One sign of the intellectual confusion among conservatives these days is that they cannot decide what to think about Charles Darwin. Some conservatives (such as Charles Murray and James Q. Wilson) appeal to Darwinian biology as showing how moral order is rooted in human nature. But others (such as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Andrew Ferguson) reject Darwinism as a form of scientific materialism that is morally corrupting.
Consider, for example, the conservative reaction to Francis Fukuyama’s book The Great Disruption. Fukuyama used a Darwinian theory of human social behavior to support the conservative view that there really is a human nature that sets norms for social order, in contrast to the common view of cultural relativists that social rules are arbitrary constructions of cultural life. Fukuyama’s book provoked a passionate rebuttal in the Weekly Standard from Andrew Ferguson, who warned conservatives that Darwinian science promotes a crude materialism that denies the freedom and dignity of human beings as moral agents. Peter Lawler, writing in Modern Age, agreed with Ferguson and even denounced Fukuyama as a “teacher of evil.” Conservatives like Ferguson and Lawler are at least partially correct, because some Darwinians (Richard Dawkins, for example) do interpret Darwinian theory as dictating a reductionistic view of human beings as governed by their “selfish genes.” I think Fukuyama ultimately has the better argument, however, because he sees that Darwinian biology rightly understood confirms our commonsense view of human beings as naturally social animals whose social life depends on a natural moral sense, which thus supports the conservative view of human nature.
But before I can defend the goodness of Darwinism as sustaining a conservative view of human nature and moral order, I must defend its truth. Some conservatives have been persuaded by Phillip E. Johnson, Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and other proponents of “intelligent design theory” that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has little support in evidence and logic, and that Darwinians stubbornly refuse to recognize the evidence of “intelligent design” in the living world as pointing to a divine Creator.
I agree that conservatives should take seriously the good criticisms of Darwinian biology offered by people like Johnson, Behe, and Dembski. I do not assert that Darwinian theory can be demonstrated with the precision and certainty that would leave no room for reasonable doubt. I only assert that Darwinian theory is supported by the preponderance of the evidence and arguments. In fact, that is all Darwin himself ever claimed for his position. Moreover, although I do not think we can reason by logical inference from ordinary experience to the existence of a Creator, a Darwinian view of the living world as governed by natural laws is at least compatible with a theistic faith in the Creator as the supernatural source of those natural laws.
Darwin acknowledged that there were many serious objections to his theory of descent with modification through natural selection. In The Origin of Species, he devoted more than one–third of his argument to considering the “difficulties” for his theory. He admitted that some of the objections “are so serious that to this day I can hardly reflect on them without being in some degree staggered.” And yet he answered those objections and insisted that his theory would emerge as highly “probable” if one considered the “facts and arguments” in its favor.
Darwin recognized that evolutionary biology has all the difficulties that come from being a historical science concerned with unique events in the past that cannot be directly observed or experimentally replicated in the present. The record of the past—such as the geological record of fossils—is incomplete, and therefore Darwin’s theory of evolutionary history cannot be proven conclusively. Phillip Johnson exploits this limitation—one inherent in any historical science—by demanding complete historical and experimental evidence for Darwin’s theory. He can then conclude that the theory is unsupported by the evidence whenever the evidence is incomplete, as it always will be. But this rhetorical strategy is unreasonable in denigrating the impressive evidence for Darwin’s theory, evidence that has been well surveyed by Kenneth Miller in his recent book, Finding Darwin’s God, which defends Darwinism against Johnson, Behe, and other critics.
Indeed, in Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe concedes that there is enough evidence to support the Darwinian conclusion that all species, including human beings, arose from a common ancestor by descent with modification by natural selection. But he maintains that one kind of biological system cannot be explained by Darwin’s theory—namely, any system that is “irreducibly complex.”
