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Roberto Rivera on the Popular Mind
“The Diane Rhem Show” is one of the keystone programs of my local National Public Radio affiliate. It’s fair to say that Diane Rhem is one of the most influential radio personalities in America. I’d be hard put to name an opinion maker who hasn’t appeared on the show, including Christians like Chuck Colson.
Once a month, Diane has what she calls her “book circle.” Diane and three or four guests discuss a book and invite callers to join in the discussion. Recent circles have discussed Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving.
This month’s book was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The book—published twenty years before George Orwell’s 1984—describes a future society where children are conceived in labs and raised by the state, which conditions them to play their assigned roles and provides them with a drug (called soma) and other sensual pleasures. The society operates on a strict caste system: the population is divided into (in descending order of influence) Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons. The state is omnipotent and no one thinks to question either the status quo or his place in it. Literature, art, and philosophy are suppressed.
Participants in the circle discussed the book in the “reader-response” sort of way that is all the rage nowadays. That is, they told us what the book says to them, and had very little to say about what Huxley might have been trying to tell us. One participant quoted a character in the book who says that in this brave new world, “[people] have what they want and they don’t want what they don’t have,” but seemed to be oblivious to the fact that Huxley was being satirical. Another participant speculated on the racial composition of the various castes and wondered aloud whether references to epsilons as “savage” was a way of saying that they were “people of color.”
What was lost on the group was Huxley’s bitter condemnation of the materialistic world in which they lived. He was, as G. K. Chesterton put it, “showing the ugly their own ugliness; even pelting the filthy with samples of their own filth.” In Brave New World he was, “if not on the side of the angels, at least horribly bored with the devils.” The group’s “reader-response” reading suggested that, unlike Huxley, they did not recognize devils when they saw them.
It is ironic that someone named Huxley could write this book. Aldous Huxley was the grandson of T. H. Huxley, the nineteenth-century biologist who was nicknamed “Darwin’s Bulldog.” Aside from Darwin, Marx, and Freud, no man is more responsible for the spread of philosophical materialism—the belief that everything around us can be explained by purely material processes—than T. H. Huxley. It was Huxley who defended Darwin against his critics, including those who warned of the moral and cultural consequences of Darwinism.
Of the truth of Darwinism, and its philosophical implications, he was certain. “The doctrine of evolution is no speculation,” he once declared, “but a generalization of certain facts.” This doctrine allowed for no transcendent purpose, for “there is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians” and “The cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends,” moral purpose being “an article of exclusive human manufacture.”
Aldous was also the brother of Julian Huxley, who took Darwinism to its logical political extreme. Julian, one of whose early books (revised and republished near the end of his life) was titled Religion Without Revelation, called for a one-world government and the eugenic “improvement” of the human race—for the sort of world his brother had satirized in Brave New World.
The irony is, of course, that the brave new world Aldous Huxley is protesting against is only possible in a world that takes the other Huxleys seriously. It was grandpa and brother who helped deconstruct human life into so much ova and sperm. It was grandpa and brother who helped convince the world that there is no God, and thus destroyed the basis for ethics and morality. (Remember Dostoyevsky’s maxim, “Without God, everything is permissible.”) It was they who replaced God with a scientific process that humanity—meaning, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in The Abolition of Man, some human beings—could manipulate to produce the future they desired.
It was . . . you get the point, who helped convince the world that there is nothing intrinsically special about being human. The brave new world Aldous satirized is Thomas’s and Julian’s creation. Totalitarianism needs materialism like a fish needs water, because totalitarianism has to subsume human dignity and freedom to the needs of the state.
That this irony was lost on the participants of Rhem’s book circle, as representatives of our chattering classes, demonstrates three important things about our culture. (Besides, that is, their ignorance of modern history.) First, an optimistic brand of methodological materialism is part of the air we breathe. Even people who claim to have great “spirituality” live as if we were the product of impersonal forces that didn’t have us in mind but (as T. H. and Julian suggested) work to our good anyway without our having to do anything in response. God might as well be dead for all it matters to the way we live—God, or evolution, or God working in evolution will make everything come out all right in the end.
Second, most people are clueless about what makes our way of life possible. Like Dickens’s Skimpole, who believed that milk appeared magically on his doorstep every morning, they believe that freedom, respect for the person, and other goods of human community originate out of the ether. They are unaware that it is Christian theology, with its insistence that people are ends and not means, that made the liberal values they cherish possible. In another irony, liberalism’s assault on biblical faith, aided largely by Darwinism, threatens its own existence.
Finally, it shows that very few people think anymore. Like the participants of Rhem’s book circle, most people prefer to emote their way through life. Why look for the real ironies and contradictions in life, much less watch out for the devils, when (a) truth doesn’t exist, and (b) what you feel is what really matters?
A Theory in Crisis
There is a certain irony in the strength of this popular, emotive Darwinism. Darwinism has been called a “theory in crisis,” and, in some ways, it is easy to see why. Folks like Michael Behe and Phillip Johnson have very effectively showed that this emperor is, if not exactly naked, down to his skivvies. Nevertheless, just as the scientific basis for Darwinism faces its most serious challenge since Darwin published The Origin of Species, Darwinism’s influence on our culture has never been greater.
The latest example of Darwinism’s domination of our intellectual life can be found in the February issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The cover tells us “Do infections cause heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, and psychiatric illnesses? An eminent biologist thinks so.” What does this have to do with Darwinism? Everything. Paul Ewald of Amherst College grounds his “New Germ Theory” of the etiology of these diseases in Darwinism.
The theory is elegant in its simplicity: The idea of “evolutionary fitness” tells us that genetic traits that lessen the chances of an organism’s survival or reproduction don’t persist in the gene pool for very long. As the article puts it, “natural selection, by its very logic, weeds them out in short order.”
This logic calls into question the genetic basis for common illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and others with what Ewald calls “a severe fitness cost.” As he puts it, “when diseases have been present in human populations for many generations and still have a substantial negative impact on people’s fitness . . . they are likely to have infectious causes.”
There is more to Ewald’s argument, and even committed Darwinists will find problems in his theory. For instance, cancer and heart disease reduce our chances of survival, but most of the people who die from these illnesses have already reproduced and, thus, done right by the selfish gene. Ewald acknowledges this problem, but he points out that there’s more to assuring the survival of the gene than simply reproducing. The kids have to be taken care of until they can reproduce.
Ewald’s theories are being taken seriously, however, by public health officials, epidemiologists, and the medical establishment. No one seems to notice that this is a clear case of petitio principii, or begging the question. Everyone is assuming that natural selection and evolutionary fitness describe reality and is limiting himself to ascertaining whether the new germ theory or a genetic theory of disease is most consistent with Darwin. The same is true in the areas of sociobiology and Darwinist psychology.
None of this should surprise anyone. Darwinism is a philosophy masquerading as science—it is an assertion that “there is no evidence of the existence of such a being as the God of the theologians,” declaring itself merely “a generalization of certain facts.” It begins with the assumption that intelligent design couldn’t have happened—for that would require a Designer—and then answers the question of how we account for everything that’s out there and the evidence of design we see.
That philosophic doctrine explains why Darwinism has proved so enduring when its scientific basis has proved so fragile. Thus it retains its influence even to the point of being promoted in cover articles of prestigious magazines like the Atlantic Monthly. As I said, it may be on shaky scientific ground, but, as a definer of our culture, it has never been stronger.
Roberto Rivera is a Fellow at the Wilberforce Forum at Prison Fellowship. His work has appeared in Books & Culture, and he is also a regular contributor to the web magazine Boundless. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.