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April 14, 2005

We Needn't Steering, for the Road Won't Turn?

It may have taken the oxymoronicism of Christianity and constitutional pessimism, but National Review has found a secular utopian in John Derbyshire:

Conservatives are not supposed to believe that human beings are the helpless instruments of blind Historical Forces. We are supposed to be the people who celebrate humanity in all its knotty and unpredictable variety, and in the power of the individual human will to transform the world. Did not John Paul II himself challenge, and help defeat, those who claimed the mandate of History? Yes, but that only adds a gloss of irony to his larger failure.

Looking back across the past few decades, it’s hard not to think that post-industrial modernism is headed all one way, everywhere it has taken a firm grip. Pleasure-giving gadgets and drugs are ever cheaper and more accessible. The distresses of life, especially physical sickness and pain, are gradually being pushed to the margins. As scientists probe deeper into the human genome, the human nervous system, and the biology of human social arrangements, that divine spark of person-hood that we all feel to be the essence of ourselves is being chased along narrower and darker passageways of the brain and the tribal folkways. Happiness itself, it seems, is genetic. And all this is headed…where?

We all know the answer to that one. It is headed to Brave New World.

Society is in a bizarre state indeed when the dour are resolving themselves to an impending world of untrammeled happiness:

So far as it makes any sense to predict the future, it seems to me highly probable that the world of 50 or 100 years from now will bear a close resemblance to Huxley’s dystopia — a world without pain, grief, sickness or war, but also without family, religion, sacrifice, or nobility of spirit.

I'm not sure whether it's an indication of deeper pessimism about human beings, but Derbyshire discounts humanity's ability to screw things up. In other words, he implicitly concedes human nature as something that will go softly into that good night. A recent scene makes me question the assumption: While sitting for a moment after a hard day's work last week — feeling the contentment that can only come with the completion of exhausting labor — I became whelmed with love for my three year old daughter and her unmitigated joy at life. Just as the contentment was tinged with pain, so was the love tinged with sadness.

We may be entering an era of bland happiness, but I'd suggest that the "risk death to taste life" ethos of the '60s was a dark manifestation — perverted as so much was during that period — of something intrinsically linked to religion, sacrifice, and nobility of spirit. In short, we will not be content to be content.

But even that odd consolation views our society as an isolated ecosystem. It ignores outside forces, including most profoundly God. Christianity's hope is intriguingly carried within a form of worldly pessimism. We must die, and the world must end, but those are good things. Are we to believe that God will cease to call those whose society has dragged them into false heaven? Are we to believe that He will cease to shape the world toward His own ends?

Human nature will answer the call to which it is so innately tuned. God will act in the world, and surely we've only just begun to appreciate the extent to which John Paul II was evidence of that action. Our actions and words will carry into the spotless future, and even behind a veil of palliatives, humanity will wonder what truth we had.

Posted by Justin Katz at April 14, 2005 6:56 AM
Culture
Comments

Justin, I sympathize with John Derbyshire, except that I think the so-called "Brave New World" is already here. There is so little mystery and romance left here on Earth -- you look at a map of the world made in the 1400's and there are vast areas of uncharted territory. Today, we can Google any location on the planet and get a complete travelogue, topographical map and satellite photo in 10 seconds.

This dynamic extends into the personal realm as well as the physical. All of our deepest emotions are focus-grouped, profiled and exploited by advertisers and political consultants. Nowadays if you ask "what is the meaning of life?", it seems like the answer will be "it's in aisle 13 on the left".

Posted by: Matt Taylor at April 14, 2005 3:41 PM

Hi Justin,

When I saw your post about Derbyshire I had to comment. He is quite the odd bird. I think another appropriate oxymoron is Derbyshire and National Review. He is an ardent Darwinist and at best I would think an agnostic. I've read enough of his stuff at NR to say he is a pessimistic utopian (keep those oxy's comin'), although I think he would see himself much more inclined to the former than the latter. Being a Dawrinist, he has no real philosophical foundation for a human nature, so he can appear utopian, when he knows it a bunch of pap. He's really a bundle of contradictions, and to me quote annoying. Thanks.

Posted by: Mike D'Virgilio at April 14, 2005 3:42 PM

Mike,

What is a Darwinist? And why is "Derbyshire and National Review" an oxymoron? It would seem that if Derbyshire is a "bundle of contradictions", and National Review is a broadly conservative magazine, then the term oxymoron doesn't fit. If Derbyshire was solidly liberal then it might be more apt.

