Is Darwin Good for the Conservatives?

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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.

NEXT: Nifong Nation

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  1. I have an idea. Let’s accept evolutionary science/genetics, cosmology, geology, and, what the heck?, all the other sciences, too. Because they are tools for successfully finding truth, rather than hiding it.

    I recall someone somewhere saying something about the truth setting us free? Or maybe that was a dream.

  2. Thousands of years of social “evolution” has been a trial-and-error process of all too slowly discovering those insitutions that are increasingly compatible with human nature and which consequently promote increased human flourishing.

    IMHO, the “evolution” (if any) of institutions has merely a surface correspondence with what Darwin was talking about. Using “Darwinism” in this loose way would seem to play into the hands of anti-intellectual populists.

  3. “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.”

    Hippy, for future reference- STAY OFF MY SIDE.

  4. jp: I’m not sure what you’re saying.

  5. Three of the GOP contenders have essentially replaced our modern understanding of the world with the understanding humans had 3 thousand years ago. And they do this with very little evidence.

  6. No, they do it IN SPITE OF overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

    Are they really that stupid or is it just to get the votes of all those who really are that stupid?

  7. Three of the GOP contenders have essentially replaced our modern understanding of the world with the understanding humans had 3 thousand years ago. And they do this with very little evidence.

    since when have politicans relied on evidence?

  8. I recall someone somewhere saying something about the truth setting us free?

    Not necessarily. There are some philosophers who believe that truth is an ideology, and indeed may be incompatible with freedom. After all, if one way is the right way and we know which one it is, it would be cruel and heartless not to force the benighted followers of some backward faith to follow along.

    I would prefer if we kept all religions, science included, out of public policy.

  9. I prefer my coffee with truth and freedom, thank you very much.

  10. Ron, thanks for linking to that provocative Origin of the Specious article again. The arrogant ‘Noble Lie’ gambit makes my F#$%king blood boil. Im tempted to go pamphleteering through the bible belt spreading your apparently dangerous and civilization undermining words of Reason.

  11. Ron,

    Thanks for the re-link to your still-vital “Origin of the Specious.” Great title, BTW.

  12. Both LaVey and Falwell would agree that when you introduce pure materialism, each man becomes his own god and law giver. Only the Church of Satan has had the balls to take these ideas that scare the piss out of most secularists and embrace them. The latter just try to find non-religious justifications for the religious morality that they choose to embrace. There is something very refreshing, though, about meeting someone who has the honesty to say “there is no god, so that means all morality is what I say it is, when I say it is.” While I disagree with them, I have a deep respect for that honesty.

  13. Ron Bailey,

    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.

    I don’t think history is remotely that linear.

  14. The arrogant ‘Noble Lie’ gambit makes my F#$%king blood boil.

    The idea that anyone has “rights” is the biggest noble lie of all.

  15. Ron — I’m no scientist, so I hope someone more knowledgeable will correct me if I’m wrong.

    Darwin’s innovation was the idea that the various species arose because genetic mutations that aided survival were propagated, while those that did not aid survival (or were less good at aiding survival) were not propagated. A corollary of this idea is that species would be seen to branch off, differentiate, and “evolve” as, over generations, the “good” mutations are taken up.

    By contrast, what the sentence I quoted seems to be talking about is “evolution” — and by extension “Darwinism” — as either a synonym for trial and error (“we tried Soviet-style communism and it resulted in an impoverished country”) or as a Carlylean “right equals might” concept (“institutions evolve because successful institutions grow stronger than unsuccessful ones and therefore can beat them up”). If you mean the former, then why bother equating Darwin’s contribution with a simple part of everyday reasoning? If you mean the latter, then you’re taking on a pretty heavy burden of fitting history to the theory.

    Writing figuratively has its place. But in a situation where the good guys are trying to distinguish real capital-S Science from nightly news, talk-radio, pulpit-spread shadows thereof, it makes sense to avoid mixing Science with sketchily supported “lessons” it supposedly teaches us for life.

    (Respectfully, of course.)

  16. Even if you accept that there is no God, that leaves human life as the highest form of existence. On what grounds could one claim that one’s will is, objectively, the highest law, above those of other people?

    The conclusion to “If there is no God…” is “…then WE are the highest law,” not “…then I am the highest law,” for on what grounds can you put yourself above others in an objective measurement?

  17. IMHO, the “evolution” (if any) of institutions has merely a surface correspondence with what Darwin was talking about. Using “Darwinism” in this loose way would seem to play into the hands of anti-intellectual populists.

    I’m not sure, but I think what he’s arguing is that much of what has, in the past, been depicted as application of Darwinian thinking to society has had, at best, a rather superficial similarity to biological evolution. A huge amount of “evolutionary” thinking in the social sciences has in fact referred to unilineal social evolution, a theory that, in caricature, hold that all races/peoples stand on an evolutionary ladder something like the following:

    pit of savagery (e.g., Aboriginal Australians) ? barbarism (e.g., the Scythians) ? semi-civilized (e.g., Irish Catholics) ? modern Anglo-Saxon man (with a few more steps thrown in)

    This sort of analysis of social structures in terms of unilineal evolution was used to justify an inherently conservative approach to society and its institutions that argued (1) that evolution had perfected social institutions as they existed, and (2) that socialists, Jews, the Irish, etc. (in short, anyone who upper crust society in the U.S. and Britain felt to be a threat) were fighting against the “natural” progression of society.

    The problem, of course, was the evolutionary science was being shoe-horned to support a social theory (and make it seem scientific). It wasn’t until after WW II that scholars really pointed out that an a-teleological theory of biology did not automatically give a teleological theory of culture. Nevertheless similar notions are still popular: think of all the silly articles that used to appear about how humans will look like the “grays” of UFO lore in 2 million years and will exemplify left-wing values then (i.e., if we’d just get bigger brains we’d turn into democrats).

  18. I see JP just answered and had a rather different notion than what I posted. Still, the history of using pseudo-Darwinian thought (even if the pseudo wasn’t perceived at the time) should give one pause before trying to argue that society has the correct institutions at a given time…

  19. Plus what Grotius and Untermensch said.

  20. But in a situation where the good guys are trying to distinguish real capital-S Science from nightly news, talk-radio, pulpit-spread shadows thereof, it makes sense to avoid mixing Science with sketchily supported “lessons” it supposedly teaches us for life.

