Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Death of Adam

Lee at Thinking Reed has an interesting post regarding presidential-candidate Sam Brownback's op-ed piece in the NY Times where he clarifies his position on evolution. As Lee points out, Brownback's opposition to Darwinism has more to do with safe-guarding the dignity of human beings than with defending the literal truth of the Bible, which mirrors my own concerns regarding Darwinist philosophy. Too often the evolution debate is portrayed as God vs. Darwin, when really the issue is Adam vs. Darwin (Adam being humanity as created in the imago Dei, possessing intrinsic worth and occupying a unique place in the cosmos). This point was driven home to me as I read Marilynne Robinson's* essay "Darwinism", which appears in her collection The Death of Adam: Essays in Modern Thought. As the title implies, Robinson is not happy with the state of modern thought, which she perceives as impoverished and dark, lacking any sense of the grandeur of humanity that fostered civilization through the ages. Indeed, "Darwinism" ends with this heartbreaking eulogy to the old Adam:
"There is no place left for the soul, or even the self... Our hypertrophic brain, that prodigal indulgence, that house of many mansions, with its stores, and competences, and all its deep terrors and very rich pleasures, which was so long believed to be the essence of our lives, and a claim on one another's sympathy and courtesy and attention, is going the way of every part of collective life that was addressed to it - religion, art, dignity, graciousness. Philosophy, ethics, politics, properly so called. It is a thing that bears reflecting upon, how much was destroyed, when modern thought declared the death of Adam."
Robinson makes it very clear that her target is not evolution as a scientific theory. Neither she nor I are anti-science, and neither of us has anything at stake in a literal reading of Genesis. As Robinson points out, "[Darwin's] theory, as science, is irrelevant to the question of the truth of religion. It is only as an inversion of Christian ethicalism that it truly engages religion. And in those terms it is appropriately the subject of challenge from any humane perspective, religious or otherwise." It is in the realm of ethics where Darwinism makes its most serious assault upon humanity, as its vision of nature is one where the weak are discarded and the only ethical imperative is to preserve our "selfish genes." Robinson sees it as no coincidence that Darwin's theory arouse at a time when the European aristocracy was tiring of "the irksome burden of extending charity to [the poor] - a burden laid on the back of Europe by Christianity." Robinson provides a great deal of evidence that a form of Social Darwinism was already widespread in 19th-century Europe even before Darwin's advent. Malthus, after all, had paved the way by demonstrating "the harmful consequences of intervening between the poor and their death by starvation." Thus, "Darwin's work was rightly seized by antireligionists who had other fish to fry than the mere demystification of cosmology. I am speaking, as I know it is rude to do, of the Social Darwinists, the eugenicists, the Imperialists, the Scientific Socialists... and, yes, of the Nazis."

Of course, reputable Darwinists have long since disavowed the ugly ways in which Darwin's theory has been employed in the past, but Robinson wonders if they're being intellectually consistent. Daniel Dennett, for example, has argued that a distinction must be drawn between Darwinism as applied to nature and its implications for politics, economics, social programs, etc. But "if, as Darwin argues, the human and nonhuman worlds are continuous and of a kind, then Dennett implies a distinction that is in fact meaningless." That is, if culling is beneficial for animals in the wild, or for a herd of cattle, then it must be beneficial for the human race. There is no way to escape this implication without invoking a radical discontinuity been humans and other species, which is the one thing that Darwinists will never do. Moreover, Darwinists at all times have never been shy about extending their theory to humans (Darwin himself did it frequently), and "Darwinism is still offered routinely as a source of objective scientific insight on questions like the nature of human motivation and the possibility of altruism." It is only when Darwinism is taken to its logical conclusion (that is, eugenics) that its adherents claim that it's not meant to be applied to humans.

Robinson is aware that many proponents of Darwinism have tried to soften its hard edges by showing how altruism and social behavior could have arisen by natural selection. But she is very skeptical of this band-aid, since selfishness and survival remain the supreme virtues. Here, Robinson quotes an article by Robert Wright published in Time magazine: "Wright says, 'Such impulses as compassion, empathy, generosity, gratitude and remorse are genetically based. Strange as it may sound, these impulses, with their checks on raw selfishness, helped our ancestors survive and pass their genes to future generations.'" To which Robinson mockingly replies:
"To whom on earth would this sound strange except to other Darwinists? Most humans beings live collaboratively and have done so for millennia. But Darwinists insist that 'selfishness' is uniquely the trait rewarded by genetic survival. So while Wright does concede a biological basis to the traits we call humane and civilized, he puts them in a different category from the more primary traits (in his view) of selfishness and competition... This kind of thinking makes all experience that contradicts its assumptions into the product of illusion and self-deception. A splendid way to win every argument. The idea of illusion is very important to Darwinian thinking... It is often used to reinterpret behavior to make it consistent with the assumptions of the observer."
As long as selfishness is considered the most fundamental trait of life, all of our human virtues will only be interpreted as masked aggression. Such a position is an "expression of the belief - for which no proof is imaginable - that human goodness is not natural, and therefore is neither beneficial, nor, if the truth were known, even truly good." Robinson wonders how we got to this point, where our scientists "to this day watch for murder in baboon colonies" and hope to find it!
"For the old Adam, that near-angel whose name means Earth, Darwinists have substituted a creature who shares essential attributes with whatever beast has been recently observed behaving shabbily in the state of nature. Genesis tries to describe human exceptionalism, and Darwinism tries to discount it. Since Malthus, to go back no further, the impulse has been vigorously present to desacralize humankind by making it appropriately the prey of unmitigated struggle. This desacralization - fully as absolute with respect to predator as to prey - has required the disengagement of conscience, among other things. It has required the grand-scale disparagement of the traits that distinguish us from the animals - and the Darwinists take the darkest possible view of the animals."
Even Adam in his fallen state is infinitely grander that the vision of our species offered up by Darwin, Dennett, Dawkins, and Gould. The Darwinian human represents the death of Adam, and this is what Robinson makes so clear. Unfortunately, this post cannot do justice to the scope and power of her essay, and I encourage anyone interested to read it themselves. There are few works with which I agree on such a visceral level.

* Most of you are probably familiar with Robinson from her award-winning novels, Gilead and Housekeeping.


Alex said...

Thanks for the post. I'm kind of struggling with these issues myself as of late and have recently finished Mark Noll's book which shed's some light on, at least, the history of evangelicalism and evolution. Have you read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead? It's a great read. Concise, yet you feel like you know the characters. I want to read it again.

CPA said...

Thanks for bringing this to my attention. I think what is at issue is the adequacy of the is/ought distinction. We all recognize that at one level just because something is, it isn't right. But on the other hand, an ethic that has nothing to do with what we are, our species nature, seems also very problematic. And this is the problem of Darwinism -- it gives us a species nature that is radically contrary to virtually every ethic.

Eric Lemonholm said...

Thanks for the post.
A weakness of a narrow minded Darwinism seems to be its definition of success: from the standpoint of natural selection, Soren Kierkegaard was a failure, because (as far as I know) he did not pass on his genes to the next generation. But, as humans, we can step back from the game of natural selection and say, "I don't want to play." Instead, we can embrace other values. There are many people who have not had children, but who pass faith, hope, love, and justice to the next generation. Thinking of any important person in human history, secular or religious, whether or not they passed on their genes is not the most important fact of their lives. If one were to embrace pure Darwinism, then the most 'successful' people would be sperm or egg donors.