The evolution of Darwin's bad influence
John G. West, who disbelieves in Darwinism, has written a book on its bad cultural consequences, from eugenics to permissive sex education.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science"
by John G. West
ISI Books, 450 pp., $28
John G. West, who disbelieves in Darwinism, has written a book on its bad cultural consequences, from eugenics to permissive sex education. West's opponents will not read it, because he is a fellow of the Discovery Institute, the Seattle think tank that has championed Intelligent Design. And that is too bad, because even those who believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, as I do, can concede that some things done in its name have been less than pleasing.
It is dangerous to think that a new idea conquers all. West recounts how the believers in Darwinism colonized the fields of criminal justice, social welfare, psychology, economics and the management of personnel and of human reproduction.
In criminal justice, Darwinism put new clothes on the old idea of determinism — that free will is an illusion, that man is a "meat machine" determined by genes or environment. If the will is an empty vessel, the criminal has no responsibility. (But then, neither does the prosecutor.)
West recalls how an early I-couldn't-help-it plea was presented to the courts in the case of Leopold and Loeb, two upper-crust teenagers who, for the hell of it, murdered a 14-year-old boy. They hired Clarence Darrow, who argued famously that the bad influences on them made them do it.
That was in 1924. Eugenics — the application of animal breeding to humans — was also big back then. In 1927, the state of Virginia's program of sterilization reached the Supreme Court. Considering whether the state should be allowed to cut the tubes of Carrie Buck because she was "feebleminded," Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it could, famously declaring, "Three generations of imbeciles is enough."
One of West's tasks is to connect old sins done in the name of Darwinism to current ones. Here he sometimes stretches a point. For example, he connects the practice of lobotomy, done mainly in the 1940s and 1950s, with the overmedication of schoolchildren with Ritalin. Both attempt to control behavior by altering the brain, but they are different. One uses an FDA-approved drug and the other an icepick. In each case Darwinism's connection is less obvious than its connection to eugenics.
West's previous post, at Seattle Pacific University, was in political science, and his skill is in the use of rhetoric. He shows that those who defend science from incursions by the believers can make shameless forays of their own. For example, when scientists say they cannot determine when a fetus becomes a human being, and conclude that government has no reason to restrict abortion, they are making a moral argument. Writes West, "What the scientists ... most definitely did not say was that since science is silent, legislators were [to] feel free to consult philosophy, ethics or religion to come to an answer."
One moderate view is that Darwinism and religion are compatible. But West argues that the two are generally combined in a way that favors Darwin, and that the agendas of the evolutionists are less often examined:
"Although journalists routinely write about the presumed religious motives of anyone critical of evolution, they almost never explore the metaphysical baggage carried by many of evolution's staunchest defenders. Yet ... the teaching of evolution in American schools has been intertwined with theological, social and even political agendas from the very beginning."
West offers a strong argument, some of which may be appreciated by those who are ultimately against him.
Bruce Ramsey is an editorial writer for The Seattle Times.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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