There is a current BioLogos thread on the recent debate between atheist Bill Nye and Young Earth Creationist Ken Ham. In it, our own Lou Jost continues to try and educate the benighted theists by responsing to John Walton’s affirmation of his shared belief (with Ham) in the inspiration of Genesis. Lou complains that Genesis “screams out ‘cultural document'”, and in a later post slips in the “nothing buttery” that C S Lewis noted as a hallmark of modern materialism by amending it to “just a cultural document.”
Fortunately Hump writer Merv Bitkofer calls him out on this sleight of hand (which since Lewis was pointing to it in the 1940s is distinctly past its sell-by date). But I’d like to expand that a little by illustrating that you don’t have to be a postmodernist to realise that the only documents that exist are cultural documents. If that word “just” had any actual force, one might as well forget the idea that any true knowledge exists.
The example I’d like to use is Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, since it is well known, apposite to The Hump’s interests, and is perhaps the most blatant purveyor of cultural presuppositions of any scientific text – though to be fair, that may be because it is by far the best known historical scientific text nowadays.
It’s two years since I last read the Origin, so I won’t try to be exhaustive, or even very carefully organised: listing Darwin’s cultural biases as they happen to occur to me should be illustrative enough, which is all I’m setting out to do.
- Proposing a theory of evolution at all was culturally influenced. Transformism in its modern guise had been around for a century or so, and though Darwin deliberately pitched his case against biblical fixism, he was able to list a good number (up to thirty) of his evolutionary predecessors – even his own grandfather had written on it. In part that was due to the increasing evidence of an old earth, and geological findings of extinct types, but it also had clear roots in the Enlightenment desire to dispose of the need for a Creator – a desire that also reinstated, without evidence, the belief in an eternal Universe that remained prevalent in science until the Big Bang could no longer be denied, within my memory. Even natural selection was, of course, independently discovered by Wallace – and also, arguably, rather unclearly postulated by Patrick Matthew in 1830: three near-contemporary Englishmen finding the same thing suggests a cultural influence.
- Prominent in Darwin’s thinking (and, interestingly, in Wallace’s too) was the application of Malthus’ sociological “survival of the fittest” (actually Spencer’s phrase, published before Darwin) to biology. Malthus’ vision was profoundly affected by the particularly acute problems in the British economy in the early nineteenth century. The idea of Nature as a merciless and cruel entity was also profoundly enculturated in the Enlightenment, as I’ve documented in detail elsewhere (sorry: still hoping for publication so can’t link to it). It wasn’t coincidental that Tennyson’s phrase “red in tooth and claw” was so influential in the evolution debate, though it preceded Origin by nine years. It is interesting how this “struggle” motif has been mitigated in recent thought, through a wider knowledge of ecology, and the gradual encroachment of altruism and similar things into evolutionary theory, such as E O Wilson’s work on group selection. “Differential reproduction” is much more representative of the current mindset than Darwin’s “intense struggle for existence,” which is quintessetially Malthusian.
- Uniformitarianism came to Darwin most obviously through his friend Charles Lyell, but the idea was afoot as a serious (and polarised) contender to catastrophism anyway. And that was largely, again, part of the secularist attempt to debunk the Bible and, specifically, the Flood as the major agent of past change – which paradoxically made it seem “progressive” as opposed to catastrophism’s “conservatism”. Uniformitarianism was seldom as exclusive as it is often thought to have been, but its biological counterpart, phyletic gradualism, was famously crucial to Darwin’s case. According to himself, a single exception would demolish his theory – but he never stated how one would recognise such a case, so he was on safe ground. Yet that belief too was cultural, as somehow evolution has survived a return to a natural catastrophism that is, in many cases, considered the principal agent of successive suites of fauna.
- Another cultural assumption in Darwin’s theory is the innate simplicity of life, which explains his lack of interest in its origin, and the casual assumption of a blending mechanism for endless variation. Currently, although the immense complexity of biological mechanisms has not dislodged the theory (though it has resulted in much more questioning than ever before), one must wonder if Darwin might have been a lot less sasified with proposing natural selection without really addressing variation, had he not been part of a culture in which protoplasm was still thought by some serious scientists to be so simple as to be capable of generating life spontaneously in rotting flesh.