    JP, you have hit on one of the problems with science as a philosophy (versus science as an epistemology). Scientists who write for mass audiences invariably want to tell us what the lesson that science has for us about how we should live our lives or structure our politics is. I’m all for the right of scientists to tell us what they think we should do an why, but far too often it is easy to lose sight of the fact that about half of what Scientific American, for example, publishes these days is not science, but rather politics given the trappings of science.

    And, if it’s not clear, I am not bagging on science at all, but rather on the ways in which some scientists seem to feel that their studies give them oracular powers into political and social topics that science does not address.

  21. HUgh Akston | May 7, 2007, 1:18pm | #

    Not necessarily. There are some philosophers who believe that truth is an ideology, and indeed may be incompatible with freedom. After all, if one way is the right way and we know which one it is, it would be cruel and heartless not to force the benighted followers of some backward faith to follow along

    Mr. Akston, your fictional namesake would rise from his grave at your description of truth. Remember, “A is A.”

  22. Should we accept or reject the theory of gravity? Does it have pro- or anti-libertarian implications?

  23. jp and untermensch: I did use quotation marks on the word “evolution” to let you know that I was using the word in the context of social institutions in a somewhat metaphorical way.

    However, jp writes: –“institutions evolve because successful institutions grow stronger than unsuccessful ones and therefore can beat them up”– I would slightly change that to something like “some institutional innovations (often just chanced upon) enable some societies to be more successful than others” — this does not imply “might makes right”–Of course “success” is in the eyes of the beholders, yet I would argue that Enlightenment institutions — democracy, free speech, free markets — have proven “successful” in many relevant dimensions. I would also argue that the development of those Enlightenment institutions was not inevitable or in any sense “necessary.”

    In any case, first and most crucially, Enlightenment institutions enabled rapid population growth in countries that adopted them (Darwinian reproductive success, if you will). Interestingly, it remains to be seen if subsequent reduced population growth (that seems to be somehow entailed by increasing prosperity) will correlate with future “success” though my bet is that it will. But this is a much longer discussion.

    Again, may I recommend reading Hayek’s work in this area.

  24. No, Joe, you are wrong:

    Even if you accept that there is no God, that leaves human life as the highest form of existence. On what grounds could one claim that one’s will is, objectively, the highest law, above those of other people?

    The conclusion to “If there is no God…” is “…then WE are the highest law,” not “…then I am the highest law,” for on what grounds can you put yourself above others in an objective measurement?

    When “God is dead,” each man’s opinion on anything outside of hard science becomes its own law and truth. In that context, I can elevate my own opinion to whatever I choose to because there is no one above me who can stop me. Only my peers, other human beings, can try to stop me.

    The group can no more explain why it has a natural right to force itself on the dissenter than vice versa in such a context. Everything becomes a matter of “the will to power.”

  25. Man is the measure of all things: what a new and novel concept–in 450 B.C.

    The political noble liars are fishing for votes from the idiot Christers.

    Next issue.

  26. Ron Bailey,

    In any case, first and most crucially, Enlightenment institutions enabled rapid population growth in countries that adopted them…

    Wow! Really? And here the over hundred year old debate on this issue now solved!

    I doubt it, given that population expansion Europe started to occur prior to even the earliest stages of the Enlightenment, you know, back in the 16th century!

  27. Even if you accept that there is no God, that leaves human life as the highest form of existence. On what grounds could one claim that one’s will is, objectively, the highest law, above those of other people?

    The conclusion to “If there is no God…” is “…then WE are the highest law,” not “…then I am the highest law,” for on what grounds can you put yourself above others in an objective measurement?

    Um, no. If there is no God, I can only feel what I feel. Other humans have feelings too but I’ll never feel what they feel. From my perspective it makes perfect sense to care about their well being as much as I do rocks or trees.

    Not saying I think this way, but without God, a divine law or some kind of karma I can think of no rational reason why I shouldn’t. For the average man though, the greatest danger is not that he will become evil but that he will be so distressed that he won’t be able to function.

    Us thinking people don’t need God, so we tend to forget how the average person thinks and how terribly lonley and helpless he feels inside.

    People who want to convert the world to atheism are simple fools.

  28. Ron Bailey,

    Suffice to say the issue of why European populations started to expand again post plague is a complicated one. I will say though that much of it had to do with simple population replacement and the riches garnered from such a reduced population and the wages that they could charge. I other words, a reduced population made more money and that in turn allowed for the feeding of more mouths.

  29. Mike T,

    There are no grounds to believe that your own thoughts and desires are “truth” that don’t apply just as strongly to other people’s thoughts and desires.

    “Only my peers, other human beings, can try to stop me.” Sure, you can force other people to accept your authority, but that’s not an argument. People have forced others to accept their authority, without legitimate arguments, in God-centric socieities as well. But the question isn’t about whether you can force people to treat your will as the highest law, but whether there is any philosophical justification for thinking your will is the highest law.

  30. I’m living proof that Larry Arnhart is right. Until a few months ago, I was a staunch socialist, and a two-time Nader voter. I’ve had a subscription to The Socialist Worker. On separate occasions, I’ve solicited the autographs of Noam Chomsky and Al Franken.

    Then I read Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which is all about the science of human nature. It has sparked a revolution is my view of the world, from which I’m still reeling.

    I’m trying to remain skeptical as I continue to research Libertarian ideas (largely in this site’s archive), but part of me knows that the battle is already lost.

    So, do conservatives need Darwin? They needed him to convert me.

  31. Should we accept or reject the theory of gravity? Does it have pro- or anti-libertarian implications?

    Good example.

    We should accept the theories of gravity (Newton’s and Einstein’s) because they have proven to be true to the best of our abilities to measure them.

    Nonetheless, you will find no dearth of idiots who think that Einstein’s theories of relativity — the general one of which contains his theory of gravity — prove that nothing is objective. That finding is usually used to argue for anti-libertarian conclusions.

    Clods.

  32. Ron Bailey,

    You may wish to compare the outliers – Ireland – which saw little population growth (or none) in the 16th century and the more common experiences of France, England, etc. which saw significant population growth.

  33. Kay Ludlow,

    It’s an open question which side of the truth/freedom divide Ayn Rand (and therefore whatshisname) would come down on.

