The Ethical Ramifications of Darwinism

John C. Rankin

[excerpted from First the Gospel, Then Politics …, 1999, Vol. 2, not published]

The reason Darwinism is so important and remains alive in controversy today, is that it came to pass at a historical juncture when a huge change of episteme was under way. From the Greek word espistomai for “knowledge” (from which we get the word “epistemology,” or the study of how we know what we know), episteme is an academically specific and technical word for a reigning theory of knowledge. It is used similarly to how “paradigm shift” (i.e., T.S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) is used to indicate a change from one paradigm of thought to another, but with greater significance.

The paradigm shift from one episteme to another in the mid-nineteenth century was profound. The old view of theology as the “queen of the sciences” was beginning to give way to a new view, which by the mid-twentieth century had consigned theology either to the slave’s quarters, or banished it from the kingdom of the university altogether. Secularism was on the rise to replace the “God-hypothesis,” and in this era the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis arose, which eventually poisoned much of Protestantism (and later affected Roman Catholicism too), in attacking the historical and inspirational reliability of the Bible.

Jacques Barzun has written a book called Darwin, Marx and Wagner, which highlights the significance of the year 1859 when Darwin published The Origin of Species, Karl Marx published Das Kapital, and composer Richard Wagner published some seminal works. Marx’s political theory was a direct challenge to a free market economy which is rooted in biblical covenantal law. Wagner’s music was chosen by Adolf Hitler to inspire the Nazi agenda, as it reflected Wagner’s hatred of the Jews and his intent to arouse in people either “blind adulation or violent antipathy.” Wagner was a political revolutionary as well. This was an episteme that was moving from a culture that acknowledged biblical foundations and at least an implicit power to give (and with it the source for unalienable rights), to a culture that was celebrating egotism and the power to take. Darwin was a central player in this new episteme, and his theory of macroevolution was and still is an essential rationale for replacing God with human self-apotheosis.

The ethical ramifications are enormous when the image of God is replaced with the “image of an ape.” Morally, the “struggle for existence” of Malthus is the power to take, not the power to give. Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” only ratcheted this up another notch, as man becomes kin to the law of the jungle. Only the strong survive. Malthus was consistent in his application:

“The beneficent Providence consisted in the natural checks to the growth of population: war, famine and disease. It followed that any interference with these checks through almsgiving, hospital care, or peace societies, was cruelty to the rest; while starvation, pestilence, and bloodshed were merciful gifts from on high” (Darwin, Marx and Wagner, p. 63).

Malthus’s distance from the order of creation and from the Adamic and Noahic covenants is breathtaking. According to him, filling the earth with image-bearers of God is not good, it is evil. Malthus has eaten the forbidden fruit of defining good and evil as he sees fit. He assigns to Providence the de facto works of the devil (using “Providence” as a deistic reference to God). His language here reflected the “progress” of Enlightenment thought away from a personal and good God, through the concept of an impersonal deity, and eventually to agnosticism and/or atheism (which now is boomeranging back to ancient paganisms, from whence all this arose).

Darwin built upon Malthus’s mechanism, but he did not want to buy into the moral consequences for the social and political order. He tried to argue for the “noblest part of our nature,” in an attempt to hold onto the image of God while denying its existence.

Darwinism from the outset was on a collision course with itself. Thomas H. Huxley was known as Darwin’s “bulldog defender” because of his defense of Darwin’s ideas against Anglican Bishop Samuel Wilberforce in 1860. Toward the end of his life, Huxley delivered the Romanes lectures in 1894, entitled Evolution and Ethics. His stated purpose for these lectures was:

“… to remove that which seems to have proved a stumbling block to many – namely,  the apparent paradox that ethical nature, while born of cosmic nature, it is necessarily at enmity with its parent” (Evolution and Ethics, p. viii.).

Huxley then outlined the ethical effects of Darwinism if left on its own terms:

“Supposing the administrator [of human society] to be guided by purely scientific considerations, he would, like the gardener, meet the most serious difficulty by systematic extirpation, or exclusion, of the superfluous. The hopelessly diseased, the infirm aged, the weak or deformed in body or mind, the excess of infants born, would be put away, as the gardener pulls up defective and superfluous plants, or the breeder destroys undesirable cattle. Only the strong and the healthy, carefully matched, with a view to the progeny best adapted to the purposes of the administrator, would be permitted to perpetuate their kind” (ibid. p. 21).

Huxley did not want to see this profile come to pass. He was fearful of that to which the new episteme might lead, and he saw clearly how it was headed in the direction of eugenics, abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. He did not have the scientific knowledge to understand current genetic engineering, but his analogy of the selective gardener was ethically prescient. We now have those who wish to extirpate or cultivate humans as they see fit, by means of the laboratory as well as politics and war.

The “cosmic nature” was Huxley’s language for the materialistic origin of human life, for a process of godless macroevolution. And he saw that the desire for human ethics was at war with its origins. This is a classic example of the reversal. Huxley denies the basis for the image of God, yet he wants the POSH Ls (peace, order, stability and hope; to live, to love, to laugh and to learn) of God’s image nonetheless. This testifies to the reality of God and his image, and shows that Huxley must rebel against his definition of origins in order to gain some sanity and humanity, whereas biblical believers are to submit to their origins in order to gain the POSH Ls. Huxley is stuck in an attempt to reverse his origins, whereas we who are believers have in the Messiah the liberation of the reversal of the reversal.

