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Reading Wesley Smith: Why the Darwin Debate Matters

posted by David Klinghoffer

If the intelligent-design side in the evolution debate doesn’t receive the support you might expect from people who should be allies, that may be because they haven’t grasped why the whole thing matters so urgently. I got an email recently from a journalist whom I’d queried on the subject. “All told, I’m on the ID side of the debate,” he wrote, “but it isn’t a pressing interest for me.”

Anyone who similarly doesn’t quite “get it” should read my friend and colleague Wesley J. Smith’s new and important book on the animal-rights movement, A Rat Is a Pig Is a Dog Is a Boy. If you follow conservative journalism, you’ve likely heard about the book from the contentious deliberation it has received in National Review and on NR‘s website. This started with a review by speechwriter Matthew Scully, similarly a friend and a gifted polemicist. Scully is the vegetarian and champion of animals who, for the 2008 Republican convention, wrote the best speech ever given by that great white hunter, Governor Palin.
As a reviewer for Wesley Smith’s book, Matthew Scully was a surprising choice. Scully’s own book, Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy, received a wounding review in The Weekly Standard some years back from none other than Wesley Smith and it comes in for criticism again in Smith’s book. I can’t understand NR‘s decision to match these two valued friends of the magazine against each other. Matthew wrote, I am sorry to say, a distorting and unfair review of Wesley’s book, to which NR then let Wesley reply, generating additional discussion on the website but less illumination than the subject deserves.
 
So let’s highlight Smith’s contribution to public understanding of why the Darwin debate matters. His recounting of terrorist and other heinous acts by animal-rights extremists (even grave-robbing!), his exploration of the wicked views of “personhood” theorist Peter Singer, author of A Darwinian Left and the manifesto Animal Liberation — these tell us about the leading edge of what you might call the animalist view, equating humans with animals.


Professor Singer, bioethicist at Princeton University, assesses the worth of an individual living creature by cognitive measures — rationality and self-consciousness. Merely being human confers no special right to life on a creature. In Singer’s hands this idea become a license for murder:

A chimpanzee, dog, or pig…will have a higher degree of self-awareness and a greater capacity for meaningful relations with others than a severely retarded infant or someone in a state of senility. So, if we base the right to life on these characteristics, we must grant these animals a right to life as good as, or better than, such retarded or senile human beings.

By Singer’s calculation, a healthy adult pig has a stronger claim on our protection than a newborn human infant or a human adult suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Killing a human “non-person” would be no weightier an act than snuffing out a mackerel. Practically speaking, if killing a hemophiliac infant could be shown to benefit a healthy infant, measuring the comparative prospect of each for a “happy” future, then Singer would approve murdering the baby with hemophilia. He would have us employ human non-persons in medical experiments before we use healthy animals.
Obviously, these are monstrous views, sustainable by an otherwise decent person only in the kind of privileged academic setting where scholars live and think in isolation from reality. Unfortunately, it’s precisely the philosophical foundations of decency that are undermined by the Darwinian perspective. If taken deeply to heart, Darwinism erases the distinction, the right of protection, that a human being earns simply by being human. After all, there’s nothing special about belonging to our species over any other. All the species are part of a continuum of life bubbling up from history without guidance, purpose or meaning.
The respect in which such ideas are held in prestige society can’t help but have a morally corrosive effect that trickles down and outward to the rest of the culture. When they are honest with themselves, Darwinists admit this. In his book, Smith quotes Richard Dawkins, who entertains a fond daydream in which scientists find a living human/chimp hybrid, able to breed with both species and thus finally proving that human beings are just another kind of animal:

We need only discover a single survivor, say a relict Australopithecus in the Budongo Forest, and our precious system of norms and ethics could come crashing about our ears. The boundaries with which we segregate our world would be shot to pieces.

