February 16, 2008


What Went Wrong? Scientific Materialism and the Abolition of Man: excerpted from Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science (John G. West, 02/15/08, First Principles)

An idea’s consequences may not be fully anticipated by its proponents. Nathaniel Hawthorne wryly observed that “no human effort, on a grand scale, has ever yet resulted according to the purpose of its projectors . . . We miss the good we sought, and do the good we little cared for.” Scientific materialism was supposed to be a great engine of human progress in politics and culture. It was not. And its failures continue to influence American public policy.

One consequence of scientific materialism for politics was the elevation of technocracy—rule by scientific experts—over democracy. Since science was supposed to be the true source of objective information about the world, proponents of scientific materialism logically concluded that scientists—not the general public, or their elected representatives—should be the ultimate arbiters of public policy.

At its core, this message was profoundly anti-egalitarian and anti-democratic. Speaking before the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921, Alleyne Ireland declared that current conditions had rendered America’s original form of government established by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence “utterly unsuitable.” America’s Founders believed that “governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed,” and they set up arrangements “designed with a view to making abuse of power difficult.” But in an age when government must increasingly provide a wide range of social services, society could no longer afford to rely on government by nonexperts. Ireland stated that it was “imperative . . . that the omnipresent activity of government should be guided by the light of scientific knowledge and conducted through the instrumentality of a scientific method.”

The claim that society should place its faith in scientific experts rather than ordinary citizens or elected officials was a common refrain in public-policy debates colored by scientific materialism. To be sure, few were as blunt as Ireland in directly attacking the Constitution or demanding a governing role for scientists. Yet in controversy after controversy, the message was unmistakable. Whether the issue was education or welfare or crime, members of the public were urged to place their trust in the findings of scientific experts rather than their own core beliefs or the views of political and religious leaders. Science with a capital “S” dictated the replacement of punishment with treatment in the criminal-justice system, the enactment of forced sterilization in the welfare system, and the substitution of “value-free” information from sex researchers for traditional moral teachings about family life in public schools. In each of these areas, the claim was made at least implicitly that scientific expertise should trump other sources of knowledge, including ethics, philosophy, tradition, religion, and common sense.

Much could be said in favor of the authority of scientific expertise in modern life. In an increasingly complex and technologically driven world, the need for scientific input on public policy would seem obvious. Since many policy questions today arise in such science-based fields as medicine, transportation, and ecology, why shouldn’t politicians and voters simply defer to the authority of scientific experts in these areas?

Although this line of reasoning exhibits a surface persuasiveness, it ignores the natural limits of scientific expertise. Scientific knowledge may be necessary for good public policy in certain areas. But it is not sufficient. Political problems are preeminently moral problems, and scientists are ill-equipped to function as moralists. C. S. Lewis warned about this drawback of technocracy in the 1950s. “I dread specialists in power, because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects,” Lewis wrote. “Let scientists tell us about sciences. But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”

To cite a concrete example: Wildlife biologists may be able to provide policymakers with information about which species are in danger of extinction and perhaps predict some of the costs of their extinction to biodiversity. But they have no more authority than anyone else in determining whether a particular endangered species is more valuable than the jobs that may be lost trying to save that species from extinction. Politics is largely about ranking and reconciling competing goods. But the ranking of goods involves questions of justice and morality, and as Lewis pointed out, “a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value” on such questions.

Technocracy poses a further difficulty: Experts can be wrong, sometimes egregiously. If the history of scientific materialism in politics shows anything, it is that scientific experts are as fallible as anyone else. They are capable of being blinded by their own prejudices and going beyond the evidence in order to promote the policies they favor. Alfred Kinsey’s empirical claims about the sexual behavior of the general American public were junk science, given his deeply flawed sample population; yet that did not stop him from boldly making his claims and vigorously defending them as sound science.

What is true of individual scientists can be true of the scientific community as a whole. For decades, eugenics was embraced as legitimate by America’s leading scientists and scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Critics of eugenics, meanwhile, were stigmatized as antiscience and religious zealots. Yet the critics turned out to be right. Similarly, the lobotomy was uncritically embraced for years by the medical community as a miracle cure, and the scientist who pioneered the operation in human beings won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Only after tens of thousands of individuals had been lobotomized did healthy skepticism prevail.

