The destructiveness of modern Darwinism’s echo chamber

Books | Addressing the crisis created by the alienation of science from culture
by J. Scott Turner
Posted 5/12/18, 09:07 am

J. Scott Turner’s Purpose and Desire is a good book to give to a Darwinist who is just starting to wonder whether he’s pledged allegiance to the modern version of the geocentric solar system: “Hmm, the new data undermine it, but add an epicycle here, a few fixes there, and some tweaks on the fixes, maybe that will work.” Turner raises deep questions with a measured tone that will entice scientific materialists to look in the mirror and wonder what they’re missing.

In the following excerpt, courtesy of HarperOne, Turner notes that modern Darwinism is an echo chamber and “science” generally is a cultural phenomenon that should not necessarily rule over other cultural constructs. Instead of sneering at those who see intelligence rather than chance as the key force that’s brought us to the present, Turner argues that the alienation of science from society is destructive. Purpose and Desire made WORLD’s short list for the 2017 Book of the Year in the Origins category. —Marvin Olasky

Epilogue: Evolution, Purpose, and Desire

Richard Dawkins has famously been quoted as saying that Darwinism made it possible for him to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Even if I cannot share the conclusion, I can respect the sen­timent. It’s impossible for anyone who has a heart capable of wonder not to be struck with awe when contemplating the living world. Living nature is a wonder to behold, and it’s a wonder to witness the energy and joy of those who seek to understand it. When you find a convincing explanation for it all, it’s only natural to be filled with the peace that comes with understanding. I can grant that sense of fulfillment to Dawkins, even if I think he’s wrong-headed about its source.

Here’s the problem: the voice that beckons Richard Dawkins to fulfillment is his own—it is not nature’s. The edifice of modern Darwinism, as magnificent an edifice as the most beautiful cathe­dral, an edifice as painstakingly built by the work of generations of devoted and skilled artisans, is hollow at its core. It is an echo cham­ber. What modern Darwinism is asking us to admire is a husk of something once living, but with its vital core drained away as we have poked and prodded with our naughty thumbs until we are left with nothing but the beautiful shell. In short, the science of life has become disenchanted with life itself. That is the looming crisis I described in the Preface.

In short, the science of life has become disenchanted with life itself.

The crisis will be averted, I assert, when biology becomes reen­chanted. How, or even whether, this happens is anybody’s guess, but my candidate for the reenchanting of biology is Claude Bernard’s dangerous idea: homeostasis, the relentless striving of living systems for persistence and self-sustenance. Properly understood, homeosta­sis is life’s fundamental property, what distinguishes it from non­life. In short, homeostasis is life. It is a first principle that stands on its own and does not derive from any process associated with life, including its evolution.

This may be a hard pill to swallow, because it upends most of the magnificent edifice of modern Darwinism. Now, homeostasis does not derive from natural selection; it is homeostasis that drives selec­tion, and there is nothing natural about it. What drives the course of evolution is not the soulless lottery of the gene pool, but life’s striving for persistence. The striving is driven not by the luck of the lottery, but by a cognitive sense of self, even down to the smallest bacterium, even preceding, as I have argued, the emergence of life itself. A deep intelligence is at work in life, its operations, and its history, and it cannot be denied. Yet that is precisely what mod­ern Darwinism asks us to do. So, I shall make a counterclaim to Dawkins’s: homeostasis, properly understood as the radical idea it is (Bernardism if you will), makes it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled vitalist.

But, so what if it can do this? Science, including the science of life, has been successfully ticking along for so long in the world of mech­anism and materialism that it seems to be the new normal: there seems to be no other imaginable way to think about life. True enough, the enterprise of science continues to enjoy generous fund­ing, support, and prestige. Biology makes dazzling advances almost daily in new products and therapies. It continues to challenge our views of our world, ourselves, and our society. So where’s the crisis? Why change?

