The world exists, as I understand it, to teach the science of liberty.
—RALPH WALDO EMERSON
Science and democracy are based on the rejection of dogmatism.
One can live by dogma or by discovery. Dogmas (from the Greek for received opinions that “seem good”) may seek to unify people (as is the implied intent of religious dogma, religio being Latin for “binding together”) but insofar as a dogma must be taken on faith it winds up bifurcating humanity into a faithful us and a suspect other. Scientific discovery might have divided the world, but instead has found that all human beings are kin—to one another and to all other living things—in a universe where stars and starfish alike obey the same physical laws. So as humans move from dogma toward discovery, we increasingly find ourselves inhabiting one world.
This development raises the prospect that as the influence of science grows, people may overcome old prejudices and parochialisms and treat one another more liberally. To an extent this is already happening—the world today is more scientific and more liberal, better informed and less violent, than it was three centuries ago—but with such prospects have also come problems. Religious and political dogmatists react against science and liberalism with everything from denial and attempted suppression (of, for instance, the teaching of biological evolution) to terrorism. The liberal democracies have too often responded to such threats with insecurity rather than strength, reverting in times of trouble to illiberal practices little better than those of their adversaries. Meanwhile scientific findings challenge everybody’s received opinions, while the growth of technology creates conundrums—with global warming currently at the top of the heap—that unless competently addressed threaten to reverse much of the progress our species has so recently made.
Dogmatists like to portray science as just another dogma—to the brazen all is brass—but science is a method, not a faith, and the unity of the universe was discovered by scientists who set out to demonstrate no such thing. When Newton identified the laws of gravitation he did not assert that they held sway everywhere, but wondered whether “God is able…to vary the laws of nature…in several parts of the universe.” The physicist Ernest Rutherford, whose experiments exposed the structure of the atom, was so skeptical about drawing grand implications that he threatened to bar from his laboratory any scientist who so much as uttered the word “universe.” When the astronomer Edwin Hubble established that the Milky Way was one among many galaxies, he called them “island universes” and questioned whether “the principle of the uniformity of nature” pertained across such enormous distances. This is the opposite of starting with a deeply held faith and accumulating evidence to support it. Scientists have a story of discovery to tell, dogmatists a story of obedience to authority.
The scientific discovery that everything—and everybody—is interwoven with everything else was a boon for liberalism, which took a unified view of humanity before such a stance could be justified empirically. When John Locke argued for human equality under the law, women were still considered unfit to vote and Europeans thought of their black and brown brothers as the benighted descendants of the biblically accursed Ham. The liberal claim that people ought to have equal rights was a theory, vulnerable to test by experiment and properly to be judged by the results. The experiment having since succeeded, while science determined that all human beings belong to the same species, we can now understand that we’re all us; there is no other.
Darwin’s discovery that biological evolution functions through random mutation and natural selection revealed the common ancestry of all human beings, but it did so at the cost of exposing the unsettling fact that we are here by virtue of chance. Genes mutate randomly, DNA/RNA copying errors altering the genetic inheritance of every organism. Changes in the environment—which are themselves random, to a first approximation—can alter circumstances in such a way that previously marginal mutants are better able to survive and reproduce than are those superlatively adapted to the prior order. The environmental changes involved may be as slow as the parting of continents or as sudden as an asteroid impact, but they never cease: Stasis is an illusion. Homo sapiens did not emerge because they were superior to other animals, but because their ancestors happened to be in the right place at the right time. This rather stark finding is difficult for humans to absorb; hence we are apt to regard ourselves as distinctly different from the other animals, and to imagine that we are here for a special purpose. To entertain this illusion is to approach biology the wrong way round.
The cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, offers a thought experiment to illuminate just how unaccustomed human beings are to thinking in Darwinian terms. In his scenario, you meet a gambler who claims that he can produce a man who, in your presence, will win ten consecutive coin tosses. You take the bet, knowing that the odds against anyone’s winning ten straight coin tosses are 1,024 to 1. The gambler shows up in the morning accompanied by 1,024 men, who proceed to toss coins. At the end of the first round, half the men have lost. The same happens on the ensuing rounds, until only two men remain for the tenth and final round, the winner of which has indeed won ten straight coin tosses. He wasn’t personally destined to win, any more than any given tennis player is destined to win next year’s Wimbledon singles title, but somebody had to win, and it just happened to be him. “If the winner of the [coin-tossing] tournament thinks there has to be an explanation of why he won, he is mistaken,” Dennett notes. “There is no reason at all why he won, there is only a very good reason why somebody won.”