- Another keystone of Darwin’s evolution was the idea of progress, inherent not only in the evolutionary theories of his time, but in historical and political theory. Darwin certainly considered examples where evolution might lead to degeneration, but the work is otherwise full of the language of progress: of “improved forms”, of the “exalted objects.. of the higher animals”, of “simple beginnings” leading to “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful” and so on. Nowadays even LUCA is considered to have been at least as complex as any cell today, Eugene Koonin’s overview of evolution denies that it is shown to increase complexity, broken genes are the commonest actual examples of selectable mutation, and of course “jerry-building”, “opportunism”, “junk”, “contingency” and so on are the kinds of words more common in our biological culture than “progress to perfection.” Interestingly, a comment I cited from Gould here suggests, half-seriously, the possibility that even this change is due to cultural zeitgeist. Which is to say no more than philosophers of science do in assessing what scientists find worthy of notice at any particular time: clockwork universes produce clockwork physics, computers produce cellular algorithms, postmodernism produces biological indeterminacy: it’s as predictable as Christmas.
- Linked to the last point, we must include Darwin’s conviction that, thus far, the pinnacle of evolution was European civilisation. This thought was more strongly expressed in The Descent of Man, and of course far more strongly by Darwin’s eugenicist cousin Francis Galton, and by Haeckel in Germany together with many others. In this context, the argument about whether Victorian racism stemmed from the science of anthropology, from theological justifications for the slave trade or just from colonialism is irrelevant: the fact is that it was a very congenial idea in Darwin’s culture, and his theory did nothing to fly in its face.
- Darwin’s religious views are another common point of dispute. But there is no doubt that, at least as a PR exercise, he maintained the compatibility of his theory with religion. But once more, the form of religion with which it sat most easily was the popular religion of the intellectuals (and of his own family), Deism. It was very much in accord with the spirit of the age to suggest a process by which God might wind up the Laplacian clock at the beginning of everything and see it moving towards perfection automatically, without divine “interference” (or as a more educated age would have called it, “immanence”). Actually, there is no more intrinsic “grandeur in this view of life” than there is in the classical view of a transcendent creator who infuses the universe with his care and activity still, but in the culture of 1859 England (as in 2014 American academia, apparently) it seemed grander.
That is sufficient, perhaps, to demonstrate my thesis. One could add other elements, such as Darwin’s arguable comparison of macroevolution to the motives and scope of livestock breeding, which peculiarly matched his interests as an English country gentleman (especially in his formative university years), his impatience with philosophy that matched the unreflective empiricism of Victorian society, and so on. The popularity of his theory, more immediately amongst educated laymen than his scientific contemporaries, is a strong indicator that this was a culture waiting for just such a theory, presented in just such a popularly-written book.
Does that negate the theory? Of course not, though as many historians and philosophers of science have written, it should perhaps make us more ready to recognise its biases, especially where those biases happen to have persisted in our own culture. That we are more critical of Aristotle than Darwin may sometimes say more about our own cultural prejudices than about our in-depth knowledge of, and the quality of, their respective science. As a matter of necessity, those of us who deal seriously with ancient texts like the Bible (and I’m not including those like Ken Ham here) have to take enculturation seriously. Those like John Walton, who has studied the ANE texts for his entire career, are especially attuned to this, but I regularly see even local pastors working hard to discern the cultural situation in which the Scriptures arose, and translate it into contemporary terms. At my own small village Baptist church, I noticed on Sunday, Aristotle’s influence on the New Testament has been referenced for three weeks running, only once by me!
There is only one alternative to taking the writings of other cultures seriously, discerning what is of value, and what is peculiar to their culture of origination, on a case by case basis. And that is to privilege ones own culture (or in the case of some New Atheists, ones own subculture) as being the reference point for all truth – the “view from nowhere” in Thomas Nagel’s phrase. That part of Victorian prejudice, at least, western intellectuals seem to have retained completely intact.