I normally read on the treadmill while walking at four miles per hour with no elevation. That's the way intellectual fashions also tend to develop-at a brisk walking pace but not needing a gallop or heavy breathing to keep up. In the past three years, though, the pitter-patter of Darwin-based books became a heavy-booted march. The reason in part was the Feb. 12, 2009, celebration of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth (and the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species).
This year's outpouring includes not only defenses of evolution by biologists and atheists, but applications of Darwinian thinking to other realms. For example, Robert H. Frank's The Darwin Economy (Princeton, 2011) is a liberal meditation on liberty and enterprise. He wants Darwin, not Adam Smith, to be seen as the intellectual founder of economics, because business is a tooth-and-claw struggle. He doesn't like economic competition but he sees Darwinian struggles as inevitable and wants to keep them, through heavy regulation and taxation, from descending into cage fighting.
Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution (Harvard University Press, 2011) also has thoughtful insights, but the whole is less than the sum of its parts because Darwinist presuppositions underline every chapter. Instead of seeing that humans at first had an intimate knowledge of God that deteriorated as evil grew until God washed them away in a flood-and then deteriorated again and again-Bellah posits religious evolution. No revelation, just assimilative bargaining: Hebrews moved from polytheism because of "the growing idea that El and Yahweh were two names for the same God," with "characteristics that had earlier belonged to Baal (storm god, war god)."
David Sloan Wilson's The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (Little, Brown, 2011) takes applied Darwinism up a notch. Wilson became interested in religion as "a natural outgrowth of my interest in the evolution of groups as adaptive units in all species." It also helped that "the Templeton Foundation wanted to know what science had to say about forgiveness and was prepared to pay for it." With that incentive, Wilson realized that he had studied "beehives, so shouldn't I be adding religious groups to my list?" An associate had studied chimpanzees, so he also was prepared to study religion. Lo and behold, "We were blessed by the Templeton Foundation."
Later, "the Templeton Foundation announced a new funding initiative involving "Cultural Evolution of Religions and God Concepts." Books emerged, and-since money talks at universities-"the number of academic journal articles on religion from an evolutionary perspective was also swelling." And Wilson announces toward the end of this book, "the Templeton Foundation has blessed me a third time" with funds that will allow him to examine beliefs "like so many species in an ecosystem."
Why stop at books and journal articles: Wilson asks, "What would it be like for evolutionary theory to be reflected in the entire culture of a university?" He describes "the campus-wide evolutionary studies program" he started at Binghamton University, where he is a professor and had an "epiphany about using evolutionary science to improve the quality of everyday life."
Those three books I've just mentioned total over 1,000 pages, but here's the good news: A playful but profound book by a Virginia historian, Nickell John Romjue, dispatches them in 83 beautifully written pages. I, Charles Darwin (Wheatmark, 2011) has Darwin returning to earth in 2009, at the apex of his cult, and reeling as he realizes that he got so much wrong. Instead of seeing proofs of "the tree of life," he reads of the Cambrian Explosion, with so many kinds of life all starting at the same time. The DNA revolution and the complexity of cells startle him.
Worst of all is his study of the 20th-century killing fields that grew out of the purportedly scientific dethronement of God. Romjue has Darwin weeping: "I am a founder, I am a destroyer."