Smith is at his very best as he spells out the ethical implications of blurring the human-animal distinction. Not all living things can be valued as equally precious and deserving of life. There has to be some kind of a scale on which creatures and their claims to protection are measured. If being human confers no merit, what does?
Say we discard the Biblical idea that the human countenance bears a divine stamp, the image of God. Then the standards advanced by Peter Singer seem entirely plausible. Moral value, writes Smith, would accordingly be based on the “capacities of each individual.” Such a “standard would obliterate universal human rights.” Smith cites Mortimer J. Adler, who explained what could all too easily follow from a society’s decision to cast off human exceptionalism:
Why, then, should not groups of superior men be able to justify their enslavement, exploitation, or even genocide of inferior human groups, on factual and moral grounds akin to those that we now rely on to justify our treatment of the animals we harness as beasts of burden, that we butcher for food and clothing, or that we destroy as disease-bearing pests or as dangerous predators?

If humans are not exceptional by virtue of being human — perhaps the ultimate take-home message of Darwinism — then the door is open not only to indecency but far worse.
Cross-posted at Evolution News & Views.



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Chris Neville

posted March 15, 2010 at 6:36 pm


The ultimate end of Darwin’s theories came to conclusion in the Nazi Concentration Camps. Hitler and his followers took the “survival of the fittest” thinking to it’s ultimate evil.



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bob johnson

posted March 15, 2010 at 9:59 pm


So the reason you and your friends at the Discovery institute are trying to overthrow evolution is religious based.



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David Klinghoffer

posted March 15, 2010 at 10:11 pm


bob johnson, I don’t know how you drew that conclusion from what I wrote. The reasons the issue *matters* to many people — why they care more than they might about a morally irrelevant scientific controversy — include moral and spiritual reasons. Why Darwinism fails to satisfy as science has nothing to do with morality or religion. It fails to explain the evidence of nature. I hope this helps.



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tm61

posted March 15, 2010 at 10:53 pm


..but rejecting science for moral or spiritual reasons makes as much sense as saying “it offends me that water boils at 100C, so I refuse to believe it”.



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David Klinghoffer

posted March 15, 2010 at 11:05 pm


tm61, why do Darwinists have such a hard time understanding these points? It really puzzles me. Darwin doubters doubt Darwin, not science. They dispute Darwinism’s scientific merits. They may *care* about the issue for moral reasons, but that doesn’t mean they reject Darwin for those reasons. There are arcane scientific controversies on which a reasonable layman might choose not to educate himself simply because they don’t seem relevant to him and life is short.



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Steve

posted March 15, 2010 at 11:57 pm


David, I believe that evolution has occurred, and I’m a good person. Everyone I know well who believes that evolution has occurred is a good person. The percentage of people in the Scandinavian countries, Holland and Iceland who believe that evolution has occurred is higher than the percentage in most, if not all, other countries. And those are relatively good countries. For instance, they are strong democracies with relatively low violent crime rates, relative low poverty rates, relatively low infant mortality rates and relatively high life expectancy rates. Also, as you can see from the most recent ranking of countries according to the United Nations Human Development Index, the countries with the largest percentage of people who believe that evolution has occurred tend to be the countries that rank highest according to the index. Here is a link:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_Human_Development_Index
Thus, there is good reason to believe that, at least for the vast majority of humans, and probably for every single human, believing that evolution has occurred doesn’t make it more difficult to be a good person than does NOT believing that evolution has occurred. Everyone in my family believes that evolution has occurred, and they are all good people.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that, for some people, if they believe that evolution has occurred, it makes it (or would make it) harder for them to be good people than if they don’t believe that evolution occurred. In fact, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that, in general, humans tend to be less good people if they believe that evolution has occurred. That would, of course, be completely irrelevant to whether I know or am warranted in inferring that evolution has occurred. Analogously, suppose that the widespread belief that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and is expanding has contributed to more harm than good. I’m quite sure that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old and is expanding. Moreover, suppose that the widespread belief that planet earth is about 4.6 billion years old has contributed to more harm than good. I’m quite sure that planet earth is about 4.6 billion years old.
David wrote: “Why Darwinism fails to satisfy as science has nothing to do with morality or religion. It fails to explain the evidence of nature.”
David, what do you mean by “Darwinism?” Many people know that some of my ancestors are fish. Here is a quote by the great scientist Ernst Mayr:
“Astronomical and geophysical evidence indicate that the Earth originated about 4.6 billion years ago. At first the young Earth was not suitable for life, owing to the heat and exposure to radiation. Astronomers estimate that it became liveable about 3.8 billion years ago, and life apparently originated about that time, but we do not know what the first life looked like. Undoubtedly, it consisted of aggregates of macromolecules able to derive substance and energy from surrounding inanimate molecules and from the sun’s energy. Life may well have originated repeatedly at this early stage, but we know nothing about this. If there have been several origins of life, the other forms have since become extinct. Life as it now exists on Earth, including the simplest bacteria, was obviously derived from a single origin. This is indicated by the genetic code, which is the same for all organisms, including the simplest ones, as well as by many aspects of cells, including microbial cells. The earliest fossil life was found in strata about 3.5 billion years old. These earliest fossils are bacterialike, indeed they are remarkably similar to some blue-green bacteria and other bacteria that are still living” (p. 40).
Also, what do you mean by “intelligent design?” For instance, what are some of the events on earth that you think that one or more intelligent designers proximately caused?
Finally, here is a link to some of the kinds of data that has helped many people know that some of my ancestors are fish:
http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/comdesc/



