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Samurai Bioethics

John G. West

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John G. West on a Noble Defense Doomed by Darwinian Materialism

Near the end of the film The Last Samurai, a forlorn but heroic group of Samurai mount a final desperate assault against opponents who have armed themselves with weapons produced by Western science and technology, especially the Gatling gun. The charge by the Samurai ends as one might expect, with the warriors mercilessly (but efficiently) cut down by the Gatling guns.

The scene came to mind when I was pondering the approach adopted by conservative bioethicists Yuval Levin and Eric Cohen in their recent books: Levin’s Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy, and Cohen’s In the Shadow of Progress: Being Human in the Age of Technology (both from Encounter Books).

Both books represent noble efforts to inject moral sanity into debates over bioethics. Covering such topics as embryonic stem-cell research, genetic engineering, the overuse of psychoactive drugs, and the “new eugenics,” the books offer profound insights into the dangers of scientific utopianism, the value of democratic politics as a moderating influence on science, and the need for science to be guided by moral purposes. Levin and Cohen should be lauded for their attempts to defend human dignity by asking deep questions about what it means to be human.

Darwinian Reductionism

At the same time, it is difficult not to feel that they are somewhat like those last Samurai going up against the Gatling guns. They spend considerable time delving into Aristotle, the Bible, and the finer points of political philosophy. But they largely ignore the Gatling gun in the living room: Darwinian biology, which purports to show, on the basis of science, that human beings (and their behavior and beliefs) can be reduced ultimately to the blind products of a non-teleological process of natural selection acting on random variations. To cite the words of the late Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, in the Darwinian view, “man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

The problem is not that Aristotle et al. have nothing important to tell us about bioethics, but that if Darwinism is true, why should anyone bother to listen?

Appeals to “unchanging human nature,” the “soul,” or traditional morality are tantamount to fairy tales in the Darwinian worldview. According to Darwinism, there is nothing unchanging about human nature; it continues to evolve, along with the conditions for survival. Likewise, a nonmaterial soul is sheer fantasy because (to cite the late Stephen Jay Gould) “matter is the ground of all existence; mind, spirit, and God as well, are just words that express the wondrous results of neuronal complexity.” Even morality is simply an unintended byproduct of the material struggle for survival. As leading Darwinists E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse argue,

Morality . . . is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. . . . In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.


Confronted by such claims, the best way to gain a fair hearing for the wisdom of the past is to challenge the scientific pretensions of Darwinism head-on. Only then can there be a realistic possibility that the teachings of the philosophers and prophets will be taken seriously again. Alas, Levin and Cohen seem more interested in criticizing their fellow conservatives who challenge Darwinism than in criticizing Darwinism itself.


Read the entire article on the Touchstone Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 30-Jul-2009

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