Friday, June 30, 2006

Harry Jaffa and Charles Darwin

The debate among American conservatives over Darwinian evolution is evident in some recent writing by James Q. Wilson and Harry Jaffa. Wilson wrote an article praising Judge John Jones' decision in the Dover case. In the spring 2006 issue of the CLAREMONT REVIEW OF BOOKS, Jaffa criticized Wilson. The summer 2006 issue of the CLAREMONT REVIEW has some correspondence on this debate.

It is hard for me to understand what Jaffa is trying to say in this article. But I would make three points.

First, Jaffa assumes that the school board policy in Dover, Pennsylvania, came from the school board members being persuaded by the arguments for intelligent design. In fact, the testimony at the trial made it clear that the board members who favored the policy knew almost nothing about intelligent design theory. They were Biblical literalists who thought intelligent design reasoning would support their Biblical creationism. The proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute rejected the board's policy because it was motivated by a purely religious purpose.

My second point is that Jaffa is confusing in that he seems to both affirm and deny intelligent design theory. He seems to be defending it. But then he says: "there is . . . nothing in the theory of intelligent design--many intelligent design advocates to the contrary, notwithstanding--which necessarily implies a designer." Here Jaffa rejects the fundamental idea of intelligent design theory.

My third point is that--like many conservatives who criticize Darwinian science--Jaffa confuses ultimate and proximate causes in Darwinian explanations. If natural selection favors traits that enhance survival and reproduction, Jaffa suggests, then this must mean that all human desires are reduced to the desires for survival and reproduction, which is the crudest form of reductionism. But this is not so. For example, if mothers provide parental care because they love their children, this maternal love is comprehensible on its own terms as a proximate motivation for behavior. But this proximate motivation might also have been favored in evolutionary history because it enhanced human reproductive fitness in a species where offspring need extended care by parents. This explanation by ultimate causes is fully compatible with an explanation by the proximate causes of conscious motivation.

Most of what Jaffa says about the uniqueness of human beings as rational and moral animals is acknowledged by Darwin, who stressed the importance of deliberation, thought, and moral concern in distinguishing human beings from other animals. Jaffa says that we are "the only earthly species that can live outside the boundaries of the experience that is accessible only by sense perception." Similarly, Darwin says that "a moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions and motives,--of approving of some and disapproving of others; and the fact that man is the one being who with certainty can be thus designated makes the greatest of all distinctions between him and the lower animals" (DESCENT OF MAN, chap. 21).

As Jaffa intimates, Darwin agreed with Abraham Lincoln in condemning slavery as contrary to our natural moral sense. So it seems that Darwinian science can sustain human moral judgment. As Wilson has argued in his book THE MORAL SENSE, a Darwinian understanding of human nature supports morality as rooted in the natural moral sentiments of the human animal.


Kent Guida said...

I too was puzzled by Jaffa's piece, and after several readings I still can't discern his meaning.
The three points you make are very sound, and perhaps Jaffa will respond.

Regarding Wilson -- has he ever written specifically about your theories or reviewed any of your books? I would like to hear his comments on your work.
Best regards,
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...

Wilson has spoken favorably about my writing, although I don't believe he has ever published any comments on my work.

Memetic Warrior said...
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Memetic Warrior said...

I think that denying any merit to Intelligent Design is a wrong target for Darwinian conservatives.

ID has at least one good point: to bring to public opinion and reinforce the validity of the parsimonious, individual selection driven evolutionary process, called neo-Darwinism, up to a point that little f controversy exist except some exotic micro-organisms parts.

Once Neo-Darwinism is raised to public opinion as the only scientific explanation of evolution over other popular alternatives favoured by the left, such are the group selection, species selection, the laws of growth and form and so on, then the implications of Neo-Darwinism to the human species will be accepted as unavoidable by the public opinion, and these implications are all conservative implications.

At least ID has not a hidden agenda. Therefore, I think that the main target for Darwinian conservatives is not ID, but are the scientific institutions that promote theories that, while accepting enthusiastically the idea of Evolution because his apparent atheistic implications, at the same time, they promote a subtle distortion -if not a removal- of the core idea of “individual fight for survival and reproduction” that, since Darwin, is the only scientifically coherent explanation of this process. These institutions also try to avoid the application of Darwinian Theory to the human psychology, just because his conservative implications are inconvenient for their ideological bias.

These institutions are not formally outside of what we accept as sciences or scientific institutions, but well inside them.

Anonymous said...

Professor Arnhart, may I comment on your remark that Jaffa is confusing because he seems to defend intelligent design, yet at the same time denies its fundamental principle when he says that intelligent design does not necessarily require a designer. I can't say I find Jaffa confusing here. As he explains in his reply to Wilson's letter in the Summer issue of the Claremont Review, he means simply to raise the possibility that intelligent design could exist "by some inherent necessity of its own" rather than by "the will of an intelligent designer". I take it that "inherent necessity" is synonymous here with "nature". Nature could itself contain an intelligent design, without that design having been implanted in it from the outside. I do not believe Jaffa would deny that strictly speaking the word "intelligent" may not be applicable to nature -- nature does not think -- but I believe he would suggest that nature may act *like* an intelligent being.