It is safe to say no theory in the history of science has been so thoroughly abused in the name of ideology as evolution. It was the first far-reaching theory in biology, it seemed to have implications for human society, and ideologues of all shades saw evolution as a powerful ally or an equally deadly threat. Some of the major ideological abuses of evolution are shown below.
|Ideological Interpretation of Evolution||Supporting Responses||Opposition Responses|
|Evolution disproves the existence of God||Atheism||Fundamentalism|
|Evolution negates purpose||Nihilism||Fundamentalism
|Evolution implies that society should operate according to "survival of the fittest"||Social Darwinism
|Evolution implies some races are superior to others||Racist movements||Fundamentalism
Having researched this subject in quite considerable depth, I cringe whenever I hear a fellow scientist ask "Why can't evolution simply be God's way of creating life? I know then that I'm dealing with somebody who wants to join a debate without acquiring even the most minimal literacy first.
The historical background page spells out a few of the problems such an interpretation (termed theistic evolution in conservative religious circles) raises. How could a loving God ordain a universe in which most organisms are fated to be killed and eaten? Yet these objections alone are not insuperable. The objections to God ordaining predation are largely based on sentimentality and anthropomorphism; predation might not be within the domain of morality at all. Also, believers have coexisted for centuries with the far more troubling issue of how a loving God could create hell.
The issue of agreement with the Bible is more serious but again by itself isn't insuperable. Many believers had been accommodating themselves to the geologic time scale for a long time by interpreting "day" in Genesis to mean an indefinitely long time. The need to reinterpret much of Genesis as allegorical or mythological was a hurdle that many believers could not cross, however. Nevertheless, the core of the problem lies elsewhere.
Many scientists don't like to use the term "believe" when talking about scientific theories because they want to differentiate scientific opinion from other subjective systems of belief. And therein lies the fundamental fallacy academics commit in dealing with conservative religious believers. No major world religion claims to hold subjective beliefs. To a Hindu, it is not a matter of personal perception whether or not you are reincarnated. To a Muslim, it is not a matter of opinion whether or not Mohammed heard the word of God. To a fundamentalist Christian, whether or not you believe in heaven or hell is absolutely irrelevant to whether or not you will go there. All the major world religions claim to deal in matters of objective fact. The facts may not be demonstrable by experiment or immediate observation, but their eventual objective reality is considered to be beyond dispute. To militant religious believers, their doctrines are fully documented on a par with the Apollo moon landings or the structure of DNA. If you don't accept the documentation, that's your problem, not theirs.
The failure to realize that religions hold their doctrines to be facts leads to immense frustrations on both sides of the science-religion debate. Both sides talk past one another. Muslims, for example, find it absolutely incomprehensible that any Westerner who becomes well-informed about Islam does not immediately convert. They regard the truth of Islam to be so self-evident that any other response is unthinkable.
In Day the Universe Changed (p. 272), James Burke reproduces a cartoon called The Descent of the Modernists. It shows a staircase going down, with steps labeled:
Christianity Bible not Infallible Man not Made in God's Image No Miracles No Virgin Birth No Deity No Atonement No Resurrection Agnosticism Atheism
A young student is stepping off the second step. Halfway down is a modernist clergyman. Stepping off the bottom step is a bearded college professor holding a chemist's flask. He's become a scientist. The degeneration is complete. (Atheists, of course, imagine the steps going up, not down.)
Confronted by the challenges of militant atheism, evolution, archeology and textual analysis, conservative American Christians met shortly after 1900 to hammer out what they regarded as the irreducible core of Christianity. They referred to these tenets as the Five Fundamentals. Interestingly, the staircase above contains every one of them (one step implies two of them):
A reporter, groping for a term to describe the growing conservative movement, coined the term "fundamentalist" and before long, fundamentalists themselves were using it. The term has come to denote any believer who insists on strict adherence to a central core of beliefs, so that we now speak of "Muslim fundamentalists."
Thus, the answer to the question posed earlier, "Why can't evolution simply be God's way of creating life? is that from the fundamentalist viewpoint any compromise with evolution fatally weakens the fabric of Christianity.
