Saturday, September 10, 2005

Reply to Herbert Gintis

Herbert Gintis has written a review of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM for, in which he criticizes the book as a "failure" because it presents a "disingenuous argument." Since I have learned much from the work of Gintis--particularly in evolutionary game theory--I respect his opinion and so feel the need to respond. I will quote each of his six paragraphs, and then reply.

Larry Arnhart is a serious, perceptive ethical philosopher whose works deserve praise (and to be read), but this book is a failure. The arguments are weak and will certainly fail to convince most "conservatives" to embrace Darwinian evolutionary theory.

I agree that the opposition of some conservatives to Darwinian science is so deeply felt that my arguments are going to seem weak to them. But as I indicate in my book, many modern conservatives--such as Friedrich Hayek and James Q. Wilson--accept evolutionary theory and employ it in developing their political arguments. Furthermore, the founders of the conservative tradition--Adam Smith and Edmund Burke--belonged to a line of social thought based on the idea of spontaneous, evolutionary order that led to Darwin. Conservatives who reject evolutionary ideas will find themselves in opposition to their own intellectual tradition.

Evolutionary biology is scientifically correct, which is the main reason it must be accepted by anyone, whatever their political philosophy (Arnhart does not stress this). However, Darwinian biology can be either used or ignored in making political arguments, so I will rephrase the issue as: are there good arguments flowing from evolutionary biology for conservative political philosophy?

All political philosophy rests fundamentally on claims about human nature. Insofar as Darwin's evolutionary biology advances a general theory of human nature--particularly in THE DESCENT OF MAN--it is hard to assess Darwin's science without considering the moral and political implications of his account of human nature. For example, when Darwin early on adopted the idea of a moral sense that was rooted in human nature, he followed the lead of the Scottish moral sense philosophers (Smith, Hume, and others). Thus, Darwin's science is intertwined with this philosophic tradition of morality as founded on the moral sentiments. (In fact, some of Gintis's recent writing seems to be part of this philosophic tradition.)

We must note that at least in the USA, there are two quite different branches of conservatism, one espousing religious fundamentalism and the other classical economic liberalism. They have almost nothing in common intellectually and are simply politically linked by historical events. Arnhart does not stress this point.

There surely is a tension between the libertarian conservatism that begins with Smith and the traditionalist conservatism that begins with Burke, a tension that fuels much debate among conservatives. But in my book, I argue for a fundamental agreement between libertarianism and traditionalism, which is suggested by the intellectual friendship between Smith and Burke. Libertarians and traditionalists generally agree on a realist view of human nature as imperfecti ble and on the need for the evolved, spontaneous orders of family life, private property, and limited government as the basis for ordered liberty. Darwinian science helps to explain how those spontaneous orders conform to the evolved nature of human beings.

Arnhart's arguments directed towards religious conservatism can be summarized as: (a) evolutionary biology is compatible with belief in God; (b) evolutionary biology recognizes and reinforces the notion that religious belief is a universal element of human nature; and (c) a strong adherence to family values is part of human nature. I agree with these statements, but Arnhart never addresses the burning issues, which include abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, and state-religion separation. He does deal with intelligent design, which he rejects as a scientific theory. This is part of why I call his book "disingenuous": he simply avoids the hard topics.

If I can persuade religious conservatives to agree with (a), (b), and (c), I will consider my book a great success. And if I can even get them to question the "intelligent design" arguments, I will be elated. As far as I'm concerned, these are the "burning issues"! It is true that I have said nothing about a wide range of policy issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and so on. But these are issues to be determined by prudential judgment rather than broad principles of human nature. For example, I argue that parental care for children is a natural human desire. But whether we should identify embryos as children and extend to them the same moral concern that we give to children is a matter for debate.

Turning to classical liberalism, Arnhart says that Darwinian evolution supports a Burkean political philosophy. I think this is a plausible argument, although Arnhart avoids all the hard questions by choosing as the alternative political philosophy an absurd caricature of the leftist alternative that is more or less 19th century Utopianism. Societies grow organically, Arnhart says, and cannot be socially engineered using the principles of Reason alone. Of course this is correct, but this is accepted by all relevant political philosophers today (except Peter Singer and his bizarre ilk). What about the proper extent of government, the treatment of poverty, the environment, and foreign relations? Nothing here.

