Few biologists give much credence to the idea of a 6,000-year-old universe that was intelligently designed by a personified deity. (When I say “few” I mean practically none.) But a funny thing happens to people on the long road from a metaphysical position to a political one. They tend to forget everything along the way.
Many atheists accept that the theory of evolution is the best explanation for biological diversity on our planet. The earth’s flora and fauna is, biologically speaking, the net result of natural selection over billions of years. Species that exhibited traits that would help them thrive, did so. Groups within each species that exhibited traits that would help them thrive, did so. And so on and so on….
The entire idea of intelligent design – of a centralized source guiding every process – is discarded as naive at best. And yet, and I promise to not take this out of context, let’s look at what bioethicist Richard Dawkins said about politics and ethics:
“Let’s intelligently design our morality rather than trying to read what’s right and wrong in a 3,000-year-old book.” (Richard Dawkins, 4/1/12, addressing a group at Newport High School.)
Now, I completely understand how Dawkins is using this phrase. He is having a bit of fun with it and trying to re-purpose it for the sake of his ethical and political beliefs. In that, I grant him great leeway due to poetic license.
But I wonder if this comment reveals a deeper contradiction in the minds of many atheists?
“It’s a reprehensible and deplorable fact that many people buy into the preposterous idea that you actually need religion in order to be good,” Dawkins went on to say.
Dawkins was, of course, speaking to the metaphysical aspects of religion. Religious fables do poorly in ring matches with sciences on the physical universe. This is why the Catholic Church long threw in the towel on the whole age of the universe/evolution thing. There was simply too much evidence to resist.
But then think about what Dawkins does suggest with his playful use of the word “intelligent design” when it comes to developing ethics (and, by natural consequence, a political system). Is he not guilty of ignoring the model of the natural world – of natural selection – when it comes to being “good?”
He is saying, for billions of years, the earth developed according to random, natural selection, thus producing the rich, healthy, evolved biodiversity we see today. Based on this, is he suggesting for us to go ahead and ignore these principles and act like a theistic god and “intelligently design” our political systems?
What happened to natural selection?
Some people use the term “social Darwinism” as way to poison the well before this question can even be seriously considered. The presumption is that the process of natural selection, applied to ethics and politics, is barbaric. But this logical fallacy is simply an exaggeration of a position. Political groups, such as early Democrats who championed classical liberalism, had a far different take on social Darwinism (though they never would call it that).
Early Democrats believed in a political process that far more resembled Darwin than Dawkins. These classical liberals believed in the wisdom of the universe and applied that to democratic principles. They fought against the elitist view that only a select, few wise people should run the affairs of a nation. Rather, we should – in as much as we can – trust the natural dynamic of group interaction, keeping power in the hands of individuals, not a centralized state controlled by a small number of sages (or one) who intelligently designed its systems and policies.
One early Democrat was John L. O’Sullivan, the man responsible for the phrase, “The best government is that which governs least.” This wasn’t an anarchist’s position. This was someone who believed in liberal (liberty) democracy. His model wasn’t intelligent design. It was nature itself.
Democrats have changed a lot since the days of Grover Cleveland and John L. O’Sullivan. Today, Libertarians are closest to what Democrats used to be (maximum social freedoms and limited centralized government).
If Richard Dawkins, or any atheist for that matter, really wants to build consensus around their metaphysical viewpoints on the nature of reality, perhaps they should strive toward more consistency. Maybe intelligent design should be ejected from both the science classroom and the civics one.