In an interview found here, John S. Wilkins says, “Science is crucial to our social fabric and survival – we had better not mess it up for polemic reasons.” That is the sort of statement to which the response can be expected to be of virtually unanimous and reflexive assent.
After all, who wants to see science subject to the partisan polemics that so afflicts many ordinary human pursuits?
Science is commonly regarded as too important for such mundane squabbling; science is routinely regarded as an ideal erudition which, by the ethic of its very nature, is antagonistic to the subjectivity which fuels the frenzy of polemics. The fact is, however, that science does not transcend ordinary human pettiness.
Wilkins notes as much when he says that “There are a lot of myths about science, and they get used, as myths do, to bolster various schools of thought in science itself, political agendas, and debates over the role of religion in society.” Wilkins’s emphasis might seem to be on politics as a field of human endeavor necessarily distinguished from science, but Wilkins clearly recognizes that politics takes place within science, and this strongly suggests that, rather than as some sort of transcendent ideal or activity, the more proper way to regard much of science (or science in general) is as taking place within political contexts and subject to social interests.
Those for whom the ideal (or predominant sense) of science is as an enterprise which looks beyond the parochial expect — indeed, hope — that science will effect social influence – for the better, of course. But, few wonder whether social interests from outside the scientific community ever significantly influence – or in any way end up defining – science.
For instance, has evolution achieved its revered standing because of its truth and overawing insightfulness into nature and the nature of reality? Or, is the standing which evolution enjoys the result of its usefulness to purely extra-scientific social interests which happened to be operative during (and after) Darwin’s time?
In The Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1994), Hannah Arendt claims that the conditions of the 19th century were particularly well-suited for using an idea like Darwin’s natural selection notion as the basis for a socio-political ideology. Arendt writes (p. 159):
“… many free opinions … within the general framework of liberalism, argued and fought each other to win the consent of public opinion. Only a few of them became full-fledged ideologies, that is systems based upon a single opinion that proved strong enough to attract and persuade a majority of people and broad enough to lead them through the various experiences and situations of an average modern life. For an ideology differs from a simple opinion in that it claims to possess either the key to history, or the solution for all the ‘riddles of the universe,’ or the intimate knowledge of the hidden universal laws which are supposed to rule nature and man. Few ideologies have won enough prominence to survive the hard competitive struggle of persuasion …
Persuasion is not possible without an appeal to either experiences or desires, in other words to immediate political needs. Plausibility in these matters comes neither from scientific facts, as the various brands of Darwinists would like us to believe, nor from historical laws …”
Clearly, the “Darwinists” to whom Arendt refers would be individuals who use Darwin’s natural selection idea more broadly than as mere basis for evolution and the origin of species, and Arendt goes on to point out some strictly political or social views which well-served themselves by coopting Darwin’s scientific natural selection notion (177-178):
“… slavery, though actually established on a strict racial basis, did not make slave-holding peoples race-conscious before the nineteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century, American slave-holders themselves considered it a temporary institution and wanted to abolish it gradually. Most of them probably would have said with Jefferson: ‘I tremble when I think that God is just.’
… The eighteenth century, to use Tocqueville’s admirably precise phrase, ‘believed in the variety of the races but in the unity of the human species.’
But in America and England, where people had to solve a problem of living together after the abolition of slavery, things were considerably less easy … The abolition of slavery sharpened inherent conflicts instead of finding a solution for existing serious difficulties …in England where the ‘rights of Englishmen’ were not replaced by a new political orientation which might have declared the rights of men … a highly confused public opinion … was fertile soil for the various naturalistic doctrines which arose in those decades.
The first of these was represented by the polygenists who … denied any relationship between human ‘races’ … polygenism arbitrarily isolated all peoples from one another by the deep abyss of the physical impossibility of human understanding and communication …
Lasting as the influence of polygenism on English race-thinking proved to be in the long run, in the nineteenth century it was soon to be beaten in the field of public opinion by another doctrine [Darwinism]. This doctrine also started from the principle of inheritance but added to it the political principle of the nineteenth century, progress, where it arrived at the opposite but far more convincing conclusion that man is related not only to man but to animal life … and that a powerful struggle for existence dominates all living things. Darwinism was especially strengthened by the fact that it followed the path of the old might-right doctrine … [had been] used exclusively by aristocrats … now translated into the rather bitter language of people who had known the struggle for daily bread and fought their way to the relative security of upstarts [i.e., the bourgeoisie and their own might-right or survival of the fittest theory].
Darwinism met with such overwhelming success because it provided, on the basis of inheritance, the ideological weapons for race as well as class rule … Darwinism offered two important concepts: the struggle for existence with optimistic assertion of the necessary and automatic ‘survival of the fittest,’ and the indefinite possibilities which seemed to lie in the evolution of man out of animal life and which started the new ‘science’ of eugenics.”
In other words, it appears that Darwin’s theory of evolution as a result of natural selection was especially well-suited for a socio-politico situation enamored of the newly prominent notion of progress and dealing with the political displacement of the aristocracy by the bourgeoisie class, and it is, in light of Arendt’s historical rendering, anything except clear that evolution became a mainstay of science because of Darwin alone. Indeed, it seems rather easily arguable that Darwin’s theory about evolution via natural selection would have hardly been much more widely accepted than were previous theories about evolution had the social and political context of the times been more like the contexts at the times of those earlier theories.
I have often heard it said that evolution is either central to, or at the core of, modern biology. Whether that is an accurate or an overblown description of the importance of evolution theory, it nonetheless seems quite clearly the case that social interests served to garner attention for and to proclaim and promote the importance of Darwin’s theory.