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The Misguided Quest for ‘Darwinian Conservatism’

Debate Over Evolution Not Going Away Originally published at Human Events

The debate over Darwinian evolution is typically framed by the news media as a clash between “right” and “left.” Conservatives are presumed to be critical of Darwin’s theory, while liberals are presumed to be supportive of it.

As in most cases, reality is more complicated.

There always have been liberal critics of Darwin. In the early 20th Century, progressive reformer William Jennings Bryan fought for women’s suffrage, world peace—and against Darwinism. More recently, left-wing novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a self-described “secular humanist,” has called our human bodies “miracles of design” and faulted scientists for “pretending they have the answer as how we got this way when natural selection couldn’t possibly have produced such machines.”

Evolution to the Rescue?

Just as there have been critics of Darwin on the left, there continue to be champions of Darwinism on the right. In the last few years, pundits such as George Will, Charles Krauthammer and John Derbyshire, along with social scientist James Q. Wilson and political theorist Larry Arnhart, have stoutly defended Darwin’s theory and denounced Darwin’s critics.

Some of Darwin’s conservatives are even promoting Darwinian biology as a way to save conservatism. In his book, The Moral Sense, James Q. Wilson draws on Darwinian biology to support traditional morality. Law professor John O. McGinnis opines that the future success of conservatism depends on evolutionary biology: “Any political movement that hopes to be successful must come to terms with the second rise of Darwinism.”

No one has been more articulate in championing evolution on the right than political theorist Larry Arnhart at Northern Illinois University, who in his recent book, Darwinian Conservatism, argues that “[c]onservatives need Charles Darwin … because a Darwinian science of human nature supports conservatives in their realist view of human imperfectibility and their commitment to ordered liberty. . . .”

Darwin’s Allure

The allure of Darwinian conservatism is not hard to understand. While 19th-Century giants such as Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud have been debunked, Darwin retains his prestige among the elites as a secular saint. Moreover, Darwinists have clothed themselves in the mantle of modern science, successfully stigmatizing those who criticize them as bigoted Bible-thumpers who are “anti-science.”

No wonder a number of conservative intellectuals either refrain from becoming involved in the debate over Darwinism or take the side of Darwin as a matter of course. In some quarters, it is regarded as unfashionable or even embarrassing to be on the side of Darwin’s critics. And who wants to be unfashionable or embarrassed?

One suspects that this concern for being fashionable has something to do with the dismissive attitude taken by conservative columnists such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer, neither of whom, however, shows evidence of having read or considered the arguments made by intelligent-design proponents. If they had, they would not assert tritely that intelligent design is merely “warmed-over creationism” (Krauthammer) or an attempt “to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education” (Will). Nor would Krauthammer have denounced the Kansas Board of Education for “forcing intelligent design into the statewide biology curriculum” when the board made clear it had done the exact opposite: “We also emphasize that the Science Curriculum Standards do not include Intelligent Design. . . .” Which part of the phrase “do not include Intelligent Design” did Krauthammer fail to understand? Sadly, he probably never bothered to look at the Kansas science standards he so excoriates.

It is ironic that such conservatives, who would not trust left-wing reporting about, say, the war in Iraq, apparently will accept wholesale anything the mainstream media report about evolution.

‘Random’ Redefined

Other, more careful conservatives remain troubled by what they regard as the excesses of Darwinian ideologues, but they seem to think they can tame or neutralize Darwinian evolution by redefining it. For example, physicist Stephen Barr has argued in First Things that neo-Darwinism, properly understood, need not require a process that is “unguided” or “unplanned.” “The word ‘random’ as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated,” he writes.

The problem is not that Barr is wrong about the appropriate meaning of “random” but that mainstream Darwinists do not accept his point and never have. Darwinism from the start has been defined as an undirected process. That is its core, and that is why Darwin himself emphasized that “no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations … were intentionally and specially guided.”

