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What has Darwin wrought?

THE BACKLASH against Nobel laureate James Watson for his controversial social views was a long time in coming. Famous for his discovery with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA, Watson resigned late in 2007 as chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island, N.Y., after igniting a firestorm by suggesting in the British press that black Africans are biologically inferior to whites. Watson remarked that, while he hoped everyone was equal, "people who have to deal with black employees find this not true." The most pertinent question about the Watson brouhaha is not why this eminent scientist finally was taken to the woodshed, but why it took so long to do so, and why so many others in the scientific community have been given a free pass when it comes to their political and social pronouncements. After all, Watson is far from the only scholar to make outrageous statements in the name of science.

Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, traverses the world proclaiming that "faith is one of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate." Princeton University bioethicist Peter Singer has declared that "the life of a newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee." University of Texas biologist Eric Pianka recommends eliminating up to 90% of the world's human population and calls on the government to confiscate all the earnings of any couple who has more than two children. Watson himself has had a long history of offensive comments, such as his 1973 proposal that infants not be declared alive until three days after birth in order to allow defective babies to be eliminated.

Unlike Watson's statements on race, most of these other invocations of science to justify ethically dubious positions have gone largely unchallenged by the vast majority of the scientific establishment. Why? This dilemma has deep roots. For more than a century, Western scientific elites have been infected by a virulent strain of triumphalism that idolizes the current scientific consensus and dismisses all viewpoints not based on science (such as religion) as tantamount to superstition. According to this view, any questioning of a current scientific consensus in the realm of public policy represents a "war on science" by those who would like to usher in a new Dark Ages.

One of the strongest reinforcers of this mindset today is an evangelistic form of Darwinian evolution. Dawkins, for instance. grounds his atheism on the belief that "[Charles] Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist." Singer insists that his views simply represent "catching up with Darwin." Watson, meanwhile, cited human evolution as justification for his views on black inferiority. An unfortunate by-product of the off-repeated mantra that no rational person can doubt evolution is the tendency to give a free pass to any scientist who justifies his or her pronouncements--no matter how absurd--in the name of evolution.

Sometimes, of course, a scientist like Watson will go too far and be challenged, but those who think we simply can trust the current majority of scientists to police their own should remember the eugenics crusade, the horrific effort to apply the principles of evolutionary biology to human breeding in the early decades of the 20th century. Eugenics was promoted as the science of human breeding, and it resulted in the compulsory sterilization of more than 60,000 presumed "defectives" in the U.S., including many who probably would not be considered mentally deficient today. Racial minorities and the poor were special targets of the eugenics crusaders, and the program of forced sterilization ultimately was approved by the Supreme Court in the case of Buck v. Bell, where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes infamously declared that "three generations of imbeciles are enough."

Francis Galton, the cousin of naturalist Charles Darwin, generally is credited as the thunder of the eugenics movement, but the crusade also drew direct inspiration from Darwin himself, who complained in his book The Descent of Man that civilized societies undermined natural selection by caring for the poor. mentally ill, and sick. In one particularly stark passage, Darwin even condemned the effort to vaccinate people against small pox because it "has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed. ... Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man ... excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed."

Compassionate in his personal life, Darwin was squeamish about following these ideas to their logical conclusion. Indeed, he indicated that our natural sense of sympathy would not allow us to do what is demanded by "hard reason." Darwin's followers, however, were not so reticent. Although eugenics today is regarded as junk science, for decades it was the consensus view of the mainstream scientific community and promoted by leading evolutionary biologists.

Princeton University's Edwin Conklin, for example, complained that, while nature still may kill off the most biologically inferior people, "nevertheless a good many defectives survive in modern society and are capable of reproduction who would have perished in more primitive society before reaching maturity." Such defectives are "preserved by charity and ... are allowed to reproduce.... Thus, natural selection, the great law of evolution and progress, is set at naught." Conklin later became president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Harvard University geneticist Edward East espoused similar views. A member of the elite National Academy of Sciences and president of the American Society of Naturalists, East insisted that "eugenics tenets are strict corollaries" of "the theory of organic evolution."

Another member of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard-trained biologist Charles Davenport headed the Eugenics Record Office. one of the most virulent national eugenics organizations. Davenport boasted that "Eugenics is a branch of biology social biology and its study has been cultivated chiefly by the biologists." A founding lather of the field of genetics, Davenport served as director of the research lab at Cold Spring Harbor. a post later assumed by none other than Watson. (Davenport also shared Watson's belief that Darwinian evolution justified black interiority.) Support for eugenics was so widespread in our nation's scientific community that, in 1932, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City hosted the Third International Congress of Eugenics and mounted a huge public exhibition designed to extol the benefits of eugenics to the general public.