So to wonder, “Why am I here?” is to ask the wrong question. Nothing requires that you or I exist, or that the human species exists; it’s just that so long as there is life on Earth some creatures will exist, and you and I happen, at present, to be among them. I may imagine that my existence is magically full of hidden meanings—just as amateur gamblers think they perceive patterns in the wholly random behavior of roulette wheels—but the silent majority of species that once thrived and are now gone would take a decidedly different view of the matter, were they around to be interviewed about it. Evolution reveals that humans got here the way everything else got here, through a long historical process of accident and selection.
This discovery offends secular as well as religious dogmatists.
Leftists have opposed evolution out of fear that genetics might reveal human beings to be other than John Locke’s blank slates, whose faults were entirely attributable to their social milieu and who could, therefore, be redeemed entirely through political reforms. Many believed, as had Rousseau, that “Man is naturally good, and only by institutions is he made bad.” Progressive constructs like behavioral psychology and the Standard Social Science Model (“Instincts do not create customs; customs create instincts…. The putative instincts of human beings are always learned and never native”) were based on a genetics-free environmental determinism—a belief that, as the anthropologist Margaret Mead put it, “Human nature is almost unbelievably malleable.” The young Charles Darwin, while sailing round the world aboard the scientific research vessel Beagle, wrote in his notebook, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” Mead and many other progressives feared that Darwin was right, and made extravagant assertions to the contrary. “Give me a dozen healthy infants,” claimed the psychologist Jon Watson, “and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any kind of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, merchant chief…regardless of his talents.” In studying the black and brown peoples of America and the South Pacific, Darwin, a steadfast abolitionist, was struck by “how similar their minds were to ours” and by “the close similarity between the men of all races in taste, dispositions and habits.” Yet many progressives rejected whole swathes of his work rather than question their dogmatic belief that human behavior must be determined entirely by societal circumstances.
Rightists have depicted Darwinism as the engine driving socialistic efforts to engineer the human gene pool. In this narrative, the publication of Darwin’s books in the latter half of the nineteenth century was soon followed by an upwelling of public enthusiasm for eugenics—the political commandeering of biological selection to attain political ends—that reached its apotheosis in the Nazi death camps and sterilization campaigns. This view of history is, while odd, far from fanciful; many early Darwinists did favor eugenics. In England, the science-fiction writer H. G. Wells, a prominent socialist, called for “the sterilization of failures” to bring about “an improvement of the human stock,” while cheerfully proposing that state breeding methods be used reduce the world’s “swarms of black and brown, and dirty-white and yellow people.” His compatriot George Bernard Shaw argued that “the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man.” John Maynard Keynes, who served on the board of the British Eugenics Society, called eugenics “the most important, significant and, I would add, genuine branch of sociology.” In America, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes maintained that by ruling in favor of “sterilizing imbeciles…I was getting near the first principle of real reform” (his italics) while the New Jersey governor and future president Woodrow Wilson created a state board to determine whether “procreation is inadvisable” for the “feebleminded, epileptics, and other defectives,” including criminals and those living in poor-houses. Conservatives sensitive to this sad chapter in history may perhaps be forgiven for confusing Darwinian-sounding leftist dogma with evolutionary science, although their stance is more difficult to justify now that eugenics has been driven from the political arena.
Religious rather than secular convictions, however, motivate most of those Americans who reject evolution. Among the liberal democracies such staunch religious dogmatism is almost exclusively an American phenomenon. (The reason, economists theorize, is that innovative new churches found fresh parishioners in free-market America while European churches stayed put and lost their market share. If so, Christian fundamentalism is a product of what might be called social Darwinism.) In the United States, however, this latest spiritual awakening has been sufficiently influential that nearly a third of American teachers say they feel pressured to omit evolution from their lessons, or to mix in nonscientific concoctions such as creationism or intelligent design theory, while even science museums shy away from presenting films and exhibits about evolution.