    I like to think that, were the truth somehow confirmed, she’d want to allow people to continue to believ what they wish, even though she would call them idiots.

  34. Joe,

    You also miss my point that in a purely materialistic context there is no such thing as a “highest law” except whatever one or more human beings think it is. I could say that the highest law is not “do not murder” but “don’t walk on my grass” and you can’t say that I’m wrong. Being able to say I am wrong means that you can prove it based on something other than your own opinion or agreement from other human beings.

    I guess the simplest way to put it is that when you take out a higher power, each person becomes their own higher power, and whatever one person says about right and wrong is as valid as what the next guy says.

  35. I think Derbyshire is the only one really on the ball here. While evolution can certainly deliver insightful ideas that might find useful when applying to human society and politics, there’s no reason to think that it must do so, or that the lessons of biology necessarily point the way to anything.

    Biology is extremely diverse (and thus has examples of things that can be shoehorned into virtually any political philosophy), and human beings are very clearly pretty idiosyncratic. In nature, we can find communes and brutal competition, cooperation and sacrifice and altruism and raw self-interest. All of it an “is” and none of it an “ought.”

  36. “I guess the simplest way to put it is that when you take out a higher power, each person becomes their own higher power, and whatever one person says about right and wrong is as valid as what the next guy says.”

    Claiming to know and follow a higher power is no different: it’s just another way of asserting that you know best, and then asserting that someone really powerful agrees with you.

    You are under the illusion that it’s something more than that, but it isn’t. You’re in the same boat as the rest of us.

  37. I guess the simplest way to put it is that when you take out a higher power, each person becomes their own higher power, and whatever one person says about right and wrong is as valid as what the next guy says.

    So?

    One person who says Jehovah is his higher power and another who says Ahura Mazda is his higher power may also disagree, and neither can prove the validity of his position to the other.

    You are arguing that the lack of a God eliminates any possible argument for objectivity in the universe.

    In one word: No it doesn’t.

  38. One thing you have to remember when applying Darwinism to ‘patterns of human behavior’ is that the ‘organism’ being perpetuated is not us, it’s the philosophy itself. That’s why Dawkins called it the selfish gene. So if conservatism survives and is more successful than it’s competing social philosophy, it’s not necessarily because it is better for man and society, but because it contains information that makes it more suited to be passed on and accepted from one man to another.

    Not sure if that came out the way i wanted….

  39. Mike T,

    “whatever one person says about right and wrong is as valid as what the next guy says” sounds, to me, like a pretty good refutation of the thesis “Without God, I am the highest law.”

    If you and “the next guy” are equally valid, you have no basis to claim that your thoughts and desires are more important than his. You cannot claim that you should rightfully take precedence over him, and remain philosophically consistent.

  40. Claiming to know and follow a higher power is no different: it’s just another way of asserting that you know best, and then asserting that someone really powerful agrees with you. You are under the illusion that it’s something more than that, but it isn’t. You’re in the same boat as the rest of us.

    Actually, I assert that all morality is subject to the truth condition that God exists. I am not in the same boat as you because if I came to find out beyond any shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t exist and all that, I would go back to living more or less according to a nihilistic, sort of Church of Satan philosophy on life. I would rationally reject morality and only choose to behave “morally” when it suits my purposes.

  41. Dr. Akston,

    Allowing people to believe what they wish is a mutual courtesy, and still a politically radical notion (to which I subscribe wholeheartedly); construing the truth AS SUCH to be incompatible with freedom is something else again . . .

  42. I understand, Mike T and Grand Chalupa, that in the absence of God, many people will conclude that there can be no objective claims of truth and rightness. I’m saying that those people are making an error, not that there won’t be any of them.

  43. “Us thinking people…”

    Oh, this is too rich!

  44. “I’m saying that those people are making an error…”

    Which error is that?

  45. Joe,

    If you and “the next guy” are equally valid, you have no basis to claim that your thoughts and desires are more important than his. You cannot claim that you should rightfully take precedence over him, and remain philosophically consistent.

    Unfortunately, you misunderstand what I mean by equally valid. I am suggesting that both individuals can come to their own legitimate conclusions. I am absolutely not, in any way, shape or form, suggesting that in pure materialism that human life is worth anything on its own other than what someone values it at.

    There is nothing philosophically inconsistent about one man walking over to his neighbor and murdering him for the hell of it.

  46. The one I described at 1:38, henry.

    They are making the error of thinking, “Since there is no God above human beings, I am God.”

    No, if there is no God above human beings, then you are still a human being, and so is everyone else. You have nothing that justifies a claim of inherent authority that your fellow human beings lack.

  47. Without God, there is no morality. Any attempt to create a moral code that prescribes objective values of “good” and “bad” will fall in upon itself.

    Without morality, policy arguments are meaningless. How can one policy or ideology be “good,” or better than another, when there is no such thing as “good”?

    Hell, without God, have a good time even justifying a system of logic. And without that, good luck proving anything.

  48. Joe,

    Objective truth exists without God. Unfortunately it’s called the collection of the laws of hard science. Everything else is each man or woman’s spin on things.

  49. “Actually, I assert that all morality is subject to the truth condition that God exists.”

    But this assertion is no more useful than any that anyone else makes about anything.

    Worse, even if it were true, it still doesn’t provide anything useful. If morality is only because God says it, then it’s not a morality at all in exactly the same way you scoff at anyone else’s opinions.

    “I am not in the same boat as you because if I came to find out beyond any shadow of a doubt that God doesn’t exist and all that, I would go back to living more or less according to a nihilistic, sort of Church of Satan philosophy on life.”

    Then you are a sociopath, and I feel sorry for you.

    “I would rationally reject morality and only choose to behave “morally” when it suits my purposes.”

    You seem very confused about what reason and rationality are.

  50. “Hell, without God, have a good time even justifying a system of logic. And without that, good luck proving anything.”

    Now this will be good for a laugh: explain how, materially, the existence or non-existence of God makes any difference at all to “justifying” a system of logic. What role does God play, exactly?

  51. Mike T,

    “I am suggesting that both individuals can come to their own legitimate conclusions.”

    No, the absence of God does not allow the same question to have two equally valid answers. My car would become both green and not-green if God disappeared. If there was no God, and you said my car was red, your opinion would not be equally valid as my opinion that it is green.

