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Further Reading

ID & Culture

How Has Darwinism Affected Politics and the Culture?

An Interview with John West, author of Darwin Day in America

In 2007, ISI Books published John West's Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. The book documents how Darwinian biology and other forms of scientific materialism have transformed American culture over the past century through their impact on criminal justice, welfare, business, advertising, education, medicine, and even architecture. Drawing on ten years of research, this nearly 500-page book provides a comprehensive portrait of the human cost of scientific materialism during the past century.

John West is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute and Associate Director of its Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West holds a Ph.D. in Government from Claremont Graduate University and is the author or editor of ten other books, including Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest, The Politics of Revelation and Reason, and The C. S. Lewis Reader's Encyclopedia. He has been interviewed frequently by the national media, including Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times, and has appeared on CNN, FoxNews, and C-SPAN.

So why is your book titled Darwin Day in America?

"Darwin Day" is Charles Darwin's birthday, February 12. As I explain in my book, there is a growing movement around the world to turn the day into a kind of secular holy day, complete with its own rituals to honor Darwin. These Darwin Day celebrations expose just how much Darwinian evolution is like a secular religion for many of its proponents.

At the same time, Darwin Day provides a metaphor for how our public policy and culture have been influenced over the past century by Darwinian biology and similar kinds of reductionist science. In many respects, Darwin Day is every day in America right now, because Darwinism and scientific materialism have reshaped virtually every area of our culture and politics.

The subtitle of your book asserts that "our politics and culture have been dehumanized in the name of science." How so?

At the dawn of the 20th century, leading scientists and politicians giddily predicted that modern science—Darwinian biology in particular—would supply solutions to all the intractable problems of American society, from crime to poverty to sexual maladjustment. A new generation of "scientific" experts began treating human beings as little more than animals or machines.

In criminal justice, materialists denied the existence of free will and proposed replacing punishment with invasive "cures" such as the lobotomy. In welfare, they proposed eliminating the poor by sterilizing those deemed biologically unfit. In business, they urged the selection of workers based on racist theories of human evolution, and the development of advertising methods to more effectively manipulate consumer behavior. In sex education, they advocated creating a new sexual morality based on "normal mammalian behavior" without regard to longstanding ethical principles. And in medicine, they devalued human beings based on their physical disabilities. These are some of the issues discussed in depth in my book.

Didn't Charles Darwin himself focus on the science of evolution rather than try to apply his ideas to politics or culture? And aren't those who are trying to apply his theory to society simply twisting his theory for their own ends?

I used to think that—until I started to read Darwin himself. In truth, Darwin had quite a lot to say about the moral and social implications of his own theory. I explore Darwin's views in detail in chapter two. Those who think Darwin's theory and "Social Darwinism" are sharply different need to read that chapter.

Your book spends a lot of time discussing the history of eugenics and other unsavory practices and pointing out their connections to Darwinian evolution. But isn't it just as unfair to blame Darwin and his theory for eugenics as it is to blame Christians for the Holocaust?

The problem with regarding eugenics as a misuse of Darwin's theory is that Darwin himself supplied the rationale for eugenics in his book The Descent of Man, where he lamented how civilized societies were destroying the human race by counteracting the law of natural selection and helping the poor, inoculating people against smallpox, and allowing the "worst" human beings to breed.

Now it's true that Darwin was squeamish about following the logical implications of his theory. But he clearly provided the basic arguments used by those who came after him, and eugenics was certainly logically connected to his theory. If you truly believe that human progress depends on unfettered survival of the fittest, and if modern societies have done their best to counteract natural selection, then you are left with two choices for saving the human race: Go back to the old law of the jungle or impose some kind of artificial selection—in other words, eugenics.

What was the hardest section of the book to write?

The chapters on sex education. I'm no prude, but you really get down in the muck when you enter the world of "sexologists" such as Alfred Kinsey and his disciples. It's not that the material was particularly titillating. It was that it was so unrelentingly bleak. In the name of human liberation and science, the sex-education reformers turned sex into something joyless and mechanical, without life or love or any deeper meaning.

What was the most outrageous thing you wrote about?

That's a tough question. The doctor from Kansas who castrated kids in the 1890s was pretty horrific, as was the Italian scientist who spent his career trying to revive decapitated bodies in experiments in the early 1800s. If you want a more recent example, the National Academy of Sciences geneticist who invoked Haeckel's discredited theory of embryonic recapitulation before Congress in order to justify abortion showed just how ignorant even a leading scientist can be. But if I had to choose just one outrage, it probably would be the sexologists in the 1970s and 1980s who claimed that child molestation—and even incest—were normal parts of childhood. The devastation they wrought on innocent young lives is incalculable.

How do you respond to those who may claim that your book is anti-science?

Actually, I regard it as pro-science. My critique is directed against ideologues in the scientific community who manipulate science for their own ideological agenda and then demonize those who disagree with them rather than respond to their criticisms. In my view, the real anti-science zealots in our society are the dogmatic materialists who are trying to misuse science as a bludgeon to attack traditional religion and morality.

Your book criticizes the role of scientific experts in politics. But shouldn't public policy be based on the consensus view of science rather than fringe science?

The consensus view of science is important, and it merits respect. But the consensus view can be wildly wrong. That's why policymakers need to listen to thoughtful dissenters on major scientific questions—whether the issue is Darwinian evolution, the extent of global warming, or embryonic stem-cell research. As my book recounts, throughout history the "consensus" of the scientific community has often embraced what today would be regarded as junk science—from eugenics to lobotomies to Kinsey's junk research on sexual behavior. Dissenters in the scientific community have been invaluable in exposing the scientific majority's blind spots and promoting genuine scientific progress.

Several times in your book you cite British author, critic, and educator C. S. Lewis. Why?

Lewis was one of the most powerful critics in the last century of the misguided effort to reduce man to a mere animal in the name of science. I view my book as documenting within the history of American public policy the disastrous social consequences predicted by Lewis in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.

What message do you hope readers will take away from your book?

Ideas have consequences, and bad ideas can have horrific consequences. People need to know that there are real-world implications to current debates over Darwinism and scientific materialism, and we ignore them at our peril. Also, they need to understand how scientific experts frequently can be wrong, and how important it is in a free society to include dissenting scientific views as part of the public conversation. •

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