Art for Nothing

Darwinism & the Devolution of Story

Think about great movies, novels, and plays. They probe the physical world of flesh and blood and, at the same time, draw us into things spiritual and immaterial: the sublime and the ridiculous; love, heroism, envy and prejudice; good and evil.

But a strain of modern thought says that those immaterial things aren't real. Darwinian materialism holds that all species evolved from the first tiny cell in a process without guidance or design. And the human mind is no exception. Harvard evolutionist E. O. Wilson describes it as just a byproduct of the physical brain, and the brain as "the product of genetic evolution by natural selection."

On this view, if fiction reaches toward a higher plane, then it reaches toward an illusion, since matter and energy are the only fundamental reality. Free will, good and evil, love and heroism, all are a mirage.

As for our favorite movies, novels, and plays, along with our favorite songs and paintings, all of these artistic creations, according to Wilson, have "been produced by the genetic evolution of our nervous and sensory tissues."

He's serious. "To treat them as other than objects of biological inquiry," he says, "is simply to aim too low."1

Impoverishing Art & Artists

Wilson is suggesting that his approach to the arts is nobler than the traditional view. But treating art as a mere byproduct of Darwinian evolution doesn't ennoble our understanding of art. It undermines the very foundation for saying that art or anything else can be noble or low or wicked.

If Darwinian materialism is right, a few of our ancestors had a mutation that led them to imagine there is a spiritual dimension and that things like nobility actually exist. This illusion supposedly helped them survive, reproduce, and pass the mutation along from one generation to the next in a growing population of deluded but successful ancestors. These creatures eventually worked out their delusion in everything from religion to art.

Darwinian materialism suggests, more specifically, that the impulse toward artistic creation is merely the human songbird attracting a mate—great art as the byproduct of sexual selection.

Thus does modern evolutionary thinking impoverish our understanding of art and the artist.

It also impoverishes the content of particular works of art. Works shaped by the Darwinian outlook tend to present humans as mere animals, or as hapless cogs in a pitiless meat grinder. They present the material world as the only reality, and life as ultimately meaningless.

This is an impoverishment because life is ultimately meaningful, not meaningless; the material world isn't the only reality; and humans are animals, yes, but ones made in the image of God, with stewardship capacity and a high calling.

True, there are great and gifted artists who embrace Darwinian materialism, and yet whose work retains much goodness, beauty, and truth, including insights into human nature and the human struggle. I'm not arguing that faith in Darwinian materialism utterly bankrupts art. I'm arguing that it compromises, mars, or to a significant degree impoverishes artistic creations.

Literary Naturalism & a Time Machine

The first place we can see the effects of Darwinian materialism on literature is in the literary movement known as naturalism. Émile Zola, Thomas Hardy, George Eliot, Theodore Dreiser, Jack London, and Stephen Crane are examples of authors who wrote in this vein. Some, such as Hardy, began as literary realists and, in the wake of Darwin's theory of evolution, were drawn into the naturalist mode.

As the Encyclopedia Britannica succinctly explains, naturalism "was inspired by adaptation of the principles and methods of natural science, especially the Darwinian view of nature," and it emphasized

man's accidental, physiological nature rather than his moral or rational qualities. Individual characters were seen as helpless products of heredity and environment, motivated by strong instinctual drives from within and harassed by social and economic pressures from without. As such, they had little will or responsibility for their fates, and the prognosis for their "cases" was pessimistic at the outset.

There were also authors influenced by Darwinism who wrote in a fantastical mode. In H. G. Wells's science fiction classic The Time Machine (1895), the protagonist travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future only to discover that humans have evolved—devolved really—into two separate races. One is a thuggish underworld group. The other lives above ground and is hardly more ambitious than a flock of sheep. The inventor-protagonist then travels further forward in time and finds that all traces of humanity have disappeared. The sun is burning out, and life on earth is heading for extinction. This aptly conveys Darwinian materialism's vision of a meaningless universe grinding pointlessly toward a meaningless end.

Beyond the Sheltering Sky

In a similarly cheerless vein, Robert Bowles's 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky depicts the blue sky as a façade protecting us from the reality of a dark, meaningless universe, with human civilization serving the same function. In an interview with The Paris Review, Bowles commented:

If I'm persuaded that our life is predicated upon violence, that the entire structure of what we call civilization, the scaffolding that we've built up over the millennia, can collapse at any moment, then whatever I write is going to be affected by that assumption. The process of life presupposes violence, in the plant world the same as the animal world.

Why assume that life is ultimately meaningless and life predicated on violence? Likely because those are tenets of Darwinian materialism: matter is ultimately all there is, and humans and other creatures evolved in a pitiless, dog-eat-dog process of mutation and natural selection—the survival of the fittest.