An “irreducibly complex” system, Behe explains, is “a single system composed of several well–matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” Such a complex system cannot be produced by natural selection working gradually to improve simpler systems, because “an irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”
Behe’s favorite analogy is a mousetrap, which is an irreducibly complex system because it could not perform its function of catching mice if any one of its interlocking parts were absent. From observing the mousetrap, we can infer a human designer as its creator. Similarly, Behe argues, from observing the irreducible complexity of biomolecular systems, we can infer that they were created by a divine designer rather than by natural selection working on random variation in evolutionary history. (William Dembski has extended this reasoning in using mathematical probability theory to lay out the formal criteria for detecting “design” when we see “patterned improbability” or “specified complexity.”)
As the primary evidence for his position, Behe describes six kinds of biomolecular mechanisms—bacteria moved by a flagellum, cells moved by cilia, blood clotting, cellular transport systems, the immune system, and the biosynthesis of proteins and nucleic acids. In each case, he shows first the great complexity of these systems, and then claims that no scientist has succeeded in explaining clearly and precisely how these complex biochemical systems emerged gradually by Darwinian evolution. Scientists should conclude from this, Behe insists, that the only way to explain such biological complexity is to recognize it as an effect of “intelligent design” by a Creator.
The biologists who reviewed Behe’s book had to admit that he was right in claiming that evolutionary biologists have not explained the exact evolutionary pathways for the six biomolecular mechanisms he considers. But as the reviewers indicated, this does not show that such evolutionary pathways do not exist; it only shows our ignorance. Developing such an explanation in the future remains a realistic possibility, claim the scientists, and so Behe’s argument from ignorance is weaker than he allows.
Behe often accepts the Darwinian explanations for the origin of anatomical structures. And even at the level of molecular biology, he sometimes accepts Darwinian theory as adequate. For example, he agrees with the Darwinian explanation for the origin of hemoglobin—the protein that carries oxygen in the blood—as having evolved through a natural modification of the simpler protein myoglobin. Here, he admits, “the case for design is weak.” Yet as long as there are other biological phenomena that are not explained so clearly by natural evolutionary causes, Behe thinks he can infer “intelligent design.”
It appears, then, that Behe’s argument is constructed so that it could never be falsified. Even as he concedes that Darwinian scientists can explain the evolutionary origin of many biochemical mechanisms, Behe can always say that whatever remains unexplained is the evidence for “intelligent design.” But since science will never succeed in explaining everything, he can never be refuted.
Moreover, Behe, Dembski, and the other proponents of “intelligent design theory” employ a fundamentally fallacious line of reasoning in their equivocal use of the term “intelligent design.” Dembski claims that “intelligent design . . . is entirely separable from creationism.” He explains: “Intelligent design is detectable; we do in fact detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting it; and its detection involves no recourse to the supernatural. Design is common, rational, and objectifiable.”
If this is what he means by “intelligent design,” then any rational person should accept it, and it would not be very controversial. In fact, most of what Dembski says in his book The Design Inference about how we infer design from “specified complexity” is an uncontroversial account of how we detect design by humanly intelligent agents. Up to this point, there is indeed “no recourse to the supernatural.” But clearly Dembski wants more than that. He writes: “The world is a mirror representing the divine life. The mechanical philosophy was ever blind to this fact. Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.” This leads Dembski to conclude that “Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory.” Here the “recourse to the supernatural” is clear.
This confusion in “intelligent design theory”—both affirming and denying “recourse to the supernatural”—arises from equivocation in the use of the term “intelligent design.” Both Dembski and Behe speak of “intelligent design” without clearly distinguishing “humanly intelligent design” from “divinely intelligent design.” We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of humanly intelligent designers. But insofar as we have never directly observed a divine intelligence (that is, an omniscient and omnipotent intelligence) causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divinely intelligent designer from our common human experience.
If something appears to be intelligently designed, and we cannot plausibly explain it either as designed by human intelligence or as a product of Darwinian causes, then we are just ignorant of the causes. The writing of people like Dembski and Behe is instructive in pointing to such cases of ignorance. To assume, in such a case, that the cause is not divine requires faith in materialism. To assume that the cause must be divine requires faith in theism. Both positions—materialism and theism—ultimately rest on faith, because they go beyond common human experience. Through their equivocal use of the term “intelligent design,” the proponents of intelligent design theory hide their inescapable appeal to faith. (Of course, the scientific materialists often try to hide their own appeal to faith.) Contrary to what the intelligent design theorists claim, we cannot move by ordinary experience and logic alone to any inference about a divinely intelligent designer conforming to “the Logos theology of John’s Gospel.” For that we need faith.
