Darwin Day in America; How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science by John G. West (ISI Books, $26.95, 450 pages)

The success of modern science in providing us with all sorts of material goods, medical wonders and solutions for an array of societal problems has granted it well-deserved respect in the minds of the discerning public. The scientific method and findings of carefully researched scientific inquiry have been recognized as a reliable source of objective data that is usually regarded as transcending personal opinions or political interests.

And yet, as John G. West shows us in his broad survey of various disciplines that have been influenced by the ideas that emanated from the writings of Charles Darwin, the name of science has been used to justify a certain philosophical approach to reality that has had far-reaching implications in the areas of criminal justice, business practice, social policy, the teaching of science, sex education and the medical profession’s approaches to life-and-death issues.

While the conflicts between proponents of evolution and creationism have settled into the caricature of learned scientists battling it out with blind religious fundamentalists who eschew reason in the name of faith in divine revelation, West shows how the debate at hand goes far deeper and really has to do with whether or not we regard human beings as free-willing moral agents or merely as highly evolved animals that are the product of an unguided evolutionary process.

The thrust of West’s book is to show how Darwin and those who followed him used the theory of evolution to rationalize a secular, materialist worldview in which the principles of natural selection have not only explained all of living reality, but also provided a supposedly failsafe guide for all sorts of social reforms. As much as modern scientists have decried the creation of “Social Darwinism” at the turn of the last century as manipulation of the theory of evolution on the part of businessmen who justified their wealth and existing inequalities as the “survival of the fittest,” in reality, scientific experts and proponents were complicit all along in promoting that mindset which conveniently justified their broader agendas for social reform.

People came to be seen as the product of evolutionary forces; namely, a process of natural selection that worked well in the past, but had increasingly been undermined by many aspects of modern civilization, where outdated moral norms combined with increases in material wealth enabled the poor, weak and feeble-minded to flourish. Consequently, scientists began to envision all sorts of societal reforms that relied on the abolition of traditional forms of charity or state welfare support in the name of eugenics, which offered to correct the corrupting influences of civilized life so that they could produce a stronger race of humans.

Since the process of evolution put into question even the most basic tenets of morality, seen as the results of religious superstition that had to give way to evolving standards and practices that were measured by their utility in promoting the survival of the species, there was little to hold back the imagination of scientists hoping to transform the world, except for hostile public opinion that clung to outdated moralities. This shift in thinking further animated broad changes in the approach to criminal justice and the revolutionary attacks on traditional sexual mores by the likes of Alfred Kinsey, whose “scientific research” was hardly deserving of the title.

While some of the more radical claims of the early eugenics movement eventually lost credibility following the horrors of the Second World War, West draws upon extensive research to show how the same philosophical errors persist to this day.

While claiming scientific objectivity, the hostility of many scientists towards objections to their theories or the reliance upon questionable research to justify their conclusions (as in the case of Kinsey’s findings on human sexuality) reveals that the debate is rather one between opposing views of human nature, with many proponents of “scientific objectivity” really using it as a questionable prop to justify their secular religion.

West’s analysis of the debate over “intelligent design,” namely the opposition of the scientific community to allow it even the faintest mention in high school biology texts, or their willingness to equate its proponents with religious fundamentalism or biblical creationism, reveals a degree of political correctness comparable to that found in the humanities.

With nearly 100 pages of notes and bibliographic references, West has provided his own objective and thoroughly researched critique to the misappropriation of science in the name of ideology and calls us to re-examine the fundamental moral and philosophical principles that foster that mindset. Perhaps rather than dehumanizing our politics and culture, science will then continue to further enhance those spheres of human activity.