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A Further Response to Larry Arnhart, pt. 4: Darwinism, Capitalism, and Limited Government

John G. West

This is the final installment of a four-part series responding to Larry Arnhart’s comments about my book, Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest. The first three installments can be found here, here and here.

5. Darwinism and Economic Liberty

Arnhart contends that Darwinian theory supports economic freedom, but in my book I argue that efforts to apply Darwinism to economics are misleading and based on false analogies. In particular, I criticize the claim that F.A. Hayek’s idea of “spontaneous order” is in any important sense analogous to Darwin’s idea of unguided evolution. I also dispute the claim that “spontaneous order,” properly understood, is incompatible with intelligent design. I further point out that in the history of ideas, Darwinism has been used much more often to stigmatize capitalism than to support it.

Arnhart does not respond to any of these specific criticisms. He merely restates his view that social order involves “genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and deliberate reasoning.” But this restatement of his earlier position does not meet the objections I raised. Those who would like more information about the relationship between Darwinism and capitalism are encouraged to read chapter four of my book.

6. Darwinism and Limited Government

Arnhart argues that Darwinism provides support for limited government, and he attempts to disassociate Darwin’s theory from the utopian crusades of “Social Darwinism” such as eugenics. Indeed, he argues that Charles Darwin is unfairly blamed for eugenics and that “much of what has been identified as social Darwinism… is a distortion of Darwinian science.” However, in my book I show how Darwin himself in The Descent of Man provided the rationale for what became the eugenics movement, and how the vast majority of evolutionary biologists early in the twentieth century were right to see negative eugenics as a logical application of Darwin’s theory. In his response, Arnhart continues to insist that eugenists and other Social Darwinists “were not really acting out of a clear and accurate understanding of Darwinian science” and contends that blaming Darwinism for Social Darwinism is tantamount to claiming that “Christianity was responsible for Hitler’s anti-Semitism because Martin Luther’s anti-Semitism was often cited by the Nazis.” The Luther comparison is inapt. Martin Luther was not the founder of Christianity, and so any claims he may have made are not necessarily authoritative interpretations of the Christian tradition. But Charles Darwin was most certainly the founder of his own theory. So if Darwin himself provided a logical rationale for eugenics in his writings, it is hard to see how others can be accused of “distorting” his teachings in their embrace of negative eugenics.

Moreover, the fact that virtually all leading evolutionary biologists in the first part of the twentieth century embraced eugenics on Darwinian grounds should make one think twice about claiming that eugenics was simply a distortion of Darwin’s theory.

Arnhart insists that Darwin himself would have supported only such sensible measures as “prohibiting incestuous marriages” or voluntary efforts to discourage marriage and reproduction among the carriers of Tay Sachs disease. But in order to make this argument Arnhart must radically downplay the centrality of the struggle for survival in Darwin’s account of human progress. As I describe in my book, Darwin continued to believe that natural selection was the engine of human progress, and he feared that efforts such as small-pox vaccinations and welfare programs for the poor were counteracting natural selection and leading to the destruction of the human race: “No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man… hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” In such a situation where natural selection has been undermined, it would be perfectly logical to argue for instituting “artificial selection” in order to allow human progress to continue.

Bringing things up to the present, I would add that it is difficult to see any valid Darwinian objection to expansive bioengineering of humans today. As I pointed out in my book:

once one understands the evolving nature of “human nature” [according to Darwinism], it is difficult to see any in principle objection to efforts to transform human nature through bioengineering. Drawing on a report from the President’s Council on Bioethics, Arnhart attempts to outline a Darwinian argument against radical human bioengineering, but his argument is less than persuasive. “Our desires have been formed by natural selection over evolutionary history to promote survival and reproduction,” he writes. “Knowing this should make us cautious about using biotechnology to radically change our evolved nature.” But why? Natural selection is a messy, hit-or-miss process of dead-ends and false starts. Why shouldn’t human beings use their reason to direct their evolution in order to produce a new kind of human being? What is so sacrosanct about existing human dispositions and capacities, since they were produced by such an imperfect and purposeless process?

Arnhart and the President’s Council on Bioethics seem to want to clothe human nature with a kind of sacred awe that will restrain human beings from tinkering with it. But such awe is alien to the Darwinian mindset. In his autobiography, Darwin recounted how he had once had such feelings, but they had evaporated… In the Darwinian framework, there is nothing intrinsically right about the current capacities of human beings, so there can be nothing intrinsically wrong about trying to alter them. In the end, Arnhart’s main arguments against radical human bioengineering are his prediction that it may not be technically feasible and his hope that it may be restrained by certain deeply-ingrained human desires. Let’s certainly hope so, but Darwinism itself provides little or no barrier against such schemes. As Carson Holloway points out, the Darwinian account of morality all but invites “wholesale biological engineering.”

Those who desire more information about any of the issues discussed here are encouraged to consult the relevant chapters of my book.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.