A Review of The Right Darwin: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy

In his recent book, Carson Holloway demonstrates the inability of neo-Darwinian theory to undergird the moral framework that is essential to a liberal democracy’s survival. A review of The Right Darwin: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy.

The Right Darwin: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy
by Carson Holloway
Spence Publishing Company (January 30, 2006)
Hdbk., 209 pgs.
ISBN: 1890626619
Reviewed by Seth Cooper

Darwinists often insist there are no scientific challenges to neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory; only moral or religious objections to it. Equating neo-Darwinian theory with science itself, leading public relations and policy proponents of Darwinism thereby posit that science deals with facts, whereas morality and religion are about personal feelings or the personal meaning that one gives to things. This is not an honest attempt by Darwinists to keep personal feelings from interfering with the scientific process, but is instead a criterion used to insulate neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory from any scientific criticism. This stated position is clearly contradicted by the contents of peer-reviewed and other mainstream scientific publications that challenge key aspects of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. The advance of scientific progress is impeded in any climate that eschews serious evaluation of the evidence. 

The overly simple science/ethics dichotomy provided by many Darwinists is flatly contradicted by notable hyper-Darwinists who forthrightly proclaim a metaphysical message based on neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. In his book The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design, Richard Dawkins observed that Darwin “made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.” Said Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett in his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Darwinism is to be praised as a “universal acid” that destroys “just about every traditional concept” of religion and morality.

The popular refrain that neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory is separate and irrelevant to morality or religion is further belied by a crop of prominent political scientists who have articulated an understanding of traditionalism and moral understanding based upon the theory. Noted scholars, such as Francis Fukuyama, James Q. Wilson and Larry Arnhart, have advanced a brand of “conservatism” based on neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory’s insights into nature and into humanity.

It is precisely this kind of Darwinian “conservatism” that Carson Holloway tackles in The Right Darwin: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing: 2006). A political scientist at the University of Nebraska (Omaha), Holloway examines and evaluates the arguments and underlying premises of Darwinian “conservatism.” Through careful analysis, Holloway demonstrates that Darwinian conservatism cannot supply the moral and ethical foundation necessary for the continuing vitality of a democracy. Holloway goes on to show that Darwinian conservatism suffers from an internal incoherence that leaves it unable to provide a basis for universal human rights and unable to affirm the inherent dignity of humans in the face of biotechnological prospects to re-engineer a post-human race. 

French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville and his early 19th-Century masterpiece Democracy in America provide a lens through which Holloway evaluates Darwinian conservatism. Notes Holloway, Tocqueville’s praises of the new American republic were tempered by his warnings of liberal democracy’s excesses. The problem for liberal democracy is not an inclination towards rampant criminality and anarchy. Instead, liberal democracy is prone to an overly individualistic, material-driven selfishness. According to Tocqueville, the antidote to this problem is to be found in the ethical restraints and moral obligations that democratic citizens draw from religion. (An additional but related solvent cited by Tocqueville is in the flourishing of free associations found in America.)

At best, argues Holloway, Darwinian conservatism can only purport to provide an account of the “decent materialism” that Tocqueville observes is typical of America’s liberal democracy. This decent materialism includes human sociability and reciprocity, with an underlying respect for some kind of public order. But Tocqueville insisted that a sustained democracy needs more if it is to prevent a collapse into a selfish, radical individualism; decent materialism is not enough. 

To its credit, Darwinian conservatism tries to take seriously a natural, biological basis for differences between the sexes. By attributing inclinations and attributes of humanity to its basic biology, the Darwinian conservatism would eschew the post-modern proclivity to treat sex differences as the product of mere social construction. Yet, nothing in neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory renders human sex differences inevitable or permanent. Instead, sex differences only arose because they offered survival advantage, and entirely different human sexual dynamics may provide superior survival capabilities in the future. Darwinian conservatism is thereby unable to escape the relativism that it seeks to supplant. 

Observing that the Darwinian understanding of human nature holds that morality “emerged to promote success in the conflicts between groups that prevailed during the period that our nature evolved,” Holloway concludes that Darwinism contravenes any universal moral standards rooted in human nature. Since the Darwinian account of humankind maintains that moral obligations arise through desires and feelings we’ve obtained via undirected evolution, there is no basis for preferring a mere feeling of common humanity over a desire to oppress others to achieve gain for one’s self or for one’s family. The lack of any clear recognition of universal moral standards renders problematic any international order respecting human rights. It also undermines the demands of justice in any large domestic order. There is always the prospect of tyranny by the majority, and a Darwinian account of morality leaves no reliable basis for the minority to assert their own rights. 

Domestic order is further undermined by the fact that Darwinian conservatism’s endorsement of the family falls woefully short. Tocqueville asserted that beyond our biological nature, moral obligation grounded in religion improved the prospects for fidelity and lasting family commitments. But Darwinian conservatism does not countenance any moral restraints arising from religion, but instead relies upon biological drives alone. Writes Holloway: “There is little reason to suppose that the biological good at which the conjugal union aims would require parents to remain together longer than is necessary to raise children to an age at which they no longer require intensive parental care.” He goes on to assert that, “If the Darwinian account of human nature does not support the notion of permanent marital commitment, neither does it point to a very strict standard of mutual commitment while a marriage lasts.”

This new Darwinian political theory is entirely lacking in the moral resources necessary for mankind to prevent its own abolition in the face of a biotechnological Brave New World. Today, advances in science and medicine present us with the possibility of re-designing the basic biology of human beings to create a post-human race. Technological advances also entail a dark downside requiring extensive use and harvesting of human life as raw materials and for experimentation. Human cloning, animal-human hybrids, fetal farming and the like are all on the table for our society to deal with. As Holloway notes, some of the leading proponents of Darwinian conservatism, such as Francis Fukuyama, write of their own deep concerns about the re-engineering of the human race and all of the attending consequences. But because of Darwinism’s rejection of inherent purpose in humanness itself, we can rely upon no principled basis for defending human dignity and resisting eugenic experimentation and commoditization of human life. Holloway points to liberal democracies’ strong preoccupation with the using technology to provide ease and comfort, and to minimize suffering. And so he writes that, “In the absence of some cosmic teleology that can account for the ultimate goodness of our hard condition, Darwinism can only offer prudential arguments against such modification.” Given a Darwinian understanding that our species is the result of purposeless evolution, why should we recognize any limits to the aims of biotechnology? Only a strong moral account of human dignity can offer a satisfactory answer to whether we should steer advances in biotechnology in ethical directions or whether we should accept that Brave New World is simply the next stage of an undirected evolutionary process.

Holloway’s analysis appears to take for granted the sufficiency of the scientific evidence for neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. No question is ever raised about whether extant empirical evidence more strongly supports neo-Darwinian theory or its emerging competitor: the theory of intelligent design. In recent years, a growing minority of scientists have proposed that the intricacy and specified complexity of molecular machines and other nanotechnology inside living cells may be better explained by an intelligent cause, rather than the undirected causes (natural selection operating on random genetic mutation) posited by neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory. But ultimately, The Right Darwin is not a book about the Darwin vs. design debate. On its own terms, Holloway simply shows the inability of neo-Darwinian theory to undergird the moral framework that is essential to a liberal democracy’s survival. 

Seth Cooper is an attorney and former law and policy analyst for the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science & Culture.