Vonnegut goes off deep end about Darwin?

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite novelists (the somewhat obscure Deadeye Dick in particular) and cultural commentators. He is deeply rooted in the freethought tradition, and has served as honorary president of the American Humanist Association.

Lately, though, he seems to be on a strange anti-Darwinian kick. For example, about a year ago, the blog of the intelligent design-advocating Discovery Institute quoted Vonnegut expressing skepticism about evolution in an NPR interview. I didn’t think much of it — who knows about the context and so forth. But more recently, the left/liberal In These Times ran a fax to the editor by Vonnegut, saying “Darwin gave the cachet of science to war and genocide.”

I don’t know if it’s necessary to dissect the multiple levels of bullshit in Vonnegut’s views. Just because it’s a common fallacy to equate “natural” with “good” does not excuse Vonnegut from indulging such sloppy thinking. If our species has often engaged in warlike and genocidal behavior, it is perfectly legitimate to seek evolutionary explanations, even to speculate on whether such violence (under certain conditions) is deeply embedded in evolved human nature. None of this adds up to any endorsement. Moreover, there is a deeper problem with such moralistic Darwin-bashing, normally a staple of creationists. Creationists tend to think that the universe has an anthropocentric moral order, and hence they tend to think that ideas that they find morally objectionable are also factually false. How does Vonnegut harbor such a delusion, especially in the absence of a religious anchor for cosmic moral fantasies?

OK, so maybe I should retreat to a superficially reasonable centrism: if the religious right puts moral convictions ahead of science, maybe the nonreligious left can do the same, just in the service of different moral intuitions. A pox on both houses, both “extremes.” But that’s either a basically conservative complacency or a cynicism of the “well, we can’t do anything, so we might as well watch TV” variety. I don’t think the ends of the “spectrum” are mirror images. And so I expect better from an honorary president of the AHA, dammit!

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12704585077990588497 lastfinger

    I don’t agree Vonnegut has slipped into ambivalence about science only recently; he’s always been very suspicious. For example, have you read Cat’s Cradle? A central theme of that novel was the horrible things brought to the world by those who are brilliant, but also bumbling and detached.

    You and I probably agree re: the existence of God, but I think we disagree regarding the need for involved, inarticulable (some might call it existential) commitment to a project. I don’t think the sort of detached position you seem to wish Vonnegut would take toward science has anything to do with morality. Maybe another way of saying this is that if Vonnegut were speaking as a scientist, he might not find anything wrong with Darwin. But as a humanist, he has a higher overriding commitment. You can disagree with his commitment, call it a fall into illogic if you wish, but clearly he is one of the best articulators of what is good in the absence of God. He deserves some respect.

    I’m only a casual reader on this blog, but I had to blurt something out in defense of a favorite author.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10778996187937943820 Taner Edis

    “lastfinger”: “I don’t agree Vonnegut has slipped into ambivalence about science only recently; he’s always been very suspicious.

    I don’t disagree. In fact, his suspicion about what we do with science and technology is one of the reasons I like Vonnegut. I have no use for gung-ho, mindless “science will save us” optimism.

    But there’s more, I think, to his anti-Darwin kick. It’s one thing to be morally ambivalent about science and technology, and another thing to extend this ambivalence to gratuitous morally-motivated doubts about the fact claims involved. What Vonnegut is doing lately is different, as I read it, from his long-standing ambivalence.