The following is adapted from the preface and introduction to Darwin Day in America.
At the dawn of the last century, leading scientists and politicians giddily predicted that modern science—especially Darwinian biology—would supply solutions to all the intractable problems of American society, from crime to poverty to sexual maladjustment.
Instead, politics and culture were dehumanized as a new generation of “scientific” experts began treating human beings as little more than animals or machines:
In criminal justice, these experts denied the existence of free will and proposed replacing punishment with invasive “cures” such as the lobotomy.
In welfare, they proposed eliminating the poor by sterilizing those deemed biologically unfit.
In business, they urged the selection of workers based on racist theories of human evolution and the development of advertising methods to more effectively manipulate consumer behavior.
In sex education, they advocated creating a new sexual morality based on “normal mammalian behavior,” without regard to longstanding ethical or religious imperatives.
This book explores the far-reaching consequences for society when scientists
and politicians deny the fundamental differences between human beings and the rest of the natural world. It also exposes the disastrous results that ensue when experts claiming to speak for science turn out to be wrong. Finally, the book presents a plea for democratic accountability in an age of experts.
This book is not anti-science, although some dogmatic champions of current scientific theories may try to claim otherwise. Modern science has brought tremendous benefits to human life, ranging from wonder-working medicines to the personal computer on which I am writing this preface. But science is not God. It has not perfected human nature nor has it curbed the human abuse of power. Like every human enterprise, science is partial, corruptible, and prone to error, and it needs to be subject to the checks and balances of a free society and the moral law.
My interest in exploring the impact of modern science on public policy and culture was sparked long ago by my reading of C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man. In the late 1990s, I embarked on a long-term research project to document in America the impacts of reductionist science on public policy and culture so perceptively identified by Lewis. This book is the result.
It has been a long journey. Along the way, I discovered that many of the things I thought I knew about the history of science and public policy were wrong, or at least misleading.
When I started, for example, I assumed that Darwin’s theory of evolution and “Social Darwinism” were substantially distinct, and that “Social Darwinism” was a twisting of Darwin’s theory in a way that Darwin would not have approved. Then I read Charles Darwin’s Descent of Man and realized that my simplistic dichotomy between Darwin and “Social Darwinism” could not be maintained. The results of my investigation into Darwin’s own application of his theory to human beings and society can be found in chapter 2.
Similarly, I started out believing that Darwinism was championed by ruthless businessmen during the Gilded Age to justify the worst excesses of nineteenth-century capitalism. The nineteenth-century capitalist Darwinist served as a nice counterpoint to the socialists and progressives who also championed Darwin. However, there was a major problem with this widely held view. If you want to know what it is, please read chapter 6.
In the area of crime and punishment, I began with the background assumption that the use of science to diminish criminal responsibility was primarily used to justify the “liberal” view that criminals should not be punished for their crimes, because crime is tantamount to a disease. Little did I realize that the same scientific debunking of personal responsibility that justified liberals’ leniency toward criminals also laid the groundwork for a more radical “conservative” approach to crime that sought to ensure that criminals would never re-offend. I explain the paradoxical impact of reductionist science on the criminal justice system in chapter 5.
I approach this book as a political scientist and a scholar, but I am also a participant in current debates over Darwinian evolution and intelligent design. As a result, chapters 10 and 11 draw on firsthand knowledge as well as academic research in exploring the controversies over the teaching of evolution in schools.
The book begins in section one (“Origins of Scientific Materialism”) by describing how materialism came to be enshrined at the heart of contemporary culture. Tracing the development of materialism as an idea from ancient Greece to the rise of Darwin’s theory in the nineteenth century, chapters 1 and 2 argue that the work of Charles Darwin ultimately supplied the empirical basis for a robust materialism finally to take hold.
Darwin’s theory made materialism credible for many intellectuals by explaining how man and his moral beliefs could have developed through an unplanned material process of natural selection. In the words of nineteenth-century German physiologist Emil Du Bois–Reymond, “the evolution theory in connection with the doctrine of natural selection forces upon [man] . . . the idea that the soul has arisen as the gradual result of certain material combinations.”
The following sections of the book explore how scientific materialism has had a transformative impact on specific areas of public policy and culture, including criminal justice (chapters 3–5); economics, business, and welfare (chapters 6–9); education (chapters 10–13); and medicine (chapters 14–15).
While Darwin’s theory is featured prominently in several chapters (and the book’s title), the scope of this study is broader than just Darwin. The overall aim is to examine the impact of materialistic reductionism on public policy and culture, and Darwinism is only one part of that larger story.
This book is intended to offer a sober warning about what can happen when policymakers—and the general public—uncritically accept a materialistic understanding of human nature advanced in the name of science.
In many ways, the book might be considered an effort to trace in the history of American public policy the consequences of scientific materialism so presciently delineated by C. S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man. Lewis was prophetic to warn that “if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite . . . in the person of his dehumanized Conditioners.”