William Jennings Bryan was right

Here is an article I have frequently mentioned and linked over the years, but have never reproduced at VFR, and I should do so, in case it disappears at some point from its original location. It is Carol Iannone’s 2001 article at the New York Press, “Wm. Jennings Bryan was right.” It was this piece that first woke me to the utterly obvious (but to many people not obvious at all) fact that notwithstanding our pious notions to the contrary, implanted in us by the final scene of Inherit the Wind, God and Darwinian evolution are mutually contradictory. As Miss Iannone put it, “The Darwinian theory of the evolution of species through random mutation and natural selection is an uncompromisingly materialistic view of life that precludes not just Genesis but any transcendent reality whatsoever.” In subsequent discussions at VFR, I expanded on the idea that random accidental mutation is totally incompatible with evolution directed by God. However, the belief, against all logic, that they are compatible, is so deeply engrained in certain religious believers who also believe in Darwinism, that I realized at a certain point that there would always be people who would keep saying that randomness and God’s direction are compatible, no matter how absurd that statement is. Here is the entry where I admitted my despair on this point.

Tuesday, May 8,2001

Wm. Jennings Bryan Was Right

In Inherit the Wind, the famous courtroom drama about the Scopes Trial of 1925, the character named Henry Drummond, based on renowned defense attorney Clarence Darrow, loses the narrow legal case but resoundingly gains the moral victory over Matthew Harrison Brady, based on legendary populist leader William Jennings Bryan. Brady/Bryan is portrayed as a pious ignoramus protesting the teaching of evolution in the schools and clinging to the biblical story of creation. The play’s final scene has Drummond exiting the courtroom after his victory, with both the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species pointedly tucked into his briefcase. The clear implication is that religion and evolution are compatible except for a few backward fundamentalists like Brady/Bryan who insist on a literal reading of the first chapter of Genesis. Largely as a result of this enormously popular play and movie, millions of Americans have believed that Darwinian evolution can coexist with a transcendent Creator and an abiding moral order.

But the real-life William Jennings Bryan, as opposed to his fictional caricature, was not a biblical literalist. He did, however, believe that the Bible and Darwinian evolution were in conflict, and on that point he was right. Far from being the self-righteous bumpkin of Inherit the Wind, Bryan had a profound grasp of a truth that many religious and scientific figures have either misunderstood or deliberately obfuscated in an effort to avoid controversy: The Darwinian theory of the evolution of species through random mutation and natural selection is an uncompromisingly materialistic view of life that precludes not just Genesis but any transcendent reality whatsoever.

One of the few Darwinians to speak frankly about this clash of world views is William B. Provine, Professor of the History of Science at Cornell University, who admits that “prominent evolutionists have joined with equally prominent theologians and religious leaders to sweep under the rug the incompatibilities of evolution and religion.” The reason for this benign coverup is that, according to Provine, “If modern evolutionary biology is true, then all these lofty desires”–such as “the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life”–are “hopeless.” Instead, he declares, “we’re produced by a process that gives not one damn about us. It simply plops us here as humans on the earth the same way it does chimpanzees or gorillas or the AIDS virus or anything else.”

Despite such refreshing honesty, many religious people and conservatives remain convinced that Darwinian evolution is compatible with a spiritual understanding of life. Some cite the claims of sociobiology for support. Sociobiologists argue that social evolution is a direct outgrowth of biological evolution. In the drive to fulfill the evolutionary mandate to reproduce themselves and spread their genes, human beings have developed certain characteristics, dispositions and patterns of behavior that can be seen as ethical or moral and that are now hardwired into our species. For example, women, driven by the Darwinian mandate to pass on their genes, desire protection for their offspring and are therefore eager to form monogamous attachments. Driven by the same Darwinian mandate, a man wants to know that a woman’s children are definitely his own and he will therefore bind himself to her in a monogamous relationship despite his natural proclivity to roam. Pure biology thus produces what we think of as morality.

To the extent that sociobiology lends support to the conservative belief that human nature is not infinitely malleable, it is welcome. But there is little more that it can tell us with certainty. Sociobiology can only work backwards from the moral order that we are already familiar with by virtue of tradition and/or revelation and then suggest some evolutionary hypothesis to explain it. As C.S. Lewis might put it, you can’t go from an “is” to an “ought”–that is, there is no way to derive moral strictures from the facts of biology. The laws of evolution cannot lead to morality, but inevitably lapse into mere adaptation and survival of the fittest.

For the behavioral patterns explained by sociobiology turn out to be contingent on certain environmental, historical and technological circumstances. Francis Fukuyama’s recent book, The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order, is a sociobiological analysis of the moral and social upheavals of the 60s and their aftermath. The book’s thesis is that human beings have a biologically-based drive to forge social bonds and will build new forms of social order to replace some of what “the great disruption” destroyed. But the most important elements of social cohesion, those “regarding sex, reproduction, and family life,” now wracked by promiscuity, infidelity, divorce and single motherhood, are not likely to be restored.

Fukuyama writes that the “different technological and economic conditions of our age make it extremely unlikely” that we will see a return to traditional sexual mores, which were driven by fear of unwanted pregnancy and the destitution it might bring. This makes Fukuyama’s promised “reconstitution” quite hollow, but that is the most that sociobiology can offer. We’re creatures of evolution, you see, and so must continue to evolve in response to our changing environment. Those who seek a vision of an abiding social order based on permanent truths about human nature will not find it in sociobiology or Darwinian evolution. In that, William Jennings Bryan was right.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at November 22, 2010 08:05 AM | Send

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