Himmelfarb, Gertrude. "Evolution and Ethics, Revisited." The New Atlantis, no. 42. 2014.
That is John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University (1852) referring to the sciences of his day, which threatened to dominate and even overwhelm theological education in the university. A science’s teaching might be true in its proper place but fallacious “if it be constituted the sole exponent of all things in heaven and earth, and that, for the simple reason that it is encroaching on territory not its own, and undertaking problems which it has no instruments to solve.”
While Newman’s notion of science was far broader than ours, including even painting and music, his description of the overreach of science is still apt. We now have a term — “scientism” — for that fallacy, exemplified, as has been demonstrated in these pages, by Richard Dawkins’s pronouncement that genes “created us, body and mind,” and Edward O. Wilson’s claim that biology is the “basis of all social behavior.” If scientism has become so prevalent, it is partly because of the emergence of new sciences, each encroaching, as Newman said, on “territory not its own” (invading, we would now say, the turf of others), and each professing to comprehend (in both senses of that word) the whole. Intended as an epithet, the term has been adopted as an honorific by some of its practitioners. A chapter in the book Every Thing Must Go: Metaphysics Naturalized (2007) by three philosophers is entitled “In Defense of Scientism.”
Newman’s book appeared seven years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, which provoked the classic case of scientism — the mutation of Darwinism into social Darwinism. There had been earlier theories of evolution, such as Lamarck’s. And there had been earlier doctrines, most notably Malthus’s, that applied to society the concept of a “struggle for existence.” Indeed, Darwin had been inspired by Malthus, while opposing Lamarck. But it was the Origin that gave credibility to the theory of evolution and, inadvertently, encouraged others to extend it to society, making the “survival of the fittest” the natural and proper basis for human behavior and social relations.
The emergence of social Darwinism recalls the adage of another eminent Victorian. “Ideas,” wrote Lord Acton, “have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Darwin, the unwitting godfather of social Darwinism, disowned even that degree of parentage. He dismissed as ludicrous the charge of one reviewer that he had endorsed “might is right” thereby justifying the idea “that Napoleon is right & every cheating Tradesman is also right.” Challenged on another occasion to declare his views on religion, he replied that while the subject of God was “beyond the scope of man’s intellect,” his moral obligation was clear: “man can do his duty.” Averse to controversy in general (even over the Origin itself), Darwin played no public part in the dispute over social Darwinism. That battle was left to Darwin’s “bulldog,” as T. H. Huxley proudly described himself — “my general agent,” Darwin called him. Huxley’s arguments against social Darwinism are all the more telling because they come not, as might have been expected, from a cleric or theologian, but from an eminent scientist and ardent Darwinist.
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