    If Person A claims that he has the right to dominate Person B, and Person B claims the opposite, they cannot both be right.

    “There is nothing philosophically inconsistent about one man walking over to his neighbor and murdering him for the hell of it.” There is if he claims that his actions is right. There is if the murderer claims that there is something about his essential being that gives him the right to murder, since the victim will have that same essential being, as a fellow human.

  52. Joe,

    No, if there is no God above human beings, then you are still a human being, and so is everyone else. You have nothing that justifies a claim of inherent authority that your fellow human beings lack.

    You are talking about a vacuum here. Just as there is no positive assertion of authority, there is no positive assertion that to claim it is wrong. More generally, there is nothing that says I can do something, and nothing that says I can’t.

  53. er, My car would NOT become…

    (Yeah, right, as if that’s my biggest problem on this thread…)

  54. “They are making the error of thinking, “Since there is no God above human beings, I am God.”

    No, if there is no God above human beings, then you are still a human being, and so is everyone else. You have nothing that justifies a claim of inherent authority that your fellow human beings lack.”

    OK, but that sounds completely different from “many people will conclude that there can be no objective claims of truth and rightness. I’m saying that those people are making an error….”

    What is logically inconsistent about say there are no objective claims to truth or “rightness” (sic), but that we are all human beings, with no one having a legitimate claim for authority over all others (kings and such being damned).

    Can we just stop the childishness and admit that morality in all societies is matter of consensus and is highly malleable and impermanent? Christ, just look at the fucking Mormons–as big a bunch of religious pains-in-the-ass as there are. Polygamy good, no, polygamy bad. Black people very bad, no, black people OK. And that fucking religion is barely 150 years old!

  55. Joe,

    My car would become both green and not-green if God disappeared

    Don’t be obtuse. You can stop beating up your strawman because I said that in the absence of God, the only objective truth is from the hard sciences. Care to take another stab at it?

    If Person A claims that he has the right to dominate Person B, and Person B claims the opposite, they cannot both be right.

    Yes, they can, because there is no objective determination of what is right and wrong except in the little world that exists in their heads. In Person A’s thought process, he’s right; in Person B’s thought process, he’s right. What part of “outside of the hard sciences (because they can be empirically proven) there is no objective truth in pure materialism” do you fail to grok?

  56. “More generally, there is nothing that says I can do something, and nothing that says I can’t.”

    There is your own will, and feelings, and thoughts, and needs, and wants. I always hear anti-atheists saying that these things are what would replace God if there was no God.

    I’m accepting that for the moment, and noting that other people have wills, and feelings, and thoughts, and needs, and wants, too. If you are postulating that these things are the highest order, then you have to accept that they are the highest order in other people, too, since they are objectively indistinguishable.

  57. When I read threads like this, I am constantly reminded that human beings are, at most, only about 300 generations from the Stone Age (in many places, far, far less).

    Observing the pathetic state of the all-swallowing devout is the surest road to misanthropy.

    Twain and Mencken, I hear you!

  58. Joe,

    I’m accepting that for the moment, and noting that other people have wills, and feelings, and thoughts, and needs, and wants, too. If you are postulating that these things are the highest order, then you have to accept that they are the highest order in other people, too, since they are objectively indistinguishable.

    Ummm, no, I don’t. You still can’t drill down to the deeper fact that if we are all equally free from divine constraints, I can logically choose to say that I do not value those things in others and proceed from there.

  59. henry,

    “What is logically inconsistent about say there are no objective claims to truth or “rightness” (sic), but that we are all human beings, with no one having a legitimate claim for authority over all others (kings and such being damned).”

    That statement is perfectly consistent, as far as I can tell. What would be inconsistent is to recognize your own humanity, recognize the humanity of another being, then claim that you can rightly put yourself above him, because of traits you possess that are inherent to all humans. He would have those traits, too. If you’re going to idolize those traits in yourself – ie, declare your will to be the highest law – than you cannot refuse to recognize them in other people, and remain philosophically consistent.

  60. Some day, MikeT is going to get around to trying to explain how the existence of a god could make rape magically wrong if it wasn’t already wrong to begin with. Trying and failing, just as every apologist has throughout history.

  61. Some day, MikeT is going to get around to trying to explain how the existence of a god could make rape magically wrong if it wasn’t already wrong to begin with. Trying and failing, just as every apologist has throughout history.

    You assume that this god has said that rape is wrong… If this god said that rape was moral, I would defend “the right to rape” on the grounds that whatever the Supreme Creator of the Universe says goes.

  62. And no, it does not bother me in the least that the Supreme Creator rules by force. That is the prerogative of a higher power.

  63. Mike T,

    “You still can’t drill down to the deeper fact that if we are all equally free from divine constraints, I can logically choose to say that I do not value those things in others and proceed from there.”

    You can choose to say anything you want; that doesn’t make it logically valid. If you claim that your own will carries moral weight – not just in your own feelings, but as a description of the order of the universe – then you cannot deny that other people have the same moral standing, since they have the same features that you use to justify your own moral standing.

    Taking God out of the equation simply replaces “made in the image of God” with “in possession of a human will.” Sure, you can ignore the implication of either statement, but that’s a philosophical error, indefensible even on the terms of those who make it.

  64. “Only the Church of Satan has had the balls to take these ideas that scare the piss out of most secularists and embrace them.”

    well, some cos members have made me laugh so hard i’ve pissed myself, so that’s partially true.

    ultimately the faith/secular dichotomy provides a false choice, and presumes that people have no inner life if they’re not religious or have no rational direction if they are religious.

    this serves the purposes of people like falwell and lavey (tony was a nice guy probably, underneath all the bullshit, but the stuff he built fell to shit in no time flat, even as an out and out con)

  65. Joe,

    And once again, you miss the point. We are equal only insofar as we can make up our own ideas and genetically the same. The idea that being equally homo sapien entitles you to respect is based on transcendental morality, which doesn’t exist in pure materialism since there are no laws of nature or religion to support them.

  66. Correct me if I’m wrong but I always thought evolution was a purely descriptive account of how things work. That is, it says things like “if you pinch here then you’ll feel the squeeze over there.” It doesn’t say anything about what we should “squeeze” and that is where I think people disagree.

