Barfield Reconsidered (by accident)
We’re pleasantly snowed in today, and during my morning coffee and reading, a footnote led me off to my attic bookcases and Owen Barfield. I was thumbing through The Rediscovery of Meaning, Barfield’s 1977 collection of essays, and landed on “The Coming Trauma of Materialism.”
Barfield was an eloquent opponent of reductionism and its effects on society. I had not read him in years however, and about halfway through this essay I stopped short at this pothole:
But it is a long step from an eccentric professor’s study with the doors shut to the popular cheap edition of the Origin of Species. Is the surface quite so solid as it looks through the media? According to the Los Angeles Times in October last, an Indiana professor of anthropology criticized his colleagues sharply for declaring “as a fact” that man descended from apelike creatures and suggested that they did so “for fear of not being declared serious scholars or of being rejected from serious academic circles.” George MacBeth’s Darwin Retried (1971), which is not the only radical critique in the English language published in the last two or three years, consists almost entirely of the quoted utterances of contemporary biologists ranging from Sir Julian Huxley (on television): “The first point to make about Darwin’s theory is that it is no longer a theory but a fact” to Professor Ernst Mayr of Harvard: “The basic theory is in many instances hardly more than a postulate.” Divergence of opinion on subsidiary details is not less striking; and the book leaves one with a startling impression of head-on conflicts of opinion and a state of general disarray in the citadel, which do not suggest that the garrison is particularly well-equipped to withstand a daylight assault from pure reason.
This paragraph could’ve been written last week by almost any one of the flaks at several conservative think tanks or journals. Rhetorical juice spectacularly innocent of any acquaintance with scientific facts.
I don’t mind saying this has depressed me, for it’s evident that Barfield as much as anyone else who was a conservative in the 1970s, was taken in by the romantic notion that Darwin’s theory was really a house of cards about to collapse.
Note by the way that Darwin Retried was written by a lawyer (Norman MacBeth, not George), and if you look at the table of contents, it bears more than a passing resemblance to another lawyer’s more recent vaunted tome, Darwin on Trial. Happily, the former is out of print.
Note what else has not changed in 30 years:
1. The assumption that scientific academia is a garrison of correct thought. (i.e. what’s true in English departments must also therefore be true of science departments.) 2. That the suggestion of differing viewpoints in science is punishable by banishment. And that 3. Darwin’s theory doesn’t have a leg to stand on, based on selective quotes from aged specialists taken out of context.
One expects this kind of depressing swill from murmurantes like Bethell and Gilder. (I couldn’t resist that one, I’ve also just rediscovered one of St. Thomas’s gems: “There is no contradiction in affirming that a thing was created and also that it was never non-existent” from De aeternitate mundi contra murmurantes. You gotta love St. Thomas: “Hey you. Yeah, you, murmurante, what the hell are you talking about?”) But still, it was disheartening to rediscover it in Barfield of all people. It makes me question now how seriously I should read him on the other subjects.
That now, 30 years later, amongst an increasingly aged and ossified ‘thinking class’ of conservatives in institutes and at journals, the same unexamined rhetoric is routinely regurgitated is not a matter for inspiration.
And then they wonder why most college students majoring in science are liberal?