Magazine | March 9, 2015, Issue

The Darwinian Tradition

I’ve always been interested in the application of Darwinian and ersatz-Darwinian thinking to areas outside biology proper, and back when I was merely a future grad-school dropout, I spent a goodly amount of time reading about Darwinian assumptions in cognitive psychology, politics, ethics, and the like. So while I’m not a scientist, I know a little bit about the theory of natural selection.

That’s why, during the Left’s pile-on over Scott Walker’s unartful dodging of a recent question on evolution, I couldn’t help screwing with the blogger Charles F. Johnson, who’d tweeted, “Yeah, who cares about evolution? It’s just the basis for all of modern biology & medicine. A stunningly ignorant article,” in response to Brother Kevin Williamson’s argument that “nobody really cares what Scott Walker thinks about Darwin.”

Johnson’s claim here is supposed to signal his membership in the smart tribe, in what we’ve come to identify round these parts as the “I f***ing love science” set. But, as I pointed out to Johnson and our several thousand interlocutors, his comment was actually very silly.

Speciation (sometimes called macroevolution) is the piece of the Darwinian synthesis that most scandalizes a certain subset of believers in the Abrahamic faiths, but it is almost completely irrelevant to the practices of working biologists save for — you guessed it — evolutionary biologists. Much less is it the “basis” for, say, modern podiatry or urology. Indeed, one can think of precious few instances in which any matter of medical import would turn on whether Homo habilis was really an australopith.

Johnson, like so many others ritualistically affirming their “belief” in “evolution,” seems to have conflated the latter with the formless blob of secular commitments that passes for “science” in his circles. Most relevantly, he seems to have conflated evolution with genetics, which does play a central role in biological and medical practice, and which few of any faith question.

In the end I agree with the cognitive scientist Jerry Fodor, who points out that Darwin’s theory is basically natural history plus statistics — that it’s true, it’s just much less interesting than everybody seems to think. But more interesting, to me, than the question of what we should “believe” about “evolution” is the question of what counts as a legitimate basis for that belief.

See, I had some fun snarking at Johnson for being out over his skis on Darwin, but maybe what was really called for was a little humility of my own.

Let me explain. Folks on the right have been hammering home the point that scientism is the secular religion of the Left. But that reveals just as much about religion as it does about secularism, does it not? Because the average Charles F. Johnson stands in precisely the same relation to the body of knowledge that is “science” as the average lousy Catholic (to use myself as an example) stands in relation to the body of knowledge that is his faith. As with the believer Johnson takes to be the enemy of science, his understanding is highly limited by time and by will, attenuated by misremembered facts and figures or shoddy schooling, and mediated by a number of experts whose word he accepts, more or less, on pure authority.

Critically, none of this is a reason for the crappy Catholic to stop believing — or for Johnson to. The sociologist Gabriel Rossman, responding to the Walker fracas, made this point ably:

Specifically because I am a conservative, I believe in deference to legitimate authority and the limitations of human reason. One particular manifestation of this is that I think we should embrace scientific orthodoxy even when we don’t personally understand it. To jump on people for demanding affirmation of science but without being able to distinguish allopatric from sympatric speciation makes about as much sense, and for similar reasons, as jumping on people for affirming belief in democracy without being able to explain the Arrow impossibility theorem or the median voter theorem, or for calling themselves Christians but without being able to explain “consubstantiality” (or for that matter, for being excited about just having just learned [sic] the word “eschatology” . . . ). It’s a good thing when people embrace the consensus of legitimate experts. When people start thinking things through for themselves and bullying those who naively accept orthodoxy this is when you get anti-vaxxers, truthers, religious heresy, etc.

Though he’s raining hard on my parade, Rossman is of course correct. There’s a rich conservative intellectual tradition, reaching from Plato to Burke and beyond, the upshot of which is that we can’t always count on every man’s having carefully reasoned his way to the truth — that the best we can hope for, in most cases, is that he has been instilled with the correct prejudices.

I’d add only that the word “legitimate” is doing most of the heavy lifting behind “authority” in Rossman’s formulation. In Sunni Islam, for instance, the ulema, or clerical elite, are supposed to govern the faith, interpreting the Koran and the sayings of the Prophet and instructing believers. But their authority is not universally recognized, as any of the several Yazidis who survived Mt. Sinjar might be able to tell you.

I’d also add that another of conservatism’s central insights — that speed kills — gives us reason to favor authorities of the eschaton over those of the immanent. The prejudices instilled by religion (or democracy, for that matter) are, if not eternal, at least geologic in their mutability. The prejudices of science — or “science” — are blink-and-you-missed-it fads in comparison. To give just one example, one of the things I learned as a future grad-school dropout is that it wasn’t too long ago that evolution was, to paraphrase Charles F. Johnson, just the basis for all of modern eugenics.

– Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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