To cite a more recent example, various scientists and medical professors into the 1990s continued to invoke Haeckel’s discredited theory of embryonic recapitulation to supply a scientific justification for abortion. And in 2003, hundreds of scientists in Texas defended inaccurate biology textbooks they likely had never read because they were more interested in safeguarding the public image of Darwin’s theory of evolution than they were in presenting students with accurate facts.

Any suggestion that policymakers should simply rubber-stamp the advice of the current majority of scientists is profoundly subversive of the fundamental principles of representative democracy. As equal citizens before the law, scientists have every right to inform policymakers of the scientific implications of their actions. But they have no special right to demand that policymakers listen to them alone.

Unfortunately, a growing chorus urges that public policy be dictated by the majority of scientific experts without input from anyone else. This bold assertion is made not just with regard to evolution, but concerning a host of other controversial issues such as sex education, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and global warming. Any dissent from the orthodoxy of “experts” on these issues allegedly represents a “war on science.” But that’s just not the case.

A second consequence of scientific materialism for public policy was the cultivation of a vigorous form of utopianism. Believing they possessed the key to understanding and ultimately controlling human behavior, defenders of scientific materialism were confident that science could usher in heaven on earth—if only they tried hard enough.

Their heady optimism is not difficult to understand. By the late nineteenth century, science had produced marvelous advances in medicine, agriculture, sanitation, and transportation. Why couldn’t the triumphs of the scientific method over the natural world be extended to the social sphere? If science could prevent the spread of physical diseases like smallpox, why couldn’t it also prevent outbreaks of social diseases like crime and poverty? If science could breed better strains of cattle and corn, why couldn’t it breed better kinds of people?

Addressing the American Breeders Association in 1913, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture James Wilson acknowledged that the wholesale replacement of “inferior” human stocks with “the best part of the human race . . . at first seems like an Utopian vision,” but he then quickly added: “Why should it not come? Must science stop in its beneficence with the plant and the animal? Is not man, after all, the architect of his own racial destiny?” Wilson’s rosy rhetoric revealed the startling naïveté at the heart of the scientific-materialist agenda.

Scientists and policymakers who were readily skeptical of claims made by religion or tradition turned out to be supremely credulous when it came to claims made in the name of science. They accepted at face value the purported benefits of such procedures as lobotomies, psychosurgery, and forced sterilization. They made grand promises about how science could solve intractable social problems such as crime and poverty. They showed little appreciation for the fact that science, like all human endeavors, could be misused, especially when allied with political power. Eugenist Herbert Walter sanguinely predicted that nothing like “the Spanish Inquisition or . . . the Salem witchcraft persecution” would take place in an age of modern science. Only two decades before the Nazis ascended to power in Germany, Walter predicted that “it is unlikely that the world will ever see another great religious inquisition, or that in applying to man the newly found laws of heredity there will ever be undertaken an equally deplorable eugenic inquisition.” Harry Laughlin asserted with confidence that no one—not even one person—had been wrongly sterilized in America. AAAS president Charles Eliot at least acknowledged the prospect that physical and chemical science could be enlisted “as means of destruction and death.” But even he thought the application of biology to society held no danger: “Biological science has great advantage in this respect over physical and chemical [science]. It can not so frequently or easily be applied to evil ends.” Eliot wrote those words in 1915 as the eugenics movement was well on its way to compelling the sterilization of thousands of people across America.

Prior to the rise of scientific materialism, a strong anti-utopian sentiment in American political culture counterbalanced the zealousness of reformers. America’s Founders, in addition to their idealism, displayed a keen realism about the imperfections of human nature. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” wrote James Madison in The Federalist. “The best Institutions may be abused by human depravity . . . they may even . . . be made subservient to the vilest of purposes,” echoed George Washington. Nathaniel Hawthorne satirized the overblown hopes of contemporary reformers in his short story “Earth’s Holocaust” (1844). There he described how militant do-gooders planned to cleanse the earth of imperfection by creating a giant bonfire out on the western prairies on which they could throw every conceivable cause of social evil. The great conflagration burned for days and consumed everything thrown into it, but the fire still did not produce the perfect society. Hawthorne’s punch line was that the reformers failed because they could not reach the ultimate cause of human misery, the human heart. Social conditions might wax and wane, but sinful human nature was unchangeable this side of heaven.

