On Darwinism’s Attempt to Preserve What it Destroys

“Darwin himself wrestled repeatedly with the skeptical consequences of his theory. Just one example: “With me,” he wrote, “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.” (Significantly, Darwin always expressed this “horrid doubt” after admitting an insistent “inward conviction” that the universe is not the result of chance after all, but requires an intelligent Mind, a First Cause. In other words, he applied his skepticism selectively: when reason led to a theistic conclusion, he argued that evolution discredits reason. But since reason was also the means by which he constructed his own theory, he was cutting off the branch he was sitting on.)

Similar self-contradictions are endemic in the literature on evolutionary psychology. A prime example is The Moral Animal, where Robert Wright spends hundreds of pages describing human beings as “robots,” “puppets,” “machines,” and “Swiss Watches” programmed by natural selection. He insists that “biochemistry governs all” and that free will is sheer illusion. He unmasks our noblest moral impulses as survival “stratagems of the genes,” as mere devices “switched on and off in keeping with self—interest.” But then, in a grand leap of faith, Wright insists that we are now free to choose our moral ideals, and he urges us to practice “brotherly love” and “boundless empathy.”

This persistent inner contradiction stems from the fact that evolutionary psychology is essentially a search for a secular morality. Darwinism cut the modern world loose from religious traditions and systems of meaning; the result is a culture adrift in a sea of relativism. Now Darwinism is itself being plumbed as a source of meaning, a cosmic guide for the problems of living. Yet the Darwinist view of human nature is so negative, so counter to traditional notions of humanity dignity, morality, and reason (not to mention common sense), that there is an almost irresistible impulse to take a leap of faith back to those traditional notions, no matter how unsupported by the theory. For who can live with a theory that tells us that “ethics is illusory,” and the ‘morality is merely and adaption put in place to further our reproductive ends,’ in the words of Michael Ruse and E.O Wilson? Who can live with a theory that tells us that if ‘natural selection is both sufficient and true, it is impossible for a genuinely disinterested or “altruistic behoviour pattern to evolve,” in the words of M.T. Ghiselin?”

Nancy Pearcey, “Singer in the Rain,” First Things vol. 106

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