Review: Darwin Day in America
Work under Review
In Darwin Day in America, John G West — the associate director of the Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture — blames all of what he deems to be the ills of modern society on a construct he calls "Darwinism," which throughout the book is roughly equated with "scientific materialism." If there has been a negative cultural development, West will most certainly find Darwinism as its source. If there is an institution or idea that appeals to his sensibilities, however, he will take great pains to distance it from any taint of Darwinian influence. This is quintessentially bad scholarship.
In the chapters dedicated to crime and punishment (chapters 3–5), West goes on at length cataloging and ridiculing the attempts of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century researchers investigating the material basis of human behavior. All of the usual suspects are rounded up (Darrow, Lombroso, Freud, and Skinner among others) and quote-mined to fit West's indictment. According to West, of course, they are all operating under the thrall of Darwinism and are responsible for undermining everything that makes us human — most especially personal responsibility and free will (both of which we are endowed with by the Creator).
The result of all of this work, West concludes, is that the medicalization or scientization of criminal behavior has stripped our culture of the right to mete out punishment according to the dictates of what West vaguely refers to as the "Western conception of criminal justice" (p 73) or the "cultural foundations of the traditional theory of punishment" (p 78) — read Old Testament. According to West, our attempts to discern the material basis of human behavior have led us too far down the path of treating criminals as victims and toward a rehabilitative approach that has had a dismal record of success.
In his analysis of the effects of "scientific materialism" on US jurisprudence, West resembles Chicken Little. He concludes his trip down the slippery slope by stating:
Scientific materialism, by contrast [with what West calls the traditional legal system], presumed that all behaviors could be reduced to material causes rather than the free choice of the individual; according to this view, it was unclear that anyone could ever be considered 'morally blameworthy' in the classical sense. The scientific view threatened to undo the Western conception of criminal justice. (p 72–3)
West suggests that to treat the psychologically or physiologically damaged criminal differently is to rob him or her of her humanity since it does not interpret his or her actions as those of a rational being. West makes no distinction between the moral culpability of the individuals in these cases and asserts that the success of these kinds of mental-illness defenses have detrimentally altered not just the decisions in these cases but also the ways in which the justice system deals with criminals after they are convicted.
And this is just the beginning, West assures us:
But the dehumanizing effects of scientific materialism reach far beyond our criminal-justice system. Reductionist thinking has been applied to the fields of business, economics, and welfare — with equally grim results. In the next section, we will look at the pervasive impact of Darwinism [egad!] and scientific materialism on conflicts over wealth and poverty in America. (p 101)
Apparently West does not like the direction our criminal justice system has developed over the past 150 years, and Darwin is to blame.
On the other hand, West does like free markets and therefore he asserts, "Myths aside, Darwinism has offered little genuine support for laissez faire capitalism"(p 117). This is fascinating footwork, which exhibits a troubling inconsistency in the apportioning of influence. In the next chapter, "Breeding Our Way out of Poverty", the Darwinian specter returns to haunt West's analysis. While the idea of competition as positively applied in the context of business is attributed to Hobbes, Malthus, and Adam Smith, when West shifts gears to discuss eugenic approaches to welfare policy, Hobbes, Malthus, and Smith disappear, and his favorite bogeyman returns, especially among the elites that he particularly disdains.
West's analysis concludes with the claim that it was:
[s]cience with a capital S [that] dictated the replacement of punishment with treatment in the criminal justice system, the enactment of forced sterilization in the welfare system, and the substitution of value-free information from sex researchers for traditional moral teachings about family life in public schools (p 361)
That's a pretty bad track record, and therefore, again according to West, we should reject the "growing chorus [that] urges public policy be dictated by the majority of scientific experts without input from anyone else (p 362).
This is a straw man. While there are indeed outspoken scientists who advocate for various policy positions and funding decisions, it is not the case that these individuals demand or could have unilateral decision-making power.
Despite a plethora of footnotes and multiple citations of the work of his colleagues at the Discovery Institute, West is clearly not dealing with reality. He simply ignores scholarship by anyone outside of a tight group of ideological fellow travelers. West's analysis of Social Darwinism rests largely on challenging Richard Hofstadter's 1955 thesis, which has been modified and updated by scores of historians since the mid-century. His chapters on eugenics cite Daniel Kevles's early work on the history of the eugenics movement but fail to engage the past 20 years of scholarship on this issue. The idea that somehow scientists in the US have been dictating social policy for the past century is on the face of it ludicrous. West's book is frustrating, and deeply depressing. Perhaps its only positive function is that it provides a very clear window into a very particular view of history that is shared by the members of the Discovery Institute and their sympathizers.
Mark E Borrello
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior
University of Minnesota
1987 Upper Buford Circle
St Paul MN 55108
Mark E Borrello is a historian of science and assistant professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota.