Monday, November 19, 2007


I have posted some comments on John West's book Darwin Day in America, which can be found here and here. West's response to those posts can be found here.

As indicated in the brief publishing blurb that I wrote for ISI Press, I like the book insofar as it provides "a deep and comprehensive study of scientific materialism's morally corrupting effects on American public policy," but I don't find his attack on Darwinian science persuasive, because I don't think he shows that there is any necessary connection between Darwinian science and the crude scientific materialism that he rightly criticizes. Similarly, I liked Richard Weikart's book--From Darwin to Hitler--insofar as it provided a history of how a crude rhetoric of scientific racism was used by Hitler and the Nazis, but I objected to Weikart's attempt to tie all of this to Darwin and Darwinian science.

Like Weikart, West has responded by claiming that I am criticizing a straw man because "not everything in the book is directly tied back to Darwin." As West indicates, he does say in his Introduction (p. xvii) that Darwinism is "only one part" of the larger story of "materialistic reductionism" from Democritus to the present. But on that same page, West claims that "the work of Charles Darwin ultimately supplied the empirical basis for a robust materialism finally to take hold."

Like Weikart, West employs a rhetoric of bait and switch. He draws attention to the supposed primacy of Darwin as a source of evil policies, but then when readers ask for evidence and arguments to support this strong claim, he insists that he has never made such a claim.

Similarly, last year I wrote a post on the Discovery Institute's use of Weikart's From Darwin to Hitler. Weikart doesn't really show any direct line "from Darwin to Hitler." When I have pointed this out, Weikart has complained that this is a straw man, because it is incorrect to allege that he argues for "a straightforward 'Darwin to Hitler' thesis." But then I drew attention to the fact that in a blog post at the Discovery Institute website, Jonathan Witt said that Weikart's book shows "a straightforward path to horror" from Darwin to Hitler. After I did this, Weikart forced Witt to alter the language in his post, which can be found here. Witt carefully removed the word "straightforward" from his post and wrote about "how reasonably and logically many of the horrors documented in Weikart's book follow from Darwinian principles." But even this language is a problem for Weikart, because in his book he says that it would be "absurd" to claim "that Darwinism of logical necessity leads (directly or indirectly) to Nazism" (p. 9). I agree! But if there is no logical necessity for connecting Darwinism to Nazism--either directly or indirectly--then how can Weikart argue for the movement "from Darwin to Hitler"?

There is some good scholarship in these books by West and Weikart. But the scholarship is distorted by the public relations strategy of the Discovery Institute's "wedge document," which requires that all of the writing sponsored by the Discovery Institute advance the claim that Darwin and Darwinian science are responsible for the moral collapse of Western civilization.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And once again I remind you of the "malice or ignorance" question I raised a month ago here.

West and Weikart and their Disco Institute collaborators systematically distort evolutionary theory and the history of ideas to support a particular ideological agenda. It is not their agenda that is at issue in this present comment (though that agenda is itself problematic), it is the systematic and (in my considered opinion) purposeful distortion that is indicative of malice.

This is not merely a rhetorical issue. It potentially has real consequences in the real world. Consider this: To the extent that one's understanding of the evolutionary history of human behavior is distorted by the Disco Institutes' minions one is unable to formulate effective means of ameliorating the world's ills, because any such formulation assumes a false picture of where we are now and how we got here. By incorrectly claiming that there is a direct connection between Darwin and Hitler, Weikart misrepresents history and lowers the probability that we will learn something useful about preventing another Holocaust.

Trying to figure out how to get from A to B is impossible if your notion of how you got to A (your theory of the dynamics leading to A) and where A is (the current state of affairs) is wrong. West and his collaborators systematically and purposefully misrepresent the dynamics of the system and where A is, making it more difficult to figure out where we're going and how to deal with the effects of that journey.