Human status and persuasion

An initial picture gleaned from Darwin-skeptic claims about evolution and school violence is that perceived problems with evolution are not simply its accuracy as a scientific model, or its deviation from religious creation narratives. Instead, a pivotal issue is that natural selection softens the animal-human divide, and by curtailing human exceptionalism, the theory can trigger brutish behavior. As John Evans has incisively summarized, Darwin-skeptics insist that through the teaching of evolutionary theory, publics learn “humans are the same as animals and do not have unlimited value, which in turn leads them to treat others as means toward their ownends - all the way up to human rights violations such as genocide.”11 With regard to such modern allegations, it should be noted that early resistance to Charles Darwin’s, On the Origin of Species also included concerns about how common biological ancestry seemed to impinge upon human distinctiveness. For example, the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, wrote in his 1860 review of Darwin’s book that “man’s derived supremacy over the earth; man’s power of articulate speech; man’s gift of reason; man’s free will and responsibility,” are all “equally and utterly irreconcilable with the degrading notion of the brute origin of him who was created in the image of God.”12 Wilberforce was not alone in concluding that evolutionary-shared descent reduces humankind’s divinely appointed status. P. R. Russel argued in 1876 that, “Darwinism casts us all down from this elevated platform, and herds us all with four-footed beasts and creeping things.” Natural selection “tears the crown from our heads; it treats us as bastards and not sons, and reveals the degrading fact that man in his best estate” is nothing more than “a civilized, dressed up, educated monkey, who has lost his tail.”13

Likewise, in the same way that contemporary Darwin-skeptics find correspondences between the adoption of evolutionary ideas an erosion of the animal-human divide and provocations of evil, so too did several early interpreters of Darwin express angst pertaining to evolution’s ethical repercussions. Such logic fueled Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s 19th-century Islamic rejection of evolutionary theory. Describing the idea that humans are a “terrestrial angel,” and “the noblest of creatures,” al-Afghani then considered what might happen,

[I]f a people or tribe did not have this belief, but rather believed that man is like other animals, or even lower than they, how many evils and vices would appear among them; what iniquities would come forth from them; how low and base their souls would be; and how their minds would be deterred from intellectual activity.14

Later, in the early 20th century, Ismail Fenni likewise contended that significant bloodshed results from such ideologies as Darwinism, which threaten human-animal distinctions.15 Around the same time, William Jennings Bryan, known today for his role in the infamous Scopes Trial of 1925, bemoaned that evolutionary theory “destroys man’s family tree as taught by the Bible and makes him a descendant of the lower forms of life.” According to Bryan, Charles Darwin has “brought man down to the brute level.”16 Pointedly, Bryan did not resist the teaching of evolution simply because it contradicted scripture, but because evolution “would, if generally adopted, destroy all sense of responsibility and menace the morals of the world.”17

The prevalence of such values discourse in antievolutionist rhetoric invites further questions and critiques about the validity of these claims. That is, might there be some legitimacy to Darwin-skeptic declarations that evolutionary ideas can be connected to deprecated perceptions of humankind,

Rethinking the Evolution Wars 5 resulting in mass violence? Taking into account this query, it is worth mentioning that antievolutionists have not been alone in associating conceptual human nature reductions with amorality. Many academics have speculated that what people believe about human beings can subsequently lead to the maltreatment of others. For instance, Evans summarizes this concern in relation to descriptions of humanity and deterministic genes. Scholars have cautioned that if individuals accept an outlook that represents humans as primarily gene-driven engines, people “will begin to depict a human as machine-like, and this in turn will lead us to treat them like we treat inanimate machines.”18 Moreover, as with Darwin-skeptics, various researchers have also connected genocide with ideological human status demotions.19 Some have further suggested that theologically oriented perspectives on humankind can lead to either the positive treatment of others, or they can legitimatize unequal hierarchies that accord disproportionately less intrinsic value to certain people groups.20 Even more striking is research exhibiting correlations between how people view humans and what they then say about how others should be treated. Evans explains, it does in fact “seem that the basic Darwinian metaphors teach us that we have unequal value, but additionally it is this unequal value that leads people to then believe in unequal treatment.”21 As a result, even though essential antievolutionist premises are logically and scientifically problematic, it could be the case that personal assessments of human nature may in fact help guide our actions toward one another.

At the same time, and on the other end of the spectrum of opinions about evolutionary theory, New Atheist magnates rebuff the idea of humanity’s divine image. Yet these individuals still occasionally make oblique references to concepts of human decency and dignity in their characterizations of religion.22 For instance, Richard Dawkins has noted that religious scriptures are often considered to be the foundation of moral values, and some “good principles can be found in holy books.” Nevertheless, these principles are “buried alongside much else that no decent person would wish to follow; and the holy books do not supply any rules for distinguishing the good principles from the bad.”23 Due to these ethical ambiguities, decent human beings become corrupted in conscience by religions and their scriptures. This is why religious wars have marred history and why, according to Dawkins, there have been no wars fought in the name of atheism. For “why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?”24 By impairing reason, religion takes ordinarily good people and compels them to do evil acts because “religious faith is an especially potent silencer of rational calculation which usually seems to trump all others.” Only “religious faith is a strong enough force to motivate such utter madness in otherwise sane and decent people.”2' Religion, therefore, injures human decency by leading individuals to be wicked at the expense of reason. Correspondingly, it is not uncommon for New Atheists to repeat Steven Weinberg’s assertion: “Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would havegood people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”26

Effectively then, both modern antievolutionist and New Atheist communications connect unethical behavior to some manner of human status reduction, and they do so in media intended to persuade vast audiences. In the case of Darwin-skeptics, human nature is diminished via narratives of common evolutionary origins. Conversely, New Atheists maintain that religion corrodes the faculties of reason, staining human dignity and decency. For both groups, each variety of human diminution leads directly to countless evils, including mass murder. Of course, identifying hypothetical connections between views on human nature and the treatment of others is one thing. The yoking of evolutionary theory with Columbine, or atheist claims that all religion defaces human dignity, however, is quite another. Even so, while such references to human nature may be rationally dubious, these sorts of messages could still maintain persuasive potency extending beyond the facts underlying their propositions.

This book turns its attentions to these suasion attributes. It does so by exploring a multiyear collection of mass communications generated by the most prominent antievolutionist organizations, as well as leading media vocal counter-creationists described here as the proevolutionists. The Darwin-skeptic groups considered include the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), Answers in Genesis (AiG), and the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture (CSC). The first two represent the largest and most influential Young Earth Creationist institutions, while the latter is the world’s foremost Intelligent Design organization. The proevolutionist associations consist of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science (RDFRS), the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), and the BioLogos Foundation (BLF). Importantly, these three counter-creationist institutes embody the coordinated efforts of concerned atheists and agnostics, as well as religious adherents who have sought, at least in part, to defend evolutionary theory and impel public opinion toward consensus science. Collectively, the six groups and their communications exemplify a diversity of eminent media voices trying to impact audiences in the Evolution Wars.

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