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Philip Koplin

posted March 16, 2010 at 2:01 am


“Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
So Darwin didn’t invent the notion of the survival of those whom Nature (or God) deemed fittest. He also didn’t command the elimination of entire peoples who stood in the way of his designs, as did the God of the Hebrew Bible from which David claims to draw his values. He merely described how he believed nature worked, building on the work of many others.
David, the secularization of the Western view of nature began long before Darwin, and your argument is properly with the intellectual history of the West, not with the ideas of this one individual and what other individuals believed they could derive from them.
It’s clear from even a cursory reading of your repeated assaults on the purported consequences of “darwinism” that your distaste isn’t driven by disagreement over this or that fact of nature or its mechanism of action, however much you might try to draw that cloak over your statements, but by moral concerns. Why else the attempts to link Darwin to Mengele, Mao, and Mme Blavatsky, for example? That’s why I again raise the question of the foundation on which you believe your moral values rest. If your disagreement is with the moral implications of what you see as a pernicious doctrine, you ought to clear up the confusion and inchoherence in the LA Times piece I’ve cited and justify the foundations of the purported moral objectivity from which you issue your judgments on the inadequacy of other views



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Mark2

posted March 16, 2010 at 2:21 am


“Professor Singer, bioethicist at Princeton University, assesses the worth of an individual living creature by cognitive measures”
I wonder how the Nazis would think of Singer’s theories. On the one hand, I can see them agreeing. On the other, they’d have to realize that the Jewish people tend to score relatively highly on IQ tests.



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tm61

posted March 16, 2010 at 8:19 am


“why do Darwinists have such a hard time understanding these points?”
It’s because “Darwin doubters” are almost always motivated by non-scientific reasons, then trot out psuedo-scientific objections such as “irreducible complexity” in an attempt to hide their real motivations. Your repeated use of the terms “Darwinism” and “Darwin-doubters” shows your true motivation – hatred of guy who’s been dead for 150 years!
“There are arcane scientific controversies on which a reasonable layman might choose not to educate himself…”
How can they dispute “Darwinism’s [there it is again!] scientific merits” if they don’t understand them fully?



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Ray Ingles

posted March 16, 2010 at 11:30 am


tm61, why do Darwinists have such a hard time understanding these points?