Here is my claim for why. Science is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon. Its objective value comes from its practice of querying nature itself for answers to what nature is. This is what makes sci­ence distinctive as a philosophy of nature. I don’t think I would find much disagreement on this point. Where things begin to get dicey is the relationship of science with the broader culture: no matter how ardently it is desired, science cannot really hold itself apart from the culture in which it is embedded. This is not a claim for dominance of culture over science. In the best liberal tradition, science can be a powerful voice to shape culture, but there is no escaping that science is also shaped by culture. The crisis for biology right now is one of alienation: of the alienation of the science of life from life itself, but more alarmingly, of the alienation of science from the broader cul­ture. Evolution has been the touchpoint for this alienation for a very long time. It would be nice if it could be resolved.

Science is first and foremost a cultural phenomenon.

A few years ago, while driving from Austin, Texas, to our home near Syracuse, New York, our route took us within a few miles of Dayton, Tennessee, site of the 1925 Scopes Trial, where John T. Scopes was prosecuted for teaching evolution in his classroom. We were in a little bit of a rush—we were trying to outrace a snowstorm barreling across the Midwest that would have made our travel home difficult—but it was a short detour, and it was a beautiful crisp win­ter day, so we took a diversion to visit the town.

Dayton is not quite like it was in the 1920s—you approach it through the usual gauntlet of ugly strip malls, dollar stores, and car dealerships. Yet the downtown itself, where the Rhea County Courthouse still stands, retains much of its southern charm. The courthouse is still a working courthouse. We were not allowed to look in on the Scopes courtroom during our short visit because it was occupied with a trial, and we watched from the spacious grounds as prisoners were being offloaded for their own appoint­ments with judicial destiny. The site still spoke volumes, though. On the grounds, for example, is an imposing statue of William Jennings Bryan, who prosecuted the Scopes case, and who lends his name to Bryan College, a local Christian college. Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes, does not have a statue. Dayton’s cul­ture has made its choice clear for which of the two, Bryan or Darrow, was the hero of that trial. [Editor’s note: A statue of Clarence Darrow, funded by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, was erected in front of the Rhea County Courthouse in Dayton, Tenn., in July 2017, despite local opposition.]

Are the good citizens of Dayton wrong in their choice? Are they the uneducated rubes that H.L. Mencken, caustic chronicler of the Scopes Trial, painted them to be? Was John Scopes our American Socrates, the victim of a conflict between intolerant religious faith and the brave spirit of rational inquiry, as we might believe if Inherit the Wind were our only guide to the case?1 Was it a circus of civic boosterism blown out of all proportion? Looked at objectively, the Scopes case was a little bit of all these things, but mostly it was a proxy for a larger fight over who controls the culture. Can “science” claim supremacy just by virtue of it being “science”? Or does “sci­ence” have to take its place on an equal footing with other claimants, including those who might rank science rather low on their list of cul­tural priorities? The question is a big one that goes right to the heart of freedom of thought and freedom of expression. In terms of defend­ing freedom of thought, it was actually Bryan, and not Darrow, who probably had the stronger argument. It seems we still have some­thing to learn from the Scopes case—and of the complex interaction between science and culture. Can we really hold them apart?

It seems we still have some­thing to learn from the Scopes case—and of the complex interaction between science and culture.

Recent history suggests we have learned little from these lessons, if for no other reason than we keep litigating the same issue over and over, from Tennessee to Arkansas to California to Louisiana to Texas to Dover, Pennsylvania. The lawyers can pick through the legal details of these cases all they want, but they all revolve around the same tedious bone of contention that animated the Scopes trial: who shall determine the terms of the culture?—“science” and “enlighten­ment,” or the ignorant hoi polloi? Have we really come no further?

There are no pat answers to these questions, of course. On the one hand, one looks at the ongoing “scientific” questions that have roiled our culture, from the creation wars through eugenics through genetic engineering through climate change to intelligent design theory, and one despairs at the polarization, politicization, and demonization that accompanies these controversies. Is that the best we can expect from what is ostensibly an attempt to understand nature in full? Fortunately, hope still floats because one can see dif­ficult controversies negotiated in a climate of the utmost respect and mutual goodwill, as in sorting through the difficult ethical issues surrounding research with fetal stem cells. Sometimes, hope floats along on hidden reservoirs of the best tradition of classical liberal­ism, as in Stephen Jay Gould’s quiet supervision of a young Earth creationist, Kurt Wise, for his doctoral degree in paleontology. And on the other hand, as Tevye might say,2 despair rises again when one considers the shabby treatment that has been meted out to various advocates of and sympathizers to intelligent design theory, even to academicians with long-standing solid reputations who suggest there is a legitimate critique to be made of Darwinism, at least in its modern form. Science thus seems rather delicately poised on the cusp of its relationship to culture. Which way will we go? Alienation or accommodation?

