July 31, 2004

A VICTIM OF THE DEVIL'S GREATEST TRICK

The Devil’s Chaplain Confounded (Stephen M. Barr, August/September 2004, First Things)

A Devil’s Chaplain is a collection of essays, book reviews, forewords, eulogies, and assorted “tirades and reflections” selected by Richard Dawkins from his work of the past twenty-five years. It is a miscellany that touches on postmodernism, the jury system, New Age superstitions, the late Stephen Jay Gould, the deaths of friends, the wonders of Africa, the perils of quack medicine, and more. The author is known as a writer on evolutionary theory and is perhaps the best-known exponent of Darwinism writing today. His style is often truculent—it has been said that if T. H. Huxley was called Darwin’s bulldog, Dawkins should be called Darwin’s pit bull—and on the subject of religion, in particular, he is rabid. He has his calmer moments, of course, and when he confines himself to zoology, his field of expertise, he is capable of writing in a lucid manner. In A Devil’s Chaplain he presents himself as philosopher, social critic, and moralist, expounding on themes that are favorites of his: science and reason; the world of facts versus religion; superstition and wishful thinking.

His title is taken from a letter of Charles Darwin’s in which he exclaims to a friend, “What a book a Devil’s Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low and horridly cruel works of nature.” Dawkins suggests that if Darwin had “decided to extend the list of melancholy adjectives,” he would probably have added to it “selfish” and “blind.” It is this view of nature that lies at the heart of the philosophy, morality, and social criticism that Dawkins presents here. For him, the great foundational truth is that the universe and the life it has spawned are without any ultimate purpose: the revelation given to the Devil’s Chaplain is one of cosmic futility. What gospel, then, will a Devil’s Chaplain preach?

Or to put it another way, what are “Darwinism’s moral implications”? Dawkins poses this question in his title essay, which was written to introduce this collection, and cites two early and opposite responses to Darwinian evolutionary theory, those of George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells. In the preface to Back to Methuselah, Shaw wrote of Darwinian evolution:

When its whole significance dawns on you, your heart sinks into a heap of sand within you. There is a hideous fatalism about it, a ghastly and damnable reduction of beauty and intelligence, of strength and purpose, of honor and aspiration.

Wells, however, seemed to revel in the ruthlessness of nature, writing in his scientific utopian fantasy The New Republic:

And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? How will it deal with the black? . . . the yellow man? . . . the Jew? . . . those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency? Well, the world is a world, and not a charitable institution, and I take it they will have to go. . . . And the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favor the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity—beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds. . . . And the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness . . . is death. . . . The men of the New Republic . . . will have an ideal that will make the killing worth the while.

What is Dawkins’ own response? Scientifically he cannot follow Shaw, who retreated, he says, into “a confused idea of Lamarckian evolution,” and morally he cannot follow Wells, whose vision he properly calls “blood-chilling.” Rather, Dawkins says, we must accept Darwinism as true science but must rebel against its moral implications: “[A]t the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.”


Which, of course, begs the question: why shouldn't morality be accepted as the truth and Darwinism a mere political construct?

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2004 12:40 PM
Comments

Whose?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at July 31, 2004 2:21 PM

Darwin's observation that Nature is "clumsy, wasteful, blundering, low and horridly cruel" seems like the most cogent argument against "intelligent design", insomuch as there's precious little "intelligence" on display, just a Goldbergian world of Jerry-rigging.

Even acknowledging that God, and her motives, are necessarily alien to humans, when humans can design themselves and and other creatures better than God purportedly did, it does call into question the supposed point of God's "design".
Either God designated an endpoint, and set a process in motion (Darwinism)*, or, God has motives other than the wellbeing and happiness of her creations, and has designed beings to meet those hidden criteria (Intelligent Design).
One theory meets the test of Ockham's Razor, one finds common ground with conspiracy theorists of every stripe.


* N.B., such a viewpoint doesn't require that humans be the endpoint, or even a necessary link. Just because we exist, doesn't mean that our existence was critical; some other form might have done just as well to advance the ball.

