Déjà Vu at National Review
Some guy once wrote that there’s nothing new under the sun. He must have had political conservatives’ pro-Darwin arguments in mind.
Yesterday National Review posted an essay by Razib Khan. (See here and here for more on that.) Khan is a Wikipedia-described atheist, writer, and doctoral student in genetics. He is also a self-described conservative. The essay seeks to assure conservatives that Darwin’s theory is “a crowning achievement of Western civilization and a rejoinder to the modern myths of the Left.” Conservatives should happily embrace whatever is claimed in Darwin’s name because “The science built upon the rock of Charles Darwin’s ideas is a reflection of Western modernity’s commitment to truth as a fundamental value.”
What’s more, coos Khan, although Richard Dawkins may think that Darwinism supports atheism, “There are in fact evolutionary biologists who are religious, including Evangelical Protestants.” Whether or not Khan thinks those religious Darwinists are intellectually consistent he does not say.
The More Things Change
As an apparently inexplicable foil, Khan points to yours truly, but can’t bring himself to mention why I or others are skeptical of the rock of Darwin’s ideas. In the best tradition of modern Darwinian argumentation, Khan links to posts by Jerry Coyne and Richard Lenski trash-talking my recent book Darwin Devolves, but neither to the book itself nor to any of my rejoinders of criticisms. I guess that’s because of Khan’s “commitment to truth as a fundamental value.”
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Over twenty years ago National Review published an essay by Northwestern University law professor John O. McGinnis, “The Origins of Conservatism,” which bore the subtitle, “Evolutionary theories suggest that conservative politics are necessary to govern a fallen man.” In a reply in the magazine a few months later I summarized McGinnis’s logic:
McGinnis’s reasoning about biology and politics boils down to a simple syllogism: 1) humans have traits A, B, and C; 2) Darwinism explains everything; 3) therefore, Darwinism explains traits A, B, and C. If we have any reason at all to doubt the second premise, however, his breezy arguments collapse in a heap. And we’ve got reasons aplenty.
Darwin Helps Conservatives?
Just a few years later the journal First Things published a similarly themed essay by Larry Arnhart, a now-retired professor of political science at Northern Illinois University. My response to Arnhart can serve nicely as a response to Khan’s latest iteration of the Darwin-helps-conservatives argument, too. (Although Arnhart and McGinnis aren’t natural scientists, their essays contained as much real science as Khan’s does.)
I’m sorry to be blunt, but the notion that Darwinism supports conservatism is absurd. Steven Pinker notoriously gleaned support for infanticide from The Origin of Species. Other Darwinists have argued that rape and inner-city teenage pregnancy are evolutionary adaptations. None of those is a conservative goal. If Professor Arnhart’s ideas were correct we could predict that university biology departments should be hotbeds of conservatism. Take it from me, they aren’t. Perhaps Arnhart should explain to John Maynard Smith, the prominent evolutionary theoretician and Marxist, how natural selection supports conservative principles. Or Stephen Jay Gould. Or — to show the historical roots of conservative Darwinism — J.B.S. Haldane, who was a big fan of Stalin.
Darwinism — even if true — has no resources to support any real philosophy, whether conservative or liberal, vegetarian or royalist. Organisms have traits, the traits vary, some variations help the organism leave more offspring than other organisms — that’s the whole Darwinian ball of wax. Nothing in Darwinism tells you what those traits should be, either now or in the future, or even what a “trait” is. Nothing says whether it is the average of the traits that is important, the novelties, or the most extreme variation. “Important” has no meaning in Darwinism other than to leave more offspring, which can be done by means pleasant or brutal. A person can use Darwinism to justify any preference; he simply points to some person or animal with the trait he likes and argues that it’s natural. And everyone else can do the same. Post-modernists are not known to be hostile to natural selection.
Like most Darwinian enthusiasts Professor Arnhart does not distinguish between what the theory actually explains, which is very little, and what it merely rationalizes post hoc, which is practically everything. As an example, consider that Darwinism predicts ultimately selfish behavior as organisms strive to continue their own genetic line. By looking around them, however, Darwinists belatedly noticed that humans happily cooperate and, in cases such as celibate clergy, even sacrifice their own “genetic good” for others. Something was amiss. So computer models were generated to try to squeeze human behavior into a Darwinian framework. Lots of computer models. Some models didn’t work at all; others gave the Darwinists something close to what they were looking for. But the entire procedure was an exercise in rationalization. Darwinists didn’t tell us what human nature is or should be — they looked to see what humans were doing and then tried to fit it into their theory. Nor did they tell us how humans came to have such unique and complex abilities as speech and abstract thought. Rather, they start with the fact that we have them.
The relationship between Darwinism and real science is parasitic. The theory’s main use is for Darwinists to claim credit for whatever biology discovers. If research shows that humans are selfish, Darwinism can explain that. If science shows we are unselfish, why, it can explain that too. If we are a combination of both — no problem. If cells are simple or complex, if sexual reproduction is common or rare, if embryos are similar or different, Darwinism will explain it all for you. The elasticity of the theory would make Sigmund Freud blush.
Darwinism is now seeking to become parasitic on politics, too, by offering shallow, ad hoc justifications for what we already know about human nature. Yet conservatives developed their political philosophy over the course of centuries with no help from Darwinists, and with no reference to shifting Darwinian stories. I recommend conservatives decline the kind offer of Darwinists to take credit for their ideas.
Photo: Tomb of Charles Darwin, Westminster Abbey, via Wikimedia Commons.