In the Darwinian view, biological structures such as the vertebrate eye, or the wings of butterflies, or the bacterial flagellum, “must have” developed through the interplay of chance (random mutations, according to modern Darwinists) and necessity (natural selection or “survival of the fittest”). The same holds true for the higher animals, including human beings. In the words of Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”

Barr may be correct that a more modest Darwinism that does not insist on evolution’s being undirected would be harmless, but then it also no longer would be Darwinism. Conservatives cannot resolve the problems with Darwinian evolution merely by offering their own idiosyncratic definition of the term.

Still other conservatives such as Arnhart and Wilson believe that, properly understood, Darwin’s theory can be used to support moral universals and temper utopian schemes. But their argument flies in the face of both Darwinism’s internal logic and an historical record that demonstrates the opposite.

Promoting Eugenics

For the past hundred years, mainstream Darwinists have drawn on Darwin’s theory to promote relativism and utopian social reforms such as eugenics. Of course, these Darwinists could have been wrong, but a strong case can be made that their efforts were logically connected to Darwin’s theory.

If one believes that all human behaviors are equally the products of natural selection and that ultimately they all exist because they promote biological survival, it is hard to see an objective ground for condemning any particular behavior. The maternal instinct is natural, according to Darwinism, but so is infanticide. Monogamy is natural, but so are polygamy and adultery. If a certain man prefers five wives to one, who are we to judge? Obviously, natural selection has preserved the desire for multiple wives in that male, so polygamy must be “right” for him.

I am not quarreling here with the attempt by Darwinian conservatives to enlist biology to support traditional morality. I actually agree with them that showing a biological basis for certain moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality—but only if we have reason to assume that those biological desires are somehow normative.

If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or even that they represent irreducible and unchanging truths inherent in the universe, it is rational to accept those desires as grounding for a universal code of morality. But Darwinism explicitly denies that natural desires are either the result of intelligent design or an unchanging nature.

According to the Darwinian view, nature may—on occasion—sanction certain traditional virtues because, at the moment, they happen to promote biological survival. But even Darwin would acknowledge, if pressed, that given a different set of circumstances, a radically different conception of morality would be required.

At one point, he said as much: “If, for instance … men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering.”

Darwinian Moral Relativism

Although this startling passage refers to the behavior of hive bees, it is making a point about human morality and how it is ultimately a function of the conditions of survival. Whenever those conditions change, Darwin seems to say, so, too, will the maxims of human morality. Hence, relativism is perfectly rational within the Darwinian universe.

Similarly, if one believes that human progress is dependent on a vigorous struggle for existence, then any diminishment of natural selection in human society will raise legitimate concerns, and efforts to reinstate selection through eugenics may well appear rational. In addition, once one understands the evolving nature of “human nature,” it is difficult to see any “in principle” objection to efforts to transform human nature through bioengineering.

Natural selection is a messy, hit-or-miss process of dead ends and false starts. Why shouldn’t human beings use their reason to direct their evolution in order to produce a new kind of human being? What is so sacrosanct about existing human dispositions and capacities, since they were produced by such an imperfect and purposeless process?

Conservatives who would rather sit out the evolution controversy need to understand that the current debate is not primarily about religious fundamentalism, nor is it simply an irrelevant rehashing of certain esoteric points of biology and philosophy. Darwinian reductionism has become culturally pervasive and inextricably intertwined with contemporary conflicts over traditional morality, personal responsibility, sex and family, and bioethics.

Darwinism is also central to an important debate about the role of scientific expertise in American society that dates backs to the Progressive era. Darwin’s defenders have been at the forefront of promoting technocracy—the claim that scientific experts ultimately have the right to rule free from the normal restraints of democratic accountability. Disparaging the wisdom of ordinary citizens and their elected representatives, dogmatic Darwinists essentially argue that public policy should be dictated by the majority of scientific experts without input from anyone else. Today, this bold assertion is made not just with regard to evolution, but concerning a host of other controversial issues such as sex education, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, cloning and global warming. Those on the left declare that any dissent from liberal orthodoxy on these issues represents a “war on science.”