    So there are two conflicting effects of evolution on conservativism:

    1. Insofar as people agree on what makes life valuable I think evolution is a boon to conservatives because it seems to indicate the conservative way of doing things works.

    2. Insofar as people disagree over values, evolution seems to lead people to believe that certain non-conservative values are the ones worth pursuing because once you start thinking of the world as a mechanical system it becomes hard to accept certain “basic truths” such as that life is valuable by itself (not as a means).

    I think this has ended up causing a split between conservatives who focus on process (libertarians) and conservatives who focus on goals/value(fundamentalists). In the fundamentalist view evolutionary theorizing (even if correct) leads to a negative outcome. So evolution theory when applied to history seems to say “don’t apply evolution theory to history.” (this is why you have the “nobel lie”).

  67. “You assume that this god has said that rape is wrong… If this god said that rape was moral, I would defend “the right to rape” on the grounds that whatever the Supreme Creator of the Universe says goes.”

    Thus demonstrating that your morality is just as arbitrary as any other (not to mention that you are, indeed, a sociopath).

    Worse, the opinion that “whatever the creator of the universe says goes” is no less just an opinion of yours that no one else has to care about. God can exist and indeed be super powerful: so what? Why should anyone care what God thinks? God can threaten punish bully and destroy just like any tyrant could. But he can’t make anyone care about his opinion, or provide any legitimate justification why anyone should that’s any better than any non-theistic justification.

    All you’ve done is emptied the idea of “right and wrong” of all meaning and turned it into a synonym for “what God commands.” Ok, but so what? I can do the same with “whatever a coin flip rules.” That too is no better and no worse.

  68. “Not saying I think this way, but without God, a divine law or some kind of karma I can think of no rational reason why I shouldn’t.”

    i’ll move away from trolling you for two minutes to say this:

    there’s plenty of reasons to do so, namely that you have to live with people and within some kind of community in order to work, to play and to otherwise be human. that means you have to obey a minimal set of rules or suffer social sanctioning. in the case of violence contra the community, greater punishments will be induced, both physical and mental.

    there are plenty of rational reasons to obey morals, even if they don’t actually exist in the way that hamburgers exist. just having to get along with people is reason #1.

  69. You still can’t drill down to the deeper fact that if we are all equally free from divine constraints, I can logically choose to say that I do not value those things in others and proceed from there.

    Then I fail to grasp your devotion to hard science.

    After all, your notion of empirical reality is indistinguishable from a variety of simulacra that may induce a person’s perceptions. Why do you give any special consideration to hard science when the simplest explanation for reality is that you are nothing but a brain in a box?

  70. Mike T,

    You need to learn the difference between disagreement and confusion.

    I’m not missing anything. You’re not making terribly complicated points; childishliy simplistic ones, actually. I understand your point, have repeatedly acknowledged it, and have addressed it in every subsequent post. Get off the high horse of your imagined superiority, and drop the conceited pose. It adds nothing to the discussion except to highlight your own arrogance.

    “The idea that being equally homo sapien entitles you to respect is based on transcendental morality, which doesn’t exist in pure materialism…”

    Then the claim that one is justified in harming others goes out the window, too, because there can be no moral status conferred to the self by virtue of that self posessing a will.

  71. Ms Ludlow,

    How right you are. I think I originally equivocated metaphysical truth and political freedom. Even if we ever happen to stumble on some metaphysical truth, one is free to accept or reject that truth as one sees fit.

    There are those who believe that metaphysical conclusions lead inexorably to particular political configurations. As stated earlier I believe that such sentiments are religiously motivated, even if that religion takes the form of science.

  72. plunge,

    Ah yes, the charge of being a sociopath because I would do the will of the Supreme Creator if it seemed repugnant to the rest of us. I would naturally require a direct revelation from said Supreme Creator. However, if the God of Israel in an undeniable way told me to do something, I would do it because THAT would be the only thing that would make sense.

  73. Actually, the difficulty you have grasping the idea that other people have wills, feelings, and spirits that are like yours, and just as important as yours, is a pretty good indicator of sociopathic tendencies, as well.

  74. unrelated question: how come people never have divine revelations where the creator tells them “think for yourself, dumbass!”

    ?

    (bob dobbs aside)

  75. “…if the God of Israel in an undeniable way told me to…” rape another human being, I wouldn’t. It would still be wrong. Even if I really wanted to – if my will, feelings, and thoughts were all directing me to – I would still consider it an evil act, even if the God of the Israelites and my own god-like (to me) internal life told me to.

    Thus laying to rest the assertion that there can be nothing but individual will as a moral code in the absence of God.

  76. Joe,

    Fair enough. I apologize for my tone, but then you are arguing like pretty much every secularist I have met in the past few years since becoming a Christian. Given my background, I am not predisposed to putting much stock in the opinions of others when they disagree with mine. Believe it or not that didn’t come from arrogance, but from the dark realization as a child that if there was no God, that I had to find my own way and where necessary do whatever it took to make my way in the world.

  77. Mike T,

    So are you gonna bite all the stock Euthyphro bullets? If God decided to declare animal torture okay, would it suddenly become okay? Is fear of hell the only good reason we have for acting in accordance with God’s commands?

    If so, then you too must deny a higher law. You too are a mere subjectivist/relativist. You can’t claim that morality requires God’s existence. You can only claim that morality is a complete fraud, whether God exists or not.

    Also, joe’s right in that you have no basis for the claim that (absent God) your own will can make things right and wrong. Here’s a claim worth discussing: there is no right and wrong, there’s nothing more than what people think. Here’s a stupid claim: right and wrong are real and they are determined by what people think. As if people’s opinions can magically change the moral status of things (as if God’s opinions could magically change the moral status of things!).

  78. Joe,

    Actually, the difficulty you have grasping the idea that other people have wills, feelings, and spirits that are like yours, and just as important as yours, is a pretty good indicator of sociopathic tendencies, as well.

    I have been speaking hypothetically this entire time. I fully grasp this, and have a militant live and let live approach to life. In fact, that has gotten me into trouble with others because I get very, very angry when other people are subjected to arbitrary force that hurts them or oppresses them. You will not find a very pro-police attitude on my blog for that very reason…

    I am suggesting simply that pure materialism is heaven for the sociopath. Or, if you prefer, the ubermensch. The one who will rise up and impose his will to power on others.

