reason, and they have no excuse whatsoever for not informing themselves.

I should say that, contra many impressions, this is not a partisan deformity. During one of the many low points of Al Gore’s presidential race he stated that he would have no problem with teaching creationism as equal and equivalent to evolution. That such a man can be awarded an honorary doctorate in ecology and evolution says everything about the corruption politics wreak even on the pinnacles of human rationality.


As low as this is, it is still better than the disgusting innuendo that portrays Darwin’s theory as the source of racism and fascism. A recent example is Ben Stein’s film Expelled that portrays Charles Darwin as the intellectual ancestor of Adolf Hitler.

Racism must always be a faith-based initiative.

Again, this is not a strictly partisan phenomenon; the supporters of this notion include Representative Broome (Democrat from Louisiana), and evangelical Tony Campolo, formerly a spiritual advisor to Bill Clinton. Conversely, the most effective combustion of this trash I have yet read comes from the paleo-conservative John Derbyshire, who calls it a blood libel on Western civilization. An accurate description.

There are two things to note about this charge. The first is its completely superstitious nature. It essentially says that evolution cannot be true because its (supposed) implications are unpleasant. This is to elevate consciousness over existence, to argue that scientists, instead of observing reality, are in some malignant way creating it.

The second is its libelous injustice. To paint Charles Darwin as an advocate of racism and the creationists as the advocates of human brotherhood is an exact moral inversion. One reason Darwin was resented so much was not that his theory showed kinship between man and ape, but that it insisted on kinship between white man and black man. Darwin opposed slavery and racism long before it was fashionable to do so, and insisted on the possibility and desirability of racial equality when his contemporary Abraham Lincoln denied both.

Racism has always required some form of unreason to support it. A brief moment of thought shows why. In reason, what can a concept such as a “superior race” even mean? To be sure, one might show that members of a common group of common descent were better on average at a given skill, but that is all such a finding would say. To practice the kind of horrors racism has produced, requires concepts that are not merely wrong, but so divorced from reality that they can barely be defined. In other words, racism must always be a faith-based initiative.


While it is true that the hatred of evolution is not strictly a phenomenon of the American Right, it is also true that it is principally found there. Anti-Darwin writings are common not merely amongst fringe Internet publications where they would be ignorable, but also in the mainstream National Review which regularly publishes writings from the creationist Discovery Institute. And for some reason unknown to me, the mainstream Right sees fit to indulge this.

It’s here that the real danger lies. Most scares about creationism are groundless. Every time the religious right tries to have creationism taught in public schools, it is ignominiously defeated and American scientific dominance remains unchallenged.

Yet when the American Right persists in indulging this nonsense, it discredits the remainder of their causes by association, even when these causes are valid on their own. Jonah Golberg’s Liberal Fascism presents good evidence that “national socialism” is exactly what it sounds like, yet he discredits himself with asinine references to “Darwinian eugenics” (whatever that means—all Darwin wrote about eugenics was to say that its practice would be catastrophic. Francis Galton is never mentioned in the book). Victor Davis Hanson is a scholar and thinker of rare caliber, but his academic partner Bruce Thornton persistently endorses the most philistine creationist screeds. Few have written about Islam as well as Robert Spencer, yet at least one of his books—The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam and the Crusades—shares a series with a creationist tract.

This is so damaging because creationism announces a willingness to subordinate evidence to interest. It is a straightforward declaration that one’s scholarship will only go so far. I’ve lost count of the number of American conservatives I’ve heard complaining about their loss of the cultural and academic arenas—but what do they expect? Intellectual battles are won on the ground of reason. You can’t proclaim a belief on a par with leprechauns and then complain that you are not taken seriously.

I’m not a conservative, I’m an Objectivist, and I can think of little more damaging to the struggle for capitalism and liberty than its association with this superstitious nonsense.

The bitter irony here is that conservatives are betraying their best principles. The thing I’ve always liked in the conservative tradition is its understanding of the rare achievement of civilization and the willingness to defend it with no “buts” and “ifs.” The willingness to defend the real achievement against the unreal wish. Yet here we have them attacking one of Western civilization’s greatest achievements in favor of unreal claptrap.

In Defending the West, the apostate scholar Ibn Warraq identifies “three golden threads”, three cardinal virtues that make Western civilization supreme: universalism, criticism, and reason. Who could be said to better embody these traits than Darwin? How many others could be said to have combined unsurpassed scientific achievement with a life of such moral clarity and simplicity?

Not only will conservatives continue to lose as long as they persist in indulging creationist fools, they will deserve to do so, for they will be attacking the best of what they claim to conserve.

Hugo Schmidt
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Hugo Schmidt
Religion and Atheism