The idea that Christianity was a unified collection of doctrines based on a chain of Scriptural interpretations was around long before fundamentalists (they codified the doctrine, not invented it). Break the chain, in the view of many believers, and you break Christianity, and both sides responded accordingly. Anti-religious debaters had a powerful new weapon to use in undermining the historical and doctrinal basis of Christianity.
To devout believers of the 19th century, it must have seemed as if atheists were popping out of the woodwork everywhere. One might well have asked "where are all these atheists coming from? The answer is that they were there all along, but as long as there was no prospect of winning a debate with believers, and as long as all the social pressures worked against nonbelievers, they kept quiet. Moral: suppression is always more dangerous in the long run for suppressors than their victims. Suppression creates an illusion of conformity while driving the opposition into hiding where they are hard to see. In the end, what appears to be a solid front actually turns out to be a hollow shell. To anyone who still has doubts, I have just two words: Soviet Union.
Darwin has been accused of making it impossible to believe in God. What he actually did was make it possible not to believe in God. The nature and origin of life was the last large area of science that looked like it might have an inescapably supernatural component, and Darwin kicked the props out from under that idea. You could still believe that God guided evolution or not, but your belief had nothing at all to do with the science. Another thing that happened as a consequence of evolution was a shift in the burden of proof. Before Darwin, nonbelievers were in the position of having to disprove the existence of God to a hostile audience; after Darwin, believers often had to prove the existence of God to a skeptical audience.
Many Southern states passed laws banning the teaching of evolution. John Scopes, a high-school biology teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, argued with many of his friends that the Tennessee law was unconstitutional; it violated the First Amendment. So they decided to put the matter to a test. In 1925, Scopes lectured on evolution and was charged with violating the law. So Scopes was no Galileo (for that matter, neither was Galileo!); this was a test case and Scopes walked in with his eyes open. What nobody anticipated was that the case would attract nationwide attention.
Clarence Darrow, the noted attorney, offered to conduct the defense. The prosecution was handled by aging political legend William Jennings Bryan. During the trial, the small town of Dayton became a media circus. The noted newspaper columnist H.L. Mencken, who despised fundamentalists, wrote such scathing columns that there was talk of running him out of town. At one point a local merchant put a caged gorilla in his store window so people could decide the matter for themselves. "The poor beast cowered in his cage" wrote Mencken, "afraid that it might be true." The climax of the trial came when Darrow called Bryan to the stand as a recognized expert on Biblical doctrine and grilled him mercilessly. Bryan may have been bypassed by time, but in his day he had been a highly respected figure and even people who were solidly behind Scopes felt that Darrow had crossed the line. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. The case was appealed and thrown out on a technicality, so nobody got the Constitutional ruling they had hoped for. Worn out by age and the stress of the trial, Bryan died a few days afterward. Scopes became an oil geologist, spent most of his career in South America, and died in 1966. Ironically, that was just about the time the Supreme Court finally did consider the Constitutionality of the Tennessee law and threw it out.
It's impossible to see the Scopes Trial without images from the play and film Inherit the Wind intruding. Inherit the Wind is compelling drama but very poor history. In modern terms, it is a docudrama, and only loosely based on historical reality at that. The Bryan character in the play is a bitter, judgmental, closed-minded man. William Jennings Bryan had actually been a progressive politician in his prime, most famous for a speech in which he attacked moneyed interests with the line "shall we crucify mankind on a cross of gold?". He ran for President on the Democratic ticket in 1896, 1900 and 1908, pulling in respectable popular and electoral vote totals. If he was something of a fossil himself by the time of the Scopes Trial, he was nevertheless widely respected as a man of principle and a great figure in his prime.
Fundamentalist opponents of evolution launched a different strategy beginning about 1970. They argued that the Biblical account of creation was defensible as a scientific theory, called scientific creationism. Their principal strategies included:
The fallacies in most of the creationist arguments are immediately obvious to scientists but are superficially convincing to non-scientists, and especially people looking for a way to reconcile science and religion. Although creationists specifically avoided mentioning the Bible in their scientific writings, they usually rejected well-established scientific views and substituted ideas that served no other purpose than to validate the literal interpretation of Genesis. For example, they proposed exotic theories of nuclear decay in which atoms decayed faster in the distant past. There is no experimental or observational basis for these theories; their only function is to make it possible to believe in a young Earth.