The religious dogmatists who campaign against Darwin’s theory of evolution seem to think that it involves little beyond the relatively narrow question of human origins—but its implications are much broader than that. In addition to being the only way to make sense of biology, evolution sheds light on phenomena ranging from universal behavior patterns (altruism, selfishness, “dad or cad” mating strategies) to the arts, where greatness equals universality (the Tokyo String Quartet playing Beethoven, Shakespeare performed in French) and so may harbor clues to our common evolutionary heritage. “If one reads accounts of the systematic nonintrusive observations of troops of bonobo,” writes the novelist Ian McEwan, “one sees rehearsed all the major themes of the English nineteenth-century novel: alliances made and broken, individuals rising while others fall, plots hatched, revenge, gratitude, injured pride, successful and unsuccessful courtship, bereavement and mourning.” Thinking itself may be evolution in action. According to the theory of neural Darwinism, the brain works by generating myriads of neuron patterns that jockey for preeminence, with the survivors mapping themselves onto cortical tissue in a contentious dynamic that works much like competition within and among biological species. The American neurobiologist Gerald Edelman, who originated the theory, maintains that “the key principle governing brain organization is a populational one and that in its operation the brain is a selective system” involving “hundreds of thousands of strongly interconnected neurons.” Neuron groups that prevail are able to maintain and enlarge their territory. As Edelman puts it, “There is a kind of neuroecology occurring at several complex levels of development and behavior…. In certain respects, groups within a region [of brain tissue] resemble a species subdivided into many races, each interacting mainly within itself, but occasionally cross-breeding.” Neural Darwinism may explain, among other things, why the human brain is able to compose music and do physics even though these activities do not seem to have been historically essential to human survival. If the brain functions in an evolutionary way, it has to be big, because most of its activities—thoughts, prethoughts, and unconscious impulses—amount to experiments, most of which are selected against. It may seem strange to think of evolution as taking place in the brain at lightning speed, but electrochemistry moves at the speed of thought, as thinking itself constantly demonstrates.
Dogmatism has been losing ground in the liberal-scientific world—even in the United States, where the ranks of the religiously devout are in general decline despite a fundamentalist resurgence. Meanwhile, though, religious and political extremism is on the rise in parts of the Middle East and the wider Muslim world, reaching a reduction to absurdity in the campaigns of Islamist terrorists. (The word Islamist designates Muslim extremists inclined toward violence. It came into general use with the 1979 hostage takings at the U.S. embassy in Iran. It relates to Islam in somewhat the way that communist relates to commune.) Islamism remains a minority dogma, with surveys indicating that Muslims generally support democracy and human rights while rejecting terrorism and theocracy, but terrorism always draws vastly more attention than its support merits; that’s the point of it.
Following the 9/11 attacks, Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” and wondered whether Islam itself was to any extent responsible for Isla-mist terrorism. Many articles and books explored this question but mostly followed predictable political precepts. The left proclaimed Islam and Islamism to be almost equally innocent, and blamed terrorism on the evils of an allegedly neocolonialist West. The right often lumped Islam and Islamism together on one side of a “clash of civilizations”—the title of a widely read 1993 Foreign Affairs essay by the historian Samuel Huntington that also contributed the only marginally more illuminating claim, “Islam has bloody borders.” From a liberal perspective, however, it is clear that Islam has little to do with Islamism—which is better understood as just one more totalitarian political dogma. All such dogmas justify present sins as the price to be paid to attain a future perfection. For communists, the wished-for state was Rousseau’s heaven on earth, where nobody could own anything or evince anything short of complete faith in the government. For the Nazis it was a Wagnerian opera, with blond Nordic heroes playing all the leading roles. For Islamists it is the “Caliphate,” their term for the domain carved out circa 632–750, when Islamic rule expanded from Arabia to Spain in the west and Afghanistan in the east—an epoch to which the Islamists would have all Muslims repair.
That regime was less an empire than a collection of loosely allied caliphates (from khalifa, meaning “descendant of Muhammed”), but it displayed the attitudes characteristic of empires: It cherished the heroic narrative of its own establishment, took pride in its considerable artistic and intellectual attainments, and regarded the outside world with complacent indifference.