In the 1960s, screenwriter Robert Ardrey influenced Hollywood in this direction, not through his screenplays but through two of his books, African Genesis and The Territorial Imperative. Ardrey pressed the idea that humans evolved to be violent—that we're the vicious descendants of vicious apes. Two filmmakers influenced by him are Sam Peckinpah, director of the 1969 western The Wild Bunch, and Stanley Kubrick, director of Spartacus, A Clockwork Orange, and the science fiction classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The latter movie doesn't begin in space but in the prehistoric past, with a little tribe of pre-human hominids. The opening scene shows an African landscape where water is scarce. The words appear on screen, "The Dawn of Man."

This little ape-like tribe lacks the mental capacity even to use animal bones as weapons, and they've been driven from their watering hole by another little tribe. The next day, a strange black monolith appears in their midst, several feet high, shaped roughly like a domino, but perfectly smooth and geometrical. It emits a strange noise. The ape-like creatures draw near, terrified but also fascinated. Eventually one of them touches the monolith. His fellow tribesmen follow suit.

A bit later our protagonist is toying with some animal bones and thinking. Suddenly, he gets an idea. He picks up one of the longer bones and tentatively strikes the ground with it. He grows a little bolder. He tries striking some of the other bones. He grows more excited, thrilled by the idea now dawning on him: the bone can be used as a tool . . . as a weapon. He raises his arm and brings the bone crashing down on an animal skull, which smashes to bits.

The implication is clear: the alien monolith has somehow bequeathed to him and his little tribe a sudden quantum leap in brain power. In the next scene they use the animal bones to drive away the tribe that earlier drove them away from their watering hole. When the victory is complete and one of the enemy hominids lies battered and motionless at their feet, our protagonist tosses the bone up into the air in ecstatic triumph.

At this point the film drops into slow motion and, as the bone spins through the air, the scene switches to a scene in space, with the bone suddenly replaced by another human tool of a similar shape, though far larger: a space vessel in the near future of the modern age.

An Escape Hatch

These opening minutes of the film convey several themes. Most obviously, they reinforce the Darwinian idea that humans descended from ape-like ancestors. There is also here the central premise of Robert Ardrey's Territorial Imperative—man as a violent territorial animal, programmed by millions of years of evolution to kill and conquer.

And lastly, the film provides an explanation, if only fictional, for the great gap between apes and humans: an alien monolith came down and, upon being touched, bequeathed our ancient ancestors with a major brain boost, setting us on a trajectory stretching from primitive bone tools to the glories of space travel.

Both in this opening scene and later in the story, the film epitomizes a futurist ET myth that Michael Keas excavates and describes in his excellent recent book Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion.

To grasp what Keas means by a futurist ET myth, some additional background is helpful. Darwinian materialism, taken at face value, strips life and the world of higher meaning and purpose. (H. G. Wells deserves credit for facing those implications in The Time Machine.) But many who accept Darwinism don't want to go there. One escape hatch is the idea of humanity rescued and exalted by a race of wise and advanced extra-terrestrials—a substitute god to replace the God of the Bible Darwin is said to have killed with his theory of evolution.

This is the ET myth that Kubrick reenacts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's the artist whose vision of reality has been impoverished by Darwinism grasping for meaning and purpose in a mirage.

Faith in More than Matter

We've only scratched the surface of Darwinism's impoverishing effects on literature and film. Darwinism is partly responsible for the slide into ugliness and formlessness in the arts. It is also a key contributor to the postmodern turn toward a hermeneutics of relativism and nihilism, championed in the deconstructionist criticism of thinkers such as Roland Barthes and Jacques Derrida. But that's an essay for another time.

Here, suffice to say that Darwinian materialism's impoverishing effect on literature is so much of a problem that my alma mater, a Christian university in Texas, published an anthology of literary works that are not nihilistic and materialistic, just to provide balance for the typical literary anthologies assigned to students in freshman and sophomore English.

It's called Shadow and Light: Literature and the Life of Faith. It includes short stories and poems from various great authors who maintained faith in a cosmos that is more than matter—John Milton, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Flannery O'Connor, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Updike, and various others. I highly recommend the book. It's one of many efforts not only to recognize the threat that materialism poses to our culture, but also to do something about it.

1. E. O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Harvard UP, 1978),pp. 195, 204.

PhD, is Executive Editor of Discovery Institute Press and a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. He is the author or coauthor of numerous works, including Intelligent Design Uncensored, The Hobbit Party, A Meaningful World, and the new intelligent design young-adult novel The Farm at the Center of the Universe with astrobiologist Guillermo Gonzalez.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #54, Fall 2020 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


Bioethics icon Bioethics Philosophy icon Philosophy Media icon Media Transhumanism icon Transhumanism Scientism icon Scientism Euthanasia icon Euthanasia Porn icon Porn Marriage & Family icon Marriage & Family Race icon Race Abortion icon Abortion Education icon Education Civilization icon Civilization Feminism icon Feminism Religion icon Religion Technology icon Technology LGBTQ+ icon LGBTQ+ Sex icon Sex College Life icon College Life Culture icon Culture Intelligent Design icon Intelligent Design

Welcome, friend.
to read every article [or subscribe.]