How Darwinism Dumbs Us Down

by Nancy Pearcey

At Stanford University in the spring of 2005, I had my first experience of being picketed. Organized by a campus group calling itself Rational Thought, the picketers carried signs protesting the presence of Intelligent Design (ID) proponents on campus. Several local atheist groups joined the controversy, sparking colorful stories in the local newspapers.

Before me at the podium was Michael Behe, author of Darwin’s Black Box, speaking on the scientific evidence against evolution. I followed by explaining the cultural and philosophical implications of evolution. As I spoke, astonishingly, some of the protesters softened their hostility and actually began to engage with what I was saying. The gist of my talk was that Darwinism undercuts the very possibility of rational truth–an argument that seemed unsettling to atheist students who had organized a group specifically to promote rational thought!

To understand how Darwinism undercuts the very concept of rationality, we can think back to the late nineteenth century when the theory first arrived on American shores. Almost immediately, it was welcomed by a group of thinkers who began to work out its implications far beyond science. They realized that Darwinism implies a broader philosophy of naturalism (i.e., that nature is all that exists, and that natural causes are adequate to explain all phenomena). Thus they began applying a naturalistic worldview across the board–in philosophy, psychology, the law, education, and the arts.

At the foundation of these efforts, however, was a naturalistic approach to knowledge itself (epistemology). The logic went like this: If humans are products of Darwinian natural selection, that obviously includes the human brain–which in turn means all our beliefs and values are products of evolutionary forces: Ideas arise in the human brain by chance, just like Darwin’s chance variations in nature; and the ones that stick around to become firm beliefs and convictions are those that give an advantage in the struggle for survival. This view of knowledge came to be called pragmatism (truth is what works) or instrumentalism (ideas are merely tools for survival).

Darwinian Logic

One of the leading pragmatists was John Dewey, who had a greater influence on educational theory in America than anyone else in the 20th century. Dewey rejected the idea that there is a transcendent element in human nature, typically defined in terms of mind or soul or spirit, capable of knowing a transcendent truth or moral order. Instead he treated humans as mere organisms adapting to challenges in the environment. In his educational theory, learning is just another form of adaptation–a kind of mental natural selection. Ideas evolve as tools for survival, no different from the evolution of the lion’s teeth or the eagle’s claws.

In a famous essay called “The Influence of Darwin on Philosophy,” Dewey said Darwinism leads to a “new logic to apply to mind and morals and life.” In this new evolutionary logic, ideas are not judged by a transcendent standard of Truth, but by how they work in getting us what we want. Ideas do not “reflect reality” but only serve human interests.

To emphasize how revolutionary this was, up until this time the dominant theory of knowledge or epistemology was…

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How Darwinism Dumbs Us Down