Darwinism and American Religion

I have taken a targeted approach toward integrating more intellectual historical literature into both my advanced United States History course as well as my advanced European History course. Two works that students will read a great deal from this upcoming academic year are Social Darwinism in American Thought by Richard Hofstadter and Darwin, Marx, Wagner by Jacques Barzun. Over the years the AP national exam for both courses have asked conceptual questions in which a student must juxtapose Marixism and Darwinism to universal historical forces. While putting together my supplemental reading pack, which contains a number of secondary and primary readings, I came across the article below published in the Journal of International Socialist Review entitled “Why evolutionary biology creates a problem for the Right?” by Phil Gasper. This article is presented from only one point of view. I will balance it with the other side as well. This piece does not reflect Carson’s view. This article is an example of the debates taking place in various communities regarding politics, faith, and science. It would have been nice if the author would have balanced this piece with a debate from the other side. Because he did not, I will do so in the future. For now, we should debate this. Here is the article:

DO YOU believe in evolution? That was one of the questions posed to the ten white men currently seeking the Republican presidential nomination during their first debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley on May 3, 2007. Three of the candidates—Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado—raised their hands to indicate that they do not.

Did this public display of scientific ignorance illustrate the continuing influence of Christian fundamentalism on American politics, or does the fact that seven of the candidates kept their hands down, show that the religious Right is in decline? Your guess is as good as mine, but a few days later, the New York Times ran an article detailing the sharp debate that has emerged in conservative circles in recent years about what to say about Charles Darwin.

According to the Times report, “For some conservatives, accepting Darwin undercuts religious faith and produces an amoral, materialistic worldview that easily embraces abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other practices they abhor.” Driven largely by religious motivations, members of this group advocate old-fashioned Biblical creationism or new-fashioned intelligent design (which posits a designer for at least some components of living things without explicitly using the label “God”).

For the past thirty years or so, the Republican Party has depended on an alliance with the religious Right to win elections. The latter were given the opportunity to promote their reactionary social agenda, while the party bigwigs and their corporate sponsors pushed through economic policies that sharply increased inequality and benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. But the alliance has always included contradictory elements and the squabble over evolution reported by the Times exposes one of them.

Simply put, the religious fundamentalist attack on Darwin’s ideas amounts, in effect, to an attack on the scientific method itself. Rejecting evolutionary biology means rejecting along with it large portions of physics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, and other sciences, which provide evidence for evolution or employ similar methods. But capitalism depends on the accumulation and exploitation of new scientific knowledge. In the short term if religious anti-evolutionists are successful in a particular locality, they can do serious damage to science education, deter researchers from accepting university positions, and create a climate hostile to high-tech industry and investment. In the longer term they can pose a threat to scientific reason itself. Because of this, opposition to creationism and intelligent design has emerged within the conservative movement itself.

Science aside, some conservatives also think that social Darwinism—the idea that the “fittest” rise to the top in human societies—is a useful ideological tool. As the Times notes, “Some of these thinkers have gone one step further, arguing that Darwin’s scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today’s patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances.”

The split among conservatives, and the claims by some of them that evolutionary thought offers support to the status quo, is simply the latest recapitulation of a debate that started 150 years ago and should long since have been put to rest. When Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859, he correctly expected that there would be fierce opposition from defenders of traditional religious ideas, who saw evolution as an attack on both religion and morality, and thus a threat to the established order. But within a few years, some bourgeois ideologists had embraced evolutionary theory.

The so-called social Darwinists, for example, attempted to defend nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism on the grounds that the misery, poverty, and death that it caused would result in the survival of the fittest and thus, ultimately, the general improvement of the human race. Social Darwinism is utter nonsense since, among other things, success in a competitive social and economic system has nothing to do with the notion of biological fitness, and the workings of such a system—as is becoming more and more apparent—may produce an ecological catastrophe that would threaten our species’ very survival.

