Appreciating Historian Jacques Barzun's Critique of Darwinism - Evolution News & Views

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Appreciating Historian Jacques Barzun's Critique of Darwinism

As Michael Flannery wrote here last week, Columbia University professor emeritus and former provost Jacques Barzun, one of the preeminent historians of the twentieth century, passed away at age 104. He was one of the most respected scholars in the field of European intellectual and cultural history. I never met Barzun personally, but I learned a great deal from him, not only from his writings, but also from his student Allan Megill, who supervised my doctoral study of European intellectual history.

Barzun.jpgOne of the admirable qualities that Barzun brought to his scholarship was his willingness to swim against the dominant intellectual currents of his day. This is indicated in the title of his masterwork, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. Calling your own age decadent intellectually and culturally is not likely to win you a following among intellectuals. After all, their worldviews were shaped by those decadent intellectual trends, so Barzun was criticizing views they hold dearly. Nonetheless, upon his passing, just about everyone acknowledged his incredible erudition, though it doesn't seem that many intellectuals are paying any attention to his lifelong critique of contemporary intellectual and cultural currents. The decadence continues unabated, despite his valiant efforts.

In his book Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, Barzun was audacious enough to subject Darwin to a withering barrage of criticism, despite Darwin's heroic status among scientists and academics. Barzun believed in biological evolution. However, he perceptively explained that Darwin's distinctive contribution to European thought was not evolution, which many others had believed before him. No, more importantly Darwin formulated "a theory which explains evolution by natural selection from accidental variations. The entire phrase and not merely the words Natural Selection is important, for the denial of purpose in the universe is carried in the second half of the formula -- accidental variation. This denial of purpose is Darwin's distinctive contention." (2nd ed., pp. 10-11)

Barzun declared war on Darwin's theory (but not evolution as such), because he considered it a major influence on "mechanical materialism." He accused Darwinism of undermining belief in mind, consciousness, and purpose. He also objected to the tendency to idolize science, stating, "Science as a Delphic oracle exists only in the popular imagination and the silent assumptions of certain scientists. At any given time there are only searchers who agree or disagree." (336)

Barzun also insisted that Darwinism had produced some rather unsavory offspring, such as racism and anti-egalitarianism. "Having got rid of Design with loud huzzahs, we are suddenly sorry to find our handiwork faithfully reproducing the image of our superior theories. With Huxley and others we denied the principle of human equality, asserting the inborn supremacy of certain races instead -- only to wake up in a world taking this science literally. We did not see that Equality was a concept for dealing out justice among incommensurable human beings." (360) In discussing the contribution of Darwinism to the rise of social Darwinism he even had the temerity to quote a social Darwinist statement from the Nazi leader Robert Ley. He hastened to clarify that he was not holding Darwin (or Marx or Wagner) individually responsible for Nazism or other abominable movements, but he did insist "that the ideas, the methods, the triumph of mechanistic materialism over the flexible and humane pragmatism of the Romantics has been a source of real woe in our day." (15-16)

I don't know if Barzun would have agreed with the intelligent-design movement as it is constituted today, and I don't know of any instance where he discussed it. However, he clearly embraced Design over Darwinism and shared many common concerns with the ID movement. Barzun rejected the Darwinist insistence that purpose and design are illusory or epiphenomenal. He castigated scientism for its intellectual imperialism and its attempt to rid the world of mind and consciousness. He even perceptively noted: "Our nineteenth-century training makes the questioner of any given scientist's dictum seem an obscurantist, an enemy of science as such, when in fact the fundamental question modern man should put and try to answer is: What is science?" Indeed.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany and Hitler's Ethic: The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress.