Friday, June 12, 2009

The Problem with Progressivism is Messianism

Evolutionary biologists take pains to teach students that evolution has no direction; it has no preferred path precisely because it has no specific end. As Steven J. Gould used to say, if you rewind the evolution of life on earth and set it back to the beginning, there is no guarantee that it would play out the same way again.

Unlike social Darwinists, who tend to believe that their preferred form of being human is the pinnacle of creation (note the conceptual contradiction here), evolutionary biologists understand that 'fitness' in the Darwinian sense does not imply a more 'perfect' member of a species, rather it defines individuals who can live long enough in certain environment to reproduce. Thus the measure of individual fitness is not wealth or a certain definition of perfection, rather it is the number of offspring one successfully brings into the world.

As a scientist trained in ecology (the science not the social movement) and evolution, it is rather amusing to observe how much the cultural elite really does not understand the theory of evolution; nor do they grasp its principles nor accept the consequences of its reality. To them, as to their creationist opponents, it is a political tool used to force their ideology on others, rather than a scientific idea that serves to illuminate reality.

Less amusing is the use of the theory of evolution as an excuse for the early 20th century Progressive push for eugenics, which appeared first here in the United States. (See for example Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' opinion, when writing for the majority in Buck v. Bell, which enshrined forced sterilization into law in the United States). It was the Progressive movement's goal to build a more compliant, less independent citizen; one who would be willing to subsume his will to that of the State, in order to fit like a cog in the all-powerful and all-knowing State.

The problem with the Progressives is twofold. The first is that they believed that the term "fitness", as used in evolution, implies some quality other than differential reproduction. They believed that they could redefine fitness to mean whatever they wanted it to mean in order to direct human evolution toward what they conceived to be its proper end. And this leads to the second problem, namely, that they believed that evolution has a direction and a goal, and further, that they, by virtue of their vision were privileged to define that goal and direct humanity towards it.

In short, Progressives were (and are) Messianists. They believe that human beings are not good as they are, and should not be allowed to pursue their own ends, but that they must be perfected in some way in order to be made to conform to better ends. The only difference between the Progressives and religious Messianists, is that Progressives proclaim that they themselves are qualified to define the end of evolution and the perfection of the human being, whereas the religious Messianists rely on scripture and tradition, ultimately blaming their own desire to restrict human freedom on their various gods. But both religious Messianists and Progressives believe in some form of original sin--the concept that human beings are inherently evil and that they must be fundamentally changed to accomodate a perfect world. That this unchanging and perfect world would not be a human world is left unstated.

The particular form of Messianism that plagues Western culture began during the time when the tribal Israelite religion was evolving into modern Judaism. The Rabbis of the Talmud were, for the most part, suspicious of the apocalyptic nature of the Messianic goal. Those who espoused it (e.g. R. Akiba), learned the hard way of the danger of it during the third war with Rome (the Bar Kochba Revolt--132-135 C.E.). The Rabbis came to realize that fervent messianism was not compatible with the survival of the Jewish people. Knowing that they could not eradicate it from the minds of the people, they enshrined it as a distant hope in an unattainable future (e.g. Pirke Avot: the Messiah will come when all of [the people] Israel keeps the Sabbath perfectly). They also created a system of law and custom that kept people's focus firmly on their own lives, not on some future immortality. Thus the average Jew was taught to pray for the coming of the Messiah three times a day, but to value his life and the goodness thereof in the here and now. To this day, one notable quality of most Jews is that they have their feet firmly planted on the ground, and do not accept the idea that death is the gateway to a better world.

It helped that Judaism never accepted the concept of original sin. The Hebrew version of the story of creation uses a play on words to make the point that the material world is good, and that the presence of human beings makes it very good. (The play is on the Hebrew word for human being--Adam--which has three Hebrew letters, alef-dalet-mem; rearranged these letters become--meod--mem-alef-dalet, which means very; so with the presence of human beings the universe, which was called tov--good, is called tov meod--very good.) When confronted with the Christian notion of original sin, the Rabbis added this statement to the morning service: "The spirit that you have created within me is a good one, O G-d . . ." Every morning, a religious Jew thus affirms his own goodness.

In Judaism, morality rests on the notion that human beings have free will, and because of their knowledge of good and evil, are constantly required to make choices. No one, neither human nor divine, can save another from the necessity of choice and the consequences that follow. A human being, by his nature, must go through life asking himself: "Right or wrong? Good? Or evil?"

However, Jews, just like other human beings can become lazy and wish to avoid the consequences of free will, though this is quite impossible. Choices must be made and the consequences of those choices follow like night follows day. Nevertheless, people often desire to avoid the painful consequences of their wrong choices, and try to evade their reality.

(This is especially true in times of great difficulty, such as those Jews encountered during the Reformation and Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was actually an en-dark-enment for Jews in Europe, as Christian anti-Judaism mutated into the race-theory of modern antisemitism culminating in the European genocide by the National Socialists).

In modern Europe, socialists and fascists took the Messianic idea out of the religious context, where it was dangerous enough, and decided that certain "enlightened" individuals have the wisdom to determine what the good life and the perfect person ought to be, and to force others (for their own good) toward this goal. They determined that goodness means that individuals must give up their lives and aspirations for the "public good" as Holmes stated in Buck v. Bell:

"In view of the general declarations of the Legislature and the specific findings of the Court obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and if they exist they justify the result. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind." (Emphasis added).

The emphasized words demonstrate that to the Progressive, individuals exist to serve the interests of a few, who call themselves 'the State' and 'Society'. These terms are really a mask for tyranny.

The real engine of American progress has been liberty. Our founders understood that human beings are endowed by their very nature with individual rights, and that governments exist to protect these rights. That people have the right to their own life, and thus must have the liberty to make their own choices, in order to pursue their own ends. The founders put these ideas forth in Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." (1776)

But Messianists tend to have little regard for the lives and happiness of individuals because their vision of perfection is collective. As the consequences of their evasions of reality pile up, they tend to blame it on everyone and everything but their mistaken ideals, as F. A. Hayek astutely pointed out in The Road to Serfdom. Thus they blame it on the inherent wrongness of human nature (original sin), which they believe requires them to force goodness on their victims. Finally, they come to a place of such embittered hatred of human existence that they'd rather see the whole world enslaved or dead than give up their Vision of the Anointed.

And yet the whole reason that their visions don't work, and that they cause such death and suffering, is because their visions do not conform to reality; it is the realness of matter and the consequences to mortal beings that require individual choice. It is the Progressive vision of humanity that is wrong, and their imposition of it upon others that is evil, not the nature of the human being.

Human beings evolved with all of the aspects of human nature because this enables humans to go on living and reproducing in this environment, on this earth. There is not some teleological perfection that we are missing, no ideal end that we must sacrifice our lives to attain. We are here now. We live now. Our pursuit of the good is the pursuit of our own lives in our own time.

An evolutionary biologist knows that evolution has no direction, no goal.
And she knows that it is the diversity of individual choices and personal ends that can vouchsafe a future for the species on this ever-evolving planet. For a while.

Of course, evolution is not moral. It is an idea, and thus cannot make choices. But people who understand the idea that evolution has no direction and no preferred end can infer from it that life itself is the goal of living, and what is good will always be those choices that maintain life.

Human life on this earth is tov meod. This is very good.


silvermine said...

Oh, so well said. I myself am amazed at how few people really understand evolution at all, either ones who believe in it or do not! I suppose it was the social darwinists who really muddled it all up. And the redefinition of the word "fitness" certainly hasn't helped.

Brianna said...

This illuminated for me a concept that my brain has played with for some time. We all know that those who believe in liberty and the free market are sometimes called social darwinists, accused of wanting to "improve" the race through ruthless competition which ignores the needs of the poor and otherwise "unfit." And in a sense, there is a grain of truth to this, because although no supporter of freedom actually wants to see the poor starving in the streets, under freedom, those who failed would not be artificially propped up the way they are under state control. This is in line with the theory of evolution in a sense, because just as a species who can no longer survives goes extinct in nature, a business which cannot survive in a free market will eventually go out of business. But the difference between the advocates of liberty and the progressives is that we do not wish to control the direction the market and society takes, we simply wish to leave the economy and society free to take whatever direction it wishes through voluntary action, to achieve whatever goals they please. Progressives do not want to leave society and individuals free to choose its own direction, they wish to choose that direction and drag humanity in it, kicking and screaming if need be. And I agree that the accusations of the progressives towards the true liberals of 'social darwinism' has deeply confused the issue, until, like so many other concepts of rational thought, it has become almost impossible for the average person to understand the issues or untangle them.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


This piece fell into place for me after hearing a sermon that got it absolutely wrong! You said:

"And I agree that the accusations of the progressives towards the true liberals of 'social darwinism' has deeply confused the issue, until, like so many other concepts of rational thought, it has become almost impossible for the average person to understand the issues or untangle them."

And this is why, whenever possible we must not let this go by. The Progressives engage in the vanity that they actually understand evolution whereas the fundamentalist are too stupid to do so. But the progressives mistake evolution so badly that it is hard to say who is more stupid--the one who refuses to think about it or the the one who twists it to his own ends. I guess each is special kind of intellectual evasion.

The reality is that no one of average intelligence is too stupid to understand evolution.

Brianna said...

"The reality is that no one of average intelligence is too stupid to understand evolution."

I never meant to imply that it's the concept itself that is difficult to understand. Rather it's the way the concept has been obfuscated and obscured that makes things so difficult. The problem is that progressives tend to deliberately obscure, tangle and confuse the issues involved because many times, it's the only way they can win their debates. They need to hide what they're saying under veils of good intentions for themselves and of evil intentions for their opponents, because in a clear debate of ideas where all principles were clearly stated, they would lose.

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Oh, Briana, not to worry. I had said earlier in my comment that the progressives tend to believe that the fundamentalists are too stupid to understand evolution, but the reality is that they themselves do not fully understand it because it does not fit their ideology. You described very well why they won't understand it. Is it evasion or something worse? What would Rand say?

Brianna said...

"You described very well why they won't understand it. Is it evasion or something worse?"

Maybe they become afraid after a while to face the truth, because it is too ugly. Maybe they really believe what they say. In the case of the younger ones, maybe it's because they simply don't know how to engage in the rational thought which would point out the flaws in their position; after all, isn't that what our schools have been failing to teach for decades now? Maybe there are some vicious ones out there who really think it is better for all to be equal and poor, than unequal and wealthy. If I understood why Progressives believe they have the right to force their idea of what's good on others, and that good intentions necessitate good results, I would be far, far smarter than i am.

"What would Rand say?"

No idea, but knowing Rand, probably something scathing.