Paul Johnson

Where the Darwinian fundamentalists are leading us

Where the Darwinian fundamentalists are leading us

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The decisive culture war of the 21st century is likely to be between the Darwinian fundamentalists and those who believe in God and the significance of human life. It will be prolonged and bitter. Culture wars do not usually end in bloodshed but they break hearts and minds and bring terrible sufferings to the losers (and to many of the winners too). Most observers today would put their money on the Darwinians. They already control the universities of the West, or at least their science departments, and persecute with ferocity any who deviate from their narrow orthodoxies. Such heretical scholars — whatever their qualifications or the strength of their arguments — are simply labelled ‘creationists’ and dismissed or barred from academic posts. Intelligent Christians are lumped with the Mad Mullahs or the Bible-thumpers of the Midwest, and are marginalised in the media and public debate.

The rise of Darwin’s reputation and the power of Darwinism have proceeded without interruption for nearly a century and a half. As early as 1880, when Darwin himself was still alive, Leslie Stephen predicted in the Fortnightly Review, in an article called ‘An Attempted Philosophy of History’, that the new science of life would conquer all. ‘Darwinism,’ he wrote, ‘has acted like a leaven, affecting the whole development of modern thought.... We classify the ablest thinkers by the relation which their opinions bear to it and, whatever its ultimate fate, no one can doubt that it will be the most conspicuous factor in the history of modern speculation.’

All this has proved to be true. Darwinism is an imperialist doctrine which has successfully subordinated mathematics, sociology and other disciplines, and is currently conquering philosophy. Although, unlike medicine, chemistry, physics and other sciences, it has little or nothing to offer the human race in terms of better conditions or a more secure future, it is automatically accorded priority in scientific discourse in academia. The Darwinians are thought to hold, to use a phrase of Aldous Huxley’s, ‘the key to the Absolute’. It is characteristic that Oxford made the most prominent of British Darwinians, Richard Dawkins, the first holder of the newly created professorship of the Public Understanding of Science. I take it that the object of this chair, in the unlikely event of clever boys and girls arriving in Oxford with a lingering belief in God, is to have it stamped out. In 1864 Disraeli, addressing the Oxford Diocesan Society ‘in an outlandish black velvet shooting-coat and a wideawake hat’, had said, ‘The question is this — is man an ape or an angel? Now I am on the side of the angels.’ Today, no one who counts is on the side of the angels. The rules of serious discourse have been redrawn to ensure that the debate is entirely conducted by the apes.

Yet if the intelligent and the educated unite today in accepting evolution, that does not mean they are prepared to swallow all or even any of the dismal consequences inherent in the theory. Nor should they. For the sheer bleakness of existence as presented by Darwinism pushed to its logical conclusions is a formula for total despair. The phrase ‘survival of the fittest’, invented by Herbert Spencer, founder of sociology, seemed to give a Darwinian universe some purpose — indeed a very definite purpose, the creation of a super-race to dominate all existence. This inspired the Social Darwinists, a long-extinct tribe repudiated by the scientific followers of Darwin. But the notion of purpose has no place in Darwinism, since it implies a plan and a planner, or at least an objective towards which a meaningful process is hastening. And none of these things has any place in natural selection. On the contrary, they are specifically ruled out by the way nature works, as described by Darwin and his successors. Nature itself is not an entity. It is merely a convenient word to describe what has been, is and will be. And that is an entirely purposeless process. Random, mindless and mechanical, the work of nature has no point whatsoever. It does not aim at anything, even complexity, since it sometimes produces simplicity. It has no mind, even by analogy. It operates equally on things we call inanimate as on sentient human beings. It does not distinguish between animal, vegetable or mineral. It creates and destroys mountains in essentially the same way as it created and destroyed dinosaurs, and it created, and will destroy, Homo sapiens.

Nature does not distinguish between a range of mountains, like the Alps, or a stone or a clever scientist like Prof. Dawkins, because it is sightless, senseless and mindless, being a mere process operating according to rules which have not been designed but simply are. Nature works without purpose, within an unimaginable timescale in which the entire history of humanity will be merely a blip on the radar screen of eternity. But there is not even a radar screen to register it, since there is no one to build one or read one. If existence comes to an end, and Darwinism does not explain how this might happen, it will have no history, let alone anyone to study it. Impossible, therefore, to exaggerate the sheer purposelessness of the vision of reality Darwin conjured into being. What strikes one is its horrible sterility and deadness, a tombstone story of a universal coffin.

The nihilism of Darwin was not unprecedented. Hobbes, the first true atheist, in effect described life as natural selection. It was, he wrote, a race without beginning or end, and ‘there can be no contentment but in proceeding’. In 1881, the year before Darwin died, the poet F.W.H. Myers described a memorable reflection of George Eliot, in an Oxbridge garden: ‘Taking as her text ...the words “God, Immortality, Duty”, [she] pronounced with terrible earnestness, how inconceivable was the first, how unbelievable the second, and yet how peremptory and absolute the third.’ Here we have the epitome of the position adopted by high-minded members of the first generation of post-Christians created by Darwin’s work. But of course the poor deluded lady had not recognised the shifting sands on which she already stood. If the first and the second are ruled out, there is no lasting place for the third. Duty has absolutely no place in natural selection or in its intellectual consequences; indeed it has no meaning in a universe governed by an aimless process which does not distinguish between a stone and a human.

The truth is that once you embark on Darwinian nihilism there is no resting place. If there is no point in life, everything in the end has to go — duty, laws, arts, letters, society — and you are left with nothing, except ‘proceeding’. There are various scientific objections to Darwin, but the salient one, it seems to me, is moral. If life has no purpose, why value it? Why not brush it aside, wherever and whenever convenient?

I foresee a sorrowful procession of events in which the triumph of the Darwinians may ultimately lead to the extinction of the human race. Evolution to destruction, or self-destruction, is part of the Darwinian concept, but if the theory itself should bring it about, that indeed would be a singularity. Not inconceivable, though.