Normalcy As Terror: The Naturalization of AIDS

Stephen Jay Gould’s essay in the New York Times Magazine of April 19 is normal in the sense that it runs to about the same length as most of his widely read notes on evolution. Gould displays his mastery of saying an awful lot in a short space, in this case a single “magazine” page of about 2000 words. No less remarkable is the space — again a full page — accorded to the essay’s title: “The Terrifying Normalcy of AIDS.” Any word bracketed between a noun that strikes terror and an adjective which is meant to terrify can only frighten. The word, normalcy, which in itself would dispel the specter of terror, in this company can only conjure up terror all the more terrifying.

The subtle artistry of saying something by not explicitly saying it characterizes the essay. Probably few readers will notice that in the article itself normalcy and normal are replaced by natural and nature. AIDS, according to Gould “must be viewed as a virulent expression of an ordinary natural phenomenon.” Again, Gould says, “Yes, AIDS is a natural phenomenon.” It is but a disease, and epidemic or pandemic as it may be, “it is a natural phenomenon, part of human history from the beginning.” Finally he says, “AIDS is not irregular. It is part of nature.”

Such may be the detached clinician’s approach to the sickly body. Doctors must control their emotions or else they will be quickly spent emotionally and lose much of their professional usefulness. Gould does not wax emotional as he notes the frightening vastness of the patient, potentially the entire human population. He estimates that the total number of eventual victims may run as high as “a full quarter or more of us.” He leaves it to the reader to come up with the corresponding figure of a billion or so humans — as many as the entire population of China, or more people than live in Europe and North America taken together. He does not fail, however, to compare the havoc that AIDS may play to the danger posed by nuclear weaponry.

If calm reasoning is the proper way to face a threat, dispassionate appraisal is certainly in order in facing up to what Gould calls “the potentially greatest natural tragedy in human history.” Gould does not use the expression “disppassionate appraisal” but he seems to have it in mind as he counsels a middle stance between two extremes. One is complacency in the expectation that medicine, technology, and science will soon deliver the magic vaccine and antibiotics. The other is panic, which he sees as the source of the search “for a scapegoat for something so irregular that it must have been visited upon us to teach us a moral lesson.”

Morality is the bete noire in Gould’s world where AIDS is purely natural. Yet the stance counseled by him includes more than dispassionate appraisal of deadly symptoms. “AIDS is not irregular,” he writes. “It is part of nature, and so are we — it should galvanize us and give us hope.” Hope is something even healthy men can never have enough of. Indeed the old fashioned moral reaction to misuses of sex, a reaction Gould clearly sees as reactionary in the extreme, was always meant to elicit hope. That traditional morality, always synonymous with religion, implied that there is on hand Redemption, writ large, for misuses insofar as they are sin.

Sin, of course, cannot be part of that genuinely Darwinian perspective for which Gould has established himself as a spokesman, joining a memorable series that began with T.H. Huxley, Darwin’s erstwhile “bulldog.” Richard Dawkins of Selfish Game and Blind Watchmaker fame still has to prove himself to be as consummate a stylist as Gould who is certainly much more readable than Julian Huxley, the high priest of Darwinism a generation ago. None of these spokesmen had any use for the notion or reality of sin, and rightly so. Sin is too blatantly a spiritual entity to have place in the radical materialism which Darwin, throughout his scientific career, meant to promote by his evolutionary theory. All doubt on that score has been made unscholarly by the full publication in the early 1970s of Darwin’s notebooks from 1837-39.

Hope, however, is apparently the kind of spiritual commodity Darwinian materialism allows its champions without making them blush. This may seem plausible if Darwinian materialism is raised a bit above its ugly low level and hope is lowered somewhat to the low level of mere sentimentalism. This is what Gould does when he refers to our being “galvanized.” He clearly cannot live with that strictly logical response which, even as he mentions it, he characterizes as “the worst of all responses: a kind of new-age negativism that equates natural with what we must accept and cannot, or even should not change.”

Most readers of Gould might not stop even for a moment to try to find out what he means by that new-age negativism. The flower children? The rock generation? Yuppies? Mother Teresa? John Paul II? Would it not have been more in keeping with genuine Darwinist lore to come clean and admit that it is the Darwinists who must accept everything and who cannot change anything in this natural state above which no one can rise? Nor can anyone sink below it because that natural state is the lowest state precisely by being the only state — in the Darwinian perspective.

That perspective is not the perspective of an evolution with a long history- -cosmic and biological- -measured respectively in 16 and 3 billion years. It is not the perspective of the instrumentality of one species in the rise of another. Both these perspectives this writer fully endorses, mindful also of T.H. Huxley’s admission, made in 1864, or five years after the publication of The Origin of Species, that our knowledge of evolution is a great metaphysical vision.

The perspective is rather one of ironclad materialism, of a blind and ruthless competition with no quarter given between full equals such as rodents, rhesus monkeys, cave painters in Lascaux and astronauts in lunar orbiters. (This is just a side allusion to Dawkins’ sneer at the Christianity-inspired superiority of one species over all others). It is the perspective of Darwin who preferred to speculate on the mind of a dog rather than on that of a genius like Newton. It is the perspective of Darwin who felt elated over the victory of Czarist Russia over Ottoman Turkey as a victory of a higher over a lower race. It is the perspective which Marx, as a champion of remorseless class struggle, recognized as his own when he spotted it in The Origin of Species. It is the perspective eagerly adopted by gurus on the General Staff of the Second Reich when they pushed the Western World toward its first major twentieth-century graveyard. It is the perspective espoused by the author of Mein Kampf which prepared the mass graves of almost thirty million. It is also the perspective of such Anglo-Saxon opponents of Hitler who let themselves be lulled by the slow evolutionary process and would not be awakened to Churchill’s thundering. Some of them simply glorified war, as did Sir Arthur Keith, a chief Darwinist biologist of the 1930s, though not to the extent of getting ready for it. It is on their perspective that Churchill laid a share of the moral responsibility for the terrors and devastations of World War II.

