A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

The Descent of Evolutionism: A Review of Lessl’s Rhetorical Darwinism

Review of Rhetorical Darwinism: Religion, Evolution, and the Scientific Identity by Thomas M. Lessl 2012; Baylor University Press

Ben Wetherbee, University of Louisville

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/rhetorical-darwinism (Published: June 4, 2015)

The title of Rhetorical Darwinism, Thomas M. Lessl’s 2012 entry in the Baylor University Press series on rhetoric and religion, is a heuristic pun—and one the author exploits deftly. On one hand, this phrase denotes a subject of analysis. Here, “rhetorical Darwinism” is synonymous with what the author terms “evolutionism,” the ostensible “spiritualization of scientific knowledge” toward a position of “absolute [scientific] authority” (xi-xii). Lessl traces a provocative history of scientific advocacy between Francis Bacon’s Enlightenment and the present, advancing toward a polemical terminus; today, he contends, evolutionism represents a rhetorically stifling insularity—“a scientific culture tempted by the interests of self-preservation to resist any meaningful conversation with the broader world of thought” (268). For decades, Lessl has researched this perceived rhetorical encroachment of science into nonscientific turf (see, for example, Lessl, “Gnostic Scientism,” “Intelligent Design,” and “Priestley”). Rhetorical Darwinism might be read as his capstone to a career-long project.

On the other hand, “rhetorical Darwinism” also denotes a theory and method. In his particularly insightful and lucid historical chapters, Lessl fuses the Darwinian notion of slow, incremental change with Northrop Frye’s theory of mythopoeic narrative displacement in order to describe both the gradual change of rhetorical forms and the preservation of vestigial religious “meanings” in the history of scientific discourse. By adapting evolution into a method of rhetorical analysis, Lessl ironically demonstrates its vast reach as an interpretive concept, even as he criticizes others who deploy evolution outside the exact boundaries of biological science.

This historical inquiry into scientific advocacy and mythopoeic form constitutes the bulk of Lessl’s study, which he bookends with two polemical chapters on the present state of evolutionism. The first frames the studey as a retrospective. Lessl begins with an analysis of “the thematic spiritualizing of science and its identification with natural evolution” (8), a popular trend that the author perceives in both twentieth-century science-fiction (The Outer Limits, 2001, and ET, among other examples) and among a host of popular science writers including Carl Sagan, E.O. Wilson, and Richard Dawkins. (A second edition would almost certainly include Neil deGrasse Tyson.) This chapter also introduces Lessl’s key theoretical conception of religion as an “identity between the creations of culture, the human nomos, and some reality or cosmos lying outside the human world” (4), which he borrows from sociologist Peter Berger. Lessl conjoins Berger’s nomos-cosmos pairing with Émile Durkheim’s definition of religion as “the system of symbols by which society becomes conscious of itself” (qtd. on 18) and anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s understanding of “religious symbolism as the ‘fusion’ of ‘ethos and world view’” (18) to create a vocabulary by which he can conveniently characterize evolutionism as essentially religious—the principle of evolutionary progress, the analogy goes, standing in for God Himself. Though Lessl (unlike a handful of other ill-advised rhetoricians) never oppugns Darwinian bioevolution itself, he does maintain that evolutionism is a problem—a scientific transgression into properly religious terrain with dire implications for public discourse and education.1 He then sets out to trace the historical origins of this problem.