There are people who wonder why “Darwinists” somehow don’t understand that ‘evolution violates the second law of thermodynamics’! They find it extremely puzzling that they can’t convey to others what’s so obvious to them.
Of course, these same people dismiss claims that they don’t actually understand evolution or thermodynamics…
It’s entirely possible to believe that humans are continuous in strong ways with other species on Earth, while also believing that the differences in degree also form a difference in kind. I don’t have the book in front of me, but the philosopher Daniel Dennett discusses how ‘some animals roam the foothills of mountains we have summited’.
Physics has the notion of a ‘phase change’, where the behavior of a system changes drastically with only a small change in some variable. Take ice, heat it for a while, nothing happens… and then, suddenly, you’ve got water. Made of the same stuff, but behaves entirely differently. Heat it up still further, and suddenly you’ve got steam. Still made of the same stuff, but behaves drastically differently from water or ice.
One can believe in evolution, believe humans are made of the same stuff as other animals and share a strong continuity with them… and still believe humans are quite special, with fundamentally different capacities and properties. You assert a logical contradiction where none exists.



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Dan

posted March 16, 2010 at 1:37 pm


Better get to work finding that image of god.
Will it be one of killing or slavery – those seem to be god’s favs?
I guess a long, long time ago the ancient Jews committed their own holocaust – then again, it is mythology…



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Lauren

posted March 16, 2010 at 6:58 pm


“Why Darwinism fails to satisfy as science has nothing to do with morality or religion. It fails to explain the evidence of nature. I hope this helps.”
Have you taken an introductory course in evolution? Read books on the subject from reputable scientists? If the answer to these questions are ‘no’ then how the heck do you, as a sane individual, think you are at all qualified to say ” it fails to explain the evidence of nature” or fails as a science?
As for your opposition having “nothing to do with morality or religion”?…Really? IMO, the theory of evolution threatens your feeling of superiority (we have dominion over the ‘animals’) and the existence of God as detailed in the Bible which is leading you to defame the character of a dead 19th century scientist. *Shrugs* As I said, my opinion…
And, as others have wrote, I have accepted the theory of human evolution and also consider myself a good person. Knowledge of the mechanism of common descent isn’t evil; only the use of the knowledge can be….evolution is no more responsible for the Holocaust then gravity is for strangling an innocent man at the noose.
When I took biology courses and evolution in college, I found the education I learned humbling and fascinating. I learned that I had a “family” connection to every living thing and that made me only respect life more not less.
Once again—though I think you think it would be a waste of time— consider taking a course in evolution and maybe detail your thoughts on it in your blog…would be pretty cool to hear someone from an ID perspective’s take on it.



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thurgood

posted April 22, 2010 at 2:19 pm


Dr. Pete Singer donates 25% of his salary to Oxfam and other welfare organizations and has been a vegetarian for many years. That places him on a moral plane several levels above that occupied by fellows of the Discovery Institute and columnists of the National Review. And BTW evolutionary theory is central to the study of biology and has been so for almost a century. Wes and you, David, will have to go back to the 17th century to air your ill-informed objections to evolutionary theory. Read a little and acquaint yourself with the science.



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Mark2

posted April 23, 2010 at 8:21 am


“And BTW evolutionary theory is central to the study of biology and has been so for almost a century.”
Central, and yet, for the most part, superfluous.
So says:
A.S. Wilkins, editor of the journal BioEssays, who wrote in 2000 “Evolution would appear to be the indispensable unifying idea and, at the same time, a highly superfluous one.”



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H. Johnson

posted May 6, 2010 at 1:34 am


Mark2 – I’m curious where you learned that “the Jewish people tend to score relatively highly on IQ tests.” Was this a scientific study? Wasn’t the I.Q. test popular in America well after the Nazis? Are Americans really just neo-Nazi’s, who perpetuate “social Darwinism” with their “merit based” ascension?



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Hrafn

posted August 14, 2010 at 6:04 am


If the intelligent-design side in the evolution debate doesn’t receive the support you might expect from people who should be allies, that may be because they haven’t grasped why the whole thing matters so urgently.