Social Darwinism is only one way in which conservatives have attempted to use (or, rather, abuse) Darwin’s ideas for their own purposes. The argument that capitalism is in some sense natural because of the way that evolution has shaped human psychology has been another popular gambit for almost as long. Political science professor Larry Arnhart offers a recent version of this argument in his 2005 book Darwinian Conservatism. Among other things, Arnhart claims that evolutionary theory shows that humans instinctively seek power and the accumulation of wealth, and offers support for organizing human societies as male-dominated hierarchies based on the supposedly traditional nuclear family. On this basis he argues not just to keep gays but also women out of the military. He narrowly avoids making the argument that women should also be denied the right to vote.

It is almost embarrassing to have to engage with claims of this kind, which are based not on real evidence, but on speculative hypotheses and a highly selective misreading of the historical record. The speculative hypotheses consist of attempts to show that it may have been advantageous for our early human ancestors to have developed certain psychological characteristics (such as an instinct for power), which may then have become hard-wired into our brains. But speculative hypotheses need evidence to be taken seriously, so here enters the selective misreading of history. Find historical examples of the characteristic in question being exhibited, ignore all counter-examples in which the characteristic is apparently missing, and then argue that the characteristic is genetically programmed into our psyches. It’s certainly easy to find examples of humans ruthlessly seeking power or dominating and humiliating others, for instance, and if you ignore all examples of cooperation and solidarity, you can then conclude that human beings are naturally power-hungry and domineering.

But, in fact, examples of cooperation and solidarity abound, and the best available archaeological and anthropological evidence strongly supports the view that the earliest human societies were not based on competition, inequality, and hierarchy. According to the anthropologist Richard Lee, for example,

Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality [about 5,000 years ago], people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalized reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.

Similar examination of the historical record shows that male domination and the nuclear family are not part of human nature.
The general strategy of drawing political conclusions from an account of human nature is a sound one. But the most striking feature of human behavior is not that the same patterns remain unchanged throughout history, but that it is so variable. This suggests a very different account of human evolution to the one proposed by conservatives like Arnhart. As the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once put it:

Human uniqueness lies in the flexibility of what our brain can do. What is intelligence, if not the ability to face problems in an unprogrammed (or, as we often say, creative) manner? If intelligence sets us apart among organisms, then I think it probable that natural selection acted to maximize the flexibility of our behavior. What would be more adaptive for a learning and thinking animal: genes selected for aggression, spite, and xenophobia; or selection for learning rules that can generate aggression in appropriate circumstances and peacefulness in others?

Gould’s model of human evolution is also consistent with the remarkable findings of recent neuroscientific research, which has revealed the amazing plasticity of the human brain. As another recent New York Times article noted, “the human brain is as malleable as a lump of wet clay not only in infancy, as scientists have long known, but well into hoary old age…. [I]t is apparently able to respond to injury with striking functional reorganization, and can at times actually think itself into a new anatomic configuration.” The idea that human beings will be frustrated unless they live in competitive capitalist societies has no scientific basis—indeed, simple observation reveals that just the opposite is true.

The problem for conservatives is that Darwin’s ideas are genuinely revolutionary. Darwin argued in great detail not only that evolution has taken place (a conclusion that was very rapidly embraced by the vast majority of the scientific establishment, because of the mass of evidence that Darwin provided in its support), but also that evolutionary change was largely the result of the random, ultimately purposeless process of natural selection (an idea that took much longer to be vindicated and accepted). The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests a thoroughly materialist picture of the world that banishes vital forces and preordained purposes from nature, and which implies that mental phenomena emerge when matter is arranged in complex ways. Such ideas undermine not only traditional religious views of divine creation but also more sophisticated versions of theism, which claim that God works through evolution.

Darwin was well aware of the materialist consequences of his views, and was both elated and (as a respectable bourgeois gentleman) made extremely nervous by them. In a notebook written in the 1830s, when he was first developing his ideas, he wrote:

Love of the deity effect of organization [of the brain], oh you materialist!… Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, our admiration of ourselves.

