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Jewish World Review
Feb. 8, 2009
14 Shevat 5769
How Congress Trumps Darwin
"Descended from the apes!" exclaimed the wife of the bishop of Worcester. "Let us hope that it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known."
This Thursday, the 200th anniversary of the births of Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln, remember that Lincoln mattered more. Without Darwin, other scientists would have discerned natural selection. Indeed, Darwin's friend Alfred Wallace already had. Without Lincoln, the United States probably would have been sundered into at least two nations. Probably into more: Southerners, a fractious tribe, would not have played nicely together in the Confederacy for very long.
Walt Whitman, seared by Lincoln's war to guarantee the nation's survival, adopted a materialist's mysticism about the slaughter: Human immortality is in earth's transformation of bodies into an "unseen essence and odor of surface and grass, centuries hence."
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After Copernicus dislodged humanity from the center of the universe, Marx asserted that false consciousness we do not really "make up our minds" blinds us to the fact that we are in the grip of an implacable dialectic of impersonal forces. Darwin placed humanity in a continuum of all protoplasm. Then Freud declared that the individual's "self" or personhood is actually a sort of unruly committee. All this dented humanity's self-esteem.
Still, many people of faith find Darwinism compatible with theism: G-d, they say, initiated and directs the dynamic that Darwin described.
In the end, Darwin, in spite of perfunctory rhetorical references to "the Creator," disagreed. As a scientist dealing with probabilities, and with a profoundly materialist theory, he had no intellectual room for a directing deity that wills a special destination for our species.
Darwin's rejection of premeditated design helped to validate an analogous political philosophy. The fact of order in nature does not require us to postulate a divine Orderer, and the social order does not presuppose an order-giving state. As a practical matter, we cannot expel government from our understanding of society as Darwin expelled G-d from the understanding of nature. But Darwinism opens the mind to the fecundity of undirected, spontaneous, organic social arrangements to Edmund Burke and Friedrich Hayek.
Speaking of government, in 1973, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act. It said that when identifying an "endangered" or "threatened" species, the government should assess not only disease, predation and threats to its habitat but also "other natural . . . factors affecting its continued existence." Natural factors?
Four years later, the act held up construction of a Tennessee dam deemed menacing to the snail-darter minnow. Ed Yoder, a learned and sometimes whimsical columnist, noted that it was under Tennessee's "monkey law" that John Scopes was tried in 1925 for teaching biology in a way considered incompatible with Genesis. While not equating Tennessee's law with "a measure so enlightened" as the 1973 act, Yoder noted:
"Both measures involve legislative interposition in the realm of biological change; and which will have involved the greater hubris is yet to be seen. Tennessee's ambitions were comparatively modest. It sought only to conceal the disturbing evidence of natural selection from impressionable school children. The Congress of the United States, one is intrigued to learn, intends to stop the nasty business in its tracks."
With that accomplished, it should be child's play for Congress to make the climate behave. Pick your own meaning of "child's play."
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