Re: [asa] A Split Emerges as Conservatives Discuss Darwin

From: Janice Matchett <>
Date: Tue May 15 2007 - 07:48:02 EDT

At 08:58 PM 5/5/2007, Robert Schneider wrote:

>What do people think?

@ Here's what George Gilder thinks: "Darwinism may be true, but it's
ultimately trivial. It is not a "fundamental explanation for creation
or the universe."

~ Janice

  "Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes?" For those that are
interested, you can watch the entire panel discussion here.

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. Moderator: Steven Hayward, the biographer of Ronald Reagan

But is it Good for the Conservatives - Darwinism and its Discontents
The Weekly Standard ^ | 05/14/2007 | Andrew Ferguson Volume 012, Issue 33
Posted on 05/14/2007 7:59:48 PM EDT by jocon307 [refresh browser]

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.

"Conservatives need Darwin," he said. Without the scientific evidence
Darwinian theory offers, conservative views would be swamped by
liberal sentimentality.

The left-wing view of human nature as unfixed and endlessly
manipulable has led to countless disastrous Utopian schemes.

Hard-headed Darwinians, on the other hand, see human nature as
settled and enduring and stubbornly unchangeable, and conservatives
can wield the findings of Darwin to rebut the scheming, ambitious
busybodies of the left and their subversion of custom and tradition.
(I'm paraphrasing, by the way.)

Darwinism, he said, supports the conservative view of sexual
differences and family life. Left-wingers see these things as social
constructions, mere conventions that can be overridden in the quest
for personal liberation; Darwin anchors them in nature.

Darwinism supports the conservative view of private property and the
marketplace, because our innermost desires, shaped by natural
selection over thousands of years, include an unstoppable need to own
property and to find gratification in trading our property with
others. And Darwinism supports the view of limited, decentralized
government, since the selfish human nature revealed by Darwin
requires that no single authority be trusted with unchecked power.

West, the anti-Darwinian, began his rebuttal by pointing out that
many leftists have criticized Darwin, too, so no one should think
that anti-Darwinism is exclusively an obsession of religious
primitives on the right. Kurt Vonnegut, oddly enough, spoke against
Darwinian evolution, so anti-Darwinism is an obsession of overrated
novelists on the left as well. West's most important point, though,
is that Darwinism is an intellectual package deal. Accepting its
larger scientific claims about the origins of life, and about how
human nature came to be the way it is, requires acceptance of its
much less appealing philosophical suppositions: that the universe is
a random, directionless process, that human existence has no point or
purpose, that free will and the sanctity of the self are ultimately illusions.

The amorality built into Darwinism, West said, explains why it has so
easily been employed by eugenicists of both left and right. Reduced
to the material processes of chemistry and physics, life as it is,
even human life, no longer seems terribly worthy of respect. "Why not
use reason to direct evolution to produce a new kind of human being?"
West asked, in devil's advocate mode. "What's so sacrosanct about
existing human dispositions and capacities, since they were all
produced by such a purposeless process?"

As anti-Darwinians like to do, West has combed the vast corpus of
Darwin's writings to find the creepiest possible examples of the
great man's cold-bloodedness. Darwin himself apparently didn't
believe that scientific questions of natural selection and political
questions of human social arrangements were wholly unrelated. In
pointing out how vaccinations had saved thousands of otherwise infirm
people from death, he wrote:

No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will
doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is
surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads
to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of
man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst
animals to breed.

So Darwinism, viewed one way, can easily be considered morally
disastrous. But, responded pro-Darwin Derbyshire, Is it true? "The
truth value of Darwinism is essential," he said. "The truth value
always comes first." If Darwinism is true--and its undeniable success
in explaining the world suggests that it is--and if Darwinism
undermines conservatism, as West had claimed, "then so much the worse
for conservatism."

It was left to Gilder to provide a way out of this dilemma, if it is
a dilemma. He noted that extremely complex explanations of physical
processes can be thoroughly accurate, yet still incomplete--or even
beside the point. Consider the microchip, he said. Like the human
mind, it is often "presented as a thinking machine."

"But," he said, "you can know the location of every molecule and atom
in a microprocessor, you can know their movements and how each gate
within it is flipping, without having any idea at all of the function
the computer is undertaking." You can explain all these things, in
other words, without explaining the most important thing: What's it
doing--and why?

Thus Gilder offered a concession by way of a compromise: "Darwinism
may be true," he said, "but it's ultimately trivial." It is not a
"fundamental explanation for creation or the universe."

Evolution and natural selection may explain why organic life presents
to us its marvelous exfoliation. Yet Darwinism leaves untouched the
crucial mysteries--who we are, why we are here, how we are to behave
toward one another, and how we should fix the alternative minimum
tax. And these are questions, except the last one, that lie beyond
the expertise of any panel at any think tank, even AEI.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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Received on Tue May 15 07:49:08 2007

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