»  National Review Online

April 22nd, 2003

  Pseudoscience vs. Snobbery


The British poet Philip Larkin, asked why he voted Conservative, replied that he believed the Left to stand for "dishonesty, idleness, and treason." It seems to me that Larkin omitted one key component of the lefty mind-set: snobbery.

The essence of the modern Left, from Lenin to the Clintons, is a contempt for ordinary people — for their blindness to their own interests, for their inability to see that society needs radically reorganizing, for their reluctance to let themselves be shoveled around like truckloads of concrete in order to accomplish that reorganization, for their degraded tastes in everything from food to mode of transportation, for their selfish determination to hold on to the rewards of their own labor rather than hand over those rewards to people who believe themselves wiser, for their absurd attachment to outmoded prehistoric concepts like "family," "nation," and "liberty."

Lenin: "It is true that liberty is precious — so precious that it must be rationed." And who is to do the rationing? Why, we, the enlightened ones, the anointed ones — the elite! Mrs Clinton: "It takes a village to raise a child." God forbid the task should be left to — ugh! — a family. You need a community … with leaders … And who will those leaders be? Guess who.

This loathing and contempt that all lefties feel towards ordinary insignificant people is never more manifest than in matters of religion. It is not that the Left is necessarily anti-religious. Most of it is, and practically all God-haters are also lefties, but there are some styles of lefty religiosity none the less. "Liberation theology," one of the most poisonous and destructive lefty doctrines of the 20th century, was cooked up by Catholic thinkers; and my own church, the Anglican communion, has a ruling hierarchy that is pretty solidly Left. The Clintons themselves are religious, sincerely so far as one can judge. (Though I write here as a person always willing, possibly too willing, to give the benefit of the doubt in matters of this sort.) They are certainly more assiduous churchgoers than were, say, the Reagans.

Where the snobbery of the Left really comes out is in lefty attitudes to evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity. Yes, I know these are two distinct things, though probably a lot of lefties do not know this. And yes, the word "Christianity" is essential in there. Lefties are mostly fixated on the wickedness of their own nation or culture, and have little interest in others. Lefty "multiculturalism" has nothing to do with foreign cultures, as Peter Wood has demonstrated in his recent book. It is a way of poking a finger in the eye of Western culture, that is all. The sins and absurdities of evangelical Hinduism — a small but significant force in world affairs, as it happens — are of zero interest to American lefties, as they do not demonstrate anything about the awfulness of America.

The sins and absurdities of evangelical Islam have been getting a bit more attention recently, and there is even a faction on the Left that is angry about them — see the writings of Christopher Hitchens, for instance. (Hitch is an equal-opportunity God-hater, who has trashed Mother Theresa and the Dalai Lama with equal vehemence.) Still, the average American lefty's eyes do not light up when he talks about Osama bin Laden, who he feels is probably a creature of Ronald Reagan's foreign policy. What gets lefty juices flowing is those crazy Christian fruitcakes down in the Bible Belt, with their doubleknit-clad preachers in cheap hairpieces, their reflexive patriotism, their dogged hostility to such obviously healthful and liberating practices as fornication, abortion and homosexuality, and their obscurantism about evolution.

Ah, evolution! The touchstone of redneck religiosity! The ultimate litmus test separating the benighted from the enlightened, the foolish from the wise, the sheep from the wise shepherds — to put it in Leninist terms, the Whom from the Who! Do you believe in the theory of evolution? No? Then you shall be bound hand and foot and cast into outer darkness, into the place of wailing and gnashing of teeth! Don't you know that only hicks and rubes and knuckle-dragging primitives deny the truth of evolution? Haven't you seen Inherit the Wind? What brand of tobacco do you chew, in your shabby trailer parked back there in the hollow?

The above thoughts were generated over the breakfast table last Sunday as I perused the comic supplement in my newspaper. Now, I don't give a lot of time to the comics, I hasten to add, but there are a few I always look at: Blondie, Dilbert, Hagar the Horrible, and Doonesbury. I read the first three for insights into the human condition; I read Doonesbury so as not to lose touch with the truths contained in my first paragraph up above — to keep my enemy-recognition skills well-honed.

Doonesbury, in case you don't follow these things, is a lefty comic strip, created by a fellow named Garry Trudeau, a limousine liberal from a wealthy and well-connected family, currently residing in a posh apartment overlooking Manhattan's Central Park. Trudeau started drawing the strip while a student at Yale in the late 1960s. Never having abandoned, nor even apparently questioned, the vapid formulas of 1960s student leftism, Trudeau is the darling of liberal media types — he got the first ever Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartoonery. (The only reliably conservative comic strip I am aware of, Mallard Filmore, does not appear in my Sunday paper, and will, I very confidently predict, not be getting a Pulitzer any time soon.)

Well, the Doonesbury strip this Sunday featured two hippie types talking about evolution. (Trudeau's characters have names and personal histories, which devoted fans can tell you all about. I have never bothered to master that side of Doonesbury myself, as such mastery is not essential to the main point of my reading the strip — see above. And yes, they really are hippie types. Trudeau is the last person in the world who does not know that hippies were antisocial dimwits who believed in Pyramid Power and the spiritual benefits of dope.) The point of the strip is to pour scorn on George W. Bush for not believing in evolution.