Posted by: Mike S. at April 15, 2005 10:29 AM

John Derbyshire seems to be replacing Florence King as National Review's resident curmudgeon. I enjoy him, but I can see how others wouldn't. You aren't supposed to agree with him, just enjoy his eccentricity.

Posted by: Ben Bateman at April 15, 2005 5:39 PM

Being a Dawrinist, he has no real philosophical foundation for a human nature

Hmmm, so believing in evolution makes you have no philosophical foundation for a human nature? Like that wacky, eccentric, oxymoronic Pope...

Posted by: Michael at April 15, 2005 5:55 PM

Michael,
Either you don't understand what is meant by the term Darwinist, or you are thinking that believing evolution is possibly one of God's tools is the same as a belief structure revolving around evolution at its epicenter.

Posted by: smmtheory at April 16, 2005 12:04 PM

"Either you don't understand what is meant by the term Darwinist"

Well, this is the problem - this definition is not clear, and is not used consistently by different people.

Posted by: Mike S. at April 16, 2005 1:25 PM

this definition is not clear, and is not used consistently by different people

Valid point. I think what is meant by a "Darwinist" in reference to a philosophical view is one who believes that all activity in the universe is a consequence of random chance (a redundancy, not oxymoron). Thus, there is no meaning or purpose in existence; it just is. This is separate from, but often linked to Darwinian evolution as a scientific theory of man's development (that, through advantageous genetic mutations, we arrived at this developmental point). The philosophy crosses the scientific theory at the point of insisting that the genetic mutations (and existence and coincidence of environmental conditions which favored them) are completely random and therefore without purpose.

Posted by: c matt at April 18, 2005 2:40 PM

Justin,

Good afternoon. Been a few weeks. John Derbyshire is a nice enough man, but he lacks faith, to my mind, in God (hard to know for sure).

I once e-mailed him, responding to a column he had written regarding bio-terror, pointing out that, at that very moment, the Administration had just developed Project Bioshield (don't ask me the specifics; I don't know them) at the very time he was decrying a strategy to deal with it.
I saw it in National Journal.

He wrote a nice note back to me stating that, yes, he had seen it.

At the end of the e-mail, he wrote, "Optimists!"

That was it.

He's just pessimistic, so he can never be hurt (I guess).

I admire his realism, but he does seem to be too overtly pessimistic about the state of the world.

I'm praying for him, and his family, too.

Posted by: Aaron at April 18, 2005 5:57 PM

"I think what is meant by a "Darwinist" in reference to a philosophical view is one who believes that all activity in the universe is a consequence of random chance (a redundancy, not oxymoron). Thus, there is no meaning or purpose in existence; it just is."

And this does not accurately describe Derbyshire's views...

Posted by: Mike S. at April 18, 2005 8:31 PM

I agree with smmt. ( I never thought I would write those words )

"Either you don't understand what is meant by the term Darwinist, or you are thinking that believing evolution is possibly one of God's tools is the same as a belief structure revolving around evolution at its epicenter."

Particularly this part: "...evolution is possibly one of God's tools..."

Absolutely brilliant.

The whole evolution vs. creation argument seems like such a moot point to me because they are NOT mutually exclusive. Evolution doesn't mean that the world wasn't created, and a created world doesn't mean that species haven't evolved - anymore than Copernicus' or Galileo's ideas were mutually exclusive with Biblical teaching. There is no need for either side to fight this battle.

...now when it comes to social Darwinism - there's a troubling philosophy.

Posted by: reality based at April 21, 2005 5:02 AM

Mr. Derbyshire is indeed a pessimist by nature. He is also one who has a very high regard for scientists and science. One might argue that he borders on "scientism", the worship of science as an ultimate font of knowledge.

Certainly he has been talking with and listening to some very, very bright people who are just now opening up some areas of human biology previously not understood, or understood very poorly. In my humble opinion, he's making a common mistake in taking their blue-sky predictions as facts-in-waiting.

In the 1960's and again in the 1980's, computer-based aritificial intelligence researchers seemed to be poised for huge breakthroughs. A John Derbyshire of 1968, listening to Marvin Minsky, or a J.D. of 1988 reading the early neural-network papers, would have been convinced that machine intelligence was a "done deal" and that only filling in a few gaps would be needed to produce truly thinking machines.

Alas, that did not happen, for various reasons. Similarly in the 1990's, many people just knew that nanotechnology was just around the corner, for good ("nannyrobes") or ill ("grey goo"). So far both have been shown wrong.

I suspect that many of the things Mr. Derbyshire is so confident in predicting for the future of bioscience won't pan out, either. I could be wrong, of course, but the history of science tends to suggest I'm not.

Posted by: neuralnet at April 25, 2005 4:27 PM