Why Americans Don’t Do Darwin

Why Americans Don’t Do Darwin

Despite the economic collapse of our continent and a vaguely hysterical populist campaign against the bankers who helped to bankrupt our country, the British are still glued to the US presidential election, with Mitt Romney’s image rarely off most UK news sites’ home pages.

American politics fascinates the British for a number of reasons; the sheer spectacle of the long, gruelling and expensive race, carried out over a physically enormous area; the glamour of the candidates; the strange attachment to morality as a central issue; the talk of God.

The strangest issue for Britons to comprehend is Americans’ views on evolution, as was expressed by my Telegraph colleague Tom Chivers in this piece.

To Europeans American arguments over Darwin seem genuinely baffling and depressing, while in reverse British secularists often appear like intellectual snobs, as was illustrated during the Guardian’s hilariously bad Clark Country campaign (although I should add, if it’s not clear to the reader, that Tom is very much not the stereotypical British intellectual snob and, though an atheist, does not dismiss the religious).

Yet it is understandable, if one looks at what Darwin actually entails as a package.

In the latest Catholic Herald Dennis Sewell explains just why Americans dislike Darwin:

Two years earlier, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life had published evidence that only 26 per cent of adult Americans accepted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as it is understood by scientists and taught in public schools. Or, to put it another way, almost three in four American voters did not. The polling firm Gallup found Pew’s figure to be a considerable overstatement of support for the science side of the argument. According to its own 2006 survey, only 13 per cent of Americans accepted the truth of evolution.

For this year’s election, Gallup has been digging beneath the surface to produce numbers that allow candidates to optimise their responses to the inevitable evolution questions along the campaign trail. Voters were invited to choose between three options: “God created humans in present form within the past 10,000 years” “Humans evolved, God had no part in the process” or “Humans evolved, God guided the process”. The first of these is full-on Creationism. The second represents orthodox Darwinian science, while the third could be seen as congruent with Intelligent Design, but is not necessarily so, offering space for more nuanced theological and scientific positioning.

Gallup’s findings pose some radical challenges to the reflexive assumptions of secular, liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic. For a start, those rejecting the scientific orthodoxy do not all conform to the media stereotype of an inbred, Right-wing, Christian fundamentalist redneck. Support for the “God guided” option is, for instance, stronger among Democrats (40 per cent) and Independents (39 per cent) than it is among Republican voters (36 per cent).

Sewell is the author of The Political Gene, one of the most fascinating books of recent years, and one every Catholic should have in their rhetorical armoury. Focusing less on the well-trodden path between Darwin and Hitler, he looked at how social Darwinism in the United States inspired (most Left-wing) eugenicists to instigate campaigns of sterilisation against the poor.

And yet this dark, shameful story has disappeared down a historical wormhole, while our collective memory of the most famous Creationist v. Darwinist set piece, the Scopes Trial, is totally distorted.

In fact, Sewell wrote, John Thomas Scopes was just a football coach with “no special commitment to his pupils, and was not planning on staying in Dayton very long”, and probably never taught his class about evolution. The trial was a “cynical contrivance”, a plot hatched by local businessmen to make Dayton famous, and responding to an advert by eugenicists wishing to challenge the anti-evolution Butler Act. That Act, rather than being some ancient, outdated law, had only been signed into law by the Governor, less than 2 months previously, passed by overwhelming margins by both houses.

As Sewell pointed out:

These margins reflected the Butler Act’s enormous popularity among the people of Tennessee. In 1925, the nationwide eugenics campaign was at its height. In the rural areas of Tennessee folk may not have had a sophisticated grasp of Darwinian science, but they knew the eugenicists who preached Darwinism in the cities despised country people, called them “imbeciles” and “defectives” and would sterilise them if they got the chance. They knew they despised God and the Bible too. Now they wanted to teach children that grandpa was descended from an ape. But America was a democracy, and that meant that simple people, if they made their views plain, could fight.

The First World War probably played a part, the trauma of which caused different countries to behave in different ways (in France and Britain pacifism and self-hatred, in Germany revenge). Americans were especially influenced by a pacifist called Vernon Kellogg who went over to Belgium in 1915 on a humanitarian mission and, having spent much time with the German high command, came to see how Darwinian philosophy had poisoned their thinking. “The creed of natural selection based on violent and fatal competitive struggle is the Gospel of the German intellectuals,” he wrote, his words coming to influence American public opinion then and for a long time after.

As Sewell concludes in his piec, Americans clearly aren’t stupid and are nor are they anti-science, but they are foremost a Christian people and are never prepared to sacrifice a Christian worldview.

This article was published in St. Austin Review

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