Later in his notes, he resolved not to state this implication of his views explicitly:

To avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism, say only that emotions, instincts, degrees of talent, which are hereditary are so because brain of child resembles parent stock.

Darwin’s nervousness probably explains why he took so long to publish his ideas, finally doing so only when he became aware that the young Welsh naturalist Alfred Wallace had reached similar conclusions that he was about to make public. But despite his best efforts, they were seen as a direct challenge to the dominant ideology of Victorian England in the mid-nineteenth century. One early reviewer of Darwin’s book, the great geologist Adam Sedgwick, spoke for many: “I cannot conclude without expressing my detestation of the theory, because of its unflinching materialism.”

It was precisely Darwin’s materialism that explains why his contemporaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were so enthusiastic about the new theory. Less than a month after the Origin was published, Engels remarked in a letter to Marx: “Darwin, whom I am just now reading, is splendid.” Marx himself read the Origin the following year and commented to Engels, “Although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our own view.” Marx’s point was presumably not that evolution by natural selection automatically implies the truth of his own historical materialist approach to society—there is no contradiction in accepting Darwin and rejecting Marx. But Darwin’s views, by supporting a general materialist perspective and by demonstrating the centrality of historical change in the biological world, certainly enhance the general plausibility of a materialist approach to human society as well.


18 thoughts on “Darwinism and American Religion

  1. I just found your blog and intend on reading everything. Thanks for sharing your intelligent observations. Although I may be a Christian or I may not, depending on circumstances, I am comforted by one who does and yet hasn’t shut off their mind or heart. Good luck in Germany.

  2. Bruce,

    I know how you feel. It is rare to find a blog that is open minded to different perspectives in an intelligent way. Carson, you are one of the few Christians I know that can create an honest discussion about such things as faith and science. But you are right in that this article clearly has one perspective. It is my understanding that Darwin believed in Intelligent Design. The idea than man came from a monkey is mere propaganda taught by the religious right. In fact, he believe that all life evolved from one source put in place by my source.

  3. I couldn’t stomach reading your entire misguided piece, but let me respond to a couple of false premises you hold.

    1) It is not the “religious Right” who is attempting to impose a “reactionary social agenda”. The “religious Right” merely seeks to maintain traditional morals and values. It is the secular humanists who are pushing a “reactionary social agenda”.

    2) You stated:

    “Simply put, the religious fundamentalist attack on Darwin’s ideas amounts, in effect, to an attack on the scientific method itself. Rejecting evolutionary biology means rejecting along with it large portions of physics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, and other sciences, which provide evidence for evolution or employ similar methods.”

    Fundamentalist Christians embrace science, the scientific method, and all valid scientific evidence. What we DON’T accept is the conclusions drawn by evolutionists–conclusions that require a huge leap of faith, and which start with the supposition that there is no god, or that God was not involved in Creation. For the record, only a small minority of Americans actually believe that (that there is no god, or that He had no part in creation).

  4. Activist,

    Calm down and relax. First of all, Casron did not say he endorsed this perspective. He is presenting a point of view that is being discussed among a few in the academic community. I am a Christian who realizes that people must be permitted to engage in such dicussions. This article written by Gasper should make you happy knowing that in a free society Christians, liberals, conservatives, and atheists can be open to addressing their view without being forced to hide.

    I do not agree totally with Gasper, but he is correct in that those such as Darwin feared engaging in such debates due to the force of the conservative right. It is that right that is constantley challenging historical interpretations and ideas.

  5. Bruce,

    Thanks for the great praise/comment. I hope that you will continue to read and contribute to the discussions that take place here. It sounds like you have much to offer. I work hard hard to understand a number of different points of view. This blog is an open forum about a number of topics.

  6. Activist,

    Your thoughts and voice are welcomed here. Again, it is comments such as yours that make freedom of voice and ideas so great in America. Oh, I am not sure Michael got the music joke. That is pretty good. I like Smith’s Christian music too. When I go Christian music, I stick to Jars of Clay or News Boys.