Darwinism is no threat to such theistic faith. Darwinian science must ultimately appeal to the laws of nature as the final ground of explanation; but to ask why nature has the laws that it does is to move beyond nature to nature’s God. Atheistic Darwinians like Richard Dawkins cannot deny the theistic faith in God as the First Cause without assuming a materialistic faith that goes beyond the evidence and logic of empirical science. Darwin himself openly confessed that questions about first causes—the origin of life itself or the origin of the universe as a whole—pointed to mysteries that might be forever beyond his science. Thus, Darwinism is compatible with belief in the biblical God.
But is Darwinism compatible with faith in God as the giver of the moral law? That question points to the deeper issue at stake here, because most of the opposition to Darwinian theory among conservatives is motivated not by a purely intellectual concern for the truth or falsity of the theory, but by a deep fear that Darwinism denies the foundations of traditional morality by denying any appeal to the transcendent norms of God’s moral law. John G. West, Jr. is the Associate Director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which has sponsored many of the critics of Darwinism. He explains the conservative motivation for this position when he warns that Darwinism promotes a “scientific materialism” that subverts all traditional morality. “If human beings (and their beliefs) really are the mindless products of their material existence, then everything that gives meaning to human life—religion, morality, beauty—is revealed to be without objective basis.”
Similarly, Ferguson, in his attack on Fukuyama, warns conservatives to be suspicious of modern natural science. Insisting on a stark opposition between the scientific study of natural causes and the human experience of moral freedom, he argues that human beings as “autonomous selves” are free from the determinism of nature that is presupposed by Darwinian science. As an alternative to the “materialistic myth of the new science,” Ferguson suggests that conservatives should appeal to “the older myths” of free will and natural law as the intellectual foundation for their moral and political thought.
But Ferguson’s separation between biological nature and human freedom is a false dichotomy. A biological explanation of human nature does not deny human freedom if we define that freedom as the capacity for deliberation and choice based on one’s own desires. Darwinian science shows, for example, that there are natural differences on average in the behavioral propensities of men and women, and surely conservatives are right to argue that it is foolish for public policies to ignore those natural differences between the sexes. Unlike those on the left, conservatives should recognize—contrary to Ferguson—that human beings are not “autonomous selves” if that means being utterly liberated from their natural sexual identity.
Furthermore, Ferguson’s exhortation to conservatives to rely on “old myths” as an alternative to natural science is very bad advice indeed, because this would confirm the complaint of those on the left that conservatism requires an irrational commitment to traditional myths with no grounding in reason or nature. Like Fukuyama, James Q. Wilson, and other Darwinian conservatives, I would argue that conservatives should see that Darwinian views of human nature provide scientific support for the traditional idea of natural moral law. Human beings really are naturally social and moral animals, and therefore we can judge social life by how well it conforms to the natural needs and desires of the human animal. Natural law is not a “myth.” It is a rationally observable and scientifically verifiable fact.
Earlier this year, in a special issue of National Review devoted to “The New Century,” Charles Murray predicted: “The story of human nature as revealed by genetics and neuroscience will be Aristotelian in its philosophical shape and conservative in its political one.” I agree, because I see modern biological studies of human nature and morality as a continuation of an intellectual tradition begun by Aristotle that favors a conservative view of social order as rooted in natural human propensities.
Aristotle was a biologist, and he concluded from his biological studies of animal behavior that all social cooperation arises ultimately as an extension of the natural impulses to sexual coupling and parental care of the young. Thomas Aquinas continued Aristotle’s biological reasoning about ethics in defending his idea of “natural law” or “natural right.” “Natural right,” Aquinas declared, “is that which nature has taught all animals.” Sexual mating and parental care belong to natural law because they are natural inclinations that human beings share with some other animals. And although the rationality of human beings sets them apart from other animals, human reason apprehends natural inclinations such as mating and parenting as good. Marriage as constituted by customary or legal rules is uniquely human, Aquinas indicates, because such rules require a cognitive capacity for conceptual reasoning that no other animals have. But even so, such rules provide formal structure to desires that are ultimately rooted in the animal nature of human beings.
