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The most recent issue of Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2010) features a debate between a self-described “Darwinian conservative” Larry Arnhart and a critic of “dehumanizing” modern science, and particularly Darwinism, John G. West. The debaters are supposedly discussing whether or not Darwinian biology and its social implications produce “conservative” results. Although the two take dramatically different positions on the social utility of evolutionary theory and its English progenitor, it is not clear that either is taking a “conservative” position. Indeed the key term is never defined. What the discussants are disputing is whether or not evolutionary theory as currently understood should be acceptable to most Americans, given what they seem to believe about values. Not surprisingly, the debate focuses on whether or not the acceptance of Darwinian biology leads to moral relativism and even more importantly for the participants, whether Darwinism or its putative antithesis, what Arnhart styles “metaphysical conservatism,” is compatible with democratic equality.

West expresses the view that Darwinism leads ineluctably to social Darwinism, which in the past gave rise to eugenics. Darwinians, starting with Darwin himself, were eager to advance “the process of elimination” by which unfit human beings were sterilized or kept from reproducing. West also notes that random selection and an undirected life process are incompatible with the conception of a Deity “who actively supervise and directs the development of life.” West raises inter alia arguments about how the randomness of Darwinian evolution cannot explain, according to certain respected biochemists, the complexity of life forms or the “astonishing rarity of certain protein sequences” that allow organisms to function. West knows well the scientific arguments that can be marshaled on the side of intelligent design, and he is on target when he shows the bullying and ostracism to which those who try to reconcile evolution and conscious design are exposed among conventional scientists and journalists.

Arnhart may make a weaker argument than West because he is too busy fighting straw men. He sets out to prove that the Darwinists are nicer and more moral people than those yahoos who quote the Bible to their opponents. Bible-thumpers are blamed for that “form of social parasitism” known as slavery, since the Good Book does not condemn and in fact permits human bondage. Christians are naturally at fault for the evil of the antebellum South, and West goes after the explicitly non-rightist cultural historian Mark Malvasi for daring to suggest that Southern slavery was somehow Christianized. Are we to believe the Christian component made Southern slavery somehow worse than pagan slavery, an arrangement in which war captives were worked to death in galleys or in Athenian silver mines?

Arnhart cites David Hume and Charles Darwin as forward-thinking giants of the mind. But West is correct on one point here. There is nothing to suggest that Darwin believed in any doctrine of natural human equality. Moreover, Hume, whom Arnhart refers to correctly as an opponent of slavery, devoted considerable space in his essay “Of National character” (1753) to racial inequalities. The Scottish philosopher believed that not only blacks but other members of the “the four or five races” into which the human species could be divided were cognitively inferior to “the Whites.” Note this is not a condemnation of Hume but an attempt to demonstrate that he was far from the kind of universalism presented in Arnhart’s argument for nice Darwinism against bad Christianity.

There are so many misstatements in Arnhart that one hardly knows where to begin ones critique. His attempt to interpret Darwinian “altruism” as a universal sense of obligation or to equate it with Adam Smith’s notion of “moral sentiment” is downright silly. “Altruism” in the Dawinian sense is the instinctive willingness to sacrifice for those to whom an organism is genetically connected. It is not the disguised notion of the Golden Rule that Arnhart tries to bootleg into the conversation.

Arnhart also goes into high gear over the evils of “the Puritan revolutionaries of the seventeenth century” who out of their “metaphysical fanaticism” tried to overturn the world. This “metaphysical ideology,” we are made to believe, pervades Judeo-Christian culture and drives its members into applying “cosmic standards to revolutionize society.” There are two misstatements here. One, Arnhart confuses the Puritans, who were mostly Calvinist burghers, during the English Civil War with the Protestant fringe, which consisted of Ranters and Fifth Monarchy Men. The Puritans purged their government of this fringe, including the Levelers, who believed in human rights and democracy.

Two, it is foolish to generalize about Christian societies in general from the revolutionary fanaticism of the fringe groups in the English Civil War. Likewise it is dishonest to equate the institution of slavery with Christian morals. For the most part there was a truce between the two, and even in the case of what for Arnhart is the hated South, Malvasi is correct. Slavery there was far less savage than it had been in pagan societies, and Presbyterian theologians spilled rivulets of ink doing what Cicero and Pliny never felt obliged to do, showing how in their society slavery was being elevated to solicitous education for a backward people. The fact that such arguments had to be provided, Eugene and Betsey Genovese demonstrate in their studies of the theology of Southern slaveholders, underscores the perceived need to humanize a “peculiar institution.” It also suggests the growing tension between Christian teachings about the spiritual dignity of all human beings and the continuation of human bondage.


