Is Evolution Socially Corrosive?

The Seattle based Discovery Institute is once again expressing alarm over what they call the "corrosive" effects of evolution. This time the concern is that "the theory of evolution is beginning to erode that belief in humanity's unique status and dignity."

In a survey they asked 3,400 respondents if they agreed or disagreed with the following statements:

1) Evolution shows that no living thing is more important than any other.

2) Evolution shows human beings are not fundamentally different from other animals.

3) Evolution shows that moral beliefs evolve over time based on their survival value in various times and places.

While the results indicate that all three positions are still held by a minority of Americans, the Discovery Institute is concerned that the minority is growing.

A spokesperson for the Discovery Institute and long time critic of the pernicious powers of evolution, historian Richard Weikart, expressed the concern like this: "Since the rise of Darwin's theory, leading scientists and other thinkers have insisted that human beings are just another animal, and that morality evolves based on survival of the fittest."

Weikart laments that Darwin's ideas have become "pervasive" and that these ideas show that "Darwinism devalues human life." (Weikart is a Professor of History at California State University, Stanislaus and a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture. He is the author of a controversial book connecting Darwin to Hitler.)

The concerns of the Discovery Institute are misplaced on every level and oblivious to historical patterns that have nothing to do with evolution. For starters the trajectory of social justice has been clearly in the direction of inclusion. In the West this has played out as society gradually stopped devaluing marginalized groups. At various times in the past females were officially--and with the blessing of both the "science" of the day and religion-- devalued; non-Christians were devalued; Catholics and Protestants devalued each other; non-Caucasians were devalued. Even today this trend continues in the rhetoric applied to immigrants and Muslims. Ted Cruz has famously devalued people from New York.

Enlightened and fair-minded people embrace the expanding boundaries of social justice and have for centuries, despite opposition from those that would conserve the status quo. This has nothing to do with Darwin. And, to the degree that Darwin does shape this trajectory it has been in the positive direction of inclusion, for his theory demolished the traditional idea that God had created separate races of humans, with some tribes intended to serve others.

This trajectory, enhanced now by evolution and other sciences, but driven mainly by simple social progress, is calling for the embrace of new constituencies. We have new laws to protect the rights of children to prevent them being treated as the property of their parents; concerns about climate change are calling us to care about the welfare of future generations--people that don't even exist now. And, on the cutting edge of this historical trajectory, we have calls to treat animals with more respect, and even to imagine that they should have the same sort of rights that humans have.

Only with tortured logic can we describe the elevation of marginalized groups--human or otherwise--as a "demotion" of the group holding the power. The abolitionists did not call for the dignity of white slave-owners to be lowered to the level of slaves; they called for the dignity of slaves to be elevated to the level of the slaveholders. Likewise, those that call us now to stop hunting elephants for their ivory, or tearing baby monkeys from their mother's breast to sell to zoos, or killing deer and bear for sport are not doing so by devaluing the human species, but by recognizing the value in other species.

Anti-evolutionists have a long history of arguing that evolution is socially and morally bad, independently of whether it is true or false. Ben Carson famously suggested that Satan inspired the theory of evolution. True or not--and it can't possibly be true, of course--this is a strange argument. Scientific ideas should be evaluated on how well they explain the world, not on whether embracing them has some particular social consequence.

However, claims that evolution is socially corrosive are simply not borne out by experience. Countries with high acceptance of evolution--Sweden, France--have shown a heightened appreciation for human dignity. Rejection of evolution is highest in Islamic theocracies and it is here that women, gays, and other marginalized groups are treated with the least respect. And even in the United States, red states with strong rejection of evolution are the ones passing anti-LGBT legislation, making it harder for minorities to vote, and blocking access to healthcare for the poor. The Discovery Institute study also notes that New England leads the country in affirming that "Evolution shows that no living thing is more important than any other." Not coincidentally New England has also led the nation in securing civil rights for the LGBT community and healthcare for the poor.

By showing that all races are a part of the same human species, that the human species is connected to every other species, and that all life is intertwined, evolution does not diminish us--it elevates us. Evolution makes us a part of the grandest of ecosystems and cosmology takes that one step further and connects us to the stars. We should celebrate that, not fight to destroy the science that has produced this grand story.