As he often does, the president chose to deal with gritty political issues — what to do about the deficit, spending, taxes and entitlements such as Medicare — by widening the lens. This election, he said, will be nothing less than a choice between the “thinly veiled social Darwinism” of a hard-right GOP, whose agenda makes “the Contract With America look like the New Deal,” and his own vision of American community — a vision that used to be shared by a long line of Republican presidents, including Lincoln, Eisenhower, Nixon, Bushes One and Two, and even Reagan in his good moments.
Those anti-scientific, creationist Republicans can’t win on this one, because now we’re depicted as Darwinists. All right, Barack Obama, what are we?
Without meaning to, he has put his finger on one of the knottiest problems in the whole debate on evolution: the philosophy emanating from same is subject to divergent, really contradictory interpretations, as has been the case since Darwin’s day.
Let’s go back to that time. There were two ways that Darwin’s followers extrapolated the future course of evolution. One group stated that society would evolve into a terrestrial paradise. The best remembered advocate of that was Karl Marx, ardent Darwinist, who believed that through the revolutionary process the dictatorship of the proletariat would be established where the state would wither away. On the other side were the “social Darwinists” who noted that the leitmotif of evolution is natural selection, which implied that the strong would survive and the weak would end up, to use Leon Trotsky’s phrase, on the ash heap of history. Their idea was that, for the good of the species, we should organise society to allow the strong to move forward.
The last century saw both play out in a brutal way. Today new atheists are content to paper over this conflict, turning “belief in evolution” into a fundamentally religious proposition while downplaying the tough side of the evolutionary process.
The truth is that evolution can still be philosophically interpreted in divergent ways, and its ardent true believers’ unwillingness to face that fact won’t change that. In the meanwhile, if our secular elites want to propose a litmus test for being “beautiful and good”, they’d better find one more philosophically univocal than evolution.