I will be happy to have my readers agree with Gintis that I have made a good argument for Darwinian science as supporting Burkean political philosophy. That's the whole aim of my book!

If it is true that "all relevant political philosophers" have embraced a Burkean rejection of utopian rationalism, then I must be completely out of touch with the world of political philosophy today. But then what does Gintis mean by "relevant"? And does he really mean to claim that no serious political thinkers today advocate social engineering to achieve social justice? If he is right, then Friedrich Hayek's critique of rationalist constructivism has persuaded everybody. I wish.

I concede that I haven't laid out policies for treating poverty, foreign relations, and so on. But as I indicated above, I see such issues as matters of practical judgment rather than general principles of human nature.

I am not a conservative, and I don't think much of conservative political philosophy, but if I were, I would not be moved by Arnhart's arguments. (I am also not a liberal, by the way, and in fact I think the liberal/conservative dichotomy is a sick joke, but that's a topic for another day.)

The liberal/conservative dichotomy might be crude, but it is not a "sick joke." If I am right in arguing that conservatism rests on a realist view of human nature, while the Left rests on a utopian view of human nature, then the political history of the West over the past two centuries has turned on the conflict between these two visions. (Here I follow Thomas Sowell's lead in his book A CONFLICT OF VISIONS.) The claim of my book is that Darwinian science confirms the conservative realist vision of the natural imperfectibility of human beings. That's why conservatives need Charles Darwin.


Tom Clark said...

Once we all agree that human nature is imperfectible, the same liberal-conservative split survives. Liberals, in their bleeding-heart altruism, don't suppose we have to be perfectible to justify receiving collective assistance from tax-supported governments. They will point out that human flourishing is at least as much a function of environment as innate traits, even if utopia is never achieved. Conservatives, in championing tough-minded self-sufficiency, will always play down the extent to which intentionally created environments can improve flourishing, since if it's seen that interventions actually work, that creates the implicit obligation to intervene.

The liberal/conservative split is encoded, partially, in human personality differences (see "Political conservatism as motivated social cognition" at Whatever science shows us about ourselves, the evidence will be interpreted in the light of our political identity.

Larry Arnhart said...

In recognizing "innate traits," the Darwinian conservative does not deny the importance of "environment." As Darwin indicated, to explain social order, we need to see it as arising from a nested hierarchy of natural order, customary order, and deliberate order, in which nature constrains custom, and both constrain deliberation. Like Darwin, conservatives see a complex interaction of nature and nurture, genetic evolution and cultural evolution.

I agree that how we interpret scientific accounts of human nature will be biased by our temperamental dispositions. But still we can judge some interpretations as more plausible than others.

Anonymous said...

Dear Larry,
I have lunch every week with a conservative English professor who is like your critic. He likes Burke and finds that Burke puts people at the center of his philosophy. His critique of Darwin is that Darwin’s philosophy does not put man at the center of his theory. He accepts that God and Darwin are compatible but that still does not impress him since he cannot find a way to put his belief in Darwin with his religious beliefs that put man at the center of things.

I hope your book changes many minds.


Mark Griffith

Larry Arnhart said...


I am not sure what you mean by "putting people at the center." I assume that the concern here is with the possible reductionism of Darwinian science that would deny the special status of human beings as "created in God's image."

In the book, my response to this worry is to defend the idea of "emergence." The special capacities of the human mind arise as products of the emergent complexity of the brain.

Anonymous said...

Dear me! I came across this site because I wanted to investigate how a 'conservative' might address evolutionary theory, which since it deals with the natural development of species avoids both god and teleology. While Larry Arnhart seems a nice fellow I'm afraid that the US conservative blogger types attracted to his site aren't so nice, seeming to take their cue from nasty Fox news and the radio ranters (one sees this when people start using phrases like 'bleeding heart liberals'.) This is a pity because conservative and socialist thought is not necessarily opposed in many places, for example on the issue of civility and civil society. As a Darwinian socialist (and therefore an inheritor of both liberal and some conservative thought (e.g. Malthus on scarcity) I abhor such abuse.