  79. Grand Chalupa wrote: From my perspective it makes perfect sense to care about their well being as much as I do rocks or trees. Not saying I think this way, but without God, a divine law or some kind of karma I can think of no rational reason why I shouldn’t.

    Why assume that the only ‘rational’ reasons are ones relating to self-interest? It’s not like reasons of self-interest are special and unproblematic. The claim that one should seek what is in one’s interest is just as normative (evaluative, ‘ought’-ish) as the claim that one should care for the poor.

  80. unrelated question: how come people never have divine revelations where the creator tells them “think for yourself, dumbass!”

    Probably because the result would be a bit like this:
    http://www.mwscomp.com/movies/brian/brian-19.htm

  81. So are you gonna bite all the stock Euthyphro bullets? If God decided to declare animal torture okay, would it suddenly become okay? Is fear of hell the only good reason we have for acting in accordance with God’s commands?

    I would not do it out of fear of hell, but because that is what I ought to do now. However, I would not obey such an order unless I knew that God really was telling me to do it because, as it is written, “God is not a man, that he should change his mind” and “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” Since the law makes a distinction between ceremonial sacrifice and sadistic torture and mutilation, I would be rather suspect…

  82. MikeT: I am suggesting simply that pure materialism is heaven for the sociopath. Or, if you prefer, the ubermensch. The one who will rise up and impose his will to power on others.

    Why isn’t your view of the world just as accommodating? Is it simply because sociopaths in your world will be faced with hell? But that’s no different in kind than a wacky materialist world where, due to some natural process, sociopaths end up suffering eternally. In which case God plays no role: it’s just there are these organisms and whether they end up suffering depends on their psychology and their behavior.

  83. MikeT wrote: I would not do it out of fear of hell, but because that is what I ought to do now.

    But why think you ought to do it now? Why think God’s commands have any ought-giving force? (It’s not like the very act of giving a command somehow always carries with it some ‘ought’). I mean, if there were an independent moral standard that could provide backing for God’s commands, and say why God’s commands give oughts, then you’d have something. But you’re denying all that, because you deny an independent moral standard.

    It can’t be that God first makes a rule which says that his rules matter, and from then on, his rules matter!

    (If you just outright define ‘ought’ in terms of God’s commands, then the question remains as to why the fact that you ‘ought’ to do something gives you any good reason to do it.)

  84. Mike T,

    “I am suggesting simply that pure materialism is heaven for the sociopath. Or, if you prefer, the ubermensch. The one who will rise up and impose his will to power on others.”

    Maybe, but we have been talking philosophy, not the practicalies of governance. Perhaps no God would encourage people to live like sociopaths – but perhaps not. It is entirely possible, contrary to the assertions of militant believers, to construct a human-centered morality.

    Postulating the moral standing of the human mind and will is no more of a strech than postulating the existence of God, and is just as fertile a ground for the development of a moral code. Perhaps more fertile, because we have the reality of human experience to test moral claims against.

  85. MikeT:

    And, out of curiosity, what’s your view on God’s decision-making? When he decided to make rape wrong, did he have any good reason for making it wrong instead of right? Or did he just flip a coin, as it were?

    Is your view that God simply doesn’t act on reasons, that his decisions have no justification backing them up? Because it’s a standard part of theology to think that God is a rational being, and it’s hard to see how to preserve that on the view just mentioned.

  86. “Ah yes, the charge of being a sociopath because I would do the will of the Supreme Creator if it seemed repugnant to the rest of us.”

    Well, yes. The rest of us have things like empathy and concern for others. But you said that you’d toss that right out out the window if no one was bossing you around, or if no one was. How is that NOT sociopathy?

    “I would naturally require a direct revelation from said Supreme Creator. However, if the God of Israel in an undeniable way told me to do something, I would do it because THAT would be the only thing that would make sense.”

    Again, that is only because you have made the same arbitrary judgment as you are accusing others of doing: you have deciding that obeying commands of something very powerful is “right.” You keep trying to pretend that this is something different, but its not.

  87. Tony wrote: Hell, without God, have a good time even justifying a system of logic. And without that, good luck proving anything.

    What do you think are the requirements on justifying a system of logic? And how does God help us meet these requirements?

  88. Grotius: Fair point on population. I suspect that 16th century population growth was also boosted by the new agricultural products brought in from the New World. They boosted ag productivity because they had relatively few pests in the Old World. Potatoes also grew very well in the colder parts of Europe too, e.g., Ireland. Potatoes also replaced and supplemented finickier crops like oats.

    However, if you want to look at population take off in the Europe, it’s interesting to note that fertility rates began to decline in France at the end of the 18th century. Nevertheless population continued to increase. Why? At least part of the reason is that infant mortality must have begun to decline.

    I completely admit that the process was complicated. But what is most interesting to me is that the development of Enlightenment institutions was accidental, analogous to beneficial mutations that enable differential reproductive sucess of of organisms.

    Tom Sizemore: Welcome. Have you had a chance to read our interview with Pinker?

  89. plunge wrote: Well, yes. The rest of us have things like empathy and concern for others. But you said that you’d toss that right out out the window if no one was bossing you around, or if no one was. How is that NOT sociopathy?

    Sometimes non-sociopathic people can force themselves to do terrible things even though they hate doing them, even though it traumatizes them. So perhaps MikeT would force himself to carry out his orders, all the while fighting might tears and vomit. Perhaps after spending all day cracking the bones of widows, he would collapse into hyperventilating screams and take drugs to pass out until the next day.

    Of course, if he’d have no problem doing stuff like that, if he wouldn’t be traumatized by it, then sure, he’s a sociopath.

  90. It is entirely possible, contrary to the assertions of militant believers, to construct a human-centered morality.

    Indeed, I find it curious that one could believe that God would create an apparently orderly universe, give a being created in His image the capacity for rationality, plop that being into that universe, and then tell the being to ignore his own rationality and find truth only in poorly conveyed pronouncements of right and wrong that run counter to all observations of reality.

  91. Mr. F. Le Mur wrote: The idea that anyone has “rights” is the biggest noble lie of all.

    Do you think all morality is a lie, or do you think rights are special?

  92. “Sometimes non-sociopathic people can force themselves to do terrible things even though they hate doing them, even though it traumatizes them”

    True. That is one of the biggest tragedies in human history.