It is the perspective which Darwin was careful to conceal from his deeply religious wife. It is the perspective which Darwin explicitly camouflaged only once, in the conclusion of the first edition of The Origin, where he spoke of the “grandeur of this view” as a witness to a Creator, a phrase he expunged from subsequent editions as a cowardly catering to Victorian religiosity. It is the perspective which the self- anointed gurus of Darwinism usually prefer not to spell out bluntly. It is the perspective of that hapless contradictory predicament which Whitehead spoofed half a century ago: “Those who devote themselves to the purpose of proving that there is no purpose constitute an interesting subject for study.”

That Darwinists cannot submerge themselves completely in a purposeless nature only proves that they as human beings are far more than mere Nature. Indeed, the chief proof of the reality of the supra- natural and therefore genuinely human is that man cannot become sheer nature. He not only can have science about nature but also a moral conscience about his own nature. The remorse of that conscience cannot be exorcised even from the most hardened criminals by Darwinist theories of their criminality.

But since arguing about conscience is nowadays an invitation to get bogged down in the naturalism of sociologism, psychologism, structuralism, processism, let us take a clue from logic that still can turn the tables on naturalist fallacies. Or to recall an almost century -old phrase of the great French mathematician Henri Poincare: “C’est librement qu’on est deterministe.”

Even Darwinists endorse purpose by preaching purposelessness. Even Darwinists feel free as they push determinism (be it called chance or necessity or both). Even Darwinists are rising above their own intellectual lowlands when they invariably sin against the precept laid down by Darwin himself: “Never say higher or lower.” Much of what Darwin wrote and Darwinists are still writing is a sin against that precept. Being not only Darwinists but also human beings, they irresistibly gravitate upward as they celebrate the art of universal leveling. Fifty years ago that art was widely spoken of as Gleichschaltung.

The essence of Gleichschaltung is unwittingly but masterfully captured in Gould’s concluding phrase: “There is no message, but there is a mechanism.” McLuhan of “medium is the message” fame might well muse, as he could rightly do because he believed in the muses who provided the name for museums, including Natural History Museums where, thanks to the craftiness of Darwinist curators such items as notoriously missing links, huge gaps in the fossil record, and monumental somersaults in logic are camouflaged in such away as to suggest that man’s musing or communing with the muses is the normal extension of the grunts of gorillas.

Such is the most terrifying aspect of Darwinist normalcy. Within its framework only scorn can be poured on mind as well as morality, a scorn generously dispensed by Gould in good Darwinist style. Not surprisingly, his salvo becomes a boomerang. Are not Darwinists those experts who paid no attention to the mathematical evaluation of the early data on the spread of AIDS, data suggesting geometrical growth? Is it their “moralistic misperceptions” or “moral stupidity” Gould blames, or does he mean the non-Darwinists?

We may never know. Of course, even believers will know with complete certainty only in heaven or hell whether AIDS is indeed “a diabolical plague with a moral meaning.” Only there will we know the exact extent to which monumental efforts to make homosexuality appear “normal” have been motivated by fear of blackmail. Only there will appear in its true light the rush to exculpate the homosexual establishment — which has made deep inroads among academics, journalists, publishers, editors, businessmen, politicians, and clergymen — of any responsibility in the rise of AIDS. The latter becomes normalcy in Gould’s perspective owing to its recent spread also in the heterosexual community.

But already on this very earth there is plenty of evidence that whatever “the power and lability [aptitude to fall] of human sexuality,” many have been able to display self-control over that often frightful power. Gould admits this but not with sufficient realism. He speaks of the possibility of slowing the spread of AIDS “if we can make rapid and fundamental changes in our handling of that most powerful part of human biology — our own sexuality.” No change, let alone fundamental change, will be forthcoming as long as Darwinists continue to define the cultural atmosphere by their preachment that man is only biology and all human acts are equally natural. Those who take man for something more than a biological unit do not expect any “rapid and fundamental” change. For they know something about Original Sin, the one dogma that Darwinists, boastful of their empiricism should know best. For Original Sin, as Chesterton once said, is the most empirical of all dogmas.

Empiricism is not, however, all that is needed either for making dogmas or for that matter doing science. No wonder that Gould, a Darwinist empiricist, begins his essay with a groan over the failure of technology (science) to live up to its billing as the tool whereby the impossible becomes possible. Too much hope in science once more swings back toward that Darwinist normalcy which is hopelessness in disguise.

That the scorn poured on morality (inseparable from religion) spills over onto science too is perhaps the only palatable though unpleasant lesson to be gathered from an essay whose author fully lives up to his Darwinist billing. He masterfully though unwittingly shows that once nature becomes mere nature, normalcy turns into a far more universal terror than AIDS, it is to be hoped, will ever become. In 2,000 words Gould restated, unwittingly to be sure, what Etienne Gilson, the Christian philosopher, foresaw thirty years ago in an essay, “The Terror of the Year 2000.”

Rev. Stanley L. Jaki


Stanley L. Jaki, OSB (1924, Győr, Hungary – 2009, Madrid) was a Hungarian Benedictine priest and Distinguished Professor of Physics at Seton Hall University, New Jersey since 1975. He was a leading thinker in the philosophy of science, theology, and on issues where the two disciplines meet and diverge.

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