Thus, Rhetorical Darwinism begins to chart an absorbing historical narrative around the key players of Bacon, philosopher Marquis de Condorcet, positivists Henri de Saint-Simone and August Comte, and “Darwin’s bulldog” Thomas Huxley. (Charles Darwin himself figures in only peripherally.) Lessl is at his analytic best in chapters 2 and 3, which outline Bacon’s appropriation of Protestant ideals for the defense of science during the early English Enlightenment. Lessl explains that Bacon successfully characterized science as a “second revelation” in order to “accentuate the specifically Protestant character of the new science": “If the Protestant slogan sola scriptura represented a kind of ‘received view’ in theology, the demand for an empiricist approach to natural philosophy was likely to have similar meaning for this movement” (53). Bacon’s great rhetorical accomplishment was to align natural science with the study of scripture—science summing to an empirical demonstration of God’s work, separate from but subservient to the sacred text. In chapter 3, Lessl turns to a close study of Bacon’s utopian narrative New Atlantis and its identification of Protestant scientism with historical progress. Here, the imagined community of Bensalem has effectively fused science and religion into an ideal society. This narrative “spoke historical truth, not because Christianity had ever produced a great scientific civilization, but because the truth of providence . . . showed that science was Christendom’s ordained destiny” (72).

Chapters 4 and 5 transition to the French Enlightenment, with an eye, first, toward how Condorcet—Voltaire’s protégé—folded Bacon’s “two books” conception of scripture and science into a single philosophical “book” of historical scientific progress. While Condorcet rejected religion, Lessl invokes Frye’s theory of displacement—here described as a “necessary relationship between dianoia (theme) and mythos (plot)” that endures even when “a secular narrative” coopts “a scared plot” (113)—to examine the French philosopher’s use of “sacred” rhetorical resources. Lessl identifies four sacred themes—providence, universalism, apocalypse, and periodization—that Condorcet’s defense of scientific progress inherits from Bacon and the larger Christian mythopoeic tradition. Chapter 5 then focuses on the Enlightenment positivism of Saint-Simon and Comte, a movement Lessl identifies as, “if not the immediate ancestor of evolutionism, at least its evolutionary cousin” (142). The positivists are necessary to Lessl’s tale because, as he puts it, “in positivism, scientism reached its completion. In order for the scientific life to become the only life, it was necessary that the whole text of history should be understood in scientific terms” (143). The “article of faith” that was the positivists’ notion of scientific progress, provides a connective strand through the history Lessl envisions (152)—though one might reasonably doubt how fully Saint-Simon and Comte’s vision translates into the present-day defense of science.

The historical narrative concludes with two chapters on nineteenth-century scientific advocate Thomas Huxley, who the author identifies as the prototype of twentieth-century figures like Sagan and Dawkins (168). While Huxley is often remembered as “Darwin’s bulldog”—that is, Darwin’s public polemicist—Lessl persuasively contends that his proper title might be “evolutionism’s bulldog,” as Huxley often disagreed with Darwin while recognizing the rhetorical importance of defending the author of The Origin of Species for the good of science’s public ethos (204-05). In a highly informative sixth chapter, which borders on biography, Lessl recounts Huxley’s personal struggle to invent the properly rhetorical defense of nineteenth-century science in England. Despite Huxley’s skepticism toward the French positivists, he reinvented the resources of positivism as agnosticism for his rhetorical ends, a title more appealing to his countrymen.2 In his final historical chapter, Lessl illustrates how Huxley sought to promote “a scientistic ideology that could align the ideals of science with the ideals of an emerging secular society”—in other words, “to collapse scientism into science itself” (199). Lessl moves gracefully here through a breadth of Huxley’s scientific and personal literature, but draws special attention to Man’s Place in Nature, an influential title in which, Lessl argues, Huxley effectively gestures toward the empirical basis of scientific study with one hand while gesturing toward “evolutionary myth” with the other (234-35). This analysis of Huxley’s book—which Lessl presents as a model for future evolutionist texts—is astute and fascinating, if occasionally ungenerous. Lessl strikes an oddly Platonist note, for example, in his characterization of Huxley’s appeals to science as a duplicitous “diversion that enables this magical rhetorician to pull meanings about love, creativity, and humanity’s higher place in nature from a scientistic hat” (235). The epistemic nature of rhetoric, I would counter, compels scientists along with everyone else to ground their work in such ideals.