Scientific creationism is, in fact, pseudoscience, something deliberately and falsely claiming to be scientific. A number of states passed laws requiring that creationism be taught in school as an alternative to evolution. A Federal court considered the Arkansas law in 1982, mercilessly exposed it as a pretext for teaching religious views, and declared it unconstitutional. Ironically, the court denied the argument put forth by Scopes, stating that it was not prepared to grant total academic freedom without any outside oversight.
If creationism has been defeated in the courts and failed to win credibility among scientists, it continues to be active at the grass-roots level. Opponents of evolution have focused their efforts at influencing school curricula at the local level. Such efforts can have national impact because fear of losing sales causes textbook publishers to water down the evolution content of their texts, reinforcing the misconception that evolution is little more than an opinion held by some scientists. Another tactic widely used by anti-evolutionists in recent years is running "stealth" candidates for school board seats, candidates who conceal or downplay their views on evolution until after the election.
One of the most bizarre reactions to evolution took place in the Soviet Union. Trofim Lysenko, a biologist, rejected Darwin on Marxist grounds. He reacted against Darwin because of the lack of direction in Darwinian evolution and because of the capitalist abuses of Social Darwinism. Instead he argued for the evolution of Lamarck. Lysenko likened the appearance of a new environment to a political revolution, and the struggle of organisms to adapt and pass on their improvements he compared to the workers struggling to create a better society and pass it along to succeeding generations.
What made Lysenko so powerful was that he wedded his ideas so tightly to Marxist ideology, and particularly that he became a personal friend of Stalin. During Lysenko's heyday from the mid 1930's until the late 1940's, Soviet biologists either toed the Party line, got out of genetics, or disappeared into the Gulag. Lysenko crippled Soviet biology for a generation.
Another application of "survival of the fittest" was the interpretation that society should help evolution along by encouraging the fit to reproduce and by barring the unfit, a movement termed eugenics ("good genes"). Some aspects of this notion are relatively noncontroversial; for example genetic screening can identify marriage partners who carry genes for hereditary disorders.
In cruder form, this notion found expression in mandatory sterilization of the mentally ill or handicapped and laws banning mixed-race marriages (how far we've come in a short time is revealed by the fact that ten per cent of marriages in the U.S. are now interracial). A more far-reaching interpretation held that society should encourage births among the "fit" and discourage them among the "unfit." These views were supported by numerous studies that seemed to show that traits like criminality could be inherited. A number of the most influential studies were later revealed to be outright fabrications. Since it's a well known fact that fertility rates are lower in affluent societies than poorer ones, many eugenics advocates feared that "unfit" segments of society would outbreed and overwhelm the "fit."
Perhaps the most bizarre expression of the eugenics movement in the United States was the "fittest family" movement. For a time in the 1920's and 1930's, families entered themselves in county fairs just like cows and chickens, to be judged on physical, mental and moral fitness. But this movement seems sanity incarnate compared to forms taken by eugenics in Nazi Germany. Who better to father German children than Olympic athletes? During the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, German women were encouraged to date Olympic athletes, but to be sure they recorded the athlete's registration number. If they became pregnant, the state covered all their maternity costs. (Presumably, this fringe benefit of being in the Olympics didn't extend to people like Jesse Owens!)
As everyone knows, German racial theories culminated in the Holocaust, where Jews, Gypsies, and Slavs were killed or worked to death because of their alleged racial inferiority. More sobering even than that is the German euthanasia program, because it was initiated and carried out not by German ideologues but by respected psychologists, and none of the participants was compelled to join. The roots of the program can be traced to the 1920 book The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value by jurist Karl Binding and psychiatrist Alfred Hoche, both highly respected men. The book, which actually pre-dates Hitler's start in politics, argues that legal safeguards for human life should be removed in cases where patients are mentally beyond recovery and their care is an economic burden on society. Euthanasia of mental patients began in 1939, long before many other elements of the Holocaust. Between 1939 and 1946 the population of Germany's mental institutions dropped from 300,000 to 40,000.