  93. Also, one thing on this point:

    MikeT wrote: However, I would not obey such an order unless I knew that God really was telling me to do it because, as it is written, “God is not a man, that he should change his mind” and “It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law.” Since the law makes a distinction between ceremonial sacrifice and sadistic torture and mutilation, I would be rather suspect…

    Why assume what’s written is correct? After all, God may have deliberately spread misinformation, and there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that (on your view, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with anything). Perhaps God has been lying this whole time, but lying is actually okay (it’s okay because God declared it to be okay).

  94. I’m sorry if I’m repeating something someone else already said (I didn’t have time to read through all the comments) but I read the NY Times article this weekend and the main issue the conservatives who think that Darwinism is good for their world view is that they flat-out IGNORE that evolution is about CHANGE, not a justification for keeping things static. Additionally, you can’t use evolution just like you can’t use the free market. It’s just an explanation for what’s here and how things work.

  95. Ron Bailey,

    Yes, the “Columbian Exchange” was an important factor in European population growth.

    Yeah, population growth wise France was one of the main the European outliers in the 19th century. There is a great deal of argument as to why that is the case. However, when one couples that with the fact that most French people stayed home in the 19th century (though they did move a lot within France) – in other words, they for the most part did not engage in the great migrations from Europe in the 19th century – one sees that things were pretty good in France in the 19th century. Why were they good? Probably in part because of land redistribution and the abolishment of the remaining medieval property regulations, etc. during the French Revolution.

  96. “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.”

    For “useful falsehoods” to work, it may be necessary to provide a loophole for people who are trying to get practical work done. In the book, “The Discoverers”, Boorstin pointed out that while The Church was busy redrawing maps to comply with fanciful church doctrine, navigators were keeping their own set of maps.

    (Please don’t take any of this as my approval of “useful falsehoods”.)

  97. Ron Bailey,

    Anyway, throwing a bone your way it is probably the case that the inability to adopt new technology was a major reason why population growth was flat in Ireland in the 15th and 16th centuries. Of course the constant warfare of the Anglo-Irish Barons and the “native irish” nobles didn’t help much either.

  98. Ron Bailey,

    Adopt new agricultural technology that is. And it of course can’t all be blamed on warfare, since Europe’s overall population was shooting up at a time when warfare was being conducted at a breakneck pace in Europe and it was effecting significant portions of Europe’s civilian population.

  99. I don’t know what any of you are talking about but we just had Det. Jack Scagnetti from Natural Born Killers post in this thread and Ron is the only one to comment on it.

  100. …intelligent design, which holds that life is so intricately organized that only an intelligent power could have created it…
    But the intelligent power didn’t need to be created?

    Darwin’s innovation was the idea that the various species arose because genetic mutations that aided survival were propagated…
    Close; in Darwin’s time genes were still unknown and he had to view the process as a ‘black box.’

    Even if you accept that there is no God, that leaves human life as the highest form of existence.
    So says the human.

    Do you think all morality is a lie, or do you think rights are special?

    I think morality is, for the most part, the result of hard-wired (“evolved”) structures and responses in the human brain; what’s considered moral in all human societies, though seemingly pretty different from each other, are actually very similar when compared to, say, the “morality” of ants or sparrows.

    Human “rights” are a codification of the better* parts of natural morality, but does there exist a “right to life” (or property, etc) when that right is regularly violated by mundane things like gravity, germs and weather? The “right to life” (property) isn’t really a right to life so much as a prohibition on people killing other people (with exceptions – of course!), based on the nominal evolved ; unfortunately, gravity, germs and weather are immune to those prohibitions.

    *Yes “good and evil” can be defined without resorting to immaginary beings: ‘that which produces the most pleasure and the least pain for the most people (other members of my species) is “good”‘, would be a nice starting point for a definition.

    “A History of Violence” by S. Pinker:
    http://pinker.wjh.harvard.edu/articles/media/2007_03_19_New%20Republic.pdf

  101. based on the nominal evolved ;
    “based on the nominal evolved biological/genetic morality;”

  102. When was the invention of the horse collar? Supposedly that had a lot to do with increased agricultural production.

    Re: sociopaths. Funny, but looking at history, the most dangerous sociopaths are the ones who built a religion around themselves.

    Sociopaths will use anything to justify themselves. They have no laws. That’s why they’re called sociopaths.

    (And if a sizable percentage of the God-believing population is only being moral because they’re scared of being sent to the Big Lake of Fire when they die, while atheists are more or less moral because it is something they have decided upon as being important, just which side is being more virtuous, exactly?)

  103. For those interested in morals, relativism, and the like, I highly recommend (again) the first 60 pages or so of Richard Posner’s Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory.

  104. Even if you accept that there is no God, that leaves human life as the highest form of existence.

    That’s just one conclusion one could jump to. Other possible conclusions:
    * That leaves my human life as the highest form of existence.
    * That doesn’t leave any particular type of life as the highest form of existence, but since I play on the human team, I favor ethics that are favorable to humans.
    * The above, but I care about cute, furry animals, too.
    * I’ll just follow whatever my parents taught me about right and wrong.
    * a zillion other conclusions

  105. Ron:

    Almost ten years ago, I wrote an article, “Origin of the Specious,” that looked into the strange and growing neoconservative denial of evolutionary biology.

    I remember thinking, when I read that article, that perhaps an explanation was that we were seeing an attempt by the neocons to engender political allies among fundamentalist Christians for the neocons’ aggressive mid-east agenda.

  106. I’m sorry if I’m repeating something someone else already said (I didn’t have time to read through all the comments) but I read the NY Times article this weekend and the main issue the conservatives who think that Darwinism is good for their world view is that they flat-out IGNORE that evolution is about CHANGE, not a justification for keeping things static. Additionally, you can’t use evolution just like you can’t use the free market. It’s just an explanation for what’s here and how things work.

    You are, of course, absolutely right: Darwinian evolution is about change. But its (mis)application in social theory seems to always overlook that point in favor of arguing that one particular vision of society is that to which all others are evolving. If you accept this teleological evolution, then you have to defend that particularly evolved form of society against the forces of savagery that always are ready to drag you down.