Its establishment narrative was one of extraordinarily rapid military victories achieved from the very dawn of Islam. The prophet Muhammad began dictating his revelations in the year 610, when he was about forty years of age, and continued until three years prior to his death in 632. His words were subsequently collected as the Quran (“recitation”), a standardized edition of which appeared in 653. The Quran contains advice on almost every aspect of life, bound together by a call to return to traditional Arab values and to spread them across the known world—and spread they did, with remarkable alacrity. By 661, just one generation after Muhammad’s demise, four major caliphates had extended the reach of Islam (“submission”) from Persia to Egypt. By 750, Islam ruled Spain and had driven deep into the Byzantine Empire, where the tide turned when the Muslim forces—beset by Greek Fire, an early form of napalm—failed to conquer Constantinople (today’s Istanbul, which in 1453 would be conquered by the Turks and become central to the Ottoman Empire). Artistically and intellectually, the Islamic world could boast of exquisite architecture, mosaics, poetry, and calligraphy; significant contributions to mathematics (algebra is an Arabic word for an Arabic invention), and astronomy (many bright stars, such as Algol, Altair, and Rigel, bear Arabic names); plus libraries housing the Greek and Latin classics that would incite the European Renaissance. Though imposed by force, early Muslim rule was fairly liberal by the standards of its day. The caliphs generally paid respect to the teachings of Moses and Jesus, tolerated the religious observances of non-Muslims living under their governance, and accepted a degree of emancipation of women (whose veiling and sequestering was neither practiced nor advocated by Muhammad), although conservative Muslims maintained that a woman should leave home on only three occasions—when she took up residence with her bridegroom, attended to the death of her parents, and when her body was carried to the cemetery.
The caliphs were intrigued by the arts and crafts of the Far East that came through on the Silk Road, but paid scant attention to the rise of science and liberalism in a relatively primitive Europe. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, he might almost have come from Mars. The historian Abd al-Rahman al-Jabarti, who was living in Cairo at the time, noted wonderingly that should a Muslim such as himself approach the scholars on Napoleon’s staff and display a desire for knowledge, “They showed their friendship and love for him, and they would bring out all kinds of pictures and maps, and animals and birds and plants…. I went to them often, and they showed me that.” The European scientific revolution, notes Bernard Lewis, “passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam, where they were still inclined to dismiss the denizens of the lands beyond the Western frontier as benighted barbarians…. It was a judgment that had for long been reasonably accurate. It was becoming dangerously out of date.” By the time Sadik Rifat Pasha, the Ottoman ambassador to Vienna in 1837, warned that the Europeans were flourishing thanks to a combination of science, technology, and “the necessary rights of freedom,” it was already too late. Western ships ruled the seas; British forces were extending their power inland from the coasts of India; and the U.S. Navy, having been created expressly for this purpose, had curtailed the plundering of American merchant ships and the hostage taking of their passengers by North African pirates hailing from what the Americans called the Barbary Coast. By 1920 Arabia was encircled by the British Empire—while the Ottoman Empire, having sided with Germany in World War I, had seen its lands divided between Britain and France.
The technological exploitation of Arabian oil made matters worse. When the American explorer Joel Roberts Poinsett (who discovered the flower that bears his name) spotted a pool of petroleum in Persia in 1806 and speculated that it might someday prove useful as a fuel, nobody yet knew what to do with it. By the middle of the twentieth century a thirst for oil had drawn the Western powers ever more deeply into the Middle East. The states possessing large oil reserves—Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and to a lesser extent Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—were transformed from an assortment of small fishing, herding, and trading villages into economically more vertical societies where the few who controlled the oil became rich and the rest stayed poor. Such inequities were offensive to Islam—which, like Christianity, had originated as a religion centered on the poor and devoted to social justice—but the attempts of Muslim leaders to redress them by resorting to wealth redistribution through state socialism failed.
Most Muslim intellectuals accommodated the incursions of the West by adopting what they found to be useful in Western thought and otherwise sticking to their own traditions. This was the approach taken by moderate nineteenth-century thinkers like the journalist and educator Muhammad Abdu, who maintained that science and democracy could strengthen Islamic societies, and Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who, finding no contradiction between science and Islam, established a school where Muslims could study science. But a minority reacted by reverting to political extremism.
The more retrograde among these extremists drew inspiration from the eighteenth-century fundamentalist Abdul Wahhab, who shrugged off a thousand years of scholarship to claim that the literal words of the Quran should govern political procedures and judicial values. (He had a particular enthusiasm for punishing women convicted of adultery by stoning them to death.) Assailed by many of his fellow Muslims, Wahhab came under the protection of a local chieftain, Muhammad ibn Saud, who in 1744 founded Saudi Arabia—today a police state that has spent nearly one hundred billion dollars indoctrinating students around the world in Wahhab’s intolerant doctrines.