Ironically, the most consistent critics of eugenics were traditional Catholics and Protestant evangelicals the pariahs of today's secular chattering classes. Pope Plus XI strongly condemned forced sterilization in an encyclical in 1930, criticizing eugenists for calling on "the civil authority to arrogate to itself a power over a faculty which it never had and can never legitimately possess," and evangelical firebrand William Jennings Bryan dismissed eugenics in the 1920s as a program for "scientific breeding ... under which a few supposedly superior intellects, sell-appointed, would direct the mating and the movements of the mass of mankind."

The tragic history of eugenics in the U.S. underscores the vital importance of encouraging not only dissenting scientists, but nonscientists. to take part in public conversations over science and social policy. This lesson seems to be lost on members of America's current intelligentsia. many of whom are at the forefront of promoting technocracy the claim that scientific "experts" ultimately have the right to role free from the normal restraints of democratic accountability. Disparaging the wisdom of ordinary citizens and their elected representatives, the new apologists for technocracy essentially argue that public policy should be dictated by the majority of scientific experts without input from anyone else. Today. this bald assertion is made not just with regard to Darwinian evolution, but concerning a host of other controversial issues such as sex education, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning, and global warming. On these matters, any dissent from the orthodoxy of the "experts" "allegedly represents an attack on science or the thwarting of scientific progress.

Of course, there is ranch that can be said in favor of the authority of scientific expertise in modern life. In an increasingly complex and technologically-driven world, the need for scientific input on public policy would seem obvious. Since many policy questions today arise in such science-based fields as medicine, transportation, and ecology, why shouldn't politicians and voters simply defer to the authority of scientific expect in these areas? While this line of reasoning exhibits a surface persuasiveness, it ignores the natural limits of scientific expertise. Scientific knowledge may be necessary for good public policy in certain areas, but it hardly is sufficient. Political problems raise issues of justice, equity, and prudence, and scientists are ill-equipped to function as the judges of such questions.

British writer C.S. Lewis warned about this drawback of technocracy back in the 1950s. "I dread specialists in power, because they are specialists speaking outside their special subjects," Lewis wrote. "Let scientists tell us about sciences, but government involves questions about the good for man. and justice, and what things are worth having at what price and on these a scientific training gives a man's opinion no added value."

Technocracy poses a further difficulty: experts can be wrong, sometimes egregiously. If the history of science in politics shows anything, it is that scientific "experts" can be as fallible as anyone else. They are capable of being blinded their own prejudices and going beyond the evidence in order to promote the policies they favor. Darwinian zoologist Alfred Kinsey's empirical claims about the sexual behavior of the general American public were junk science, given his deeply flawed sample population; yet that did not stop him from boldly making his claims and vigorously defending them as sound science.

What is true of individual scientists can be true of the scientific community as a whole. For decades, eugenics was embraced as legitimate by the U.S.'s leading scientists and scientific organizations. Critics of eugenics, meanwhile, roundly were stigmatized as antiscience and religious zealots. Yet, the critics were the ones who turned out to be right, not the scientific elites. Similarly, the lobotomy was embraced uncritically for years by many in the medical community as a miracle cure, and the scientist who pioneered the operation in human beings won a Nobel Prize for his efforts. Only after tens of thousands of individuals had been lobotomized did healthy skepticism prevail.

I am not antiscience, and I value the important contributions science has made to civilized society. Science has brought tremendous benefits to human life, ranging from wonder-working drugs to the personal computer on which I am typing this article. Science, though, is not God. Like every human enterprise, it is errorridden, prone to abuse, and corruptible by power--and it needs to be subject to the checks and balances of a free society. That is a hard truth that some of today's supposed defenders of science too often ignore and, as a result, the public discussion of scientific issues increasingly is hampered by a dogmatism that is far from scientific. On the one hand, scientists with outrageous social views that can be justified in terms of an existing scientific paradigm often lace little critical scrutiny. On the other hand, any scientist or ordinary citizen who tries to challenge the majority view of elite scientists on something like embryonic stem-cell research or global warming faces censorship, ridicule, and intimidation, regardless of their academic qualifications or the quality of their evidence.

Nowhere can this mentality be seen more dearly that in the current debate over neo-Darwinism, the modern theory of evolution that claims that life arose as the product of an undirected process of random mutations operated on by natural selection or "survival of the fittest." Darwinism surely is the sacred cow par excellence of the scientific establishment. Voice doubts about Darwin in the scientific community and you risk being classified along with Holocaust deniers or faith healers.

