John G. West is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, a nonpartisan public-policy think tank that conducts research on technology, science and culture, economics, and foreign affairs. The Institute’s Center for Science and Culture is notable for challenging various aspects of evolutionary theory—maintaining, for instance, that evolutionary biology has failed to answer many salient questions.
West’s primary thesis in Darwin Day in America is that our culture and politics have been dehumanized by a scientific materialism (or reductionism) that sees man merely as the sum of his parts, and that this dogma has taken over the educational system in the United States. He notes that anyone who questions Darwinian evolution—the central idea in this reductionist mind-set—is denounced by academia as a biblical fundamentalist or creationist, and therefore as antiscience.
Two high-profile examples serve to make his point. The first is the 1997 Washington State case in which harassment and punitive measures were applied to Burlington-Edison High School biology teacher Roger De Hart. His crime was that he had asked his students to prepare arguments for either evolution or Intelligent Design. The second is the 2004 Pennsylvania case in which the Dover School Board required that students be informed of Intelligent Design as a possible alternative to Darwinism. In a suit alleging that this constituted the promotion of religion, the judge issued a scathing attack on ID and its proponents. His decision, as demonstrated by West, was copied directly from the handbook of the ACLU. It not only misquoted ID theorists but displayed an animus toward religion and toward anyone who challenges evolution.
The title of this book references a movement in some schools and communities to replace Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, with Darwin Day—the goal being “to build a Global Celebration of Science and Humanity that is intended to promote a common bond among all people of the earth.” West claims that this “bond” is based on scientific determinism and is being used to promote value-free ethics.
Despite the centrality of Darwinian evolution in modern science, West points out that there is actually scant evidence for one of its fundamental tenets, the gradual evolutionary change in species that Darwin himself postulated. In other words, no “missing link” has ever been found. Instead, science observes species making quantum leaps, with sudden and dramatic changes demonstrated by the fossil record.
Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that living things are more than mere energy and matter. Molecular biologists have discovered that the protein-building needed to produce new organisms requires a fundamental entity: information. In the case of man, West maintains that a need for information is reflected in “human choices and desires [which] are genuine entities that produce real effects.” All of this undermines biological determinism, because it is contrary to the Darwinian idea of “natural selection,” which is considered a random process.
These facts pose a fundamental challenge to evolution and, according to West, should open science to theories such as Intelligent Design, which asserts that features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, rather than by an undirected process.
West also explores the much-discussed concept of “social Darwinism,” charging that the idea of “the survival of the fittest” inherent in natural selection has promoted a “eugenic culture” in America, stressing a “mechanistic” approach to life and to the modification of human behavior. He points to value-free social-engineering techniques that have had a pervasive influence, affecting social-welfare programs, business and medical ethics, the criminal-justice system, and teaching about human sexuality in our schools. Among the most extreme manifestations of this “mechanistic” approach have been the forced sterilization of individuals deemed mentally deficient in an effort to “cleanse” the gene pool, and the use of pre-frontal lobotomy to regulate the behavior of criminals and the mentally ill, practices that flourished in the early part of the past century.
Disappointingly, West fails to connect social Darwinism to American pragmatism. Here the book is lacking, since it is the combination of materialistic science and value-free philosophy that has provided cultural legitimacy for so many of the most outrageous affronts to human dignity and served to translate them into law. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ statement in Buck v. Bull (1927), in which he condoned forced sterilization, is a prime example: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”
This link between Darwinism and pragmatism is also indicative of the widespread belief that there is no natural-law standard and that only man-made law is dispositive. Contemporary moral issues such as abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, hybrid embryos, cloning, and sex selection of babies, as well as the redefinition of life and even the determination of when death occurs, all grow out of this deadly combination of science and philosophy.
West is relentless in exposing the devastating effects of Darwinian atheism. He argues that any concept of the inherent dignity of a person based on the notion of man being made in God’s image vanished in Darwin’s second book, The Descent of Man (1871). That work depicted religion as a mere by-product of biology and the “inertia of cultural development,” redefining man and the ways in which men should behave. West shows how the present attempt to place all sentient beings on an equal footing is reductionism in the extreme, providing the philosophical basis for a diminution of traditional virtue.
The result is especially obvious in the mechanistic teaching on human sexuality, an approach that reached its fullest flowering in the work of Alfred Kinsey, who continues to influence public-school sex-education programs more than a half-century after his death. The dominant understanding of sex encourages “tolerance” of all forms of sexual activity—premarital sex, homosexuality, bestiality, and more. It deludes society into believing that, according to the laws of science, anything goes, because this is natural for the human animal.
West does an excellent job showing how Darwinian science has cheapened human life and limited man’s horizons. Yet his solution—teaching Intelligent Design—is somewhat limited itself, and is certainly one-dimensional. Understanding the grandeur of the human person requires philosophy and theology, which are essential for answering the deeper questions about man’s origin, identity, and end.
Pope John Paul II, in his 1996 “Message to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences on Evolution,” stated this need clearly:
The sciences observe, describe and measure . . . the many manifestations of life, and write them down along the time-line. The moment of passage into the spiritual realm is not something that can be observed in this way . . . But the experience of metaphysical knowledge, of self-consciousness and self-awareness, of moral conscience, of liberty, or of aesthetic and religious experience—these must be analyzed through philosophical reflection, while theology seeks to clarify the ultimate meaning of the Creator’s designs.
While West gives the reader cause for concern, he fails to recommend any answers to the question of how society can be engaged in a debate beyond Darwinism and ID. And West fails to explore how practices like private schooling, homeschooling, and church attendance may serve as an effective firewall to the Darwinian reductionism that infests our society.
This book demands a sequel.
[Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, by John G. West (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 375 pp., $28.00]