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Remembering a Biologist’s Remarkable Confession of Faith

Is it scientific misconduct to make science about materialist atheism?

My friend and colleague Casey Luskin has penned a poignant essay in memory of Richard Lewontin, a Harvard evolutionary biologist who passed away at 92 recently. Casey is a gentleman and a scholar, and very much disposed to finding the best in people. Indeed it seems there was much that was very good in Lewontin’s persona, and Casey highlighted it beautifully in his encomium.

I am not of the opinion, however, that we should speak only good of the dead. The passing of a public figure is a good time to consider his impact, and Lewontin’s impact on American culture and science is something very much worth considering.

By all accounts, Lewontin was a gentleman and a good friend and affable mentor to this colleagues and students. From what I know of him, I think I would have enjoyed his company and valued his friendship. He was a man of remarkable social and intellectual gifts. But in my view, his exercise of these gifts inflicted incalculable damage on the scientific profession and on our culture.

As an evolutionary biologist, Lewontin rejected the crude elements of “Darwinism.” He did not think that all of the remarkable behavior of life forms, including humans, can be explained as a mechanism that leaves fertile descendants. His intellectual gifts left no room for such simple-minded thinking.

That said, he embraced atheism’s creation myth — that we exist only accidentally and not by design — with passion and spent his life in service to it. His contribution to the idea that there is no special purpose for human existence was to dress up that claim in academic robes. From his perch at Harvard, he trained several generations of evolutionary biologists for the mission field.

He cannot claim ignorance of the outcome of what he was doing. We know this because of what is perhaps the most remarkable and revealing public confession of an attempt to make science about atheism in modern times. In 1997, Lewontin published a review of celebrity science commentator Carl Sagan ’s book The Demon-Haunted World in which he blurted:

Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door. The eminent Kant scholar Lewis Beck used to say that anyone who could believe in God could believe in anything. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.

Richard Lewontin, “Billions and Billions of Demons” at New York Review of Books (January 9, 1997)

Many observers of this remarkable confession view it with humor — that Lewontin would be so candid about his intentions is a charming gaffe, the sort of thing that happens when an amiable but smarmy politician blurts out an inconvenient truth. But Lewontin’s moment of candor is a much darker thing.

In my view, it is, first and foremost, an unequivocal confession of scientific misconduct. He acknowledged the lies and nonsense of the materialist scientific paradigm — and defended them! He explicitly acknowledged that it was not evidence, nor the scientific method, nor the tradition of science that demanded materialist inferences. It was rather an absolute ideological devotion to materialism and atheism.

Lewontin used his position at an eminent university to push materialism and atheism in the guise of science. On reflection, it is astonishing that he would acknowledge with such candor that the materialist science that he taught and published and promulgated was predicated on tolerated “unsubstantiated just-so stories.”

But therein lies a deeper and more disturbing truth: Lewontin felt free to confess all this without the slightest fear of consequence. If anything, his candor endeared him to other scientists and to atheist and materialist colleagues who also were parties to the deception that it was “just science.” This kind of open public confession of corruption without the slightest fear of consequence is what we might more reasonably have expected from totalitarian societies.

Which brings us to Lewontin’s other passion — Marxism. Lewontin was a hard leftist who worked assiduously to advance Marxism — that is, totalitarianism — in America. Of course, Lewontin’s sympathizers will squirm and insist that this kind and genial man only wanted the best for science and for his neighbors. But it was just this sort of kindness and geniality that made Lewontin immeasurably more dangerous to science and to our culture than the lumpish and less accomplished Darwinists and Marxists, often heard ranting profanely on “science” blogs.

In sum, Lewontin put a genial professorial face on atheism and materialism and on Darwinist and Marxist falsehoods. He did immeasurably more damage to the truth than his cruder minions in the New Atheist movement and the Darwin in the schools lobby could have done. One might say that Lewontin was a congenial Richard Dawkins — with a no less deadly agenda.

Lewontin was a man of sparkling intellect and gentility who put his gifts (and they were gifts, not adaptations or spandrels) to the service of the ugliest and most dangerous lies of our time. The proper encomium for his passing is to mourn the degradation of science — about which he bragged — and the Marxist degradation of our social and constitutional order that is advancing daily in our nation.

You may also wish to read:

Interview with a woman (or women) formerly called Susan Blackmore. A professor of psychology argues that there is no continuity between our present selves and our past selves. If her denial of personal continuity made sense, the video interview would be with Susan Blackmores or with countless women, one of whom was maybe Susan Blackmore. (Michael Egnor)

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Remembering a Biologist’s Remarkable Confession of Faith