Although the idea of natural law is most commonly associated with Catholic moral philosophy, the same idea can be found in Protestant Christianity and Judaism. Both John Calvin and Martin Luther spoke of the natural law as the moral law written into the hearts of human beings. In Judaism, a similar teaching arises in the ancient rabbinical tradition of natural law as the “Noahide laws” that God gave to Noah and his descendants, a moral law binding on all humanity by virtue of a universal human nature. David Novak has elaborated the arguments for this Jewish understanding in his recent book, Natural Law in Judaism.
Adam Smith continued in this same tradition of ethical naturalism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith showed how ethics could be rooted in the moral sentiments of human nature and the natural inclination to sympathy. Although we can have no direct experience of the feelings of others, Smith believed, we can by sympathy imagine what we would feel in similar circumstances. We take pleasure not only in sharing the feelings of others, but also in knowing that they share our feelings. As formed by nature for social life, human beings are born with a strong desire to please and a strong aversion to offending their fellow human beings. Smith inferred from this that we are inclined to act in such a way as would be praised by others. We judge the conduct of others as proper if it harmonizes with what we would feel and do in their circumstances, and likewise we judge our conduct as proper if it is such as would be approved of by others.
Darwin in The Descent of Man adopted this Smithian teaching about sympathy and the natural moral sentiments in developing his biological theory of the moral sense as rooted in human nature. A few years ago, James Q. Wilson’s book The Moral Sense showed how this Aristotelian–Smithian–Darwinian tradition of moral reasoning has been confirmed by modern social scientific research. By bringing together the philosophic tradition of ethical naturalism from Aristotle to Smith and the scientific tradition of Darwinian reasoning about human nature, conservatives could base their moral and political thought on what I have called “Darwinian natural right.”
Conservatives influenced by Leo Strauss might object to this idea by citing Strauss’ claim that Aristotelian natural right depends on a teleological view of the universe that is denied by modern science. But I would argue that Aristotle’s teleology is primarily biological, and so the question is whether teleology is necessary for living nature. Aristotle’s biological teleology is not a cosmic teleology but an immanent teleology, and this immanent teleology is confirmed by Darwinism. Darwin’s principle of natural selection explains the adaptation of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure a cosmic scale of perfection. Yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.
Darwin’s biology does not deny—rather it reaffirms—the immanent teleology displayed in the striving of each living being to fulfill its species–specific ends. Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young—these and many other activities of animals are goal–directed. Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about their ends or purposes, and thus they must still look for “final causes.” In arguing for the immanent teleology of biological phenomena, I agree with Leon Kass that a crucial part of a “more natural science” would be a Darwinian understanding of teleology as rooted in “the internal and immanent purposiveness of individual organisms.” Explaining natural right as rooted in human biological nature would move towards what Strauss identified as “comprehensive science,” a science of nature that would include the ethical striving of human nature as part of the natural world.
Adopting a Darwinian view of human nature and ethics would have both theoretical and practical benefits for conservatism. The theoretical benefit in a Darwinian conservatism is that an Aristotelian conception of natural right rooted in a Darwinian understanding of human nature would provide a solid intellectual basis for conservative political thought. Oddly enough, this point becomes clear if one reads Peter Singer’s new book, A Darwinian Left. Singer recognizes that the traditional left has rejected the idea of a fixed human nature and affirmed the malleability and perfectibility of humankind, because the left has wanted to radically transform human life by changing the social and economic conditions that supposedly determine human history. Like Ferguson, the traditional left has assumed that human history transcends natural history. The collapse of Marxist and other socialist regimes in the twentieth century seemed to confirm, however, the prediction of Ludwig von Mises in 1922 that socialism would fail because it was contrary to human nature. Singer’s response is to try to persuade his fellow leftists to adopt a Darwinian view of human nature. “A Darwinian left,” he explains, would accept “that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like.” But the strain in his argument is clear when he confesses, “In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best we can do today.” In fact, most of what he suggests as part of his “sharply deflated vision of the left” would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental goal of good social policy. Without realizing what he has done, Singer implicitly shows how a Darwinian understanding of human nature supports a conservative view of social order.
