Why Evolution Matters
Picketers showed up to protest at Stanford University when I spoke there a few months ago. The speaker ahead of me was Mike Behe, author of Darwin's Black Box, explaining the scientific evidence against evolution. I followed up with the cultural and philosophical implications of evolution. For days, atheist and “free-thinker” groups protested the event. One group calling itself Rational Thought even carried signs proclaiming that Intelligent Design has no place on the Stanford campus.
But astonishingly, as I spoke, some of the protesters softened their hostility and began to engage with what I was saying. Some atheists stayed afterward, talking for so long that we were kicked out of the room by staff wanting to close down. Arriving back home, I found email messages from people wanting to continue the conversation!
What did I say that day that had such an effect? What argument did I use? Perhaps the most surprising point I made was that evolution undercuts the very possibility of rational thought. Here were the supposed defenders of rationality (with names like Rational Thought) being told that their own position, carried to its logical conclusion, actually undercuts rationality and leads to postmodern relativism.
We can grasp the connection better if we start with the big picture, tallying all the ways evolution is being applied to cultural and social issues. This is one of the fastest-growing disciplines today, under the name of evolutionary psychology (an updated form of sociobiology). Its goal is to explain every aspect of human behavior as a product of natural selection. Some say we're entering an age of “Universal Darwinism,” where it is no longer just a scientific theory but a comprehensive worldview.
For example, several evolutionary psychologists tackle the question of morality. In books like Evolutionary Origins of Morality and The Moral Animal, the authors claim that we learn to be kind and helpful only because that helps us to survive and produce more offspring. The founder of sociobiology, E.O. Wilson, once said: “the basis of ethics does not lie in God's will”; ethics is “an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.”
Religion is dismissed as an illusion as well. Books such as In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, and Religion Explained: the Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought tell us that religion is a malfunction of the brain that occurs when the human nervous system has evolved to a certain level of complexity.
For teachers there's The Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity, which says the human mind is merely a machine that generates a variety of ideas and then selects those that are “fittest.” For classes on politics, there's Darwinian Politics. For economics class: Economics as an Evolutionary Science. For health class: Evolving Health. For courses on sexuality: Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality. For English courses: Evolution and Literary Theory.
Even music is subject to evolutionary explanations: Evolutionary Biomusicology explains that music originated as a form of courtship display. One of the authors appeared in the PBS “Evolution” series, where he informed the audience that the origin of the human brain “wasn't God, it was our ancestors . . . choosing their sexual partners.” As he was talking, you could hear the strains of Handel's “Messiah” playing in the background, while a voice-over explained that even artistic expression began as a form of sexual display.
These ideas trickle down into books for children, too. A few years ago, I picked up a book for my little boy featuring the immensely popular Berenstain Bears. In this book, the Bear family invites us on a nature walk, and after a few pages we find ourselves on a two-page spread, glazed with the light of the rising sun, with text in capital letters: “Nature is all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE!” Anyone who attends a liturgical church recognizes that the authors are mimicking the Gloria Patri (”. . . As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever will be”). When naturalistic evolution is taught even in books for very young children, then you know it has permeated the entire culture.
If we want to know where this pervasive naturalism leads, all we have to do is consult American history. When Darwin's theory first appeared, it was welcomed by a group of thinkers who founded an entire school of philosophy based on it. It was called philosophical pragmatism, and the key figures were John Dewey, William James, Charles Peirce, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. The core of their thought was that if life has evolved, then so has the human brain, which means all the human sciences must be rebuilt on that basis - philosophy, law, education, and theology. You might say they were the first to offer a form of “Universal Darwinism.”
The pragmatists asked: What does Darwinian naturalism mean for the way we understand the human mind? And they answered: It means our minds are nothing more than a part of nature. They rejected the traditional idea that there is something in humans that transcends the material world - a mind or soul, capable of knowing a transcendent truth or moral order. Instead, they said, ideas are nothing but chance variations that arise in the human brain, like Darwin's chance variations in biology. And the ideas that stick around to become firm beliefs and convictions are the ones that help us adapt to the environment - a kind of mental natural selection. Ideas are just tools for survival, no different from the lion's teeth or the eagle's claws.
John Dewey wrote a famous essay called “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” where he said Darwinism gives us a “new logic to apply to mind and morals and life.” In this new evolutionary logic, you don't judge ideas by a transcendent standard of divine Truth, but only by how they work in getting us what we want.
To emphasize how revolutionary this was, up until this time the dominant theory of knowledge was based on the Biblical doctrine of the image of God - that human reason reflects the divine Reason, and this is why knowledge is reliable. The same God who created the universe also created our minds, so that our mental capacities reflect the structure of the universe He made. This was the basis for confidence in human knowledge.
But the pragmatists faced squarely the implications of evolution: If evolution produced the mind, they said, then all our beliefs and convictions are nothing more than mental survival strategies.
An Evolving God
In theology, the pragmatists asked: What kind of God is compatible with evolution? And they said, if you keep any notion of God at all, then it has to be an immanent God - a finite deity evolving in and with the world. God is not the transcendent Creator but the soul of the world, sharing in its historical development. Among the pragmatists this was the view of William James and Charles Pierce.
Where do we hear these ideas today? In Process Theology, which some say is the fastest-growing movement in mainline seminaries today. Process Theology says God is limited - He does not know in advance what's going to happen (that is, He is not omniscient), and He does not have the power to prevent evil from happening (He is not omnipotent). He simply grows and evolves along with the world. Evolutionary science leads to evolutionary theology.
