In the early 19th century, the poet Shelley rather grandiloquently proclaimed poets to be “the unacknowledged legislators of humanity,” but as the century wore on that messianic role became increasingly one claimed (no less grandiloquently) by scientists of this or that stripe. However, the benefit of hindsight and historical reappraisal have joined to recategorize some of the more notable of such (would-be) legislators as mistaken messiahs. Post-1989 neither Marx’s earthly utopia purportedly achievable by political prescription nor Freud’s theories about endemic human angst being curable via talking therapies have any longer been accorded the status of “science.”3 Seen against the intellectual context of the displaced messianisms of Communism and Freudianism,4 it might be expected that the overreaching explanatory ambitions of Darwinism would now be read as a comparable form of (secular) apocalyptic yearning promising more the hope of enlightenment than its reality. Yet Darwinism has been permitted to escape that fate by a variety of quite remarkable face-saving maneuvers.
When Darwin’s ignorance of genetics became clear after the belated rediscovery of Mendelism in the first decade of the 20th century, there was some talk of Darwinism’s eclipse5 and yet a slow but concerted move was initiated to save Darwin’s scientific honor by enshrining him as the foundation of what in 1942 was proclaimed to be the New Synthesis — effectively melding older Darwinian ideas with the new science of genetics. Similarly, when in the early 1970s Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge advanced their theory of punctuated equilibrium to challenge Darwin’s ideas of strict biological gradualism, they claimed with whatever plausibility and verbal finessing they could muster that theirs was not an assault on Darwin’s theory since neither chose to challenge Darwin’s foundational mechanism of natural selection. Both in the 1940s and in the 1970s, then, a firm determination revealed itself to hold Darwin within the scientific embrace as an untarnished icon despite any and every difference of opinion. It appeared that Darwin, that very quintessence of the English gentleman in his own person, has been blessed with some decidedly gentlemanly (and/or self-interested) opponents in the 20th century. The net result of this sedulous Darwinian ring-fencing has been that, although other would-be gurus such as Marx and Freud have been toppled from their pedestals, “Darwin’s acolytes still speak with all the unassailable confidence of 19th-century men of science and empire,”6 and this despite well-substantiated opposition from the intelligent design community plus numerous others not formally associated with that scientific grouping.Neil Thomas, “Materialist Science as Paternalistic Propaganda” at Evolution News and Science Today (December 14, 2021)
The American approach (legal action) — Scopes Trial, Dover Decision — doesn’t really help.
Here’s a question: Given what we (hope we) know today about the origin and development of life forms, would anyone today propose neo-Darwinism (natural selection) in any of its forms as an explanation – if they hadn’t already had to accept it anyway in order to get to where they are today?