But what is bothersome about this debate in general, albeit more so with Arnhart’s than West’s presentation, is that there is no sense of what is meant by “conservative.” As best I can figure, “conservatism” connotes for West approved family values and for Arnhart some kind of human-rights ideology under a different name. The fact that Arnhart has been invited to present his views in First Things and in other neoconservative publications indicates for me that there is nothing upsetting for the advocates of human-rights politics about what he says. Arnhart is reconciling with the dominant egalitarian ideology what he understands as Darwinian thinking. He certainly does not use his social Darwinism to defend such no-noes as socially significant gender differences and inborn kin loyalties. If he did, he would probably not be invited into the forums in which he is asked to participate. Arnhart minds his PC manners, even while bashing such allowable targets as Bible-believing Southerners and 17th-century Puritans.

Finally it might be a kindness for us intellectual historians to be informed how long-standing terms with once fixed definitions are being applied in a particular context. Until recently “conservatism” had to do with defending inherited authority structures and especially social hierarchy. If West and Arnhart wish to impose an alternative definition, they should have the courtesy to tell us what they’re doing. What may be clear to Intercollegiate Review and First Things is mud to me.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Metaphysical News. Metaphysical News said: Darwinian Debate on the Right (or not) – American Conservative Magazine Not surprisingly, the debate focuses on wheth.. […]

  2. Dan McCarthy has correctly pointed out to me the silliness of the attack that both participants launch against “eugenics.” One gets the impression that what these debaters are really for is dysgenics.One need not believe in government-controlled breeding of people to recognize that genetics are a factor in determining the abilities and health of offspring.

  3. Dennis Dale says: • Website

    The debaters are supposedly discussing whether or not Darwinian biology and its social implications produce “conservative” results.

    And we are to take them seriously?

  4. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    If you read the word “Darwinian” stop reading. You are reading propaganda!

  5. eep says:

    I think Larry Arnhart is an idealist. In my opinion there is a fatal flaw regarding the focus on inherited genes. For example, there is only a fifty percent chance that an identical twin of a schizophrenic will develop the disease as well. I wonder how he takes into account epigenetics? Then looking at the DSM-IV description regarding antisocial personality disorder I wonder what happened to all that innate morality? The pattern is so common that psychologist have a checklist of traits of what it is and a term for it. I like those personality disorder descriptions because they sadly point to many of the human traits that bring about the real order in society: willful ignorance, fearfulness, gluttonous, selfishness, dependency, paranoia, irrational delusions/magical thinking, neediness, aggressiveness, entitlement, controlling, and callousness. I think westerners are actively socialized to behave in those ways by their culture and institutions.

    I think Darwinism would provide a far deadlier moral order. There is no role model like Jesus or Buddah. People really need role models to worship and emulate but they seem to prefer living role models that are a cult of personality that stir their passions and create their prejudices.

  6. RickK says:

    Species evolve naturally from earlier species, and natural selection plays a major role in whether traits are passed on or not. Regardless of the social implications, that is the truth. So either we decide as a society to lie about it, or we learn to live with this fact of nature and move on. Both the good and bad of humanity is the result of evolution, period. Debating whether evolution is “good” or “bad” is like debating whether nitrogen is “good” or “bad”.

  7. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    To the Editor:


    I would suggest that the above article has been mistakenly included in your periodical. I believe it was actually intended to be published in “The Onion” as part of their point/counterpoint series (see, for example, Humidifier versus De-Humidifier). I hope that its erroneous inclusion in your periodical is not a sign of a creeping laxity in the previously high standards which we, your readers, expect from TAC.

    Sincerely yours

    A Concerned Reader

  8. Arnhart, judging from your account, is not nearly as straightforward as some evolutionists (notably James Rachels) in admitting that an embrace of evolutionism requires the abandonment of traditional (biblical) morality. In other words, our quaint notions about human dignity and the sanctity of life would not survive Darwinism, despite Arnhart’s assurances. I also thought it was an excellent point that you made about the moral (Christian) pressure that drove Southerners to defend slavery. Pagan authors like Cicero and Pliny did not have any qualms over the injustice of slavery, as you noted, despite what my Thomistic colleagues claim about Aristotle. Lincoln hoped that this Christian conscience would eventually avert a war, of course. I suppose that post-bellum attempts to portray the Civil War as a war over tariffs also reveals a Southern reluctance to defend slavery on moral grounds.