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H. G. Wells' concept of utility in 'The New Republic' is the height of hubris, although he has vast company in the same mistake: He assumes that humans are competent to judge which assets, quirks, and characteristics of humans are "fine and efficient".
This we can surely do, if we assume that what is of utility today, will be of utility tomorrow; however, the only thing that humans have proven themselves able to forecast with 100% accuracy is that change is constant. Thus, if we remove genetic diversity now, we guarantee future extinction.*
H. G. Wells does a much better job of exploring the ramifications of eugenics in 'The Time Machine', where the Eloi have self-selected for beauty and physical prowess, and the Morlocks are clearly the descendants of "those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency".
However, the Eloi are cattle, and the Morlocks are human.


*Keeping genetic diversity, alas, doesn't guarantee human survival.

Posted by: Michael "Underground Dwelling" Herdegen at July 31, 2004 2:39 PM

Michael:

Except that it's not cruel, it's rather elegant.

Posted by: oj at July 31, 2004 5:45 PM

How absurd. The "Darwinist" accepts random variation and natural selection in the province of biology, in which it fails, and rejects it in the realm of culture, in which it makes perfect sense.

What we have here is one whose hatred of God forbids him to admit that the Name above all Names has provided mankind with institutions which mitigate the cruelty of Spencerian survival-of-the-fittest in such a way as to allow the free and thus adaptive society to exist and prosper. It is the inability of the God-hater to recognize how Christianity operates as a balance to freedom that gives rise to inanities such as Rawls' Theory of Justice, as men struggle for a reason not to exterminate the unfit.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 1, 2004 4:11 AM

How absurd. The "Darwinist" accepts random variation and natural selection in the province of biology, in which it fails, and rejects it in the realm of culture, in which it makes perfect sense.

What we have here is one whose hatred of God forbids him to admit that the Name above all Names has provided mankind with institutions which mitigate the cruelty of Spencerian survival-of-the-fittest in such a way as to allow the free and thus adaptive society to exist and prosper. It is the inability of the God-hater to recognize how Christianity operates as a balance to freedom that gives rise to inanities such as Rawls' Theory of Justice, as men struggle for a reason not to exterminate the unfit.

Posted by: Lou Gots at August 1, 2004 4:12 AM

"Rather, Dawkins says, we must accept Darwinism as true science but must rebel against its moral implications: [A]t the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs."

The whole argument is confused by a single faulty premise: that the morality of men and the morality of the universe (God/Evolution) are the same. Man's morality is for the preservation of Man, not to be in tune with the Universe.

Religion assumes that Man is the purpose of the Universe (God), but in order to maintain that belief in the face of god's apparently inscrutable will in making the universe such a hostile and randomly malevolent environment for Man, needs to introduce the concept of the Fall, and the notion that Man must be willing to sacrifice his own morality for God's (Abraham sacrificing his son). In this sense religion is amoral. Likewise Darwinism, if taken as a moral philosophy, sacrifices human morality.

The only way to escape these similar conclusions is to separate human morality from the universal "will". Human morality needs no further justification than that it is for the preservation of Humanity. Our purpose is not the Unverse/God's purpose. We cannot justify our actions by the actions of God/Nature, we cannot imitate Him/It. If their is a purpose to the Universe or not, it is not our purpose. Our purpose is to preserve our species, and no more.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at August 1, 2004 1:18 PM

oj:

Elegant in the sense that it's a marvel to behold an entire eco-system, full of "good enough" adaptations to environmental problems, function well enough to sustain and succor humans.

Birth defects aren't "cruel" ?
Nature red in tooth and claw isn't "cruel" ?

Not in any sadistic, knowing way by the participants, but if one's basic premise is that it was designed to function that way, then the designer is sadistic.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 1, 2004 2:40 PM

Robert:

Well said.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 1, 2004 2:42 PM

Back to Dawkins. Does he explain how he can accept Darwinism as science but reject its implicit morality?

Does he haul out that old chestnut "categorical imperative?"

Posted by: Mike at August 2, 2004 4:25 PM

Mike:

Is and ought are two entirely different things.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at August 2, 2004 8:20 PM
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