In his book Darwin, Marx, Wagner: Critique of a Heritage, Barzun was audacious enough to subject Darwin to a withering barrage of criticism, despite Darwin’s heroic status among scientists and academics.
Barzun believed in biological evolution. However, he perceptively explained that Darwin’s distinctive contribution to European thought was not evolution, which many others had believed before him. No, more importantly Darwin formulated “a theory which explains evolution by natural selection from accidental variations. The entire phrase and not merely the words Natural Selection is important, for the denial of purpose in the universe is carried in the second half of the formula — accidental variation. This denial of purpose is Darwin’s distinctive contention.” (2nd ed., pp. 10-11)Barzun declared war on Darwin’s theory (but not evolution as such), because he considered it a major influence on “mechanical materialism.” He accused Darwinism of undermining belief in mind, consciousness, and purpose. He also objected to the tendency to idolize science, stating, “Science as a Delphic oracle exists only in the popular imagination and the silent assumptions of certain scientists. At any given time there are only searchers who agree or disagree.” (336)Barzun also insisted that Darwinism had produced some rather unsavory offspring, such as racism and anti-egalitarianism. “Having got rid of Design with loud huzzahs, we are suddenly sorry to find our handiwork faithfully reproducing the image of our superior theories. With Huxley and others we denied the principle of human equality, asserting the inborn supremacy of certain races instead — only to wake up in a world taking this science literally. We did not see that Equality was a concept for dealing out justice among incommensurable human beings.” (360) In discussing the contribution of Darwinism to the rise of social Darwinism he even had the temerity to quote a social Darwinist statement from the Nazi leader Robert Ley. He hastened to clarify that he was not holding Darwin (or Marx or Wagner) individually responsible for Nazism or other abominable movements, but he did insist “that the ideas, the methods, the triumph of mechanistic materialism over the flexible and humane pragmatism of the Romantics has been a source of real woe in our day.” (15-16)