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Manliness, Human Dignity, and All That Darwin Can’t Explain

The failure of Darwinism to account for our human experience is something many people know intuitively — but few can articulate it so well as Harvard philosopher Harvey Mansfield and novelist Tom Wolfe. Peter Lawler, who blogs over at First Thing’s Postmodern Conservative, wrote a wonderful essay detailing the ways “America’s two most astute social commentators… have weighed in on the debate over the neo-Darwinian view of evolution.” In “Real Men Prove Darwin Wrong (Again),” Lawler synthesizes how these two masters illustrate that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be explained by Darwin:

They agree that the real controversy in our country is not between rationalists who preach evolutionism and fundamentalists who live in Darwin-denial, but between those who still believe that evolution can account for the whole of human behavior and those who see with their own eyes that it does not. The Darwinians, they observe, cannot properly account for the natural human quality that Mansfield calls “manliness” and that Wolfe, following the sociologists, describes as each individual’s concern for his own status or ranking. The Darwinians do not recognize what genuinely distinguishes the human individual from everything else in nature, so they cannot account for such admirable phenomena as Carson Holloway’s defense of transcendent human nobility against Darwinian reductionism.

Lawler’s essay is incisive and enlightening, reflecting on the denial of manliness (that character trait that drives an individual to believe that she is someone worth championing) inherent in the Darwinian fight against individualism:

Darwinians criticize the human tendency toward championism, and they fight against both our individualism and our speciesism. Science, they think, promises to free us from the illusion that there is anything special about me or mine. It frees us from our religious tendency to think God gave us a privileged place in the nature which, in truth, treats all life forms with equal indifference. The theory of evolution, according to Wolfe, is both a denial of, and a replacement for, religion. It replaces the older “championism” with the proudly dogmatic atheism of those who style themselves special enough to know that there is nothing at all special about us.

Of course, what the actual scientific evidence is showing more and more is that humanity is special. Man is the only free and rational animal, or at least, the only animal that believes he free and rational. Lawler argues that the Darwinian view is that there is nothing special about humanity, or about you or me, or anything at all — which is why it fails us utterly in philosophy.

From the individual’s point of view, as Mansfield observes, the teaching of Darwin really is that I am nothing. It is natural for the beast with speech to believe that he is nothing if not an individual with an important, indispensable identity. Because Darwin provides no support for the individual’s “transcendent” sense of his own dignity, he is, whatever his intention, a nihilist.

Do yourself a favor and read this essay, and be sure to enjoy Lawler’s exposition on Tom Wolfe’s nearly perfect novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, and its subtle critique of Darwinism.