Last Thursday the American Enterprise Institute sponsored a debate on the subject of Darwinism and Conservatism. A video of the debate is available online, but I haven’t had a chance to view it yet. In the meantime, I’ll have to make do with this article from The New York Times.
Over the years evolution has been used in the service of a great many political viewpoints. In Darwin’s time, what we might call the “pro-Darwinian right” argued for Social Darwinism. You can still find strains of this thinking in the political right today. Nowadays, however, the pro-Darwinian-right, as exemplified by Larry Arnhart in the AEI debate, try to argue that insights about human nature drawn from evolution provide a grounding for conservative economic principles.
Meanwhile, the “anti-Darwinian right” seems pretty constant. They fear that evolution is a threat to traditional religious views, and therefore also a threat to morality and decency. Personally, I agree with the first part of that sentence, but not the second.
How about the left? Well, in the early part of the twentieth century there was a clear “anti-Darwinian left,” best represented by William Jennings Bryan. He saw evolution as a threat to traditional religion, but also feared that an acceptance of evolution would would make it impossible to attain the sort of progressive social reforms he favored. There is still an anti-Darwinian left today, but they are more likely to be found in university humanities departments, and they are inclined to argue that science itself is little more than a social construction.
And, of course, there is the pro-Darwinian left, which argues simply that science is a wonderful thing, and that science points with considerable vigor to the conclusion that evolution is correct. Nothing further needs to be said. That it also tends to put religion on the defensive is just a nice bonus.
Let’s consider the article:
Mr. Arnhart, in his 2005 book, “Darwinian Conservatism,” tackled the issue of conservatism’s compatibility with evolutionary theory head on, saying Darwinists and conservatives share a similar view of human beings: they are imperfect; they have organized in male-dominated hierarchies; they have a natural instinct for accumulation and power; and their moral thought has evolved over time.
The institutions that successfully evolved to deal with this natural order were conservative ones, founded in sentiment, tradition and judgment, like limited government and a system of balances to curb unchecked power, he explains. Unlike leftists, who assume “a utopian vision of human nature” liberated from the constraints of biology, Mr. Arnhart says, conservatives assume that evolved social traditions have more wisdom than rationally planned reforms.
While Darwinism does not resolve specific policy debates, Mr. Arnhart said in an interview on Thursday, it can provide overarching guidelines. Policies that are in tune with human nature, for example, like a male military or traditional social and sex roles, he said, are more likely to succeed. He added that “moral sympathy for the suffering of fellow human beings” allows for aid to the poor, weak and ill.
I’m not sure who these leftists are who hold a utopian view of human nature. As for the rest of this, I think Arnhart is just trying to paint a scientific gloss on things he already believes for other reasons. I can’t imagine how he gets “traditional social and sex roles” out of an understanding of evolution.
Sure, historically human beings have organized themselves into male-dominated hierarchies. So what? We also have an evolved moral sense that allows us to understand how unfair it is to force people into traditional gender roles. Which one wins: our proclivity for male-domination or our sense of morality and social justice?
I’ll have to read Arnhart’s book one of these days to get a fuller picture of what he is arguing. In the meantime, he is orders of magnitude preferable to the vicious ignoramuses of the “anti-Darwinian right&rduqo; represented at the debate by the Discovery Institute’s George Gilder and John West. Here’s a taste:
Skeptics of Darwinism like William F. Buckley, Mr. West and Mr. Gilder also object. The notion that “the whole universe contains no intelligence,” Mr. Gilder said at Thursday’s conference, is perpetuated by “Darwinian storm troopers.”
“Both Nazism and communism were inspired by Darwinism,” he continued. “Why conservatives should toady to these storm troopers is beyond me.”
Of Mr. Arnhart, he said, “Larry has a beautiful Darwinism, a James Dobson Darwinism” — referring to the chairman of the Christian organization Focus on the Family — “a supply-side Darwinism.” But in capitalism, he added, “the winners don’t eat the losers.” Mr. West made a similar point, saying you could find justification in Darwin for both maternal instinct and for infanticide.
And then they wonder why it is that among educated people “conservative” and “stupid” are often treated as synonymous.
I’ll leave aside the canards about Nazism and communism. What struck me was the line about how the losers don’t eat the winners “in capitalism.” Aside from the fact that it is a complete non sequiter, it’s also true only in its most literal sense. As for “supply-side Darwinism” I can’ t imagine what that means.
My suspicion is that none of the four participants at this debate really understand all that much about evolution. In the end, it looks like John Derbyshire was the only one with anything intelligent to say:
As for Mr. Derbyshire, he would not say whether he thought evolutionary theory was good or bad for conservatism; the only thing that mattered was whether it was true. And, he said, if that turns out to be “bad for conservatives, then so much the worse for conservatism.”