Conservatives such as Ferguson, who reject a theoretical foundation in human nature, must ultimately appeal to “myth” as their final ground of judgment, which follows the lead of such conservative thinkers as Richard Weaver who spoke of the “metaphysical dream” of transcendent order as a poetic creation necessary for any culture. The danger here is that conservatism begins to look like a Burkean Nietz scheanism, in which the moral order of society requires mythic traditions as noble lies that hide the ugly truth of nihilism.
Religious conservatives might rely on God’s moral law as the transcendent ground of their conservatism; but if they see no natural law rooted in human nature, they have no common ground of moral discourse with those who do not share their particular religious faith. David Novak has said that “natural law is that which makes Jewish moral discourse possible in an intercultural world.” The same could be said about the moral discourse of Catholics and Protestants.
The practical benefit in a Darwinian conservatism is that it would sustain conservative reasoning about public policy. Although Darwinism cannot prescribe specific policies, it can remind us of the propensities of human nature to which any successful policy must conform. Consider, for example, the issues of policy associated with crime, family life, and military service. Violent crime is committed mostly by young unmarried men, and thus preventing or controlling such crime depends on understanding the biological nature of young men and the universal need in every society to channel their male propensities into socially acceptable behavior. The stability of family life is fundamental for every society because the dependence of the young on parental care is a natural characteristic of the human animal, and thus every good society must regulate sexual mating, conjugal bonding, and parental attachment to children to secure the natural ends of family life. Training for military combat is predominantly a young male activity, and the natural differences in the temperament of men and women will always impede any attempt to eliminate sexual differences in military service. Although cultural and historical circumstances create great variability in the behavioral patterns of crime, family life, and military service, conservative policies should recognize the natural inclinations of human biology that constrain policy choices in these areas of life.
As Aristotle and Darwin recognized, deciding such practical issues requires the prudence that can determine what would be best for particular situations in particular societies. The biology of human nature is not about natural necessities that hold in all cases, but about natural propensities that hold in most cases. A Darwinian conservatism would therefore respect the variability in human affairs. And yet the universality of human biological nature would allow us to judge divergent policies of action by how well they nurture the natural desires and capacities of human beings as social animals.
We can anticipate that the future will bring wondrous advances in the scientific study of human nature. These advances will come from many fields of biology, such as genetics, neurobiology, animal behavior, developmental biology, and evolutionary theory. If conservatism is to remain intellectually vital, conservatives will need to show that their position is compatible with this new science of human nature.
That’s why conservatives need Charles Darwin.
Larry Arnhart is Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.
Michael J. Behe
I’m sorry to be blunt, but the notion that Darwinism supports conservatism is absurd. Steven Pinker notoriously gleaned support for infanticide from the Origin of Species. Other Darwinists have argued that rape and inner–city teenage pregnancy are evolutionary adaptations. None of these is a conservative goal. If Professor Arnhart’s ideas were correct we would expect that university biology departments would be hotbeds of conservatism. Take it from me, they aren’t. Perhaps Prof. Arnhart should explain to John Maynard Smith, the prominent evolutionary theoretician and Marxist, how natural selection supports conservative principles. Or Steven Jay Gould. Or—to show the historical roots of conservative Darwinism—J. B. S. Haldane, who was a big fan of Stalin.
Darwinism—even if true—has no resources to support any real philosophy, whether conservative or liberal, vegetarian or royalist. Organisms have traits, the traits vary, some variations help the organism leave more offspring than other organisms—that’s the whole Darwinian ball of wax. Nothing in Darwinism tells you what those traits should be, either now or in the future, or even what a “trait” is. Nothing says whether it is the average of the traits that is important, the novelties, or the most extreme variation. “Important” has no meaning in Darwinism other than to leave more offspring, which can be done by means pleasant or brutal. A person can use Darwinism to justify any preference; he simply points to some person or animal with the trait he likes and argues that it’s natural. And everyone else can do the same. Postmodernists are not known to be hostile to natural selection.