Demonizing Dissent

The effort to demonize normal democratic dissent in the area of science and public policy has been fomented by Fenton communications, the far-left public relations firm for such groups as MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood, the American Trial Lawyers Association, Greenpeace and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). With funding from the Tides Center, Fenton has set up a group bearing the Orwellian name of the “Campaign to Defend the Constitution” (“DefCon”). According to DefCon, good science just happens to equal the political agenda of the left, and anyone who says otherwise is a “theocrat” who opposes “scientific progress.”

Of course, there is much that can be said in favor of the authority of scientific expertise in modern life. In an increasingly complex and technologically-driven world, the need for scientific input on public policy would seem obvious.

While this line of reasoning exhibits a surface persuasiveness, it ignores the natural limits of scientific expertise. As C.S. Lewis pointed out in the 1950s, “government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price, and on these a scientific training gives a man’s opinion no added value.”

Technocracy poses a further difficulty: Experts can be wrong, sometimes egregiously. If the history of “Social Darwinism” in politics shows anything, it is that scientific experts can be as fallible as anyone else. What is true of individual scientists is often true of the scientific community as a whole. For example, eugenics was embraced for decades by America’s leading evolutionary biologists and scientific organizations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Critics of eugenics, meanwhile, were roundly stigmatized as anti-science and religious zealots. Yet the critics were the ones who turned out to be right, while the “consensus” was wrong.

As equal citizens before the law, scientists have every right to inform policymakers of the scientific implications of their actions. But they have no special right to demand that policymakers listen to them alone or to ignore dissidents in their own ranks.

Atmosphere of Intolerance

Even conservatives who accept Darwinian theory, therefore, should think twice before embracing the dogmatic claims to authority made by Darwinists. Such claims have resulted in a concerted effort to shut down honest debate through caricatures and intimidation. While evolutionists continue to portray themselves as the victims of fundamentalist intolerance, in most places today it is the evolutionists who have turned inquisitors.

At George Mason University in Virginia, biology professor Caroline Crocker made the mistake of favorably discussing intelligent design in her cell biology class. She was suspended from teaching the class, and then her contract was not renewed.

At the Smithsonian Institution, evolutionary biologist Richard Sternberg, the editor of a respected biology journal, faced retaliation by Smithsonian executives in 2005 after accepting for publication a peer-reviewed article favoring intelligent design. Investigators for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel later concluded that “it is … clear that a hostile work environment was created with the ultimate goal of forcing [Dr. Sternberg] … out of the [Smithsonian].”

These efforts to purge the scientific community of any critics of Darwin are fueled by increasingly vehement rhetoric on the part of some evolutionists. In many states, it has become routine to apply the label of “Taliban” to anyone who supports teaching students about scientific criticisms of Darwinian theory.

Biology professor P. Z. Myers at the University of Minnesota, Morris, has demanded “the public firing and humiliation of some teachers” who express their doubts about Darwin. He further says, “It’s time for scientists to break out the steel-toed boots and brass knuckles, and get out there and hammer on the lunatics and idiots.”

Whatever one’s personal view of Darwinism, the current atmosphere of intolerance is unhealthy for science, and it’s unhealthy for a free society.

Conservatives who are discomfited by the continuing debate over Darwin’s theory need to understand that it is not about to go away. It is not going away, because the accumulating discoveries of science undercut rather than confirm the claims of neo-Darwinism. It is not going away, because Darwinism fundamentally challenges the traditional Western understanding of human nature and the universe. Finally, it is not going away, because free people do not like to be told that there are some questions they are not allowed to ask and some answers they are not allowed to question.

If conservatives want to address root causes rather than just symptoms, they need to join the debate over Darwinism, not scorn it or ignore it.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.