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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.

Such attempts to make use of physics, chemistry, or biology to enforce radical conclusions about morality, politics, or metaphysics are, however, not science but scientism, which Merriam-Webster defines as "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)."

To his credit, Arnhart makes no attempt to formulate a new ideology or even to redefine conservatism on the basis of evolutionary biology. His book is not entitled Conservative Darwinism but Darwinian Conservatism. The adjective is not the enemy of the noun, he argues, since evolutionary biology merely confirms the view of human nature that has always been the basis of conservatism. Arnhart points out that "Darwinian science supports the conservative position by showing how marriage, family life, and sex differences conform to the biological nature of human beings as shaped by evolutionary history." Furthermore, "a Darwinian view of human nature sustains the conservative commitment to property as a natural propensity that is diversely expressed in custom and law."

Although Arnhart successfully demonstrates that Darwinian theory undermines the leftist dream of a transformation of human nature through social engineering, he does assuage the fears of some Christians and other believers that Darwin also undermines belief in God, or at least the God of the Bible. Arnhart's acknowledgment that "Darwinian biology cannot confirm the supernatural truth of Biblical religion in its theological doctrines" is a considerable understatement, especially for those whose "theological doctrines" include the view of creation affirmed in Genesis. Believers in the Bible as literal truth are unlikely to be comforted by Arnhart's assurance that "Darwinian biology can confirm the natural truth of Biblical religion in its practical morality." And it is not only evangelicals and fundamentalists who might find aspects of Arnhart's version of Darwinism troubling. He informs the reader that "rhesus monkeys manifest despotic dominance" while "among chimpanzees, the dominant chimp often acts to protect subordinates, and if he becomes a bully, he can provoke an alliance of subordinates to throw him out of power."

Even after being made aware of this contrast between monkeys and chimps, however, those who think the aspiration for political freedom arises from a conviction that human beings are, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, "endowed by their Creator" with "unalienable rights" may be unsatisfied with Arnhart's willingness to account for humanity's "natural desire to be free from despotic exploitation" by observing that "in their style of political dominance, human beings are more like chimpanzees than rhesus monkeys."

On the whole, however, Arnhart succeeds in his limited goal of demonstrating that Darwinian theory, properly understood, supports conservative social and political ideas while discrediting leftist utopianism. The catch is, of course, the "properly understood" part. One lesson to be drawn from the long history of Social Darwinism and other such putatively scientific "isms"--one danger sign is a proper name prefixed to the "ism," cf. Marxism, Freudianism--is that it is a mistake to suppose that the natural sciences, including biology, provide clear and unmistakable evidence in support of any particular doctrines about politics, economics, morality, or metaphysics.

It is even more likely to be a mistake if the doctrine in question contradicts common sense. One would suppose that cultural conservatives, those who value the accumulated wisdom of the human cultural heritage, would be unlikely to make such a mistake. Conservatives worthy of the name should be among the last to reject conclusions about morality, politics, or the meaning of human life achieved by working through the findings of high culture and common sense in favor of new ideas based on Darwinian biology or, for that matter, any scientific theory at all, whether it is derived from biology, chemistry, or physics.

It is to Larry Arnhart's credit that, despite his own adherence to evolutionary theory, he does not call for such a rejection. Indeed, Darwinian Conservatism makes it clear that even the most wholehearted acceptance of Darwin's ideas does not require conservatives to reject either common sense or traditional morality. Addressing himself primarily to conservatives, Arnhart does not so much try to convince his readers that Darwinian biology is incontrovertibly true as to demonstrate that its findings, if true, strengthen the case for social and political conservatism.

He does this well, and accomplishes a more difficult task achieved by only the most accomplished scientists and thinkers: He makes connections between science and human life without succumbing to the temptations of scientism.

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is writing a volume on Santayana for Yale University Press's Rethinking the Western Tradition series.