The dilemma was illustrated for me in a memorable scene in the film adaptation (by Josh Boone) of John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars. In the novel, a young cancer patient, Hazel Lancaster, and her boyfriend, Augustus Waters (Gus),3 also a cancer patient, travel to Amsterdam to visit the author of a book that has capti­vated both of their imaginations. The book, An Imperial Affliction, is about childhood cancer, and they opened a correspondence with the book’s reclusive author, Peter van Houten, seeking resolution to the novel’s ambiguous ending (it ends in mid-sentence, presum­ably with the death of the book’s protagonist). To their surprise, van Houten responds with an invitation to come to Amsterdam if they want answers to their questions. That they do, but their meeting with van Houten (played to craggy perfection by Willem Dafoe) is a disaster. The encouraging correspondence turns out to have been not with van Houten, but with van Houten’s good-natured assistant, Lidewij. Van Houten himself turns out to be an abusive, rage-filled alcoholic who ends up berating his visitors with a rant—that the two seekers in front of him are nothing but bags of atoms and that their afflictions are nothing but an accident of natural selection, “a failed experiment in mutation,” with no more meaning to anyone than a cloud passing in the sky.

Much of the movie hovers on the edge of the maudlin, but that scene is powerful with brutal honesty, driving home a troubling point about the place that science, and the science of evolution in particular, has come to assume in the cultural ethos of our day. We scientists presume to be the custodians of a superior way of think­ing about the universe and everything in it. Yet if that scene is any indication of the broader culture’s opinion of our presumptions, we have lost the argument. We may retain standing in the public square, but it is not based upon our appealing philosophy. Rather, it is based upon our ability to deliver goods: better pharmaceuticals, better treatments for dread diseases, better ways to manage our environ­ment, better ways to get us around the planet. As a philosophy of nature, though, as a shaper of our culture as we strive for it to be, science has come to be widely looked upon with suspicious dread. That van Houten couched his rant in the nihilistic language of mod­ern Darwinism underscores the point. That Green put those words in the mouth of a shriveled, irrelevant, isolated, drunken has-been underscores the point painfully.

For nearly a century, our choice has been stark: the purpose­less world of the materialist, or the demon-haunted world of the vitalist.

Peter van Houten is a caricature, of course, but Green’s novel poses, in an interesting way, the problem that biology, and evolu­tionism, now faces. The story arc of The Fault in Our Stars follows Hazel and Gus as they chart their difficult path between two radi­cally opposing poles: the mindless religiosity of the church support group where they met, and Peter van Houten’s desiccated nihilism. The dilemma is similar in many ways to the dilemma biology faces today. For nearly a century, our choice has been stark: the purpose­less world of the materialist, or the demon-haunted world of the vitalist. For nearly a century, we have been forced to choose, and casting your lot with one has meant being cast out from the other. But there is a middle path to follow, which I have argued in this book means coming to grips with life’s truly distinct nature—its purpose­fulness, its intentionality, and its distinctive intelligence. Failing to do this will only cast us deeper into the shadows of irrelevance.

Excerpted from Purpose and Desire by J. Scott Turner, copyright 2017. Published by HarperOne/HarperCollins Publishers.


1. The 1955 play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee (Ballantine, 2003), which has also seen four film adaptations, starring the likes of Spencer Tracy, Gene Kelly, Jason Robards, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, and George C. Scott.

2. Tevye was the central character in Norman Jewison’s 1971 film, Fiddler on the Roof, based upon Sholem Aleichem 1905 novel Tevye and His Daughters. Tevye, played by Chaim Topol in the film, was torn between the demands of tradition and new mores of the future. He struggled with these through soliloquies marked by “On the one hand … , but on the other hand …”

3. Hazel is played by Shailene Woodley and Gus by Ansel Elgort.