I had better tell you right now that I myself do believe in evolution (and immediately to beg that you please not send me eight-thousand-word treatises proving me wrong, and to promise you that if you do send me material of that sort, I will not read it). The idea that species evolved and differentiated across vast eons of time by means of natural selection seems to be sensible and probable, and to fit with such facts as I know of. I can't pretend to understand the inner mechanics of that process. Neither did Charles Darwin so pretend: as the philosopher David Stove has pointed out, Darwin died as ignorant of genetics as was Julius Caesar. Darwin's theory offers a hypothesis to explain certain observed facts. To the best of my understanding the facts were well-observed and the hypothesis is convincing. That is about as much as any non-specialist can say about any scientific theory. The main anti-Darwinian hypothesis, as I understand it, asserts that all the currently observable species of animals, plants, bacteria and (presumably) viruses, together with some that are now extinct, were created in their known forms at more or less the same time. That seems to me highly improbable. It seems to me, in fact, to be pseudoscience, and does not agree with my understanding, such as it is, either of the physical world or of the Deity.

Now, I can't say I have any emotional investment in this topic one way or the other. I'm not very intensely religious. I'm not much interested in biology, either, and dropped it from my school studies as soon as I could, at age thirteen. I was never taught either evolution or anti-evolution. My few faded memories of school biology lessons concern hydra, spirogyra, and some folorn-looking dogfish languishing in various states of evisceration in trays of formaldehyde. My mother was a professional nurse with a good collection of textbooks on human anatomy and physiology, all of which I knew by heart around age ten. That pretty much exhausted my interest in the world of living tissue. To the degree that I have an opinion about evolution at all, it is from the dutiful feeling that a well-educated person ought to have one. At some point in my early adulthood I read a few books and pop-science magazine articles and concluded: Yep, that seems pretty sound. That's about the depth of it. I'd be surprised to learn that anyone outside the circles of professional biologists and the small cadres of fanatical anti-evolutionists has any more interest in the matter than I have.

The argument implicit in the April 20 Doonesbury strip — that George W. Bush is unfit for the Presidency because he does not believe in the theory of evolution — therefore leaves me utterly unimpressed. I couldn't care less whether my President believes in the theory of evolution. In fact, reflecting on some recent experiences, I'm not sure that I wouldn't prefer a president who didn't. Let me explain that.

Last year one of my neighbors, an elderly widow who was very kind and helpful to us when we first moved into this street, fell and broke her femur. (The human femur can be inspected with all its protuberances and anfractuosities in Figures 126-130 of Gray's Anatomy — I tell you, I know this stuff.) She was treated in the local hospital at first, of course. Then she went to a nursing home to convalesce. We visited her there. The nursing home was a lovely place, spotlessly clean and well-run, smelling of floor-polish, fresh-cut flowers, and disinfectant. The staff were cheerful, attentive and brisk. I could not help but contrast it with the place in which my own mother spent some of her last days — a privately-owned but municipally-supported place in England, staffed by ill-tempered slatternly girls and stinking of boiled cabbage and stale urine. Being taken to our neighbor's room, I noticed here and there discreet, plain little crucifixes on the walls. It was a Christian establishment, run by some evangelical group. Probably none of the staff believes in the theory of evolution.

Also last year we finally found a decent auto mechanic. It's a family firm located three or four miles away, on the other side of our village. They do just the work that needs doing, don't find any $2,000 dollar surprise defects in your car while performing the state inspection, present carefully itemized bills at fair prices, and are eager to explain anything that needs explaining. Like the staff in that nursing home, they are happy and efficient in their work. The place is a real find — if you have much to do with auto mechanics, you can imagine how we feel. They even sent us a Christmas card! I later found out by chance that the entire family belongs to some small fundamentalist Christian sect. Chances are they are all Creationists.

All I am pointing out there is that while, speaking as a scientifically-educated person who prefers truth (so far as we can discover it) to falsehood, I would rather you believed in evolution that not, I think there are a great many other things that are much more important. We don't all have the capacity, or the willingness, or the time, to master elaborate scientific theories. (I wonder how many of those who chuckled at Sunday's Doonesbury strip could actually give a full explanation of the theory of evolution from a standing start?) Unless we are professional specialists, there is no need for us to, other than by way of making a courteous gesture towards the ideal of objective scientific knowledge in general.

Possibly as a result of having grown up in the lower classes of provincial England, I detest snobbery. I mean, I really, viscerally, loathe it. This is one reason I hate the Left so much — see first para above. I am not a big fan of pseudoscience, either, though, and will do what little I can to stand up for real science, where I am confident I understand it. My ideal nursing-home attendant, auto mechanic, or President would be a cheerful, capable, well-motivated person who was thoroughly au courant with the theory of evolution — and indeed with all the most recent advances in astronomy, biochemistry, cosmology, dendrochronology, endochrinology, fluviology, geomorphology, hydrodynamics, ichthyology, jurisprudence, kinesiology, limnology, microbiology, neuropathology, ophthalmology, psychometrics, quantum chromodynamics, rocket science, seismology, trichology, urology, virology, wiretapping, xenodocheionology, yachting and zoology.

Life, however, often consists of making a choice between unsatisfactory alternatives. Invited to choose between having my kids educated, my car fixed, or my elderly relatives cared for by (a) people of character, spirit and dedication who believe in pseudoscience, or (b) unionized, time-serving drudges who believe in real science, which would I choose? Invited to choose between a President who is (a) a patriotic family man of character and ability who believes the universe was created on a Friday afternoon in 4004 b.c. with all biological species instantly represented, or (b) an amoral hedonist and philanderer who "loathes the military" but who believes in the evolution of species via natural selection across hundreds of millions of years, which would I choose? Are you kidding?