Published December 1, 1987
SIGNIFICANT CHANGES, INDEED. The Understatement-of-the-Year Award goes to James Le Moyne of the New York Times, whose analysis of the Central American presidents’ treaty included the following summary insight into Managua politics: “In essence the treaty guarantees political survival to the Sandinistas if they agree to stop running the country like a one-party socialist state. Since the Sandinistas have been a revolutionary party since their founding 25 years ago, such a change would be significant.”
THAT L. L. BEAN LOOK. Carl Sagan is a man of many talents. Carl Sagan is also intensely irritating when he ventures beyond his primary fields of expertise and vouchsafes us his opinions on matters theological and, latterly, geopolitical and strategic. In his most recent incarnation, Sagan has been a leading figure among those politicized scientists who, concurrently, made Olympic-class errors of mathematical calculation in attacking The Strategic Defense Initiative and in warning against “nuclear winter.”
Now comes Sagan the amateur Sovietologist, reviewing Loren Graham’s Science, Philosophy, and Human Behavior in the Soviet Union. Graham’s book explores the role of dialectical materialism in Soviet science, which brings us rather quickly to the case of the Trofim Lysenko, whose spurious and ideologically guided “studies” in genetics set that field back in the USSR for at least a generation. Since the death of his patron, Stalin, Lysenko and “Lysenkoism” have been code words in international science for the prostitution of scientific inquiry for political ends.
Carl Sagan has no brief for Lysenko, of course. But, being Carl Sagan, he is not content to leave the matter there. Perhaps Sagan thinks that a simple and straightforward critique of Lysenkoism would give Americans the wrong impression of the Soviet Union and make war more likely, or some such nonsense. In any event, recalling the Lysenko case becomes the occasion for—you guessed it, the famous Carl Sagan mirror-image. To wit:
“Americans tend to shake their heads in astonishment at the Soviet experience. The idea that some state-endorsed ideology of popular prejudice would hogtie scientific progress seems unthinkable. For 200 years Americans have prided themselves on being a practical, pragmatic, nonideological people. And yet anthropological and psychological pseudoscience flourished in the United States—on race, for example. A serious effort continues to be made to prevent evolutionary theory—the most powerful integrating idea in all of biology—from being taught in the schools. And the limited extent to which the open interaction of contending ideas is in fact permitted—never mind in the ideology, but even in the science policy—of the United States, as well as the Soviet Union, is striking.”
Forget the fact that “anthropological and psychological pseudoscience… on race” never “flourished” in the United States as a matter of state-supported ideology; forget the fact that the issue in the public schools is not whether any evolutionary theory at all is to be taught, but whether Darwinian or neo-Darwinian understandings of evolutionary history are to be given the status of a public orthodoxy; forget the fact that Carl Sagan was given huge amounts of time on public television to expound his view of the “contending ideas” in the history and future of science—forget all of that, suggests Dr. Sagan, and don’t think too ill of those poor Soviets. There are closet Lysenkos among us, too.
One wishes Carl Sagan a calmer new year, in which the burdens of prophecy lie just a tad more lightly on his shoulders.
VALLADARES TO GENEVA. Things should be brisk next year when the U.N. Human Rights Commission meets in Geneva: President Reagan has appointed Armando Valladares, the eloquent Cuban poet who spent twenty years in the Castro gulag, as U.S. Representative to the Commission.
KESTON NEWS SERVICE. Readers interested in tracking the struggle for religious liberty in communist countries might consider subscribing to the Keston News Service, the biweekly newsletter published by Keston-USA, an affiliate of Keston College in England. Keston College is a research center founded and led by the estimable Father Michael Bourdeaux, winner of the Templeton Prize and an unimpeachably accurate source of information on the persecuted Church. Information on the Keston News Service can be obtained from Keston-USA at P.O. Box 1310, Framingham, MA 01701.
PEACE AND FREEDOM REPUBLISHED. Finally, a small advertisement: your editor’s Peace and Freedom: Christian Faith, Democracy, and the Problem of War has been re-issued in a new edition by the Institute on Religion and Democracy. This small book is, if we do say so ourselves, a useful primer for adult education programs and discussion groups in local churches and features a new preface on the state-of-the-war/peace-debate in American Christianity since 1982, when Peace and Freedom first appeared. Copies are available by writing IRD at 729 15th St. N.W., Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005, or by calling (202) 393-3200.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.