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.”

Comments

  1. #1 Roy
    May 7, 2007

    Who would say the same thing of chemistry or algebra?

    The discovery of evolution was the uncovering of rules nature follows. The same is true of physics.

    Using evolution, or physics, to try to answer whose agenda is ‘best’ is an exercise in idiocy.

  2. #2 Kevin
    May 7, 2007

    It’s well know that reality has an anti-republican slant.

    and science too. can’t trust that science to be fair and that’s why they have political officers to approve all publications and speeches.

  3. #3 razib
    May 7, 2007

    My suspicion is that none of the four participants at this debate really understand all that much about evolution.

    let me allay your suspicion, i know that john derbyshire owns and has enjoyed mark ridley’s evolution – oxford readers (which has digests of the works of many great thinkers, darwin, fisher, down to the present day). i also know that john’s primary interest in evolution has little to do with the creationism controversy, he has genuinely be moved and shaken (to the point of losing his christian faith) by the possibilities of evolutioanry biology over the past few years. as a mathematically oriented individual john was impressed by the formalism that thinkers like fisher made recourse to in modeling evolutionary processes.

  4. #4 MarkH
    May 7, 2007

    I was reading some article about this in the National Review or whatever, and what struck me was how no one brought a realistic view of evolutionary science to the table.

    It was like some bizarro-world discussion of evolution. For instance, social Darwinism is stupid because there are, and always will be, more poor people than rich people, from a “Darwinist” perspective, poor people are more evolved than rich people. There are more poor people than rich people, and still the proposed this as an actual application of evolutionary theory! It’s like we can never escape any idiot who has ever misrepresented science in human history.

    Then they went into evolution as proof of some immutable nature of humanity. What? How do they figure? What about evolution indicates constancy of human behavior?

    It was like listening to a debate about quantum mechanics from second graders. Pro or con didn’t matter, none of these morons seemed to understand that evolutionary theory has nothing to do with politics – other than the desire of fundamentalists to deny its scientific validity for political gain.

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    May 7, 2007

    Larry’s views are interesting in that given that conservatism is based on a kind of “state of nature” account of human nature, I have always wondered why more conservatives didn’t accept Darwinian anthropology as the foundation for their views. Larry does.

    But the crucial move is the shift from “is” to “ought”, and conservative intellectuals know as well as any that this is not neutrally done. If you require of your view of human nature that humans are individualistic and overly competitive, then you can, with some effort, find that in an evolutionary account, but really one of the facts about humans is that they are social apes, and therefore cooperate for reasons that have little to do with individual payoff matrices.

    Social “Darwinism” is actually social Ricardoism, or some other laissez faire economist of the early 19th century, as adfapted by Spencer and misread by Spencer’s opponents. “Darwinian” views themselves are much less Randian than this. Arnhart at least tries to develop an account of social nature that is consistent with the facts.

  6. #6 Josh Schraiber
    May 8, 2007

    An interesting book on this subject is Peter Singer’s “A Darwinian Left”. Singer has always been a favorite of mine and I feel like he makes an excellent case for how the left needs to use what sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have taught us in order to move out of hopeless idealism into an idealistic realism that can really bring progress.

  7. #7 Decline and Fall
    May 8, 2007

    I think your confusion is the result of the conflation of the Pat Robertson wing of the conservative movement, which has been in ascendance for several decades now, with the longer tradition of refusing to view the world through rose-colored glasses. That’s where the leftist “utopian” view of human nature comes in: remember that Marx’s program was one that sought to alter the way humans behaved, essentially eliminating selfishness. The right has always objected to that on “reality-based” grounds. Hobbes’ idea that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” gets at that critique: rather than pretend that people aren’t self-serving and cruel, or that they won’t be if the right social policies are put into place, political institutions should be crafted with the full knowledge of man’s brutish tendencies. It’s not a pretty philosophy, but it’s at least defensible on “survival of the fittest” grounds. (Herbert Spencer, incidentally, is still read in some sectors of the right.)