In a final incredible act of ingratitude, all the more unbelievable given that Hitler's rise to power was built on German anger over their defeat in World War I, among those euthanized were numerous disabled World War I veterans. The euthanasia program was given a lower profile after 1941; it was affecting morale in the Army, since soldiers began to fear (with reason) they might be next if they were wounded. But the program continued to the end of the war; indeed, so convinced were its participants that they were acting perfectly legally that euthanasia went on in places after the occupation, until the occupation authorities found out and shut the institutions down. The fate of the participants reflects the same spotty fate of other German war criminals: execution and imprisonment for some key figures, lesser or no punishment for many others.
A natural question in evolution is wondering where and when the different human populations appeared, and whether one group might be higher in evolutionary stature than another. (To cut to the chase, the modern answer to the second question is no; differences among races are inconsequential compared to the range of individual variations.)
Since primates show a steady increase in brain size from most primitive to most advanced, perhaps brain size is the key. On the average, white brains are larger than black, and male brains than female. Thus white males are superior, an obvious conclusion if you happened to be a 19th century white male. Brain size was considered so important in the 19th century that many people stipulated that their brains should be weighed after their deaths, so we have a surprising amount of data on brain sizes of famous people. They show a range of a factor of two in volume; clearly differences of a few percent between races can't be significant. Also, advocates of brain size as a measure of intelligence somehow fail to note that on the average, Asian and Native American brains are larger than white brains. Finally, Albert Einstein's brain was preserved for study; it has never shown any physical differences from any other normal brain. Whatever influences intelligence, it doesn't show up in any known physical characteristics of the brain.
Mental tests of various kinds were devised in the 19th century initially for the purpose of diagnosing and treating mental handicaps, but they rapidly were turned toward placing humans in a hierarchy. One test widely used by immigration officials in the U.S. during the 19th century was to ask an immigrant to draw a picture of a common object like a house or person. At first glance this test looks better designed than most; it avoids the problem of literacy and a lot of cultural biases. The only problem was that it had never occurred to the testers that many immigrants had never used a pencil and had never developed the motor skills needed to draw a picture. Even believers in the testing began to suspect something was drastically wrong when over half of some ethnic groups were rated as mentally retarded by this test.
It's a paradox that while fundamentalists were condemning evolution, many of them simultaneously embraced the idea that whites might be more highly evolved than blacks. As the British writer Chesterton observed, "men began by reluctantly enslaving other men, and ended by just as reluctantly freeing apes." The idea of blacks being closer to apes than whites reached its climax in an 1874 book by the biologist Ernst Haeckel, who drew a tree with four branches occupied by an orangutan, a gorilla, a chimpanzee and a Negro.
The most recent book to argue seriously that there is a real genetic difference in intelligence between blacks and whites is The Bell Curve. Intelligence tests given to blacks and whites do tend to show whites having a slightly higher average score. Most psychologists regard intelligence tests as crude measures at best. They consider the difference to be statistically insignificant, and attributable to differences in education and literacy or cultural differences in how questions are interpreted. But even if the difference is real, the bell curve represents the distribution of individuals; if a black scores 125 on an IQ test, of what relevance is it that blacks average a few points lower than whites? And finally, something that believers in genetic differences in intelligence seem never to notice: a black with a certain score on any intelligence test is smarter than every white with a lower score!
This history has used terms like "fit" repeatedly without addressing the central question that abusers of evolution never faced: what do we mean by fit?. The sports pages are full of people who are magnificent physical specimens but completely unfit in any other sense; they commit crimes, beat their spouses, and have no skills apart from being able to bounce a rubber ball or hit a ball with a stick. There have been Nobel laureates who stole ideas from colleagues and students, others who served the Nazis, and innumerable business giants who ended their careers in prison. And most of their achievements are the result of acquired characteristics that cannot be passed on genetically anyway. On the other hand, Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant minds ever, is almost totally paralyzed and able to communicate only with a voice synthesizer.
Gould, Stephen Jay, The Mismeasure of Man
Frederic Wertham, 1966; A Sign for Cain, Macmillan. The German euthanasia program is detailed in Chapters 8 and 9.
Return to Explorations of the Universe Syllabus
Return to Explorations of the Universe Notes Index
Return to Emergence of Western Technology Syllabus
Return to Emergence of Western Technology Notes Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page
Created 10 April 1998, Last Update 1 September 1998
Not an official UW Green Bay site