The Magazine

But Is It Good for the Conservatives?

Darwinism and its discontents.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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They only had two and a half hours to settle some knotty questions--Does reality have an ultimate, metaphysical foundation? Is there content to the universe?--so they had to talk fast. But not fast enough. By the time the formidable panel discussion was over last week, I, as a member of the audience, had even more questions about the nature of reality than usual.

This hardly ever happens at a think tank, even Washington's most audacious and interesting think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. One reason AEI stands as the capital's premier research organization is that it alone would think to assemble a quartet of intelligent and accomplished people to debate the implications of Darwinism for political thought and public policy. Specifically, the panel's title was "Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes?" Its moderator was Steven Hayward, the biographer of Ronald Reagan, and in the quartet he conducted were Larry Arnhart, a political scientist from Northern Illinois University; John Derbyshire, an author and a blogger for National Review Online; John West, a political scientist formerly of Seattle Pacific University and now of the Discovery Institute; and his colleague at Discovery, George Gilder, the legendary author of Wealth and Poverty, Microcosm, The Spirit of Enterprise, and Life After Television. (Gilder is routinely and correctly called a visionary, partly because he's the only man on earth who can imagine life without television.)

In the yin-yang, either-or, whose-side-are-you-on language that we Washingtonians prefer, you could say that Arnhart and Derbyshire are pro-Darwinians--defenders of Darwin's theory of the origin of species and relatively satisfied that it explains most of the things that need explaining. Gilder and West are anti-Darwinians, who work hard to point out the theory's limitations, both scientific and philosophical. And all four of them, to one extent or another, are men of the right. Note, though, that the subject of their panel wasn't the primary question of whether Darwinian theory is true; it was the secondary question of whether Darwinian theory and political conservatism abet each other as ways of understanding and shaping the world: "Does Darwin's theory help defend or undermine traditional morality and family life? Does it encourage or discredit economic freedom?"

In his remarks, Derbyshire objected that such questions, which were after all the point of the panel he had traveled to Washington to be on, were nonetheless pointless. "Conservatism and Darwinism are orthogonal," he said. "Neither one implies the other."

That sort of party-poopery could easily have ended the discussion right there--except that, as Hayward said, the commingling of Darwinism with political theory and practice has a long and unavoidable history. The relationship has waxed and waned. Most obviously and infamously, Darwinism spawned Social Darwinism, or so Social Darwinists claimed. Its pitiless principle of survival of the fittest was, Hayward pointed out, invoked by the Confederacy's most articulate theorist, Alexander Stephens, and also by the champions of unregulated capitalism in robber baron America. Throughout the late 19th century, Social Darwinists assumed that Darwin's theory had disproved the liberal (in the old sense) tradition of natural rights and natural law that inspired the Founding Fathers. John Dewey argued for Darwin's relevance to social and political arrangements, and so did most of his fellow Progressives: Woodrow Wilson, for instance, who said that "living constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice." Traces of Social Darwinism can be found too in Hitler and Stalin, both of whom were even worse than Woodrow Wilson.

In light of such unhappy history, Hayward said, "I sometimes wish there could be a separation of science and state to go along with a separation of religion and state."

It's a nice idea, but it too might have ended the discussion right then and there, except that Darwinism is once again being used by partisans of a particular political philosophy. This time the lucky philosophy is contemporary American conservatism, and the foremost proponent of the conservative-Darwinian dalliance is Arnhart. He offered a quick summary of his position, which has become popular among right-wingers of a libertarian stripe and has found its fullest expression in Arnhart's book Darwinian Conservatism.