    I think your confusion comes from both the narrow definitions our political philosophies have been squeezed into, and the general unfamiliarity with the ideas of one’s political opponents. I’ll give a counter-example to illustrate my point: say a political conservative who is completely comfortable with science were to only understand “liberalism” as manifested by hippies, marxists and literary theorists. He would be surprised that the left, with its strange ideas about energy fields in Sedona, altering human nature by eliminating capitalism, and the social construction of reality, could possibly have any reasonable understanding of evolution or science in general.

    We all know that there is plenty of “woo” on the left, but we understand that “liberalism” is more than that: I may cast the same vote as a vegan, druid, postmodernist Chomsky sycophant, but I do so for very different reasons. The same thing happens on the right. Unfortunately, just as many on the right think that everyone to the left of them is a morally relativistic communist, many on the left think that everyone to the right of them is a warmongering theocrat.

  8. #8 Jongpil Yun
    May 8, 2007

    Geez, all this talk about politics… Let me just say this.

    I’m unabashedly uber-liberal about social issues, but economically all I care about is what “works” in a utilitarian sense. To quote Deng Xiaoping, “I don’t care what color the cat is, as long as it catches the rat.”

    Economists seem pretty damn fond of a liberal (as in, loosely regulated) free market. I wonder why? Honestly, I don’t know shit about economics, but I’m more inclined to believe those who devote their life to studying economics than say, an evolutionary biologist. Being respected in one circle does not cross over into the other. Look at all the Nobel Prize winners who’ve subscribed to some form of woo (almost always outside their area of expertise) in the past.

    Until I know more about economics, I’ll abstain from voting. What I find may force me into the supremely embarrassing position of being either a socialist or libertarian, but I’m well prepared to eat my own words if the evidence supports either position.

    Politics seems to be one area in which even scientists do not behave in any way scientifically. It’s so polarized, and so dogmatic, it’s almost disgusting. Look at the evidence, and do your best to make a decision based off of that. Leave all the liberal vs conservative holy wars behind you.

  9. #9 Jongpil Yun
    May 8, 2007

    Of course you’re a mathematician, though, the point still stands.

  10. #10 Luna_the_cat
    May 8, 2007

    …historically human beings have organized themselves into male-dominated hierarchies.

    Only if you ignore all the cultures which didn’t necessarily do so, like some ancient Celtic societies, the Nairs of Kerala, the traditional Minangkabau (Minang) of Malaysia, the Mosuo of central China…

    One notable thing about human culture which *is* universal is its flexibility in finding something which allows cultural stability under a wide variety of physical conditions & resource availability and historical narratives. Taking one’s own culture as being “universal” and “natural” is easy to do, but dangerously misleading for an overall picture of “human nature”.

  11. #11 deep6
    May 8, 2007

    I’m not familiar with Arnhart’s writings, but the term supply-side Darwinism suggests to me the destruction of unions, benefits, minimum wage laws, workplace safety regulations, anti-discrimination legislation, sexual harassment laws, and the responsibility to manage pension funds in an ethical manner. Essentially it would be the elimination of any protections gained by workers since the early 1800s.

    It’s strange to hear of Darwinism associated with James Dobson, insofar as the association isn’t one where he is trying to end its teaching. I’m not sure what to make of that.

  12. #12 deep6
    May 8, 2007

    I’m not familiar with Arnhart’s writings, but the term supply-side Darwinism suggests to me the destruction of unions, benefits, minimum wage laws, workplace safety regulations, anti-discrimination legislation, sexual harassment laws, and the responsibility to manage pension funds in an ethical manner. Essentially it would be the elimination of any protections gained by workers since the early 1800s.

    It’s strange to hear of Darwinism associated with James Dobson, insofar as the association isn’t one where he is trying to end its teaching. I’m not sure what to make of that.

  13. #13 Jkrehbiel
    May 8, 2007

    MarkH said “For instance, social Darwinism is stupid because there are, and always will be, more poor people than rich people, from a “Darwinist” perspective, poor people are more evolved than rich people.”