  7. (Chuckes)…. Gasper makes a straw capitalist man that (obviously) feels constrained by the laws of evolutionary theory to dominate the poor, makes a straw religious man that (obviously) believes God is an old, bearded man floating on a cloud, then puts them in a sandbox and makes them fight each other. Then he rolls over both idiots with his Tonka Truck of Unassailable Evidence.

    Gasper is frustrated that many do not accept evolutionary theory, and I can understand why he feels that way. What I don’t see is a large movement to suppress the teaching of evolutionary theory. There are people fighting to keep creationism or intelligent design in the classroom, but that is an attempt to expand debate, not to end it. Contrast that to Gasper’s view that the debate should have ended after 150 years (or probably sooner than that based on the speed with which man-made global warming is being set into stone as scientific fact).

    If Gasper is alarmed at how many people believe in a Creator, he may also be surprised at how many of those same people believe evolution may have played a role in the creation process. Back in November of 2006, Time magazine had a fantastic interview with two men titled “God vs Science”, which explored the compatibility of the two. There were some great exchanges between Richard Dawkins (the atheistic scientist) and Francis Collins (the pro-God scientist). Here was one of my favorites:

    TIME: Professor Dawkins, you think Darwin’s theory of evolution does more than simply contradict the Genesis story.

    DAWKINS: Yes. For centuries the most powerful argument for God’s existence from the physical world was the so-called argument from design: Living things are so beautiful and elegant and so apparently purposeful, they could only have been made by an intelligent designer. But Darwin provided a simpler explanation. His way is a gradual, incremental improvement starting from very simple beginnings and working up step by tiny incremental step to more complexity, more elegance, more adaptive perfection. Each step is not too improbable for us to countenance, but when you add them up cumulatively over millions of years, you get these monsters of improbability, like the human brain and the rain forest. It should warn us against ever again assuming that because something is complicated, God must have done it.

    COLLINS: I don’t see that Professor Dawkins’ basic account of evolution is incompatible with God’s having designed it.

    TIME: When would this have occurred?

    COLLINS: By being outside of nature, God is also outside of space and time. Hence, at the moment of the creation of the universe, God could also have activated evolution, with full knowledge of how it would turn out, perhaps even including our having this conversation. The idea that he could both foresee the future and also give us spirit and free will to carry out our own desires becomes entirely acceptable.

    DAWKINS: I think that’s a tremendous cop-out. If God wanted to create life and create humans, it would be slightly odd that he should choose the extraordinarily roundabout way of waiting for 10 billion years before life got started and then waiting for another 4 billion years until you got human beings capable of worshipping and sinning and all the other things religious people are interested in.

    COLLINS: Who are we to say that that was an odd way to do it? I don’t think that it is God’s purpose to make his intention absolutely obvious to us. If it suits him to be a deity that we must seek without being forced to, would it not have been sensible for him to use the mechanism of evolution without posting obvious road signs to reveal his role in creation?


    We’ve all been given a puzzle as to how the universe works and how it was exactly created. Unfortunately, we were not provided the box top to the puzzle to confirm how it looks. We can either logically put the pieces together one at a time, or we can form a picture in our mind based on the pieces we have and try to interlock new pieces based on our mental image. Christians and scientists are both a little guilty of the latter.

    I found this line by Gasper to be interesting: “The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests a thoroughly materialist picture of the world…which implies that mental phenomena emerge when matter is arranged in complex ways.” Explaining where matter came from in the first place, as well as how exactly simple matter becomes more complex matter will keep us all busy for awhile.

  8. To me, there is room for both science and faith. Science cannot explain everything found on earth and throughout the universe. Furthermore, faith is faith for a reason. There are think tanks that focus on both constructs; however, it is more of the extreme sides of both that are at an impass. God gave us a mind to use. There is nothing wrong with using our brain to draw difficult conclusions. However, we as humans are only so smart. I realize this is a difficult thing for some to accept. And, for those who do not believe in faith and God, there is room in most religious discussions for them to take part. Intellectually, this is very important. I realize that there are closed minded people on both sides of this debate.