Like most Darwinian enthusiasts, Prof. Arnhart does not distinguish between what the theory actually explains, which is very little, and what it merely rationalizes post hoc, which is practically everything. Consider, as an example, that Darwinism predicts ultimately selfish behavior as organisms strive to continue their own genetic line. By looking around them, however, Darwinists belatedly noticed that humans happily cooperate and, in cases such as celibate clergy, even sacrifice their own “genetic good” for others. Something was amiss. So computer models were generated to try to squeeze human behavior into a Darwinian framework. Lots of computer models. Some models didn’t work at all; others gave the Darwinists something close to what they were looking for. But the entire procedure was an exercise in rationalization. Darwinists didn’t tell us what human nature is or should be—they looked to see what humans were doing and then tried to fit it into their theory. Nor did they tell us how humans came to have such unique and complex abilities as speech and abstract thought. Rather, they started with the fact that we have them.
Darwinists effectively exploit popular confusion over the word evolution. Sometimes the word indicates simply descent with modification, leaving open the question of how the staggering changes in life forms could possibly have occurred. Other times Darwin’s particular mechanism of natural selection is added to the meaning. It is critical for people interested in the subject to understand, when they hear it said that evolution is supported by overwhelming evidence, that virtually all of the evidence concerns just common descent. The experimental evidence that natural selection could build a vertebrate from an invertebrate, a mammal from a reptile, or a human from an ape is a bit less than the experimental evidence for superstring theory—that is, none at all.
Prof. Arnhart has numerous misconceptions about my position. Most importantly, while I do agree that common descent is supported by the bulk of the evidence (although admittedly there are difficulties at higher phylogenetic levels), I certainly do not think we have any reason to suppose the process occurred by random mutation and natural selection, the position Prof. Arnhart attributes to me. Rather, before we make hasty, uninformed guesses about things as enormously complicated as whole organs and animals, we must first look at life’s foundation—molecules and cells—to see what natural selection can explain there. As I’ve written, Darwinism quickly runs into nasty problems even at the ground level of life—the one we can examine in greatest detail. To say the least, that makes me skeptical that natural selection can explain significant developments at higher levels of biology. It is much more plausible that the purposeful design everyone sees in life is real, rather than just apparent.
Prof. Arnhart worries that conservatives rely on “old myths” and wants them instead to depend on the eternal verities of Darwinism. Those verities, however, have had very bad times of late. Icons of evolution such as Haeckel’s embryos, peppered moths, and classic origin–of–life experiments have been shown to be more mythic than scientific, even though they still live as textbook orthodoxy. One prominent evolutionary biologist recently wrote, “In science’s pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics.” Conservatives who want to add the luster of science to their philosophy would do much better hooking up with astronomy or computer science.
The relationship between Darwinism and real science is parasitic. The theory’s main use is for Darwinists to claim credit for whatever biology discovers. If research shows that humans are selfish, Darwinism can explain that. If science shows we are unselfish, why, it can explain that, too. If we are a combination of both—no problem. If cells are simple or complex, if sexual reproduction is common or rare, if embryos are similar or different, Darwinism will explain it all for you. The elasticity of the theory would make Sigmund Freud blush.
Darwinism is now seeking to become parasitic on politics, too, by offering shallow, ad hoc justifications for what we already know about human nature. Yet conservatives developed their political philosophy over the course of centuries with no help from Darwinists, and with no reference to shifting Darwinian stories. I recommend that conservatives decline the kind offer of Darwinists to take credit for their ideas.
Michael J. Behe, Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University and a fellow of the Discovery Institute, is the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.
According to Larry Arnhart, “Most of the opposition to Darwinian theory among conservatives is motivated not by a purely intellectual concern for the truth or falsity of the theory, but by a deep fear that Darwinism denies the foundations of traditional morality by denying any appeal to the transcendent norms of God’s moral law.” I want here to challenge this statement, especially with regard to my own opposition to Darwin’s theory.
