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In the Current Evolution Debate, Don't Let Darwinists Tell You the History of Their Idea Is Irrelevant

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Writing in the Claremont Review of Books, John West very interestingly reviews a book by John W. Compton, The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution (Harvard University Press). Compton seeks to explain the origin of the politically Progressive view of the Constitution -- as a fluid, evolving "living document" -- but he does so in an unexpected manner. In Compton's "sophisticated" but (John West clarifies) mistaken reading of U.S. history, Evangelical Christians were the first to come up with the strategy that disregards the intentions of the Constitution's framers in favor of a more creative approach.

For example, in Compton's telling, Evangelicals in their campaigns against liquor sales were not dissuaded by scruples about respecting property rights. John West, though, points out that the Founders never regarded those rights as absolutely sacrosanct. Built into their thought was the idea that government can legislate against illicit activity, or "nuisances." Dr. West points out that this is very different from sweeping aside the obvious meaning of Constitutional restraints. He gives the 1942 Supreme Court decision Wickard v. Filburn as an illustration, a turning point where it became evident that Progressive thinking could not care less about what the Constitution does or does not empower government to do.

Although there were other court decisions that ratified the New Deal, it is hard to find another one that signaled quite so decisively the demise of the Founders' idea of limited government and its replacement with what Progressives called the evolving or "living" Constitution. This overthrow of the founders' Constitution by Progressives was nothing short of a revolution in our constitutional system....

Rather than looking for inspiration to Evangelical pastors, West argues, Progressives were influenced by 19th-century evolutionary notions:

Even if Progressives made use of previous court decisions upholding state and national efforts at moral reform, their use of those decisions seems to have been opportunistic. If one wants to uncover the real roots of Progressive thought, one needs to look elsewhere -- in particular, to G.W.F. Hegel's historicism and Charles Darwin's natural science. In the broader sweep of history these were far more significant to the development of the Progressives' radicalism than any 19th-century evangelical preacher.

Darkest of all the threads connecting Darwinian biology to Progressive politics is, in the American context, the one that resulted in the widespread embrace of the "scientific" doctrine of eugenics.

Darwinian biology also fueled a vigorous form of coercive utopianism during the Progressive era. Nowhere was this more evident than in the eugenics movement, which invoked the prestige of science in order to breed a better race. It was no accident that the Second International Congress of Eugenics in 1921 was held at the American Museum of Natural History, one of the nation's premier scientific institutions, or that its guest of honor was Leonard Darwin, son of the famed British naturalist. The message presented to all concerned was that eugenics was unassailable as public policy precisely because it represented the authority of modern biological science applied to politics; attack eugenics and one would be guilty of attacking the authority of science itself.

One speaker at the conference, Alleyne Ireland, made explicit the consequences of this Progressive fusion of science and politics for the future of representative democracy, declaring that current conditions had rendered "utterly unsuitable" America's original form of government established by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. He complained that America's founders believed that "governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," and they set up arrangements "designed with a view to making abuse of power difficult." But in an age when government must increasingly provide a wide range of social services, society could no longer afford to rely on government by non-experts. Instead, it was "imperative...that the omnipresent activity of government should be guided by the light of scientific knowledge and conducted through the instrumentality of a scientific method."

This is history that's not only fascinating and vital to understanding our nation's past -- it's relevant, in addition, to current discussions of evolutionary theory. We should not let Darwinists tell us it's not.

Ideas not only have consequences, they also, for better or worse, possess a certain integrity down through the generations. In business terms, they are like a franchise -- in sports, say, or movies. The Seattle Seahawks football franchise has an identity that spans the years even as the staff of players is regularly turned over; even as the team is sold by one owner to a new one. Similarly, James Bond films have a traceable spirit, feel, range of themes, subjects, and personalities, even as writers, directors, and actors have changed many times over.

The current community of Darwinian theorists, scientists, and activists is obviously not the same group of people as in President Wilson's day -- Woodrow Wilson, who wrote in 1912 (John West quotes him) about how

living political constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice. Society is a living organism and must obey the laws of Life.... All that progressives ask or desire is permission -- in an era when "development," "evolution," is the scientific word -- to interpret the Constitution according to the Darwinian principle.

Yet one senses that Wilson would recognize his kinship with left-leaning thinkers today. Different teams of players, years gone by -- but the integrity of evolutionary thinking remains constant. It's no surprise that Leftists today habitually look to "science" to justify their policy preferences, even as those same preferences shape their understanding of science. The stream of Darwinian evolutionary thought flows on. The same stream that nourished eugenic science a century ago feeds the war on humans, and on human exceptionalism, today.

They stick a happy face on Darwinism and pretend the basic content and implications of that way of thinking are brand new, with no connection to the past. Not true!

Image: Woodrow Wilson, oath of office, March 4, 1913; by Associated Press ([1]) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.