The Aura of Science
Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West, Volume II
by Paul Gosselin
reviewed by Louis Markos
Over two and a half decades have passed since Phillip E. Johnson kick-started the intelligent design (ID) movement in America with the publication of his path-breaking book,
Darwin on Trial (1991). In this book, he exposed the numerous flaws in Darwinian evolution and the near irrationality of those who continued to defend it in the face of mounting evidence against it. In the intervening years, two seemingly contradictory things have happened: the evidence against macro-evolution has continued to mount up; and the defenders of macro-evolution have gotten increasingly shrill and censorious, asserting more and more loudly the false claim that the evidence for Darwinism is overwhelming and
Thankfully, the Darwinian backlash has been skillfully countered, not only by such Christian ID theorists as Michael Behe, William Dembski, Jonathan Wells, and Stephen Meyer, but also by popular apologists like Lee Strobel and Nancy Pearcey, and by passionate secular critics like Ben Stein and David Berlinski. As an avid reader of all things ID, I thought I had educated myself in all the basic arguments, examples, and perspectives—that is, until I read Paul Gosselin's Flight from the Absolute: Cynical Observations on the Postmodern West, Volume II (fluidly translated by the author from his Fuite de l'Absolu: Observations cyniques sur l'Occident postmoderne, Volume II ).
The Religion of Darwin
Though Gosselin's English translations of both volumes have been available for five years, they remain relatively unknown in America. Given the subtle, often invisible power that Darwinism and postmodernism continue to exert on the modern mind and imagination, I believe it is essential for American Christians to acquaint themselves with as many books as possible that rip away the veil, revealing the often insidious worldviews that lurk beneath the theoretical and ideological systems of Darwin and Derrida. Gosselin's Flight from the Absolute is a good place to start.
In Volume I, as Gosselin explains in his preface to Volume II, he "examined the assertion that postmodernism is actually an invisible religion, a religion in fundamental denial of its own religious nature" (iv). Several times in his first volume, Gosselin notes in passing that postmodernism, despite its deconstruction of modernism's materialistic creeds and dogmas, left untouched one of its central, non-negotiable tenets: Darwinian evolution. Even when postmoderns critique the monolithic hegemony of Western science, they avoid questioning the "fact" of natural selection acting on genetic modification.
In Volume II, a stand-alone book that can be profitably read on its own, Gosselin zeroes in on the subject of evolution, presenting it as the origin myth of both modern and postmodern man and tracing its history and function as both an "ideologico-religious system" (118) and a "total and integrated scientific answer . . . for all aspects of reality" (217). By marshalling a vast yet carefully selected array of quotes from key writers on all sides of the evolution debate, Gosselin makes it clear that "the Darwinian revolution was more cultural and ideological than scientific" (84).
Darwin's Sacred Aura
"[B]efore the Enlightenment," Gosselin reminds us, "the idea of a Creator responsible for the existence of all the cosmos around us was accepted not only by the illiterate masses, but also by the greatest scientific minds of the time" (81). As the Age of Reason slowly shifted the center of authority from Christianity to science, however, the active, involved God of the Bible was replaced by a deistic God who had little to do but start the universe in motion. Why not abandon God altogether? "Until a satisfying materialistic explanation of origins was to be had, the First Cause still had his uses" (82).
Not so after Darwin. Once On the Origin of Species established itself as a scientific "fact," God was demoted from an eternal watchmaker to an unnecessary hypothesis, allowing science to seize for itself the "epistemological authority" of the Bible, to equate itself with truth, and to "achieve the status of absolute knowledge" (201–202). And it obtained something more, something that Gosselin calls a "sacred aura" (190).
Central to that sacred aura is the myth of the objective scientist, the superstition-free priest who dispenses the truth about ourselves and our world and who protects us from all those heretics and ignoramuses who would doubt the all-sufficiency of macro-evolution to explain the origin and multifariousness of life on earth. Like the priest of the Middle Ages, Gosselin explains, the Darwinian scientist subscribes to dogmas from which he will not budge (genetic mutation + natural selection + time can account for all that we see) and invites his initiates to visit his cathedral (natural science museum) and view his holy relics (fossils of dinosaurs and so-called missing links between apes and man). Indeed, the goal of the "multimedia presentations" offered at such museums is not so much to substantiate Darwinism with hard facts as to immerse "visitors in mythical time, allowing them to participate in a persuasive cosmological experience" (177).
But what about those cynical postmoderns and their exalted claim of being able to see through all the illusions and elisions of medieval and modern systems of thought? Are they, too, fooled by the ideologico-religious claims of Darwinism? Yes and no.
Postmoderns for their part, consider science's sacred aura as much less essential, but the individual's moral autonomy that Darwinism provides (by eliminating the divine Lawmaker) is highly prized by postmoderns. . . . The critical issue for postmoderns is eliminating any moral absolute along with the constraints that such a principle poses for the behavior of individuals (and particularly that of elites). (251)
It is in the interest of postmoderns, for whom absolute moral standards issuing from a creator God represents an obstacle to their own absolute self-expression (particularly in the realm of sexuality), to uphold the sacred aura that surrounds the Darwinian origins myth. That is why postmodern critics will question science's role as ultimate arbiter of truth while leaving evolution itself unquestioned. Moderns and postmoderns are equally aware that "serious questioning of this sort could lead to a wide-ranging social and ideological crisis. The stakes are too high, as jeopardizing adherence to Darwinism would require a fundamental reappraisal of the Enlightenment legacy" (51).
Censorship French Style
Gosselin does a masterly job of amassing evidence of the tactics used by Darwinians to intimidate, marginalize, ridicule, or crush all opposition. These include: using the power of peer review to ensure that no papers critical of Darwin will appear in their flagship journals; using the power of publishing to keep critical views of Darwin out of textbooks; using the power of the judicial system to keep evidence against Darwinism from being taught in public schools; and using the power of undergraduate and graduate admissions and hiring offices to prevent students or scholars who question Darwin from entering the ranks of "legitimate" science.
To these tactics, Gosselin adds a subtler one. Although intense peer (and tenure) pressure prevents most scientists from publicly highlighting weaknesses in Darwinian evolution, some scientists occasionally slip up and air their doubts—especially, Gosselin documents, after they have retired and need not fear academic censure. When they do so, they are quoted by creationists and intelligent design theorists as proof that evolution is far from a proven theory. When this happens, the gatekeepers pull out one of their best tricks: rather than engage the critic in debate, they accuse him of quoting the retired scientist out of context.
Many readers will be aware of these tactics; far fewer will be aware that such tactics are stronger and more pervasive in the French-speaking world than in America and the UK. As a French Canadian (Protestant) critic and philosopher, Gosselin brings to the table direct experience of the far more intense resistance among the French to anyone who would be foolish and backward enough to question the truth of evolution.
Among the many passages Gosselin quotes to substantiate this resistance, one of the most memorable is taken from an editorial in a 2003 issue of the French magazine Science & Avenir:
Many mysteries in our understanding of life still remain. For example, it is not clear yet how species are formed. The functions of certain components of the living cell still remain unknown. In short, there's still much to learn! But one thing is ruled out, that Darwinian theory should be abandoned. (51)
Gosselin offers quote after quote and example after example of this kind of selective, willful blindness to the actual evidence regarding macro-evolution. The difference between American and French evolutionists is that the latter won't engage or even acknowledge those who dispute their position. Their dogma must not and cannot be questioned. Indeed, as Gosselin shows, the French view American resistance to Darwin as inexplicable.
In French media, one encounters increasing shock and disbelief regarding the challenges to the theory of evolution in the public arena that occur in the United States. Here we have a nation at the forefront of technological development and whose scientific elites often win Nobel prizes. This raises a question for the French: How is it then that Americans could even imagine challenging a basic achievement of science, that is to say, the theory of evolution? From the French perspective, in fact, there is no point in wasting time analyzing the arguments of the debate. The unpleasant effort of grasping the debate can easily be avoided because the explanation for Americans' skepticism regarding evolution is quite obvious: Americans are "religious." (75)
Why is it that the French are even more hostile toward, and dismissive of, critics of Darwin than Americans? Gosselin theorizes that the greater "penchant for centralization and doctrinaire 'groupthink'/pensée unique among the French is a cultural legacy of the Catholic system, which was dominant for centuries in France and left a deep mark in the French subconscious, molding the State-Ideology relationship in an integrated and strongly hierarchical fashion" (76).
Though one might be tempted to write off Gosselin's critique as stemming from Protestant bias, he does back up his thesis by pointing to an important fact of history: the Enlightenment in France, while it attacked the Catholic system as a whole, was more than happy to maintain "a highly centralized society" (76). That commitment to a centralized control of ideology in the otherwise "liberal" France continues today and is strongly evident in both French and British Canada.
Let us hope and pray that we who live south of Canada and west of France do not succumb to the same insidious groupthink that would replace both biblical morality and true science with ideological conformity and censorship.
Louis Markos is Professor of English and Scholar in Residence at Houston Baptist University where he holds the Robert H. Ray Chair in Humanities; his 18 books include The Eye of the Beholder: How to See the World Like a Romantic Poet; From Achilles to Christ; Heaven and Hell, and The Dreaming Stone and In the Shadow of Troy (children's novels in which his children become part of Greek mythology and The Iliad and The Odyssey).