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Sanitizing Darwin

March 13th, 2007 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Jesus was no stranger to controversial or confusing claims:  "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth.  I did not bring come to bring peace, but a sword."   "Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken from him."
It is the duty of Christians to understand, to embrace, and even to proclaim such statements.  When we fail to do so, we will have lost our intellectual integrity, and more importantly, separated ourselves from the fountainhead of our religion.  Christianity, as a religion, cannot be separated from its founder and still remain Christianity.
While Darwin may not have been the first proponent of his theory, he is widely acclaimed as its most influential modern advocate.  It is Darwin, as Dawinks famously put it, that made it intellectually respectable to be an atheist.

But Darwin apparently thought his theories had more implications than modern Darwinians--Dawkins, Sam Harris, Stephen Jay Gould--care to acknowledge.  While Jesus chastised the social leaders of his day--"that fox," "you whitewashed tombs"--Darwin justified their existence by establishing a hierarchy of human persons as a result of evolution.  The Divine Right of Kings had established the monarchy, but the monarchy was to protect the people.  With Darwin, the hierarchy is simply a result of "natural selection."  Hence, for Darwin, eugenics and other evils are acceptable means of furthering social evolution (social Darwinism, this is called, was not accidental to his system).

Or so argues Peter Quinn in his essay "Gentle Darwinians:  What Darwin's Champions Won't Mention."  Quinn writes:

“The Nietzsche of the Gentle Nietzscheans,” concluded Cruise O’Brien, “is a fake.” If the Darwin of the Gentle Darwinians is not an absolute fake, he is at best a half-drawn facsimile: the industrious, inquisitive scientist-cum-squire bathed in light; the superior, smug Malthusian obscured or omitted. Gould offers general absolution for the racism, imperialism, and eugenic dogma so prominent in Darwin. His lame defense is that Darwin was doing nothing more than mouthing platitudes when in fact he was bestowing a new and dangerous pseudo-scientific authority on pernicious categories of superior and inferior human beings.


The marriage of evolutionary theory and social policy wasn’t accidental and didn’t go unnoticed by Darwin. He believed very strongly in the close parallel between the operation of natural selection across the eons of geologic time (what Gopnik calls “deep time”) and the necessity of survival of the fittest in “quick time”-the span of a single life. The process that placed the Anglo-Saxon atop creation must be affirmed and encouraged, not weakened and impaired.

Darwinism is not a religion, though it shares many of the same elements as religions.  It is an intellectual movement, and subject to...evolution.  But it is not clear whether it can actually move away from it's ugly underbelly, or whether fundamentally the notions of "survival of the fittest" will allow for altruistic acts, while also preventing social engineering.  Unlike Christianity, the future is an open future.  We can make it, and ourselves, into what we want it to be.  Unlike Christianity, it has no fixed reference to prevent us from remaking humanity in our own image.  There is no Eden to look back to, nor a heaven to look forward to.  There is only us, and what we make of the world and each other.

By sanitizing Darwin for our 21st century sensibilities, Darwinian advocates have managed to pervade culture with the foundation for a new society that is driven by our vision for the world.  In doing so, they have paved the way for the return of eugenics, social engineering, and transhumanism, which will no doubt come more subtly than they ever have before.  As resources become more scarce, "survival of the fittest" will undercut pleas to save the less fit, and the attempt to have Darwinism without Darwin--with all of his baggage--will be as successful as a Christianity without Christ.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.