Skip to main content

Culture Q&A

John West

Dangerous descent

How Darwinian thought seeped into every cultural crevice, and what we can do to counter it today

Dangerous descent

John West (Discovery Institute)

John West is vice president of Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank best known for its research and advocacy for intelligent design. West is also the author of several books, including Darwin Day in America, which examines how Charles Darwin’s idea influences culture today. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation in Seattle.

Where has Darwinian thought had the most influence on society today? The area of faith. Darwin’s theory wasn’t just about change over time—it was that we’re part of an accidental process. So Darwin has been the greatest gift to people who would like to deny that God exists. But it’s gone way beyond that: We’ve seen Darwinism used to devalue human life, because Darwin thought humans are basically animals. At the end of On the Origin of Species he says it’s through death, disease, and starvation that the best things have come about in nature.

It seems like some of these ideas are not always connected to Darwin because people read On the Origin of Species without reading his later book, The Descent of Man. Exactly. I have met scholars who say Darwin has nothing to do with religion or morality—it’s just about science. I ask: “Have you read The Descent of Man?” No. That is where Darwin talks about religion, morality, mind, and social policy, about how he thinks we’re destroying the human race by inoculating people against smallpox and helping the poor.

Let the weak die on their own. Correct. Darwin was a kind and compassionate man, so he worried about the implications, but that’s what he thought the theory meant. He thought that if we follow reason, we probably shouldn’t be doing things to help the people he thought were defective.

‘Darwin was not the world’s first racist, but you’re avoiding history if you don’t understand the role Darwin played in virulent scientific racism.’

How has Darwinian thought influenced the sexual revolution? In The Descent of Man Darwin argues the original form of human mating was not monogamy, but community marriage—lots of different sexual partners. Darwin himself favored monogamy as in 19th-century Victorian England, but his overall claim was that appropriate mating practice was determined by whatever survival needs you had. So it would radically change over time. Darwin influenced many of the people who made these arguments more widely in what became known as the sexual revolution. No. 1 is Alfred Kinsey. Most people don’t know he was trained as an evolutionary biologist. Only later did he look at animal and human sexuality and become the father of the sexual revolution. 

What about crime and punishment? Like much of 19th-century scientific thought, Darwinian thought was reductionist: It tried to reduce everything about us—our moral beliefs, our actions—to the product of blind matter in motion. It’s not something we can be held accountable for, because our environment dictates it. Today we say our genes made me do it. There was a whole school of criminal anthropology that followed Darwin and went in two directions. One, the liberal form of criminal justice, says we’re not responsible for our actions, so you have a “Get out of jail free” card. The other, on the law-and-order side, says if this behavior is bred into criminals, then you have to either get rid of them—execute them—or cure them through things ranging from lobotomies to indefinite detention. 

What about ideas of racial superiority? Darwin was not the world’s first racist, but you’re avoiding history if you don’t understand the role Darwin played in virulent scientific racism. He believed everything about humans ultimately could be explained by natural selection, or survival of the fittest. And since it acts differently in populations according to different environments, Darwin said we shouldn’t expect natural selection to produce races of equivalent capabilities. He provided a scientific agenda, a research agenda, for several decades of evolutionary biologists and anthropologists who looked for how the races were inherently unequal. Mercifully, that is not the mainstream scientific view today.

How did that change? Not because of the scientists. It was the civil rights movement and many religious leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and others who, based on Christian convictions, pushed back and made that view unfashionable.

You mentioned reductionism—the idea that we’re all a product of our genes and environment. How has that contributed to the tendency to over-medicate? Psychoactive drugs are a great benefit to society—I’ve had family members who have benefited from them. But I think it should concern people that in some schools in America, 40 percent or more of the young boys are put on Ritalin for ADHD. Ritalin is pharmacologically related to cocaine, so it is going to affect your concentration whether you have ADHD or not. This idea that we’re just these material creatures leads to a psychoactive-drug-first mentality. You don’t look at people as body, mind, soul; they’re just bodies. If you think we’re hybrids, both material and spiritual, then you’ll want to explore a wider range of potential treatments. 

As scientific research continues to undermine Darwin and strengthen the case for intelligent design, are we seeing a reevaluation of some of these associated ideas? A growing number of voices in and out of the scientific community are raising questions about Darwin’s theory and pointing to the evidence of design, but the cultural cachet of Darwinian reductionism is still powerful, particularly in the social and in the nonscientific realm. Fields like political science, sociology, and psychology all took their underlying assumptions from 19th-century natural science, including Darwin. 

Some pushback in science? We are seeing more pushback to the garden variety science claims you still get from people like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye—that Darwinian science shows we’re the product of this unguided process. That sort of village atheism is getting harder to sustain. In physics and cosmology, lots more people are talking about the exquisite fine-tuning that leads to life. And in biology, they’re talking about the exquisite molecular machines. 

How can the average Christian affect the cultural conversation surrounding Darwinism? The No. 1 thing Christians can do: Be responsible for those in their own circles of influence. Don’t fret if you don’t have 100,000 people listening to you on YouTube or Facebook. Pay attention to your own kids. Pay attention to the kids of your friends. Even in evangelical churches, parents often farm out the raising of their kids. You can’t cede your parenting to schools—public or Christian. And you certainly can’t cede it to the internet, social media, or video games. If you feel ill-equipped, there’s good news: Various groups have produced lots of great resources to help you talk about these things with your kids. You don’t need to be an expert. Just watch a video with your kids each week and engage them in discussion around the dinner table.

Here’s what we published in WORLD on June 28, 2014:

For the social effects of Darwinism, read John West’s Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science. Bradley Watson’s Living Constitution, Dying Faith: Progressivism and the New Science of Jurisprudence describes the impact of evolutionary theory on political and social thought. Jerry Bergman’s Hitler and the Nazi Darwinian Worldview proves how German anti-Semitism plus Darwinism equaled mass murder. —Marvin Olasky