The progressives among the modern Islamic radicals, eager to find the wellsprings of Western power, tapped into the Parisian intellectual currents of the 1920s and 1930s—and there, seeking dreams, reaped nightmares. Their desire for social justice (Muslims fast during Ramadan to stay mindful of the poor) resonated with communism. Their hopes of regaining the lost glories of the Caliphate drew them to fascism. Their thirst for philosophical verities attracted them to the pretentions of Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Hegel. Thus inspired, they set up Islamist organizations like the Young Egypt Society, the Arab Socialist Baath Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood. The members of Young Egypt called themselves Greenshirts, in emulation of the Nazi Brownshirts. The Baath Party—“We were racist,” recalled Sami al-Jundi, one of its early leaders, “admiring Nazism, reading its books and the source of its thought, particularly Nietzsche”—empowered Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi ruler who modeled his career on Stalin’s and murdered a quarter-million Iraqis. The Muslim Brotherhood spawned Hamas and Al-Qaeda. Its resident ideologue was Sayyid Qutb.
Born in 1906 in the northern Egyptian village of Musha, Qutb attended a provincial school, memorized the Quran, then studied education at Cairo University. He emerged as a young intellectual of the middling sort—hanging around after graduation to teach a few classes, writing novels that nobody read, and spouting quotations from Hegel, Heidegger, and the French eugenicist and Nazi sympathizer Alexis Carrel. By the late forties Qutb’s views had become sufficiently irritating that the government shipped him off to the United States, where he took graduate courses in education and found little that met with his approval. American men, he wrote in his journal, were “primitive” though “armed with science” the women in their tight-fitting sweaters were “live, screaming temptations” and everyone was enamored of jazz, the “music that the savage bushmen created to satisfy their primitive desires.” A dogmatic dualist, Qutb saw the world as divided between a perfect but as yet unrealized Islamist law and a scientific, technological culture that was materially powerful but devoid of “human values.” The Caliphate had long ago done wonderful things like clothing naked Africans and delivering them “out of the narrow circles of tribe and clan [and] the worship of pagan gods into the worship of the Creator of the worlds.” (“If this is not civilization, than what is it?”) The West, in contrast, was preoccupied with science, which can discover “only what is apparent,” makes overweening claims (“Darwinist biology goes beyond the scope of its observations…only for the sake of expressing an opinion”), and anyway was already in decline: “The resurgence of science has…come to an end,” Qutb asserted, because science “does not possess a reviving spirit.” To thinkers of this stripe, the world is a nightmare from which humankind shall awaken only once the wished-for dogmas gain control.
On returning home Qutb became an advisor to Gamal Abdel Nasser, a former member of the fascist Young Egypt Society who had switched to a Stalinist-style pan-Arabism, becoming a Hero of the Soviet Union and winning the Order of Lenin. When Nasser shrank from subjecting Egypt to outright sharia, or Islamic religious law, members of the Muslim Brotherhood tried to assassinate him. Qutb’s younger brother Muhammad escaped the ensuing government crackdown by fleeing to Saudi Arabia, where he became a professor of Islamic Studies. (One of his students was the wealthy and indolent, later to become austere and fanatically dedicated, Osama bin Laden, who went on to underwrite the 9/11 attacks, denounce freedom and human rights as “a mockery,” and declare it Muslims’ religious duty to murder millions of Americans.) Sayyid Qutb remained in Egypt. He was jailed and tortured but nonetheless managed to write dozens of books before being hanged in prison in 1966, at age sixty-one, on charges of advocating the violent overthrow of the government. The Quran forbids Muslims from attempting to depose any Muslim ruler, but Qutb got around this prohibition by claiming that a “society whose legislation does not rest on divine law…is not Muslim, however ardently its individuals may proclaim themselves Muslim.”
Islamism thus resuscitates the totalitarian enthusiasms that nearly wrecked Europe. As a recent study puts it, “The line from the guillotine and the Cheka to the suicide bomber is clear.” Nor were the shocks of 9/11 required for Americans to see that bright line. As early as 1954, the historian Bernard Lewis noted “certain uncomfortable resemblances” between communism and Islamism:
Both groups profess a totalitarian doctrine, with complete and final answers to all questions on heaven and earth…. Both groups offer to their members and followers the agreeable sensation of belonging to a community of believers, who are always right, as against an outer world of unbelievers, who are always wrong…. The humorist who summed up the communist creed as “There is no God and Karl Marx is his Prophet,” was laying his finger on a real affinity. The call to a communist Jihad, a Holy War for the faith—a new faith, but against the self-same Western Christian enemy—might well strike a responsive note.