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Darwin in Polite Liberal Society — British Edition

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Every Friday, the BBC-TV’s flagship public affairs programme, Newsnight, broadcasts ‘Newsnight Review’, which covers the week’s worth of cultural events. This week’s was devoted to Things Darwin-ish. The panel consisted of Richard Dawkins, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood (whose latest book, The Year of the Flood, is about an Ultra-Green cult that, amongst other things, turns the sociobiologist and biodiversity guru E.O. Wilson into a saint), the poet Ruth Padel (who happens to be a descendant of Darwin’s) and the writer on religious and cultural affairs, the Rev. Richard Coles (who was half of the 1980s synth-pop group, Communards). As I’m writing this, I realize just how ‘postmodern’ Britain must seem to people who don’t live in this country. To me, this line-up looks pretty normal.

I want simply to highlight some remarks that were made on this programme because it gives you a sense of how well-behaved cultured liberals understand Darwin’s significance.

Even Dawkins was on his best behaviour on this occasion: Instead of claiming (as he does at the start of The Greatest Show on Earth) that anti-Darwinists are tantamount to Holocaust deniers, he accused them of merely being ‘history deniers’. But even that slight climb down, to which no one objected, reveals the ease with which people continue to confuse the shape of natural history and the mechanisms responsible for it – both of which are called ‘evolution’.

The Rev. Coles, who admitted to having read Darwin’s Origin of Species only that week, could not see why Christians would have a problem with Darwin’s claims. The evolutionary narrative had prima facie plausibility – and that seemed to settle the matter for him. When the question of ultimate origins were raised, after everyone agreed that Darwin didn’t really tackle that question, consensus was quickly reached around the general idea that people had an emotional need – Atwood suggested that it was hard-wired by evolution (which even Dawkins found a bit strong) – to believe in the sort of creation myths that keep religion alive as something apart from science.

To his credit, Dawkins didn’t let the proceedings descend into a publicity campaign for theistic evolution. He politely observed – and admitted common cause with the creationists – that it’s pretty pointless to continue believing in a deity who creates in such a way that his creatures find his existence unnecessary. The panel looked thoughtful but quickly moved on…

I was left with the distinct impression that, except for Dawkins, the panel wanted to believe that we are hard-wired for religious belief because that would then help to justify the ‘have your cake and eat it’ view of theistic evolution. In other words: Not only is Darwin’s theory true but also, according to that very theory, we are predisposed to believe that it is not the whole story.  In that case, any attempt to reconcile science and religion or resolve the various disagreements between Darwinists and their opponents will always be fruitless – and so we should simply let sleeping dogs lie.

One other interesting moment: There was a clip from an interview with the actor Kevin Spacey and the director Trevor Nunn, who are staging a run of Inherit the Wind at the Old Vic Theatre in London. Nunn characterised the opposition to Darwinism in terms of a ‘multiculturalist’ approach to education that refuses to accept that there are certain things that everyone should learn. Outside of Britain, this may seem like a strange way of putting the debate but it fits what’s going on here. For the past five years or so, there has been increasing concern with consolidating British national identity in the schools, given various forms of social dislocation associated with immigration.

The pattern of the debate here is following the one that took place in the United States roughly a hundred years ago, when the phrase ‘melting pot’ was coined. In this context, ‘religions divide but science unifies’ was invoked by John Dewey and other educators to polarise the science-religion divide, with an eye toward demonising religion as a regressive anti-intellectual force in society. That becomes easier to do, of course, if religion is defended simply on grounds that it is biologically ‘hard-wired’ or serves a deep ‘emotional need’. One strength of ID in this debate is that it highlights the specifically cognitive value of religious belief.

5 Replies to “Darwin in Polite Liberal Society — British Edition

  1. 1
    nullasalus says:

    “Creationists” should probably be wary when they find Dawkins agreeing with a point they insist on. Nor do I think most theistic evolutionists – whatever faults there may be with their views – would agree that their position is one of God creating in such a way that makes His existence unnecessary. Unless unnecessary means ‘I can always dream up a way for this to have happened with God actually existing’, in which case out and out miracles don’t make God necessary. (Why, perhaps they happened without cause, or perhaps some technologically advanced and inscrutable yet unknown being was responsible, etc.)

  2. 2
    Vladimir Krondan says:

    “Creationists” should probably be wary when they find Dawkins agreeing with a point they insist on. Nor do I think most theistic evolutionists

    Yeah. In one video, Dawkins basically describes Ken Miller as a useful idiot for the cause of atheism. According to Dawkins, evolution implies atheism, but he is fully behind Miller, and says he’s doing a good job spreading Darwinism to Christians. He says this despite the fact that he thinks Miller is wrong. It’s about propaganda, you see, not truth.

  3. 3
    Cornelius Hunter says:

    Great rundown, thanks!

  4. 4

    Reading this as a Brit was fascinating. Having just emerged from the crazy house of trying to discuss ID on a Crooked Timber thread this has been interesting, like emerging into clear autumn sunshine. (There I was trying to point out that progressives have their own highly-irrational tics: boy did I relearn that.)

    From one point of view the cognitive dissonance of theistic evolution is a rational answer to a practical problem; but also, Dawkins has a point, certainly if you sign up to the complete, dogmatic, and absurd, neo-Darwinian programme

    Thanks very much for this; I will try and catch the discussion before it is taken down.

  5. 5
    tragic mishap says:

    Hey Steve thanks for explaining to the uninitiated. Very good job.

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