Why Judges Make Law
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., applied pragmatism to legal philosophy, calling it legal pragmatism - and it remains the dominant philosophy of law today. If Darwin is right, Holmes said, then there is no transcendent principle of Justice we can appeal to. Instead, laws are merely the product of evolving historical custom - they are completely relative to particular times and cultures, and are constantly changing.
Once judges grasp this, Holmes said, they will be liberated from the past, free to change the law to reflect whatever social policy they think works best. Law is reduced to a tool for social engineering. As Holmes wrote, “the justification for law is not that it represents an eternal principle [like Justice] but that it helps bring about a social end which we desire.” Of course, in practice this means a social end that the judge desires.
Where have we seen this idea at work in our own day? That law is about enacting social policies? That judges don't just interpret the law but make law? The most significant example is the Roe v. Wade abortion decision. Even supporters agree that the court essentially legislated from the bench. Justice Blackmun wrote that abortion has to be considered in relation to “population growth, pollution, poverty, and racial” issues. The Court made its decision not by what the law said but by the social outcomes it favored.
This is the heritage of legal pragmatism. And it will shape the way the courts deal with a host of new bioethical issues on the horizon, unless we challenge the underlying Darwinian worldview.
Choosing Our Own Values
John Dewey did more to shape educational philosophy than anyone else in the 20th century. He regarded intellectual inquiry as a form of mental evolution, and he thought it should proceed the same way as biological evolution: by confronting problems and working out practical strategies for solving them - a kind of mental adaptation to the environment. Teachers are not considered instructors but only “facilitators,” and students try out various pragmatic strategies to discover what works for them.
Does this sound familiar? Dewey is the direct source of the moral education used in public schools today - where all values are treated as equally valid, and students simply clarify what they personally value most.
But the same method shows up in other classes, too. One of the most popular trends today is called constructivist education. If knowledge is a social construction, as Dewey said, then the goal of education is to teach students how to construct their own knowledge. Here's how one proponent describes the method: “Constructivism does not assume the presence of an outside objective reality that is revealed to the learner, but rather that learners actively construct their own reality.” So before kids are big enough to cross the street by themselves, they're supposed to learn how to “construct their own reality.”
This explains why schools now have classes where children are taught to construct their own spelling systems, their own punctuation rules, their own math procedures, and so on. In New Mexico, I met a young man who had just graduated from high school where his math teacher called him a “bigot” in front of the class for suggesting there really is a right answer in mathematics. In one state, the history standards say that by high school, students “should have a strong sense of how to reconstruct history.” Isn't that an Orwellian phrase?
Keeping Faith With Darwin
If this is starting to sound like postmodernism in the classroom, that's exactly what it is. One of the most influential philosophers in America today is the postmodernist Richard Rorty - and the interesting thing is that he calls himself a neo-pragmatist. His key slogan is: “Truth is made, not found.” By that he means that truth is not “out there,” objective, waiting to be discovered, but merely a human construction.
The source of this postmodernism, Rorty explains, is Darwinism. He writes: “Keeping faith with Darwin” (isn't that an interesting phrase) means understanding that all our beliefs and convictions “are as much products of chance as are tectonic plates and mutated viruses.” The very concept of capital-T Truth, Rorty says, is “un-Darwinian.” Thus postmodernism is simply the end result of a consistent naturalistic view of knowledge.
It was this clear progression from Darwinism to postmodern relativism that shook up the defenders of rationalism who were picketing my lecture at Stanford. When I presented the same ideas at a Christian college, and a man in the audience raised his hand and said, “I have only one question: These guys who think all our ideas and beliefs evolved . . . do they think their own ideas evolved?” The audience broke into delighted applause, because of course he had captured the key fallacy of the Darwinian worldview. If all ideas are products of evolution, and not really true but only useful for survival, then evolution itself is not true either - and why should the rest of us pay any attention to it?
Clash of Worldviews
The media paints the evolution controversy as science versus religion. But it is much more accurate to say it is worldview versus worldview, philosophy versus philosophy. When we make this point, it will level the playing field and open the door to serious dialogue.
Interestingly, a few evolutionists do acknowledge this. Michael Ruse made a famous admission at the 1993 symposium of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Evolution as a scientific theory makes a commitment to naturalism,” he said - that is, it is a philosophy, not just facts. He went on: “Evolution . . . akin to religion, involves making certain a priori or metaphysical assumptions, which at some level cannot be proven empirically.” Ruse's colleagues responded with shocked silence and afterward one of them, Arthur Shapiro, wrote a commentary titled, “Did Michael Ruse Give Away the Store?”
But, ironically, in the process, Shapiro himself conceded that “there is an irreducible core of ideological assumptions underlying science.” He went on: “Darwinism is a philosophical preference, if by that we mean we choose to discuss the material Universe in terms of material processes accessible by material operations.”
The worldview dimension is what makes the debate over Darwin versus creation and Intelligent Design so important. It has become commonplace to say that America is embroiled in a “culture war” over conflicting moral standards. But we must remember that morality is always derivative - it stems from an underlying worldview. The culture war reflects an underlying cognitive war over ideas, resting on competing creation accounts. One of the most important tasks of homeschooling parents is to prepare their children to engage effectively in the battle over worldviews.
NANCY RANDOLPH PEARCEY is the Francis A. Schaeffer scholar at the World Journalism Institute. This article is adapted from the study guide edition of her book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (www.totaltruthbook.com), which is the winner of an Award of Merit in the Christianity Today Book Awards and the ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book of 2005 in the Christianity & Society category.
This article is copyrighted by Nancy Pearcey.