Scientific materialism tried to refute this kind of political realism.

Does Darwinism Devalue Human Life? (Richard Weikart, Spring 2004, The Human Life Review)
A number of years ago two intelligent students surprised me in a class discussion by defending the proposition that Hitler was neither good nor evil. Though I kept my composure, I was horrified. One of the worst mass murderers in history wasn't evil? How could they believe this? How could they justify such a view?

They did it by appealing to Darwinism. Their pronouncement on Hitler occurred while we were discussing James Rachels' book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism (Oxford University Press, 1990). Darwinism, these students informed us, undermined all morality. This was not the first time I had heard such a view. In fact, at that time I was in the beginning phases of a research project on the history of evolutionary ethics, and I had already reviewed the work of some scientists and social scientists who believed that Darwinism undermined human rights and equality.

Before reading Rachels' book, however, I hadn't thought much about whether or not Darwinism devalued human life itself. Rachels, a philosopher at the University of Alabama, Birmingham, best known for his contributions to the euthanasia debate, argues that Darwinism undermines the Judeo-Christian belief in the sanctity of human life. The title of his book comes from an observation Darwin makes in his 1838 notebooks, "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble and, I believe, true to consider him created from animals." Rachels assumes the truth of Darwinism and uses it as a springboard to justify euthanasia, infanticide (for disabled babies), abortion, and animal rights. Stimulated by his book, I continued my research on evolutionary ethics, but now with two new questions in mind: Does Darwinism undermine the Judeo-Christian understanding of the sanctity of human life? Does it weaken traditional proscriptions against killing the sick and the weak?

As I read more about the development of evolutionary ethics, I discovered that many scientists, social thinkers, and especially physicians in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany did indeed use Darwinian arguments to devalue human life. In the second edition of his popular book, The Natural History of Creation (1870), Ernst Haeckel, the leading Darwinist in Germany, became the first German scholar to seriously propose that disabled infants be killed at birth. Darwinists were in the forefront of the eugenics movement, which often taught that disabled people and non-Europeans were inferior to healthy Europeans. They argued that Darwinism implied human inequality, since biological variation has to occur to drive the process of evolution. Haeckel even suggested that Darwinism was an "aristocratic" process, favoring an aristocracy of talent (not the traditional landed aristocracy, for which Haeckel had no sympathy). Since Darwinism provided a naturalistic explanation for the origin of ethics, many of its adherents dismissed human rights as a chimera.

Darwin expressed incredulity when critics assailed him for undermining morality. In his Autobiography, however, Darwin rejected the idea of objective moral standards, stating that one "can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best ones." Friedrich Hellwald, an influential ethnologist, promoted a Darwinian view of social evolution in his major work, The History of Culture (1875). Hellwald was quite radical in exalting the Darwinian process of the struggle for existence above all moral considerations. "The right of the stronger," he insisted, "is a natural law." (2) He clarified this idea further:

In nature only One Right rules, which is no right, the right of the stronger, or violence. But violence is also in fact the highest source of right, in that without it no legislation is thinkable. I will in the course of my portrayal easily prove that even in human history the right of the stronger has fundamentally retained its validity at all times.

This Darwinian undermining of human rights would be fateful for the Judeo-Christian vision of the sanctity of human life.

When the secular intellectual class clings to a belief that is patently false as science but justifies empowering themselves at the expense of democracy, morality, etc., it's safe to assume that the dehumanization is the basis of their faith.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 16, 2008 7:42 AM

How ironic it is that the "scientific" cultures go under while the Godly surpass.

How can this be? How is it that the ways of the ancestors bring wealth and power while all these "bright" alternatives march in line, one after another, into the dustbin of history?

We all undertand the answer by now. The faith-infused culture is objectively, scientificlly, if you will, superior to the alternative. This is because the believing culture allows a greater measure of freedom and innovation. Our ways of thinking and acting allow more freedom and thus more innovation exactly because enough of us do not require Big Brother watching us at every moment, for we have Big Father doing so.

Posted by: Lou Gots at February 16, 2008 3:52 PM