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Also Sprach Darwin–Evolutionary Materialism and the Consequences of Ideas

August 22, 2013

“Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult–at least I have found it so–than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind.”–Charles Darwin

It is a commonplace to say that America’s cultural problems have descended from evolution. The story is that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection did away with all notions of God, the soul, and the transcendent moral order.Once man was shown to be just an animal, all body and no soul, the descent into decadence was inevitable. The speech or essay will usually conclude with a call to abandon evolutionary naturalism in favor of something else, whether young-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, or the vague presence of an overseeing deity.

This narrative would have made a lot of sense in the early 20th century. The progressive era saw the rise of evolutionary ethics and “Social Darwinism,” which in turn led to racism and eugenics. Two interesting-looking books on the subject are Richard Weikart’s From Darwin to Hitler and Hitler’s Ethic, both of which chart the development and consequences of Social Darwinism in Europe at the time. (Disclaimer–I haven’t read either of the books.) William Jennings Bryan, far from being a reactionary, science-hating ignoramus, was primarily opposed to evolution on humanitarian grounds–he feared what an ethic of “survival of the fittest” would do to the weak, the poor, and the sick. If ever there was a time to say “our culture’s moral problems have come from believing too strongly in evolution,” the period from around 1880-1950 would have been that time.

In the post-whatever world, however, this criticism no longer makes as much sense as it does. Darwinism is a more powerful force than ever. It is the accepted dogma in the worlds of education, science and journalism, and those who reject it are branded as stupid or ignorant. Yet even though it is so widely held, there are people who continue to believe Darwinism in their heart, but hold moral positions that are incompatible with it. They claim to be materialists, but they behave like supernaturalists.

One example of this would be the hardcore vegan/vegetarian crowd. These people abjure meat not because the idea of eating animals is personally disgusting to them; rather, they think that eating meat is morally wrong. This position would be defensible within a religious moral framework, such as Buddhism, Jainism, or Gaia-worship. But Darwinism turns this all on its head. If we have evolved to be omnivores, why should being an omnivore be a sin. It would be absurd to believe that a lion is morally culpable for eating a gazelle–why should I be morally culpable for eating a Big Mac? The vegan could insist that eating meat violated a personal moral standard–i.e., “I feel guilty when I do it,” or “I don’t want to do something to another creature that I wouldn’t want done to myself.” But he could not appeal to a universal moral order, for clearly such a moral order does not spring from physics or biology. And if he tried to argue that reason or a capacity for love make humans ontologically different than animals, then he would be moving away from Darwinism and into something more like traditional theism.

Mother Nature says “Don’t eat your vegetables.”

Another example would be the gender-confused, the people who claim to be a woman trapped in a man’s body, or vice-versa. If you believe in a soul, this might make sense. If you believe in no soul at all, this is silly. Darwinism says that you may “feel” like a woman trapped in a man’s body, but Nature has made you what you are, and there is no changing it. Under Darwinism, a gender-confused person would not have any ontological imperative to try to “change their sex.” They would simply be considered mentally-ill. If there is no “soul” to be essentially female or male, then any gender identity comes from the body, and any denial of this amounts to a denial of reality.

Darwinism’s reach extends beyond disrupting the fantasies of the gender-confused to toppling the entire project of radical feminism. The feminist slogan “Biology is not destiny,” makes no sense within materialism. Evolution’s biggest contribution to philosophy is the idea that biology is destiny. You are not able to change your genetic code. This leaves room for people to debate which aspects of sex roles are culturally constructed and which are essential. But the idea that there are no real differences between men and women is crushed under the weight of natural selection. You cannot run away from your chromosomes.

This picture actually reinforces gender roles. Do you think any woman would paint a kitchen in that stunningly hideous color scheme?

In a way, all of these philosophies–veganism, gender-fluidity, radical feminism–rely on a mental picture of the world that is incompatible with materialism. Veganism assumes that there is a transcendent moral code (a categorical imperative, if you will) that we are all required to follow, and that extends beyond what our instincts tell us to do. Gender-fluidity and radical feminism tacitly assume the idea that there is a “soul” or “mind” that exists distinct from the body, that we cannot be reduced to “moist robots,” or “dirty bags of water.” And all of these ideas would be defensible within a supernaturalistic worldview, whether Buddhism, Jainism, Gaia-worship, Christianity, or some other theistic or pantheistic worldview. But if you hold to Darwinism, then don’t think that you can avoid its implications.

Important Note: I use the terms “Darwinism,” “evolutionary naturalism,” and “materialism” interchangeably, but what I mean by them is this: the philosophy that purposeless evolution by natural selection is the most fundamental fact of life, and that we are nothing more or less than a collection of atoms that over time became organized to this specific shape. No God, no “life-force,” no end goal, nothing but the laws of biology and physics. Think Richard Dawkins and you will get an idea of what I am going for. I am not in any way attempting a scientific critique of biological evolution here.]

Current Listening: Agape EP by Bear’s Den

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