    Ronald Bailey’s point, however, is a bit different. Social conventions and institutions grow over time to meet particular needs, and radical social engineering (analagous to “intelligent design” anyone?) is more likely to fail than to succeed because something made from whole cloth is unlikely to be a relatively fit solution to societal conditions. That is an argument conservatism can use that is in its favor that doesn’t do violence to Darwinism. The corollary, however, is that systems need to be open to organic change, and I see little of that openness among conservatives.

  107. grumpy realist,

    If you ever get a chance read Peter Perdue’s article – “Technological Determinism In Agrarian Societies” – in Merritt Roe Smith & Leo Marx, eds., Does Technology Drive History – The Dilemma of Technological Determinism, p. 168-200 (1995).

  108. NY Times:

    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’m skeptical that largely affirmed Darwinian biology can add much to the strong cases for free-market capitalism and limited government, and to the strong arguments against Left-wing utopian social policy schemes.

    The voracity of Darwinian biology resides in the action of genes. The case for human liberty resides in human social interaction. There’s also a Hayek volume that’s pertinent to this point:

    The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0913966673/reasonfoundation-20/
    .

  109. By: “There’s also a Hayek volume that’s pertinent to this point”. I meant the point of the miss-application of the physical and biological sciences to social analysis.

    BTW, Really interesting article, Ron. As usual.

  110. 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.

    In his book, “Why Darwin Matters: The Case Against Intelligent Design,” Dr. Michael Shermer mentions a group of evolution-deniers that he dubs “liberal creationists.” These leftists “fear that the application of evolutionary theory to human thought and action implies that political policy and economic doctrines will fail because of the constitution of humanity is stronger than the constitutions of states.” [31-32]

    In other words, there are some liberals who fear that delving too deep into the evolutionary origins of human behavior may give rise to the justification of Social Darwinism, racism, sexism, or anything that goes against their egalitarian tendencies.

    Shermer mentioned this group in the “Introduction To The Paperback Edition” of his earlier work, “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, And Other Confusions Of Our Time:”

    But in their understandable zeal, these critics go too far. Once can find such ideological terms as “opressive,” “sexist,” “imperialistic,” “capitalist,” “control,” and “order,” being attached to physical concepts as DNA, genetics, biochemistry, and evolution. The nadir of this secular form of creationism came at a 1997 interdisciplinary conference in which a psychologist was defending science against a beating by science critics by praising the advances of modern genetics, beginning with the 1953 discovery of DNA. He was asked rhetorically: “You believe in DNA?” [xxi-xxii]

  111. Oh! Shermer also devotes an entire chapter in “Why Darwin Matters” on “Why Christians And Conservatives Should Accept Evolution.”

    While I find that Shermer too wishy-washy toward religion for my taste, it’s still a great read.

  112. While I find that Shermer too wishy-washy toward religion for my taste, it’s still a great read.

    I’m not sure he really is wishy-washy, but you have picked up on a recent change in his delivery style. Shermer was very outspoken and acerbic (you would really have liked him, Akira) until about three years ago when suddenly there was this “kinder, gentler” Shermer in his writing (the book you mention came out last year). I think that he realized that constantly saying “you religious morons are so stupid” was not getting the results he wanted, so he started saying some nice things about religion and how religion and science could get along. However, what never softened or became wishy-washy was his intent: the version of religion he thinks is OK is not like any religion today, and would involve religious folks giving up everything they hold dear. I’m not sure what they could keep to win his approval: probably some vague moral code and a notion that Jesus was a moral teacher.

    So while he may talk nicer now, it is a matter of presentation only. To quote Jane Austen (probably wrongly), “in essentials, he is as he ever was.”

  113. In other words, there are some liberals who fear that delving too deep into the evolutionary origins of human behavior may give rise to the justification of Social Darwinism, racism, sexism, or anything that goes against their egalitarian tendencies.

    They actually believe this straying from science to defense of a status quo with good historical reason. It’s been debated ad naseum on H&R whether or not Hitler was atheist or theist, but regardless of his position, National Socialism’s social policies were couched in explicitly “scientistic” terms, not religious: while the idea of the ?bermensch and the Untermensch may find its genesis in Nietzsche and Dostoyesky, it very quickly was “supported” by evolutionary theory (of the unilineal sort I have described above). The Holocaust was carried out with a supposedly scientific justification that required the purging of evolutionarily inferior races.

    We can look at the misapplication of a scientific theory of speciation and change to the social realm and point out that the two are superficially related at best, and that would be right. But there are others, usually in the humanities, who don’t understand/don’t want to understand the distinction and who conflate the social results with the theory. I don’t know how to argue with them, because every argument one could come up with would be seen as “supporting the patriarchy/supporting hegemony/a reactionary argument/racist/sexist” (circle one or more): there is thus a willful ignorance.

    Such confusion is hardly isolated to evoluation: I do work in linguistics and in that field it is well attested that Hungarian is related to a bunch of small languages spoken by Siberian peoples with a pretty “simple” culture. This fact was used by the Soviets to justify treating the Hungarians as not fully human in some contexts. So now there are Hungarian scholars who refer to the “Finno-Ugric hypothesis” as a “racist theory.” The reason is the same: they object to a misapplication of the theory and can’t see that the theory and its political appropriations are two different things.

  114. I don’t really see how evolution helps or hurts anyone’s ideological preferences. Clearly the idea of social Darwinism took concepts from evolution, but evolution says nothing about social darwinism’s validity (because social darwinism is expressly not a biological argument). Nor, for that matter, does evolution say anything about what ought to be the case.

    One can see evolutionary reasons for a broad, gut level discomfort with same sex relationships, for example. Isn’t the proper response to that observation something like “our commitment to liberal ideals trumps our irrational gut level reaction provided by evolution”?

    I don’t get the idea that the success or failure of your philosophy hinges on it mirroring a rigid notion of human nature that comes out of biology. That is, I don’t think that the human nature description we get from biology will have details sufficient to figure out what our philosophical direction should be.

  115. That is, I don’t think that the human nature description we get from biology will have details sufficient to figure out what our philosophical direction should be.

    Therein lies an interesting issue. As religion has faded as a driving force for making sense of the world, we (broadly speaking) have invested scientists with the priestly/oracular role, and thus have plenty of scientists who are more than happy to tell you why the nature of the universe supports their particular policy decisions. Unfortunately science really isn’t capable of telling you what will be a good policy. (Although do I think it has a very valuable role in helping us avoid manifestly bad policies.)

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