    This particular point of view also assumes that rich people are smarter, or in some other way fitter, than poor people. I have seen little evidence of that. Perhaps we should all go watch Idocracy, a movie with the premise that smart people don’t have kids, and dummies breed like rabbits, so the society of the future will be run by and populated by morons.

  14. #14 decline and fall
    May 8, 2007

    I’m not familiar with Arnhart’s writings, but the term supply-side Darwinism suggests to me the destruction of unions, benefits, minimum wage laws, workplace safety regulations, anti-discrimination legislation, sexual harassment laws, and the responsibility to manage pension funds in an ethical manner. Essentially it would be the elimination of any protections gained by workers since the early 1800s.

    Supposing that’s what it is, that just points out the difference between science and policy. Science tells us that things are a certain way, but it takes ethics to figure out what to do with that information. Just because science can inform the political process doesn’t mean that it should dictate it. Especially in the hands of those who distort it to their ends.

  15. #15 razib
    May 8, 2007

    Only if you ignore all the cultures which didn’t necessarily do so, like some ancient Celtic societies, the Nairs of Kerala, the traditional Minangkabau (Minang) of Malaysia, the Mosuo of central China…

    those were male dominated. just because some cultures are matrilineal, with some temporal power given to females (e.g., the minangkabau queens), does not mean that they were equivalent inversions of male dominated patriarchies. spartan women were not chattel in the way that athenian women were, but that does not mean that sparta was dominated by women. similarly, just because english custom allowed the ascension of women to the throne of england when male heirs were not available does no mean that elizabethian england was a matriarchy. just because malayalee society was, and is, less patriarchal than the culture of northern india does not mean that it is an inversion of its sex oppression, it isn’t (and nair warlords and rulers still tended to be male).

  16. #16 Luna_the_cat
    May 9, 2007

    I don’t believe that I ever claimed that they were “equivalent inversions” of male-dominated patriarchies. I merely claimed that they weren’t male-dominated heirarchies. The argument can be made for all of those that they aren’t, or aren’t entirely so. The societies in question are either female-dominated, though not necessarily in a strict heirarchy with ruling classes (thinking here of the Mosuo), or official power in the ruling heirarchy is shared relatively equally between male and female (thinking here of the ancient Celts, in at least a few places, and to a lesser extent of the Nairs). The Minang are probably the weakest example, but there does seem to be, or at least did seem to be, historically, a formal power-sharing in different aspects of society between male and female. To class it simply as “male-dominated heirarchy” obscures real variation between human cultures, especially the cultures where land and other property are passed through the female line — that does a great deal to alter the real balance of power.

  17. #17 JasonR
    May 9, 2007

    Luna_the_cat

    Only if you ignore all the cultures which didn’t necessarily do so, like some ancient Celtic societies, the Nairs of Kerala, the traditional Minangkabau (Minang) of Malaysia, the Mosuo of central China…

    The trait “males dominate public/political realm” appears on anthropologist Donald Brown’s List of Human Universals. These are features that have been found in all human cultures that have been studied, without exception.

  18. #18 Luna_the_cat
    May 12, 2007

    Jason R.: ok, I will call on you to support that, with a specific question. How do males dominate in the public and political sphere among the Mosuo of central China??

  19. #19 Luna_the_cat
    May 12, 2007

    Eh, scratch that last question — the Mosuo traditionally had a sharp delineation between the matriarchal/matrilineal peasants, and a patriarchal nobility. I was thinking of the “peasant” classes and local villages, not their “noble” class.

    Nevertheless, I will say — saying that “males dominate” is misleading, because it obscures the real range of variability. There are cultures where women have no power at all, and cultures where women are very near equal and may dominate in some fields. To claim “universality” of male domination could be defended as a sort of “big picture” view, but it ignores not only what humans are capable of, but also what they have practiced under different circumstances — and just how alien many different cultures’ assumptions would seem to those from our culture, too. Assuming the universality of any cultural feature is dangerous, and such an assumption should only be made with a great deal of cautious examination.

    One can equally say that it is near impossible to find any traditional human culture without religion; however, the dangers of classing religion as “universal” ought to be obvious.