Sometimes the hollowness of contemporary conservatism gets me down. An earlier figure in the conservative tradition, Whittaker Chambers, began his journey up from Communism one morning when he was feeding his little daughter and he noticed her ear. Suddenly he felt the power and beauty in its evident design, and this transformed his whole view of reality.
His political philosophy is summarized in the sentence from Witness
, “Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible.” Perceiving that his daughter’s ear reflected purpose, intelligence, and design made it possible for him to turn from Marx to Moses, and the rest of Scripture, for illumination.
Compare the timeless wisdom of Chambers with two respectable modern-day conservatives who write on bioethics. In Touchstone
, my colleague John West reviews Yuval Levin’s Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy
and Eric Cohen’s In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology
. There’s much to admire in the two books, which “offer profound insights into the dangers of scientific utopianism, the value of deomcratic politics as a moderating influence on science, and the need for science to be guided by moral purposes.” Levin and Cohen warn of future dangers from genetic engineering, a “new eugenics,” and the like.
That’s terrific, but West perceptively notes that both books fail to comprehend the degree to which nightmarish trends in contemporary bioethical thinking are tied up with Darwinian ideology. On the contrary, Levin and Cohen are careful to make sure the reader understands they would not be so benighted as to reject Darwinian evolution.
Levin, in particular, chides conservatives who “accept the proposition that the claims of evolution are in direct competition with the claims of Biblical religion or traditional morality, when in fact each offers answers to a different set of questions altogether.” Levin’s announcement of the compatibility of Darwinism with “Biblical religion” would be news to Charles Darwin, whose private musings show how his biological theory eroded his own religious faith and whose book The Descent of Man outlined the radical implications of his theory for morality, sex, religion, and society.
The Bible, huh? The most profound interpreters of the Hebrew Bible — from Maimonides to Samson Raphael Hirsch — have always understood that “Biblical religion” sets itself against a masterless, materialist picture of nature. Classically, that picture is crystalized in Epicurean philosophy, a vein of thinking that led to Darwinism. Nature, wrote Hirsch, is “not the result of some force working blindly, but the work of One thinking Being” who creates “with intention and purpose.” The horror in which Biblical tradition holds Epicureanism is reflected in a rabbinic term designating a particular kind of heretic: apikorus, literally an Epicurean. The Mishnah urges us to “Know how to answer an Epicurean.”
The earnest authors want to draw not only on the Bible but on Aristotle and on political philosophy generally, not realizing that if Darwinism is true, the authority of all these sources is radically undercut:
Appeals to “unchanging human nature,” the “soul,” or traditional morality are tantamount to fairy tales in the Darwinian worldview. According to Darwinism, there is nothing unchanging about human nature; it continues to evolve, along with the conditions for survival. Likewise, a nonmaterial soul is sheer fantasy because (to cite the late Stephen Jay Gould) “matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.” Even morality is simply an unintended byproduct of the material struggle for survival. As leading Darwinists E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse argue,
Morality…is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends….In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.
To be fair, however, West gives Cohen credit:
Cohen is more willing than Levin to acknowledge that many of the unsavory implications of Darwinism stem from the theory’s core and even from Darwin himself. Cohen also points out that Darwinian biology offers no explanation for the origin of matter or “the source of nature’s fixed laws.” Yet in the end, he embraces the blind Darwinian mechanism of selection and mutation as the “likely” explanation for the emergence of man on the earth.