For critics like Professor Arnhart, it is inconceivable that someone once properly exposed to Darwin’s theory could doubt it. To oppose Darwin’s theory requires some hidden motivation, like want ing to shore up traditional morality or being a closet fundamentalist.
For the record, therefore, let me reassert that my opposition to Darwinism rests strictly on scientific grounds. Yes, I am interested in and frequently write about the theological and cultural implications of Darwinism’s imminent demise and replacement by intelligent design. But the only reason I take seriously such implications is because I am convinced that Darwinism is on its own terms an oversold and overextended scientific theory.
Even so, Prof. Arnhart is convinced I must be deluding myself. Here is his reasoning: Dembski’s principal claim to fame is for developing a method to detect design (cf. my book The Design Inference, Cambridge University Press, 1998). According to Prof. Arnhart, this method works just fine for detecting human design. Nonetheless, he claims, it breaks down for detecting nonhuman design. What’s more, since the only designing intelligence that could have played a role in the origin and history of life (including human life) must have been nonhuman, my theory of design detection is irrelevant and misleading for biology. As Prof. Arnhart puts it, “If something appears to be intelligently designed, and we cannot plausibly explain it either as designed by human intelligence or as a product of Darwinian causes, then we are just ignorant of the causes.”
This statement doesn’t quite express Prof. Arnhart’s intention. Name your favorite nonhuman but embodied intelligence, and a counterexample to Prof. Arnhart’s statement readily comes to mind. Consider beaver dams. They are not the product of human intelligence nor are they the product of Darwinian causes, but we are not ignorant of their causes. Beaver intelligence is responsible for beaver dams. (Note that invoking the Darwinian mechanism to explain why beavers build dams is not illuminating because if beavers didn’t build dams, the Darwinian mechanism would readily account for this as well.) Or consider extraterrestrial intelligences sending meaningful messages to earth (e.g., a long sequence of prime numbers as in the movie Contact). Such messages would bear the clear marks of design, but would not be designed by a human intelligence or be the product of Darwinian causes.
So my theory works well for nonhuman design as well. But what if Prof. Arnhart admits that beavers and even extraterrestrials can be detectable designers, but that my method cannot detect an immaterial designer—that if no material or embodied agent can be found for some effect, we have to plead ignorance?
In the present article Prof. Arnhart offers no argument for why an immaterial designer should be empirically inaccessible, leaving us to feel that there must be something fundamentally different between embodied and immaterial design. Prof. Arnhart has elaborated on this point at a conference we both attended, so I might as well take the opportunity here to quickly rebut this argument.
The claim I make is this: design is always inferred, it is never a direct intuition. We don’t get into the mind of designers and thereby attribute design. Rather we look at effects in the physical world that seem to have been designed and from those features infer to a designing intelligence. The philosopher Thomas Reid made this same argument over two hundred years ago. The virtue of my work is to formalize and make precise those features that reliably signal design, casting them in the idiom of modern information theory.
Prof. Arnhart’s counterclaim is this: people don’t infer design as I suggest, but rather reflect on their own intelligence and attribute design when they recognize something it takes intelligence to do. Such introspection, though, is not an empirical basis for inferring an immaterial designer. Though at first blush plausible, this argument collapses quickly when probed. Piaget, for instance, would have rejected it on developmental grounds: babies do not make sense of intelligence by introspecting their own intelligence but by coming to terms with the effects of intelligence in their external environment. For example, they see the ball in front of them and then taken away, and learn that Daddy is moving the ball—in effect reasoning from effect to intelligence. Introspection (always a questionable psychological category) plays at best a secondary role in how initially we make sense of intelligence.