Lessl’s analysis of Huxley is enlightening, sound, and acutely well written—as are all the author’s historical chapters. But I pause here to voice the first of two significant criticisms I find with Lessl’s overall argument once it segues from an evolutionary genealogy to a latter-day polemic. Specifically, I echo a point Leah Ceccarelli and Nancy Bixler have made about Lessl’s work previously: he seems to constantly risk letting the analogy between science and religion go awry (709-11). While, as Lessl ably demonstrates, evolutionist rhetoric inherits shared characteristics from religious discourse, and rhetoricians ought to examine those similarities, it is quite another thing to repeatedly suggest, as Lessl does, that evolutionism is a religion. Such a claim seems to conflate “religion” with “ideology” or “dogma,” to duck the exclusive roles of theism and scriptural moral codes in religion, and thus to risk alienating religious and scientific advocates alike.3 In other words, Lessl’s use of Berger, Durkheim, and Geertz, while provocative, sometimes reads as a bit too convenient. The same might be said not for Lessl’s use of Frye itself, but for the application of narrative displacement to the specific swath of history bridging Bacon’s England and the present. This is a handy sample of history for illustrating the thesis that evolutionism is religion, just as a truncated swath of evolutionary history might suggest too easily that humans are apes. A longer history of humans and our ancestors—be they lizards or fish or prokaryotes—weakens the ontology of such be-verbs (we clearly are not amoebas, even if we descend from them), just as a larger sample of rhetorical history, accounting, say, for pre-Christian mythology, might deter one from locating the “origin” of evolutionism in Bacon’s Protestant defense of science.4 I don’t mean to belittle the scope itself of Lessl’s project (it is laudably ambitious) but to highlight the constraints of his chosen history when projected polemically forward into the present.

In other words, one might question the reach of Lessl’s claim that religious “substance” is “impressed into the form narrative form” of evolutionism (82). Such formal “substance” will read rhetorically as “religious meaning,” as Lessl asserts it does (83), only insofar audiences infer religious connotations. Surely these connotations were relatively clear to Bacon’s Enlightenment readership, but fewer today will likely sense such sacred vestiges when perusing the works of Carl Sagan or E.O. Wilson. Lessl wishes to characterize evolutionism as inherently religious, though, in order to first erect a clear boundary between the proper domains of science and religion and then to highlight evolutionism’s transgression thereof. The book’s structure, as its final chapter flashes forward to present, compels Lessl to insist that scientists should adhere strictly to the biological fact as they “combat those who reject evolutionary science” (245), even after the author has persuasively demonstrated the necessity of linking nomos and cosmos in any quest for public patronage. This is the second flaw that, in my view, blemishes Lessl’s otherwise excellent study. The battle lines Rhetorical Darwinism finally draws, which conclude with an oddly careless misreading of Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett (266),5 sum to an uncomfortable finger-wag toward the scientific community, and a command to stay put.

I would not belabor the point except that, as Ceccarelli has argued, science in America today needs rhetorical patronage on fronts like evolutionary biology, climate change, and public vaccination (“Manufactured”). And the brunt of our rhetorical tradition, from Aristotle to Cicero to Perelman to Burke—and why not add Berger?—squarely asserts that “sticking to the facts” is a feeble way to inspire public enthusiasm for any cause. Thus, evolutionism, and other breeds of scientism, seem necessary, though they will largely be what we make of them. (In this sense, evolutionism certainly does resemble religion.) While Lessl is right to point out evolutionism’s potential for insularity and, in the cases of eugenics and laissez-faire capitalism, downright malevolence, there seems little reason why evolutionism cannot be both rhetorically effective and ethical, provided its “cosmic” message is one of humility and curiosity. This is the case, I would contend, among several of Lessl’s antagonists—notably Sagan and Dennett.

