Wednesday, January 02, 2008


Bowlered Over

It is, I believe, fairly well known that Darwin always credited his hitting on the idea that the "struggle of life" is the central engine of natural selection to his happening to read Thomas Robert Malthus' Essay on the Principle of Population at a crucial point in the formation of his theories. Perhaps not as well known is the irony that fact entails for the anti-evolutionism in America that largely comes from the Religious Right. In his recent book, Monkey Trials and Gorilla Sermons: Evolution and Christianity from Darwin to Intelligent Design, Peter J. Bowler lays out the tale succinctly but well. Bowler, the author of probably the definitive history of the notion of biological evolution, Evolution: The History of an Idea, Third Edition, notes that Darwin gradually gave up the idea that his theory could be (at least conventionally) reconciled with the notion of a wise and benevolent Creator, in that Darwin experienced:

... a growing realization that if Malthus was right, then the struggle for existence went on relentlessly, however well the species might be adapted to its environment. Nature was a scene of constant death and endless selfish struggle, hardly the sort of process one would expect a benevolent God to establish.
But whence came Malthus' ideas?

... Malthus's principle of population had an ideological foundation. It was presented as a contribution to what was known as "political economy; an attempt to uncover the laws governing both society and the economy. In the context of early nineteenth-century Britain, this meant understanding the working of the new system of free-enterprise capitalism. Malthus challenged the reformers who thought that poverty and starvation could be eliminated by government action. He argued that poverty was not the result of an artificial social hierarchy -- on the contrary it was both natural and inevitable. ... [T]here would always be too many children born for the food supply to support, with the result that some must inevitably go hungry. State support for the poor should be abandoned, because it was better to let a few starve now rather than allow the population to expand unchecked to a level where mass starvation was inevitable.

Malthus thus endorsed free-enterprise individualism, the system of laissez-faire (the notion that the state should not interfere with the activities of individual citizens).
Of course, Darwin has been attacked by those on the Left over the years for merely projecting capitalist values onto nature. But as Bowler points out:

... science always advances through the proposal of hypotheses which are then tested against the facts. Scientists have been inspired by a variety of sources when thinking up their models of nature, including art, philosophy, politics, and religion. If the hypothesis proves fruitful in generating research, then it is doing its job in science.
In short, the extensive testing, both by Darwin himself and the myriad scientists who have come after him, has washed out whatever ideological stain there may have been with the harsh detergent of hard empiric fact. Nor can it be forgotten that the subsequent work on the nature and evolution of social organisms like ourselves undercuts the simplistic application of selection to individual humans when our "fitness" so much depends on our ability to integrate with and rely on society at large. In any event, that's where the irony comes in:

The [socialist critics of evolution] claim that Darwin's theory doesn't provide [an impetus towards generating research] because the testing process itself is warped by the preconceptions of those who do the testing. It seems curious that modern creationists ignore this argument against Darwinism's scientific credentials, given that they are always on the lookout for anything that will discredit the theory. But when we remember the source of this attack, we can see why it seems unattractive to those from the Religious Right who are convinced that the free-enterprise system is a God-given model for how we should govern ourselves. The claim that the theory they despise is a reflection of their own political values is more an embarrassment to them than an opportunity.
Their embarrassment comes mostly from a simplistic understanding of history, politics and science, but there it is. Ignorance may seem like bliss but it has a cutting edge.


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