    Also, there is room for disagreement on this matter as well. I find discourse to be very healthy. I respect those who do not believe in my faith or my God. They challenge me daily to study and learn more about what I believe. As a historian who struggles with various historical conclusions, it is those who think they know that forces me to continue my drive for answers.

    I fear those on both extremes; those who are not willing to listen and engage in a healthy discussion. As for Gasper, he is looking at this in many ways from a political and historical point of view. Gasper, who is a Socialist, knows the historical nature of social Darwinism. Capitalists of the past and present using and misusing aspects of scientific Darwinism to justify class exploitation and the “fit mentality” have been a part of the hitherto. Funny, but it was Herbert Spencer that used this evolutionary concept to coin “survival of the fittest.”

  9. The Authentication of Genesis

    On or before August 15, 2007, a book is scheduled to be published.
    It’s title is “Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!!”, written by
    Ephraim. The “Big Bang” and evolution theories, plus the doctrines
    of current creationist factions, shall be exposed as being in error.

    After fifteen years, the truth of Genesis will finally be available to
    the public, blowing all previous attempts to explain Genesis
    “out of the water”. This book will be the most notable biblical
    authentication since the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is the first and only
    book written that explains the difference between the “six days of
    Moses” and the “seven days of Creation Week”.

    It is also the only book to completely explain the events that lead to
    the Extra-Celestial Civil War, also known as “the war in Heaven”.
    Comprehensive coverage of the war is given, when it ended, and how
    it affected the ancient history of our universe.

    Finally, it explains the Messiahship of Jesus, and reveals how He was
    really half Judean (for royalty) and half Levite (for priesthood). It also
    explains to non-believers the sanctity of God’s marriage to Israel, and
    why Jesus had to die first before the gospel could be preached to gentiles.

    The ISBN is 1-4241-8220-4.

    Herman Cummings
    PO Box 1745
    Fortson GA, 31808
    (706) 662-2893

  10. Herman:

    I’m going to read your longer writing on this subject at your aol Hometown site when I get a chance. It looks very interesting.


    Thanks for your hospitality. I apologize for misunderstanding your position.

  11. Activist: Not a problem. Hope to hear from you agian. By the way, although Huckabee is not really my type of candidate, I liked his populist positon while governor of Arkansas.

    Herman: I read your web page about the book and will add it to my reading list too.

  12. Hello.

    There are less than five living experts on the book of Genesis. All
    others are exhaling “hot air”. Adam & Eve never saw any dinosaurs.
    Dimetrodons were created in 4.6 Billion BC, and died out in 245
    Million BC. Dinosaurs were created in 244 Million BC, and died
    out in 65 Million BC. The huge mammals were created in 64
    Million BC, along with the first humans to be in God’s image.
    Adam was made in 7200 BC, Eve was made in 7000 BC.

    Lastly, the “six days of Moses” in chapter one of Genesis are
    not the “seven days of Creation” (Exodus 20:11). The book
    “Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!!” explains from Creation
    to the Red Sea Crossing.

    PO Box 1745
    Fortson GA 31808

  13. The book is now available. See the details below.

    Title: Moses Didn’t Write About Creation!

    Paperback: 432 pages
    Publisher: PublishAmerica (August 6, 2007)
    Language: English
    ISBN-10: 1424182204
    ISBN-13: 978-1424182206
    Product Dimensions: 9 x 6 x 1 inches

  14. In Response to Activist:

    Evolution does not imply there is no god, nor does it imply anything that you mentioned it does.

    It says that species evolve and change to better function in their environments due to natural processes (put under the roof of natural selection). There is no track of specified direction or final point of evolution. It is always going, and always changing species in slight ways.

    It has been seen on all scales of biology through microbiology and even through speciation (check the wiki article). It is supported in many fields of science.

    Darwins ideas begin evolution, but it is in no way his theory anymore. He got many things completely wrong. The theory has “evolved” beyond him.

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