Thus Huxley argues that:

“…the cosmic process has no sort of relation to moral ends; if the imitation of it by man is inconsistent with the first principles of ethics; what becomes of this surprising theory?” (ibid. p. 83)

Accordingly, Huxley then says that the rules of the game need to be changed in the middle. He argues that the very evolutionary process which he believes brought him into existence, must now be combated so that a sense of human decency may be preserved. He reflects a much better instinct than did Malthus, but he did so at the price of becoming intellectually inconsistent. If macroevolutionary process produced human ethics, is that not an aberration in the scheme of chance variations? Namely, is it not an aberration which the “survival of the fittest” can, might, or must overcome and dispense with?

Whereas Huxley seeks to rescue his humanity by means of intellectual inconsistency, Malthus was intellectually inconsistent with the Bible to begin with, by assigning to God a desire to be cruel, and so his subsequent intellectual consistency is no honor. Many people can be intellectually formidable and apparently consistent at different points, but when their assumptions about origins are examined, entire worldviews will either rise or fall.

Despite his argument, Huxley’s fears were realized. Barzun says that his methods of criticism:

“… left him and his world naked before moral adversity. Europe became more and more like the vaunted jungle of the evolutionary books, and Huxley died heavyhearted with forebodings of the kind of future he had helped to prepare” (Darwin, Marx and Wagner, p. 64).

Like Darwin before him, and Sagan afterward, Huxley died with unresolved tensions or forebodings. Herbert Spencer sought to apply Darwin simultaneously to the fields of biology and sociology in his Principles of Ethics (1879-93). He picked up on Malthus, and was largely responsible for making Darwin known to the average person – with his political positions which opposed poor laws, state-sponsored education, sanitary supervision and regulation of housing conditions. He repudiated such “state interference” with the “natural,” saying that it would impede society’s “growth” by not eliminating the “unfit.”

In the late nineteenth century, the upper industrial classes in Europe cited Darwin to justify their economic exploitation of the poor. German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was enthralled with Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” and criticized him for not being consistent enough in applying it, as did Spencer. Nietzsche held contempt for “the masses,” hated Christianity and called it a complete failure. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883-85), he articulated a “will to power” (in language which so strikingly portrays a reversal of the power to give) that paved the way for his concept of the “superman” to be realized by Aryan myth making. In Beyond Good and Evil (1886) [the forbidden fruit again revisited], he argued that with the “death of God” (conceptually), nothing is true, and therefore everything is permitted (classic dualism, and as F.M. Dostoevsky [1821-1881] diagnoses in The Brothers Karamazov).

Barzun characterizes the age as “one long call for blood,” and sums it up:

“Since in every European country between 1870 and 1914 there was a war party demanding armaments, and individualist parties demanding ruthless competition, a socialist party demanding internal purges against aliens – all of them, when appeals to greed and glory failed, or even before, invoked Spencer and Darwin, which was to say, science incarnate” (ibid. p. 94).

The new episteme was well in place and the “Proud Tower” (as historian Barbara Tuchman entitled a book that examines this period) of human civilization was erected. Psychologically, this proud tower sank with the hubris of the Titanic (1912), and its fruit was fulfilled by World War I where the “long call for blood” came to pass (1914-1918). In its wake, Margaret Sanger (the founder of Planned Parenthood – the world’s premier promoter of human abortion) worked tirelessly for racist and eugenicist birth-control and sterilization laws aiming to reduce “undesirable” immigrants, and she worked closely with many Nazis in support of their “race purification” plans, and publicly praised Adolf Hitler in the early 1920s. Hitler was steeped in Nietzsche, with the idea of Aryan supremacy being rooted in the concept of the “superman.”

Thus World War II and the Holocaust have roots that trace back to Charles Darwin, his intellectual dishonesty in service to an agenda to deny William Paley’s argument for design, and therefore his repudiation of the good God of only Genesis. The old episteme of God’s nature was replaced with the new episteme of a “superman” without God, and along with Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse-Tung, each of whom also embraced social Darwinism with passion, tens of millions were slaughtered in the process. An exchange of Yahweh’s goodness for the “goodness” of the ancient serpent in modern dress. Barzun, in demonstrating the organic unity of Darwin and Hitler, quotes Dr. Robert Ley, head of the Nazi Labor Front in 1940. In it the parallels between Darwin’s language and Hitler’s political applications are overwhelming.

This is but a sketch of the ethical ramifications from Darwin to Hitler. The tracing of the holocaust of European Jews in Nazi Germany to the modern holocaust of the unborn in the United States is to be noted by a simple observation: the Nazi doctrine of Joseph Goebbels, leibensunwertes Leben (“life unworthy of life”), is the same doctrine as that expressed by the abortion-rights movement toward the unborn today. Both are rooted in the prerogative of the strong over the weak that Darwin’s theory paved the way for society to explicitly embrace. Now the overwhelming majority of Darwinists recoil from such a legacy, and repudiate Hitler as strongly as any of us. But whereas this reflects the image of God within them, and though Darwin and Huxley did not want this trajectory, as Richard Wagner put it, ideas do have consequences.