Or maybe its because your “should be allies” know your “side” for a bunch of discredited liars and hypocrites? I am referring to this pack of lies you wrote on the Discovery Institute Whine and Cheese blog (‘Evolution News and Views’ — should perhaps be more accurately renamed ‘Anti-evolution Trivia & Bigotry’).
I will note that, for all your side’s pitiful whining, self-martyrdom and spurious claims of censorship, you do not regard ‘free speech’, ‘open debate’ and ‘academic freedom’ sufficiently to allow comments on that blog, so I will take the liberty of indicting you here.

Actually, nothing in that definition, or in the scientific evidence, indicates the intelligent cause must be supernatural in the sense we normally give to that word.

She actually had the temerity to assume that something that is outside the natural universe, and which prominent IDers claim created this universe, and its laws, is “supernatural”. How strange! But then as Judge Jones pointed out, “Although proponents of the IDM occasionally suggest that the designer
could be a space alien or a time-traveling cell biologist, no serious alternative to God as the designer has been proposed by members of the IDM, including Defendants’ expert witnesses.”

I wrote here earlier that Ms. Lebo, a journalist with a specialty in these issues, is presumably aware of the “enormous differences” between creationism on one hand and intelligent design (or even mere Darwin doubting) on the other.

Except that history (such as Numbers’ The Creationists) tells us that creationism has its basis in religiously motivated anti-evolutionism. In fact it was self-described as the ‘Anti-Evolution’ movement for decades before the term ‘creationism’. So yes, a scientifically-unqualified theist who calls his blog ‘Kingdom of Priests’ and writes about “Darwin doubting” qualifies as a “creationist”. If you don’t like the term, then you’re welcome to lose it by losing the religiously-motivated evolution-bashing.

No, not unless you are in the habit of buying lame arguments based on tenuous verbal comparisons. Words have meanings. “Creationism” is a useful word to designate the claim of scientific evidence for a literal reading of Genesis, from the creation story to Noah’s flood. ID not only does not provide proof for a literalist Biblical theology. It goes head-on against such a theology on major points.

Yes, David, words do have meanings, and “Creationism” includes “Old Earth Creationism” and “Progressive Creationism”, which do not “designate the claim of scientific evidence for a literal reading of Genesis, from the creation story to Noah’s flood.” I can see how a dishonest attempt to redefine the term might be “useful” to you and your fellow anti-science propagandists at the Discovery Institute.
You are also conveniently forgetting your side’s history. The term ‘Intelligent Design’ got its first prominent modern exposition when Of Pandas and People (a book that at least a couple of your DI fellows helped produce) decided to do a wholesale replace of “creationists” etc with “design proponents” etc, leaving the rather embarrassing ‘transitional fossil’ “cdesign proponentsists” in one place.

But so what? If many people care about the Darwin debate more than about other disputes in science because it has implications for religion, that doesn’t make intelligent design an expression of “religion” or “Christianity,” much less of “creationism,” any more than the fact that Darwinism stirs enthusiasm among many atheists makes Darwinism a species of “atheism.” It isn’t that, is it, Ms. Lebo?

Except that there is no significant ‘dispute in science’ over evolution. The vast majority of your “side”, like yourself, are not scientists. And of the small minority who are, the vast majority work in areas unrelated to evolutionary biology. What they do have in common, is conservative theism, mostly Fundamentalist Christianity, but a small fringe of conservative Catholicism and Judaism (and a minuscule fringe of agnostic/atheist fellow travellers lending equivocal support).



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Moshe

posted June 6, 2011 at 3:18 pm


Just one thought based on a comment I read above. Motivations should not be confused with the scientific value of one’s arguments.

Let me give an example. Imagine that your child was arrested and tried for a crime. Given that you love your child you will spend time, money and effort on hiring quality lawyers and finding all the relevant evidence that can acquit him. True, you may overlook evidence that indicates that he is guilty, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that you are more likely to uncover important evidence indicating his innocence then the prosecutor, for instance.

In other words, motivations and BIASES can help us discover truths that we might otherwise overlook. Objective research is not necessarily more fruitful then passionate research – each one has its advantages. At the end of the day, what matters is the quality of the arguments and evidence one provides, not the reason why one provides it.



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