Even later in life, however, when we’ve attained full self–consciousness and introspection can be performed with varying degrees of reliability, I would argue that intelligence is still inferred. Indeed, introspection must always remain inadequate for assessing intelligence. (By intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options—this coincides with the Latin etymology of “intelligence,” namely, “to choose between.”) For instance, I cannot by introspection assess my intelligence at proving theorems in differential geometry. It’s been over a decade since I’ve proven any theorems in differential geometry. I need to get out paper and pencil and actually try to prove some theorems in that field. How I do—and not my memory of how well I did in the past—will determine whether and to what degree intelligence can be attributed to my theorem–proving.
I therefore continue to maintain that intelligence is always inferred, that we infer it through well–established methods, and that there is no principled way to distinguish human and divine design so that human design remains empirically accessible but divine design is rendered empirically inaccessible. This is the rub. Convinced Darwinists like Prof. Arnhart need to block the design inference whenever it threatens to implicate God. Once this line of defense is breached, Darwinism is dead.
William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Seattle–based Discovery Institute. His latest book is Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.
I have argued that Darwinian biology supports the conservative appeal to natural moral law as rooted in human biological nature. Michael J. Behe dismisses this as absurd, because he thinks Darwinism is so flexible in its philosophic implications that it could support Marxism as easily as conservatism. I disagree.
As I indicated in my essay, Darwinism denies the fundamental assumption of Marxism—the radical malleability of human nature as a contingent product of social and economic conditions. Only if human nature were radically malleable could a socialist revolution transform human beings to conform to a socialist utopia. Although Marx and Engels accepted Darwinism in explaining the animal world, including human physiology and anatomy, they thought that human history manifested the uniquely human freedom to transcend nature. Lenin expressed this thought when he said that “the transfer of biological concepts into the field of the social sciences is a meaningless phrase.” Contemporary Marxist biologists such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould continue this tradition when they insist on the freedom of human history from the constraints of biological nature.
By contrast, conservatives see the failure of Marxian socialism as confirming the warnings of Ludwig von Mises in 1922 in his book Socialism. By attempting to abolish private property through socialist economics, and attempting to abolish marriage and the family through “free love,” the socialist communities, Mises predicted, would eventually collapse, because “we have no reason to assume that human nature will be any different under socialism from what it is now.” Mises rejected “Social Darwinism” as “pseudo–Darwinism,” because it ignored the importance of “mutual aid” in the animal world. And he suggested that Darwinian biology rightly understood would sustain his conclusion that social cooperation through a division of labor was rooted in the biological propensities of human nature.
Recently, Richard Pipes, in his book Property and Freedom, has argued that acquiring property is a natural instinct for human beings, and therefore societies that try to restrict or abolish property—such as Tsarist or Marxist Russia—tend to deny freedom and promote tyranny because they must repress human nature. To support his claim that property is natural, Pipes appeals to biological studies of possessiveness and territoriality among human beings and other animals. Here then is one of many possible illustrations of how a Darwinian understanding of human nature confirms conservative social thought.
Of course, this assumes the truth of Darwinism. But Professor Behe and William A. Dembski argue that “intelligent design theory” gives us a better scientific account of living nature than does Darwinian biology. As indicated by the recent debates (in Kansas and elsewhere) over the public school teaching of evolution, they are persuading many conservatives to join them in their attack on evolution.
To infer that the laws of nature point to God as the First Cause of those laws is a reasonable position. Such thinking is implied in the traditional appeal in American political thought to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It is also compatible with Darwinism. Indeed, theistic evolutionists (from Asa Gray to Howard Van Till) see no necessary conflict between theistic religion and Darwinian science. But Profs. Behe and Dembski are not satisfied with this.
Do they believe that the “intelligent designer” must miraculously intervene to separately create every species of life and every “irreducibly complex” mechanism in the living world? If so, exactly when and how does that happen? By what observable causal mechanisms does the “intelligent designer” execute these miraculous acts? How would one formulate falsifiable tests for such a theory? Proponents of “intelligent design theory” refuse to answer such questions, because it is rhetorically advantageous for them to take a purely negative position in which they criticize Darwinian theory without defending a positive theory of their own. That is why they are not taken seriously in the scientific community. And that is why it would be a big mistake for conservatives to think that “intelligent design theory” offers a serious scientific alternative to Darwinism.