  9. I cannot prove who the “concerned reader” is who finds my comments to be unworthy of this website. But I’d bet my mortgage-free home that he is a disciple of Harry Jaffa and/or someone who knows or possibly is the Straussian who kept Yale University from giving me a contract for a book on Strauss. Straussian typically hide behind masks like “the concerned reader” when they’re not calling up universities to blacken the reputations of job candidates they don’t like. I’m always hoping in vain that people like “the concerned reader’ will grow up into honorable adults.

  10. TomB says:

    I heartily second RMP/Concerned Reader, and while I’ve heard of Harry Jaffa and Strauss am not a disciple of either.

    It was bad enough that Amhart and West both just assumed without question that there *are* indeed any moral (“social”) implications that we should learn from how nature works. (After all if *anything* is clear about nature it is that it’s just utterly indifferent about cruelty at best. So the idea that we should ignore that and conclude something like … human hygiene is good because some flowers smell nice is dubious in the extreme.)

    And then it was worse when Amhart and West just skipped to arguing the moral implications of a mere *theory* of how nature works, which is what Darwinism is.

    But at least they didn’t publish that here. What was published here, via not noting this at all and instead actually *praising* West, was essentially giving credence to the ridiculously disguised but obvious rooting for Biblical creationism that’s been seen ever since the creationists themselves finally understood how nutty they appear.

    Contrary to Professor Gottfried then, no, West does not “know[] well the scientific arguments that can be marshaled on the side of intelligent design,” probably because their are none. All West did was engage in the new and pathetic bit of misdirection the creationists have descended to which is to cite some part of Darwin’s theory (usually a small part in fact) that, as of yet, might not explain everything.

    But of course even if you have an argument or rock-solid evidence that Darwin’s theory is *entirely* wrong that isn’t an argument *for* anything else at all, much less a “scientific argument” for creationism, “intelligent design,” or whatever. All it is is an argument that Darwin’s theory was wrong, period.

    Again if this is doubted read West’s piece for oneself. And then look up the very long, very careful, very reasoned opinion from the federal court down in Oklahoma or wherever down there over textbook adoption. An opinion rendered after a very long trial in which the “intelligent design/creation science” people gave it their best shot only to see the Judge find that same possessed not even a molecule of science, and was all just a masquerade for a religious belief, period.

    Moreover, the quality of the thinking behind the piece published here praising West is only confirmed by the nature of the author’s reply to RMP which essentially consists in equal measure of calling RMP names, and crying about some alleged some conspiracy keeping the Professor’s books from being published.

    RMP is precisely right: Conservatives wanna keep making increasing fools of themselves go ahead and keep pushing Adam and Eve. And hey, what about that massive, decades-long conspiracy in all the snooty, elitist universities doubting the Easter Bunny too?

  11. eep says:

    This reminds me of the Sophists (some of them were sort of like social Darwinist, and supported relativism) vs the Athenian people (clung to their gods) regarding religion and science. The Athenian Empire fell. Greek civilization decade in the end because they were all human.

  12. Martin says:

    And tomorrow we will be discussing the moral implications of gravity.

  13. Art R. says:

    Th basis of Christian morality is derived essentially from the 10 Commandments (Exodus 34). It’s no secret that the ancient Israelites distilled these commandments from the 38 confessions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead. Since these confessions were to the pagan gods, can’t we deduce that the moral core of our society is pagan? And since the pagan gods are fictitious and therefore made up by man, can’t we further deduce that morality itself is entirely man-made and relative?

  14. Russell says:

    When, o Lord, will John G West be compelled to debate a bona fide evolutionary biologist who happens also to be a republican, as opposed to a philosophy professor who ,while a soi disant Darwinian, as a matter of praxis hasn’t added a word to the scientific literature?

    I doubt the debate team managers at ICR or First Things have a death wish strong enough to host such confrontation, but they should-

    Those who identify conservatism with Augustinian metaphysics should come to grips with the mere fact that science has made materialism too important to leave to the Marxists. let alone the legal sophists of the Discovery Institute

  15. Is there any evidence that society in general was more moral and better behaved before 1859 (when the Origin of Species was published) than afterward? In the absence of such evidence, there is no basis for maintaining that the wide acceptance of Darwinian evolution has any effect at all on human behavior.

  16. CDK says:

    @ David Smith: One might consider Hitler’s Germany an example of what happens when evolutionary theory is applied too literally to politics, or at least an example of the kinds of uses to which the theory can be put.

    @ TomB: If nature is utterly indifferent about cruelty, then that has enormous political implications–especially if you consider nature (as interpreted by science) to be the only standard by which to judge human conduct. If disagreement with Darwinism qualifies you for a straightjacket, that also has legal and social ramifications–we don’t let the mentally-disturbed vote or raise children.

