Misplaced Sympathies
Misplaced Sympathies
Darwin isn't the enemy. Conservatives do no service to their cause by treating him as one.

BY KEVIN SHAPIRO - April 21, 2006
Two weeks ago, a team of paleontologists announced the discovery of an extinct animal on an island in arctic Canada. The island is now a frozen waste, but in the Paleozoic Era it was literally crawling with life. The fossil find, dubbed Tiktaalik roseae, has been hailed as the evolutionary missing link between bony fish and land-dwelling vertebrates.

Culture-war observers might note that Tiktaalik bears a weird resemblance to the Darwin fish--the pictogram of a two-legged creature that parodies the ichthus symbol used by devout Christians. The coincidence is particularly poignant, given that Tiktaalik has re-emerged at a dismal moment for Christian fundamentalists and other opponents of evolutionary biology.

After years of unsuccessful attempts to have creationism recognized in public schools as a "scientific" alternative to the theory of evolution by natural selection, anti-Darwinists pinned their hopes on intelligent-design theory (ID), which tries to argue that living things are too complex to be products of random mutations. But this movement lost much steam in December, after a judge in Pennsylvania ruled that, contrary to the Dover, Pa., school board, ID was not science.

Since then, even erstwhile backers of ID have scrambled to distance themselves from it. Sen. Rick Santorum, who had never been shy about his support for the Dover board, announced that he was "not comfortable with intelligent design being taught in the science classroom." The Ohio Board of Education voted in February to eliminate lesson plans calling for a critique of evolution; in the last few months, bills to introduce ID into schools in Indiana, Mississippi and Utah have failed.

If the collapse of ID represents a defeat for the Religious Right, it has been something of a relief for many nonreligious conservatives, who have wanted nothing more than for the issue to go away. Charles Krauthammer, for instance, complained that the Dover episode was "anachronistic," "retrograde" and "a national embarrassment."

But the relationship of the conservative movement to evolution has never been simple. Religious conservatives have opposed the entrenchment of Darwinism in biology curricula; other conservatives, including mainline Christians, have embraced it. Curiously, the neoconservatives--a term that refers to the rightward shift of former leftists, many of them Jewish--have often felt discomfort with Darwinism, although not on religious grounds.

Their skepticism is epitomized by Gertrude Himmelfarb and her husband, Irving Kristol, who have tilted at natural selection for decades. Ms. Himmelfarb's 1959 book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution dwelt on the intellectual failings of the theory's initial incarnation in the 1860s. Mr. Kristol, for his part, seems to believe that little progress has been made since then, having declared in 1990 that natural selection "tells us nothing credible about the origin of species." In 1996 Commentary published The Deniable Darwin, the first of several attacks on natural selection by the mathematician David Berlinski.

For Christian fundamentalists, the sympathy of this group of thinkers has been a boon, lending credence to the idea that critiques of natural selection are more than just a strategy to promote creationism. Perhaps so, but how reliable are the critiques? Proponents of intelligent design, like the mathematician William Dembski, argue that we don't understand the origins of various biological systems and never will, because they can't be broken down into smaller parts that could be explained by natural selection. Therefore, we should give up on Darwin and accept the existence of a designer. Alas, this kind of argumentum ad ignorantium flies in the face of an ever-increasing amount of evidence from molecular biology, and hardly measures up to the neoconseratives' rigorous intellectual standards.

But part of the neoconservative position has to do less with particular intellectual claims than with the special sensitivities of a broadly conservative coalition. The writer David Frum has said that, though he himself believes in evolution, he doesn't "believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle." And indeed, Christian principle helps to arm the traditionalist side of the culture war, a side that nonreligious and non-Christian conservatives very much support. The bioethicist Leon Kass has echoed the worry that "Western moral teaching, so closely tied to Scripture, is also in peril if any major part of Scripture can be shown to be false."

The idea has antecedents stretching back to the Victorian era. Benjamin Disraeli summed up the problem memorably: Given the choice between viewing man as an ape or an angel, he was "on the side of the angels." Today, neoconservatives see the side of religious conservatives as the side of the angels. The two groups share a profound distaste for materialism, a philosophy of knowledge that leaves no room for phenomena--like God, the human soul and transcendent morality--that can't be explained by an appeal to physical principles.

The distaste is understandable. Materialism in science is one thing; the scientific method is by definition materialistic, admirably so. But materialism can also be a worldview, one that has lately not been content to co-exist with other belief systems. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, for example, has compared faith to a "virus" that enfeebles the mind. This kind of notion is no longer science--it's scientism, and from the neoconservative perspective it lies at the root of various evils based on similarly totalizing systems of thought, like communism.

It was a preoccupation with defeating materialism that inspired many of Darwin's contemporary detractors. Richard Owen, a 19th-century English anatomist, privately conceded that The Origin of Species was the best explanation "ever published of the manner of formation of species"--but because he thought that natural selection denied the possibility of human uniqueness, he savaged the book in public. Ms. Himmelfarb made a related argument in a recent review of two new editions of Darwin's works, decrying the "mechanistic and reductivist interpretation of all human life, including its emotional and intellectual dimensions, in the name of Darwinism."

But there is a problem here. At a time when the life sciences are advancing at an astonishing pace, it is simply too late to be taking up Owen's mantle. There is no longer any serious dispute about the evidence for natural selection; it seems that every gap in our current explanatory model has a Tiktaalik waiting to fill it, whether it comes from the Canadian tundra or a DNA microarray. The logic of Darwin's theory has also undeniably shed light on some of the puzzles of human psychology. Of course this doesn't mean that natural selection explains everything about the human condition, or that we shouldn't be wary of attempts to use it as a cudgel against religion.

The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion be considered "non-overlapping magisteria," each profiting from dialogue with the other. Many scientists have rejected this notion, arguing that science has nothing to gain from accommodating religion. Likewise, religious fundamentalists insist that divine truth supersedes empirical discovery.

Within the confines of the laboratory and the sanctuary, both attitudes might be reasonable. For society as a whole, though, they're not constructive. If Gould's idea were to be taken more seriously, the fear of Darwin and natural selection might go the way of Tiktaalik, without harming society thereby.

Mr. Shapiro is a researcher in neuroscience at Harvard