The Magazine

Natural Selection

Yet another reason to admire the author of 'The Origin of Species.'

May 8, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 32 • By JAMES SEATON
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Darwinian Conservatism

by Larry Arnhart

Imprint Academic, 162 pp., $17.90

ACCORDING TO CONVENTIONAL WISDOM, the continuing battles over the teaching of evolution in the public schools are episodes in the larger culture war between the secularist left and the religious right.

Larry Arnhart has news for both sides. He argues that "conservatives need Charles Darwin" to make their case that there is such a thing as "human nature" as against the left's need to believe that "human nature" is only a social construction. Conservatism is suspicious of grand schemes of social transformation, since it recognizes that human nature cannot be radically altered. The left, on the other hand, needs to believe that human beings are infinitely malleable and thus ultimately perfectible to justify its quest for absolute equality.

As Arnhart puts it, "conservatives have a realist vision of human nature" while "those on the left have a utopian vision of human nature." He argues, convincingly, that Darwinian science supports the realist vision rather than utopian hopes. Arnhart points out, for example, that the Darwinian narrative explains why it is human nature to "feel more attachment to those close to us . . . than we do to strangers who are far away."

Of course, conservatives like Edmund Burke did not need Darwin in order to understand and celebrate the attachment of human beings to "the little platoon," and admirers of Darwin like Karl Marx and Peter Singer have not been deterred from doing their best to stifle such attachments, whether they, like Marx, call for world revolution or, like Singer, explain why it is unethical to care more about one's mother than about a stranger.

Arnhart's point, however, remains. Darwin, properly understood, provides support for the conservative "realist vision" rather than for the leftist "utopian vision." But neither Darwin's putative allies nor his adversaries have been willing to limit the debate to anything as straightforward as the implications of evolutionary theory for an understanding of human nature.

Religious opponents have assumed that evolutionary theory implies atheism, although The Origin of Species itself draws no such conclusion. But the proponents of evolution have been at least as eager as its adversaries to extend the significance of evolutionary theory far beyond Darwin's own claims. Ever since Darwin's masterpiece was published in 1859, promoters of a bewildering variety of social and political agenda and philosophies have enlisted--or hijacked--his ideas on behalf of their own.

At Karl Marx's gravesite, Friedrich Engels declared that "just as Darwin discovered the laws of evolution in organic nature so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history." A few years later, John D. Rockefeller informed his Sunday School class that "the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest. . . . The American Beauty rose can be produced in the splendor and fragrance which bring cheer to its beholder only by sacrificing the early buds which grow up around it."

For Henri Bergson, Darwin's "natural selection" was clearly a process of "creative evolution" that revealed the centrality of a previously unrecognized force he called elán vital. John Dewey believed that the "intellectual transformation effected by the Darwinian logic" cleared the way for a new conception of philosophy as no longer a search for truth but "a method of moral and political diagnosis and prognosis." Today, Daniel Dennett argues that Darwin's "dangerous idea" successfully "unifies the realm of life, meaning and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law."

Although these figures disagree with each other, they are united in believing that difficult issues in a variety of fields outside the natural sciences can be definitively resolved by the application of scientific findings in one "hard" science or another--biology, in this case--to phenomena outside that science.

The influence of Darwinian evolutionary theory is perhaps greatest when unacknowledged and unrecognized; if "progressive" seems a more attractive political label than "liberal," surely at least part of the reason is the plausibility of the notion that social and political progress derives from the scientific prestige of Darwin's theory of biological evolution. Similarly, the contemporary popularity of cultural and political relativism is bolstered by the scientific prestige of Einstein's theory of relativity, as though somehow e=mc2 had to do not with energy, mass, and the speed of light, but politics and morality.