Finally, then, one might well find Lessl’s historical narrative persuasive and valuable while objecting rather strongly to its polemical conclusions. But even among Lessl’s detractors it will remain difficult to avoid superlatives in describing his rigorous, expansive historical work; readers of Rhetorical Darwinism, whatever their politics, will learn a great deal about the histories or science, religion, and rhetoric. It is worth noting, further, Lessl’s contributions to rhetorical theory—his application of Berger’s nomos-cosmos pairing and demonstration of how rhetorical forms evolve.6 For these accomplishments, I judge Rhetorical Darwinism enormously praiseworthy. I suspect religious and nonreligious readers alike will come away from Lessl’s book with complex feelings, even if their qualms are more tempered than my own. Lessl’s conclusions may bear scrutiny, but I would encourage any and all interested in the rhetorics of science and religion to read his book.

Works Cited

Burke, Kenneth. Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose. 3rd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1984. Print.

Campbell, John Angus, and Stephen C. Meyer, eds. Darwinism, Design, and Public Education. Lansing: Michigan State UP, 2003. Print.

Ceccarelli, Leah. “Manufactured Scientific Controversy: Science, Rhetoric, and Public Debate.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 14.2 (2011): 195-228. Print.

Ceccarelli, Leah and Nancy Bixler. “Losing Control of an Extended Analogy: Lessl’s Analysis of Gnostic Scientism.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.4 (2002): 709-17. Print.

Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995. Print.

Lessl, Thomas M. “Gnostic Scientism and the Prohibition of Questions.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 5.1 (2002): 133-57. Print.

---. “Intelligent Design: A Look at Some of the Relevant Literature.” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 1.4 (1998): 617-37. Print.

---. “The Priestley Voice.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 75.2 (1989): 183-97. Print.

  • 1. Lessl writes, “To challenge evolutionism (as I certainly do) is not to contend that evolution is pseudoscience (which is certainly not my position),” writes Lessl (xxiv). See, by contrast, contributions to Campbell and Meyer’s Darwinism, Design, and Public Education, wherein a host of rhetoricians and other non-scientists defend the legitimacy of intelligent design, often—bafflingly—by contesting the scientific claims of evolutionary biologists. Lessl does not appear in the volume, but he does voice moderate advocacy for intelligent design elsewhere (Lessl, “Intelligent Design”).
  • 2. Lessl writes, “If [positivist] facts filled a glass half full of knowledge, the label agnostic merely referenced its empty half. In this regard, Huxley might have just as easily called him position ‘negativism,’ but this even more obvious inversion would have drawn unwanted attention to the fundamental similarity of the two positions” (189). It’s a clever point, though agnostics might counter that their own emphasis on human ignorance represents a fundamental difference between the two positions.
  • 3. Lessl might have instead borrowed a page from Burke, who theorizes the term “piety” to reflect on the place of religious discourse in society at large. Burke, though, carefully avoids the ontological “is” when comparing large categories of discourse like the religious and scientific, maintaining a playful reflexivity whereby “vulgarity” might be seen as pious and evangelism as impious (77, 80-82).
  • 4. Interestingly, Lessl makes this same point: “To accentuate our ape connections is certainly scientifically meaningful, but it is also an interpretive choice, and one, I might add, that loses sight of the fact that the same premise of evolutionary descent also entails dissociation—that we are apes no longer” (157). Never, though, does Lessl appear to grapple with the full implications of dissociation in his own argument about the evolutionary descent of evolutionism.
  • 5. As Lessl tells it, Dennett foresees a future wherein anti-Darwinian “holdouts may need to be set apart in ‘zoos’ where they will be less likely to harm themselves and others” (266). In fact, Dennett argues for the free practice of religion provided those religions don’t transgress against other more fundamental human rights via “forced female circumcision,” the degradation of women, or the “deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world,” to use Dennett’s examples (Dennett 515-16). Cecceralli and Bixler similarly criticize Lessl for alleged misreadings of Carl Sagan and E.O. Wilson in his previous work.
  • 6. Among other things, Rhetorical Darwinism’s method suggests that rhetoricians might also seriously consider the import of other Darwinian models cultural transmission like memetics. Lessl, though, might resist comparison to meme-theory advocates, many of whom—like Dennett and Susan Blackmore—identify as universal Darwinists.