Despite the cost to one's reputation of questioning Darwin, more than 700 doctoral scientists have signed "A Scientific Dissent from Darwinism," announcing they are "skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life" and urging "careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory." Signers of the declaration include members of the national academies of science in the U.S., Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, and India (Hindustan), as well as science faculty and researchers from a wide range of universities and colleges, including Princeton, MIT, Dartmouth, and the Universities of Idaho, Tulane, and Michigan.

One prominent Darwin skeptic is U.S. National Academy of Sciences member Philip Skell, who acknowledges that "evolution is an important theory and students need to know about it, but scientific journals now document many scientific problems and criticisms of evolutionary theory and students need to know about these as well. Many of the scientific criticisms of which I speak are well known by scientists in various disciplines, including the disciplines of chemistry and biochemistry, in which I have done my work."

Another Darwin skeptic is protein scientist Douglas Axe, who earned his Ph.D. from the California Institute of Technology and is a former researcher at Cambridge University. Axe has published research in the Journal of Molecular Biology showing just how astonishingly rare certain working protein sequences are, casting severe doubts that a Darwinian process of chance mutations could generate them. In the words of Axe, the rarity of these working protein sequences among all the possible combinations is "less than one in a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion."

Debating intelligent design

Axe is one of a growing number of scientists and philosophers who not only doubt the sufficiency of neo-Darwinism, but who think that nature provides positive evidence for intelligent design in physics, astronomy, biochemistry, and allied disciplines. Intelligent design proponents include Lehigh University biochemist Michael Belle, University of Idaho microbiologist Scott Minnich, University of Georgia quantum chemist Henry Schaefer, UCLA neuroscientist Jeffrey Schwartz, mathematician William Dembski, and Cambridge-trained philosopher of science Stephen Meyer. Intelligent design proponents have been hard for the establishment to ignore, not only because of their impeccable academic credentials, but because they have pressed their arguments in scholarly journals and books by mainstream academic publishers like Cambridge University Press and Michigan State University Press. Rather than respond with serious refutations, however, many opponents of intelligent design have resorted to discrimination and harassment in an effort to shut down debate.

At George Mason University in Virginia, biology professor Caroline Crocker made the mistake of favorably discussing intelligent design in her cell biology class. She was suspended from teaching the class, and then her contract was not renewed. At the University of Idaho, the university president issued an edict banning faculty from "teaching ... views that differ from evolution ... in our life, earth, and physical science courses or curricula." His target was tenured microbiologist Scott Minnich, who testified in favor of intelligent design in the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial. At the Smithsonian Institution, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg, the editor of a respected biology journal, faced retaliation by Smithsonian executives after accepting for publication a peer-reviewed article by another scholar favoring intelligent design. Investigators for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel later concluded that "it is ... clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing [Steinberg] out of the [Smithsonian]."

Moreover, biology is not the only scientific field where a litmus test against intelligent design is being imposed. At Iowa State University, pro-intelligent design astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez was denied tenure in 2007 despite the fact that his work on design focused on physics and astronomy and did not challenge biological evolution. An outstanding scientist whose research has been featured in Science, Nature, and on the cover of Scientific American, Gonzalez was rejected for tenure even though he had produced 350% more peer-reviewed publications than needed to demonstrate research excellence in his department. ISU Pres. Gregory Geoffroy insisted that Gonzalez's denial of tenure had nothing to do with his views on intelligent design, but members of Gonzalez's department admitted otherwise, including one colleague who published a newspaper article highlighting Gonzalez's views on intelligent design as the only reason he voted to deny him tenure. Gonzalez's most vocal opponent on campus was atheist religion professor Hector Avalos, who has argued that the Bible is worse than Hitler's Mein Kampf. It says something revealing about American academia that Gonzalez's views were the ones considered beyond the pale by his colleagues, not Avalos'.

Harassment of intelligent design proponents has reached such a fevered pitch in the scientific community that it has generated a controversial documentary titled "Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed," featuring actor-writer Ben Stein. "Expelled" tells the stories of scientists who have faced persecution for voicing their doubts about Darwin. Perhaps Stein's film will spark a serious national conversation about the legitimate role of dissent in science.

The suppression of robust public debate on scientific issues is bad for science, and it certainly is bad for a free society. It demonstrates the type of group-think mentality that, in the past, led to horrors like eugenics. Contrary to the claims of some, increased public scrutiny of claims made in the name of science does not constitute a "war against science." Indeed, it may be the only thing that saves science from its own excesses.

John G. West is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, Seattle, Wash., and author of Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science.
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Title Annotation:Science & Technology; Charles Darwin's influence on scientific ethics and eugenics
Author:West, John G.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2009
Words:2944
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