A critique of Himmelfarb's scientific views

There has been an interesting dustup at NRO's Corner, with several of the conservatives at that site arguing pro and con about evolution. The action was precipitated by John Derbyshire, who posted a critique of the scientific views of one of the leading lights of the neocon movement, Gertrude Himmelfarb.

Himmelfarb's views on Darwinism came up. I took issue with them. A reader with some expertise took the trouble to go to his college library, read 'em up, and send me a long email about them. (And about Strauss's, which he found much better informed.) I posted an edited version of his email, making my own lack of acquaintance with Himmelfarb's work very plain, and urged curious readers to go to the source, which my reader had carefully listed.

(There are many other comments on this issue at the Corner; you'll have to scroll around the page to find them.)

I've been in contact with that anonymous reader, who gave me permission to post the unedited version of that email here. It's a solidly documented critique of some very poor arguments by Himmelfarb, arguments that are little more than rehashed creationism. The whole thing is included below the fold.

The Closing of the Neocon Mind

Political columnist George F. Will said that the two most important moves in the nation's history were in 1790 when Jefferson and Hamilton agreed to move the capital south from New York, and in 1987 when Bea and Irving Kristol followed the same path. This acknowledges the intellectual success and influence of the power couple founders of the neoconservative movement: Irving is regarded to be the neocon's epicenter, and his wife Bea is a famous and distinguished literary historian who writes under the name Gertrude Himmelfarb.

The neoconservative movement is small and tightly knit. Its chief intellectual influence is the political scientist Leo Strauss, known mainly for his scholarship on Machiavelli, and the force behind his student's Allan Bloom's surprisingly popular book The Closing of the American Mind. Strauss' insight was that great philosophical and literary works must be read ironically searching for hidden meanings because their authors were constrained in what could be said by various necessities. Harvey C. Mansfield's superb work Machiavelli's Virtue illustrates this principle perfectly, and who can disagree with Aristotle's observation (advice?) that "what a man says, he does not necessarily believe." George Will's professor was Harry Jaffa, an influential student of Strauss. The Kristol's son William, founding editor of the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard (that recently published a pro-ID article filled with appallingly bad arguments that have already been debunked ad nauseum), studied under Mansfield. Straussians are not of one mind, and engage each other and others in important and substantive debate.

What has this to due with evolution?

Some Straussians/neocons don't like evolution—they inveigh against it. Irving Kristol said that "all I want to do is break the bonds of Darwinian materialism which at the moment restrict our imagination. For the moment that's enough"—a quote that supports Paul Krugman's assertion that Mr. Kristol should be regarded as "the father of 'intelligent design.'" Harvey Mansfield delivered a hilarious "sermon" at Harvard's Memorial Church in which he proposes that "science" should submit as a "captive woman of religion." On the centennial of Darwin's Origin in 1959, Gertrude Himmelfarb wrote a highly critical history of Darwinism that seriously misunderstands or misrepresents basic facts of science—it contains many false claims that are indistinguishable from creationist distortions of evolution. This explains why a brief web search reveals that it is widely cited by creationists, such as Phillip Johnson in his book Darwin on Trial. The Kristol's themselves are supporters of intelligent design creationism, and their son William Kristol remarked on television that teaching creationism was understandable enough.

Leo Strauss himself saw no incompatibility between the fact of evolution and religious faith. In his extensive philosophical works, he invokes Darwin just once:

one could grant to science and history everything they seem to teach regarding the age of the world, the origin of man, the impossibility of miracles, the impossibility of the immortality of the soul, and of the resurrection of the body, the Jahvist, the Elohist, the third Isaah, and so on, without abandoning one iota of the substance of the Jewish faith.

—Leo Strauss, Liberalism Ancient and Modern, U. Chicago Press, 1968, p. 231; from the Preface to Spinoza's Critique of Religion

So if Strauss wasn't the inspiration for the neocon's opposition to evolution, who is? A sympathetic view would be to interpret Irving Kristol's opposition to "materialism" as opposition to Marxist ideology (to say nothing of Marx's crackpotism), a position with which I am strongly aligned. And though Himmelfarb is an acclaimed historian, she would not be the first person on the humanities side of the "two cultures" divide to be seriously confused about science. If so, brief memo to neocons: proven materialistic explanations of nature like evolution don't equate with dangerous crackpot philosophies like Marxism.

Contrast Leo Strauss' views on the scientific fact of evolution with those of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb. To see which anti-evolution arguments are considered intellectually meritorious by the nation's leading neoconservatives, consider these passages from Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (from the 1967 edition published by Peter Smith, Gloucester, MA). For those of you familiar with the history of the anti-evolution movement, all the howlers are there: the "impossibility" of the evolution of the eye, even auguring Michael Behe's debunked irreducible complexity arguments about biochemistry, the tautology of survival, the improbability of "nature working blindly and by chance" could create anything, legitimate scientists reject evolution, and so forth. And I didn't cherry pick these passages—nonsense like this is suffused throughout the book. Judge for yourselves:

  • "…the principle of survival of the fittest is questionable, or at most meaningful in the tautological sense that the survivors, having survived, are thence judges to be the fittest." [Chap. 15, p. 316; see creationist claim CA500]
  • "Natural selection, in fact, has become the deus ex machina rescuing nature from the impossible situation in which the Darwinians had put her. Long before Darwin, men had recognized the improbability that nature, working blindly and by chance, could have evolved the universe as we know it. The triumphant discovery of the neo-Darwinians is, after all, only a feeble echo of an ancient cry. The laborious calculations of probability,—the number represented by an infinity of noughts, the monkey pecking out the works of Shakespeare—are at least as much an argument in favor of the creationist theory as of natural selection, insofar as they can said to be an argument in favor of anything." [Chap. 15, p. 330; see creationist claim CB010]
  • "The eye, as one of the most complex organs, has been the symbol and archetype of [Darwin's] dilemma. Since the eye is obviously of no use at all except in its final, complete form, how could natural selection have functioned in those initial stages of its evolution when the variations had no possible survival value? No single variation, indeed no single part, being of any use without every other, and natural selection presuming no knowledge of the ultimate end or purpose of the organ, the criterion of utility, or survival, would seem to be irrelevant. And there are other equally provoking examples of organs and processes which seem to defy natural selection. Biochemistry provides the case of chemical synthesis built up in several stages, of which the intermediate substance formed at any one stage is of no value at all, and only the end product, the final elaborate and delicate machinery, is useful—and not only useful but vital to life. How can selection, knowing nothing of the end or final purpose of this process, function when the only test is precisely that end or final purpose?" [Chap. 16, pp. 337-338; see creationist claim CB301]
  • "From the "preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life," it was a short step to the preservation of favoured individuals, classes, or nations--and from their preservation to their glorification. Social Darwinism has often been understood in this sense: as a philosophy, exalting competition, power and violence over convention, ethics, and religion. Thus it has become a portmanteau of nationalism, imperialism, militarism, and dictatorship, of the cults of the hero, the superman, and the master race. The hero or superman, most recent translated as Fuhrer, is assumed to be the epitome of the fittest, the best specimen of his breed, the natural ruler who exercises his rule by right of might." [Chap. 18, p. 416; see creationist claims CA006.1, CA001, CA002, and CA005]
  • "The new orthodoxy, however, quite so secure as its proponents thought. In each generation a small number of reputable scientists revived the ``antiquarian'' controversy, reminding their colleagues about Huxley's warning about truths that begin as heresies and end up as superstitions. Some of these dissidents also echoes Huxley's early judgment that natural selection was not an established theory but a tentative hypothesis" [Chap. 18, pp. 442-443; see creationist claims CA110, CA111, and CA112. One can find on the web references to an earlier edition quoting Himmelfarb asserting that "A growing number of scientists have come to question the truth and adequacy of natural selection", though I was unable to find this quote in the edition I used.]

The eye is an intellectually serious neocon argument against evolution?!!!

This just makes me shake my head. You'd think that of all people the Straussians would comprehend that "in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." If this isn't a good enough refutation for this wrong, tiresome, and stupid argument, please read Ernst Mayr's book What Evolution Is, wherein he provides a terrific story of the eye and the Pax 6 regulatory gene, and explains its evolution thus:

The simplest and most primitive stage of the series leading to an eye is a light-sensitive spot on the epidermis. Such a spot is of a selective advantage from the very beginning, and any additional modification of the phenotype that enhances the functioning of this light sensitive spot will be favored by selection. … Photosensitive, eyelike organs have developed in the animal series independently at least 40 times, and all the steps from a light-sensitive to the elaborate eyes of vertebrates, cephalopods, and insects are still found in the living species of various taxa (Fig. 10.2). They include intermediate stages and refute the claim that the gradual evolution of a complex eye is unthinkable (Salvini and Mayr 1977).

The thing that so confuses me about the neocon position on evolution is that rejecting scientific facts is so obviously contrary to the advice of Machiavelli, and one need go no further than this. As Mansfield himself obliquely observes (ibid., p. 39), "just once in The Prince and The Discourses on Livy does Machiavelli speak of `science'…(Discourses, Book 3, Chapter 39)". And what is this solitary bit of scientific advice given us by Machiavelli? This occurs in the chapter titled "That a General ought to be acquainted with the Lie of the Land", and says

"[A]ll sciences require practice if we desire to attain perfection in them … this practice and detailed knowledge [of terrain] is acquired more by hunting than by any other exercises."

There is no clearer justification for a modern technological society's expenditure on scientific research than this. We neither know the terrain or provenance of future military threats—our only choice in a technological age is by the practice of science to hunt for them. And though our knowledge is imperfect, we have already entered an age of bioweaponry and bioterrorism, and live in a time when understanding biology is necessary for defense. Whom do you want to defend you against biological weapons? Intelligent design creationists, or scientists that accept the fact of evolution, like the origin and evolution of the Marburg virus? Which one of those kids that the neocons wish to miseducate with intelligent design creationism will fail to achieve some important new discovery or breakthrough that will aid future defense? No one can say.

What can we suppose of Machiavelli's view of the neocon's position on science? Mansfield's translation of The Prince reads:

I judge those capable of ruling by themselves who can, by abundance of either men or money, put together an adequate army and fight a battle against whoever comes to attack them; and I judge as well that those who have necessity of others who cannot appear in the field against an enemy, but are compelled of necessity to take refuge behind walls and to guard them. [Chapter 10]

On the field of biotechnology, what adequate defense can be mustered by any country that rejects evolution and takes refuge behind a wall of creationism? Science is a woman who, like fortune, "lets herself be won" by those who command her. She is certainly not a woman who bears unmanly rejection of the sort that some Straussians suggest, for if scorned, will direct her attention and pleasures to others more virtuous. The first duty of a ruler is defense, and in a modern technological world, ignoring basic facts of science is dangerous and disgraceful.