The Commoner.

Speaking for the common man. Voicing the concerns of those that appreciate the value of life and community, from the least to the greatest. Ringing the bell for Christian Democracy and Catholic Social Teaching in the US.

Social Darwinism turns 200

As Bob Edwards has reminded us on his Thursday show on XM Radio (heard by me on Friday), Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday is the same as Abraham Lincoln’s. Bob had two Darwin authors on his show, James Moore and Sean Carroll. When I was listening to the program, it spurred me to once again ask myself, “Do you believe in evolution?” My answer to such a query is, “It depends on what you mean by evolution.” Though I have not read Origin of Species, from my understanding of what Darwin advocated, I would say that we probably do agree on a lot. I believe in natural selection (though I am not a philosophical naturalist). I believe in the mutation of species, i.e. genetic mutation. I believe that the natural world is governed (at least concerning secondary causes, where the Redeemer has first cause) by the principle of the survival of the fittest. Darwin believed in these things. I also believe in God. My understanding (confirmed by the radio program) is that Darwin believed in God.

Further, I believe that the tremendous evidence that we find in nature that proclaims its great age is not false evidence. It is quite possible that we understand it wrongly, but it is being presented to us in nature as being very, very old (not just a few thousand years old). I take that evidence at face value. To those that say the oldness of nature contradicts the account of creation found in Genesis, I would say this… both nature and the Bible claim to be a revelation of God. I believe they are both revelations of God. I believe they are both accurate in their portrayal of reality. I believe that human beings are (given their fallen state) incapable of understanding either revelation perfectly. However, we can understand it. It is our duty to try to understand God’s revelations to us. It is our duty to make an ongoing, faithful and generous attempt to reconcile God’s revelations in such a way that they do not contradict each other, nor do they test each other’s veracity, but become yet more profound in the symphony.


Still further, I would agree with Darwin that our bodies are related to other primates. Whether the first human body was a direct creation of God, or something God created derivatively from his previous animal creations, I don’t know.  I don’t think it actually matters.  There is no question that we are genetically cousins to other primates; and there is no question that we resemble, in many ways, other primates. This is not inconsistent with the idea that God’s creation of man was a unique and singular event. Genesis says that man was made of “the dust from the ground”. This does not mean that the creation of man was out of step from the rest of creation. All creatures are made from the elements of this world. The thing that makes the creation of man unique is that God made him “in His own image” by breathing in him “the spirit of life”. These unique features of man (as opposed to other animals) are not found in genetic research (except perhaps as a secondary effect), or in biological studies of other sorts. The image of God in man refers to those elements of man’s persona that are reflective of the persona of the immaterial God. It is a spiritual image in view here. Self-awareness, self-reflection, knowledge of right and wrong, moral capability and responsibility… these are the kinds of personal characteristics that define the image of God in man. There is a naturally unbridgeable chasm between this image of God that really is an essential part of every human being, no matter what stage of development, and the personalities of non-human animals. I love my dogs very much. They have immense personalities. They have affection for me that very much resembles love. They may be happy and sad, joyful and fearful; but they will never have genuine guilt feelings, because they will never have guilt (at least not in an innate sense; or any way that is not a learned response based on training from their human master). When an alligator kills a man, it is a very bad thing, but that alligator will not be guilty of doing bad, because it has no knowledge of right and wrong. It has no image of God.

Much of the discussion on the radio show pointed to Darwin’s opposition to slavery, and the fact that he considered himself a humanitarian (read Christian humanist), as well as a libertarian. While I do not doubt that he was a humanist, such fondness for the plight of other men did not spring from his theory on human origins, and natural selection (though his libertarian views may have  :-) ) . It was mentioned that many despots and tyrants throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, along with eugenicists (who were wrongly considered some of the sharpest people, until Hitler ruined it for them), claimed inspiration from the theories of Darwin. It is true. The scandalous thing is that while Darwin himself may have been a humanist, social Darwinists and eugenicists are more in line with the direction of his theories than he was. Social Darwinists and eugenicists tend greatly to be materialists, because they seek to explain the state of human affairs without God, and they seek to rest their theories on perceived winners; and the prevailing alternative to God in recent decades has been materialistic Darwinism. If Darwin did believe in God (which I do not doubt), then he could not have been a materialist, because materialists have no room in their worldview for an immaterial God, or supernatural events. This being said, the vast majority of his devoted followers are materialists. You would be hard pressed to find a devoted Darwinist that is not a materialist. This is because the direction of his theories, as well as the assumptions underlying them, goes toward materialism. While he may not have gone that far, he takes us on the road that goes there. There is nothing in a materialist framework (i.e. in a modern Darwinist framework) that provides a foundation for distinguishing right from wrong, or provides for a humanitarian affection for slaves. If it is a dog eat dog world, and people naturally seek personal advantage, and there is nothing intrinsically wrong with stepping on others to get to the top (because there is no cosmic yardstick to measure right from wrong), then why should a person of privilege (like Darwin) be truly concerned with the plight of slaves? If the materialist is just concerned that the possible rebellion of the slaves would be an ugly event, then he is not truly concerned for their plight. He just doesn’t want blowback from his collective action with others.

Without a strong theistic foundation, Darwinism leads to philosophical materialism. Materialism is by definition a godless belief system. I believe that materialistic Darwinism leads naturally to social Darwinism (though most Darwinists today don’t want to go there, not because they think it is wrong, but because in this post-Holocaust era it is quite unpopular and politically incorrect, and rightly so). Social Darwinism has no room for altruistic actions. Let’s admit it, Social Darwinism IS Darwinism.  And, if it is true that Darwin believed in God, let’s also admit that Darwin was not a Darwinist.  If he was not a believer in God, then he had no basis for his Christian humanism.  I’m not saying he should have jettisoned his Christian humanism (in such a case), but he would have been more philosophically consistent.

Categories: Origins