Is Darwin Good for the Conservatives?


Almost ten years ago, I wrote an article, "Origin of the Specious," that looked into the strange and growing neoconservative denial of evolutionary biology. This kind of intellectual flimflammary keeps erupting on the Right. For example, during the Republican presidential candidates' debate, three hopefuls held up their hands when the moderator asked who didn't believe in evolutionary biology–Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan), Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), and former Gov. Mike Huckabee (Ark.).

Later that same week, America's leading conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, hosted a debate–Darwinism and Conservatives: Friends or Foes?–between two Discovery Institute know-nothing intelligent designers, George Gilder and John West, and Northern Illinois University philosopher Larry Arnhart and National Review writer John Derbyshire. Arnhart is the author of the thought-provoking Darwinian Conservativism.

The New York Times reported on the debate:

For some conservatives, accepting Darwin undercuts religious faith and produces an amoral, materialistic worldview that easily embraces abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other practices they abhor. As an alternative to Darwin, many advocate intelligent design, which holds that life is so intricately organized that only an intelligent power could have created it. …

Some of these thinkers have gone one step further, arguing that Darwin's scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today's patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances.

"I do indeed believe conservatives need Charles Darwin," said Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, who has spearheaded the cause. "The intellectual vitality of conservatism in the 21st century will depend on the success of conservatives in appealing to advances in the biology of human nature as confirming conservative thought."

Evolution rejectionist Andrew Ferguson writes about the debate in the Weekly Standard concluding:

…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.

Arnhart responds to Ferguson's article at his Darwinian Conservative blog. He particularly addresses the claim that Confederates appealed to Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) to justify slavery. To wit:

Ferguson quotes a passage from chapter 5 of Darwin's Descent of Man a passage that appears to endorse Francis Galton's eugenics. But Ferguson very carefully does not quote the immediately following passage in which Darwin declares that "sympathy" as "the noblest part of our nature" teaches us that we must care for the weak and the helpless. Nor does Ferguson quote from Darwin's comments in the last chapter of Descent in which he rejects Galton's eugenics as "utopian". I have a whole chapter on social Darwinism and eugenics in Darwinian Conservatism.

John Derbyshire got it right when he said:

"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."

By the way, Derbyshire notes that "the support of useful falsehoods for social purposes has a long and respectable history—at least back to Plato—and is perfectly tenable on practical political grounds." In fact, I suggested in "Origin of the Specious" that leading neoconservative intellectuals may be engaging in just such a Platonic "Noble Lie" when they publicly deny the validity of biological evolution.

That being said, I completely agree with Arnhart that the findings of evolutionary biology about human nature undermine Left-wing utopian social policy schemes. Thousands of years of social "evolution" has been a trial-and-error process of all too slowly discovering those institutions that are increasingly compatible with human nature and which consequently promote human flourishing. For more details, see Friedrich Hayek's The Fatal Conceit and Law, Legislation and Liberty.