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Jonah Goldberg, William F. Buckley Jr., and Evolution

William F. Buckley

File under, “Hmmm…” Jonah Goldberg at National Review is never less than an entertaining writer and he wears his learning in an agreeably light way. But this is a bit of a stumble for him. In an excerpt today, Goldberg explains why he frames his forthcoming book, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy, in evolutionary materialist terms. No doubt it will be an interesting book, but look at this:

William F. Buckley Jr. founded National Review to match the Left’s best arguments head-on with the Right’s best arguments. We didn’t win every battle (and some battles we didn’t deserve to win), but conservatism’s strength and success derived from a fearless desire to argue the merits. National Review has stayed loyal to that mission, but much of the conservative movement it helped create has resorted to assertion over argument, invective over reason. I want my argument to persuade those who don’t already agree with me — on the left and, increasingly, on the right.

Those who hate capitalism, scorn the Founding, and assume that Western civilization is inherently villainous or oppressive will be persuaded they are wrong only by arguments on terms they accept. And today, those terms are secular, often atheist, materialistic, Darwinian, and utilitarian. So let’s meet them on their turf.

Humans are animals. We evolved from other animals, who evolved from ever more embarrassing animals, and before that from a humiliating sea of primitive critters in the primordial stew.

It goes on from there. Since he brings up William Buckley, there’s an irony worth pointing out. On atheism, materialism, and Darwinism, Buckley certainly didn’t “meet [the Left] on their turf.” On the contrary, he argued forcefully for intelligent design.

It would be silly to think you can reach back into a revered figure’s past statements, reliably infer what he would say about a hot issue today, whether evolution or something else, and then ask others to submit to that view on the basis of historical fiat. Buckley changed his mind about some big things, as great personalities and thinkers sometimes do.

But let the facts speak. For Buckley on ID, see David Klinghoffer, “How the Evolution Debate Devolved.” WFB called for thoughtful tolerance of different views on evolution, and defended John McCain, then running for President, when the latter accepted an invitation to speak at Discovery Institute. (McCain, in fact, did not speak here at that time.) On a Firing Line episode worth watching, Buckley debated alongside three of our Discovery Institute colleagues, David Berlinski, Michael Behe, and Philip Johnson, on behalf of intelligent design, against Darwinian evolution. See it on YouTube, via the Hoover Institution.

This is not intended as an appeal to authority. Controversial scientific questions with vital worldview implications need to be adjudicated by serious people on their merits. But again, it’s interesting, at least, that other great thinkers from a range of traditions in conservatism — including Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus, Richard Weaver, to name a few — were also Darwin skeptics. John West helpfully addressed the essential incongruity of Darwinism with conservatism in a book, Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest.

In the passage from Goldberg quoted above, the other difficulty is the third paragraph. Surely Goldberg is right that, in persuading people, we should make arguments with premises they accept. In fact, many arguments for ID do precisely that. The problem is that Goldberg is evidently not planning to make an “even if…but in fact” type of argument. To all appearances, and while stating that he’s not an atheist, he agrees with the evolutionary premises.

Which, of course, he’s welcome to do. But next time, please acknowledge the problem of invoking Buckley in such a context. And more important, reflect on the fact that conceding deep philosophical and scientific premises, which lead inexorably to leftist conclusions about morality, human nature, and the role of government, is a common reason that conservatives lose important arguments.

Photo: William F. Buckley, Firing Line, via YouTube.