    Gottfried’s comment about Straussians may refer to the fact that Arnhart, whom he criticizes, is a well-known follower of Leo Strauss. Perhaps Gottfried is suggesting Arnhart himself wrote RMP’s post, which was rather juvenile and not at all apropro. Arnhart is notorious for trying to “save the appearances” by reconciling Darwin and Aristotle, something other admirers of Strauss (such as Richard Hassing) have chided him for. Not because Straussians are anti-Darwinians–in general, they are comfortable with evolutionary theory–but rather because Arnhart elides certain fundamental distinctions between ancient teleological physics, with its irreducible anthropocentrism, and modern mechanistic cosmology which is, as such, “indifferent” to man’s place in nature.

    Intelligent design is really nothing more than the inference of final causation in nature, differing from its ancient and medieval form through its use of modern probability analysis and engineering. It exists for the simple reason that evolution appears to rely on imagined or miraculous processes to same extent any other theory of the life’s origin does. Teleology is no more antiquated than evolution; even natural selection was hinted at as early as Lucretius’ De Natura Reorum. The complete account would somehow combine mechanistic causation with final causation, but natural science has never been able to do this. The temptation to deny mechanism’s reality or substance (“creationism”) or final cause (evolution) is overwhelming for those who do not accept that there cannot be a final explanation for everything

    And it is precisely evolutionary biology’s political implications that cause so many to be so suspicious of its evidentiary pedigree, as it provides enormous psychological comfort to those who would prefer not to have to confront the possibility of God or who would wish to deny any authority to those who claim to speak in God’s name. Indeed, a science that is incapable of discerning purpose in nature, not because it is not there but because it rules it out of bounds as “unscientific”, has declared in advance that certain kinds of evidence cannot be truly evidence, a proposition that is not derivative from any laboratory or field observation and is supported only by a questionable epistemology.

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    There seems to be recognition by Prof Gottfried that secular Darwinist ‘conservtive’ Arnhart recognizes social hierarchy and continuation of tradition to continue our species. I would add that for those who do not accept like Kirk and Gottfried, a metaphysical source for why we want to continue at all, the issue can be the option of knowledge. Without species continuity, we won’t have the access, at least as we understand cognition for our species, to potential discoveries that will confirm or amend prior assumptions about either materialism or metaphysical reality. For those who belief the purpose of life is to continue Darwin’s voyage, the process is the purpose, that is sufficient. Irrational and diversive lurches like Marxism and personality cults are closed end systems that blindly reject past knowledge as valid point of reference that promote future discoveries and social customs. The conservative is a cautious skeptic, but he or she, in my opinion, never should say never.

  18. TomB says:

    CDK wrote:

    “If nature is utterly indifferent about cruelty, then that has enormous political implications–especially if you consider nature … to be the only standard by which to judge human conduct.”

    No, it has political implications *only* if you consider nature to be a standard by which to judge human conduct, which, as I said, is a deeply dubious consideration, and certainly not a necessary one.

    “And it is precisely evolutionary biology’s political implications that cause so many to be so suspicious of its evidentiary pedigree….”

    But CDK, once again “evolutionary biology” *has* no necessary political implications, *unless* (and again) … one dubiously considers nature to “be a standard by which to judge human conduct.” I don’t think evolutionary biologists can be faulted for implications they themselves don’t perceive.

    Moreover, and even worse, you’ve turned reality here 180-degrees on its head, as you admit when you say evolutionary biology “provides enormous psychological comfort to those who would prefer not to have to confront the possibility of God….”

    That is, it isn’t really any unnecessary, dubious political “implications” of evolutionary biology that really upsets those who question it—because again any such implications are dubious and certainly unnecessary.

    Instead of course—and again as you admit—it’s the *creationists* (or *intelligent design”) people who want implications. I.e., the implications that flow from the idea that a God is responsible for all we see. *They* are the ones with the agenda.

    It’s foolishness on stilts, CDK. As Martin above so beyond-brilliantly said, what’s next? Deriving one’s political platform from the implications of the law of gravity?

    And no, this doesn’t mean to demean those who do believe in a God. Indeed in the first place it seems an utterly unnecessary inference to draw that just because evolutionary biology is right that there is no such entity. In fact I suspect most professional evolutionary biologists still do have such a belief of some sort, because of course one can still believe that some such force at least put all of what we see into motion originally.

    But that’s not what the creationists/intelligent design people are saying, is it? What they want people to be taught and believe is, essentially, Adam and Eve, period.

  19. […] embarrassed by slavery, that meant they were in some secret way fighting against it. Author Paul Gottfried, for example, has argued that “Presbyterian theologians spilled rivulets of ink doing what […]

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