Friday, June 16, 2006

Reply to Peter Augustine Lawler

In his book Stuck with Virtue (ISI Books, 2005), Peter Augustine Lawler shows himself to be a conservative who is ambivalent about Darwinism. On the one hand, he welcomes Darwinian science as supporting the conservative view of the natural sociality of human beings. On the other hand, he scorns Darwinian science for promoting what he assumes to be a reductionistic, materialistic, and atheistic view of human nature that denigrates the transcendent longings of the human soul. Such criticism of Darwinism arises from a mistaken understanding of Darwinian thinking.

Lawler identifies some of my writing as "the most ambitious effort to unite political philosophy and evolutionary biology into a conservative ideology" (159-60). And yet while he concedes that the "partial truth" of Darwinian science does support the conservative defense of family life, moral norms, and social duties as rooted in evolved human nature, he also warns conservatives to resist my "Darwinian lullaby." He insists that all human beings are "aliens," because they have transcendent longings for supernatural redemption that make them feel homeless in the natural world. So he is bothered by the closing sentences of my book Darwinian Natural Right: "We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away. We come from nature. It is our home."

As a Heideggerian existentialist, Lawler thinks human beings really were "thrown" into nature from some place far away, and so they properly long to escape from their alienated condition in nature. This is expressed as a religious longing to return to our supernatural Creator. Lawler believes that this transcendent longing to escape from nature is what makes us uniquely human in a way that sets us apart from and above all other animals, who have no such longing. So when he sees me apparently denigrating that transcendent longing as illusory, he rejects this as a "reductionistic" claim that human beings are just animals--"clever chimps"--who differ only in degree not in kind from the other animals. This is the "Darwinian lullaby," because it seems to teach us to relax like other animals and give up those illusory longings for the transcendent that only create unnecessary anxiety. Religious conservatives often make this criticism of my Darwinian conservatism.

But far from being "reductionistic," I argue that a Darwinian science of human nature teaches us that human beings are uniquely complex in having diverse natural desires that are often in tension with one another. The natural desire for "intellectual understanding" can lead to the sort of scientific or philosophic understanding of nature that Lawler scorns as the "lullaby" that denies the existential anxiety of human transcendent longings. But he fails to tell his reader that I also identify the natural desire for "religious understanding." This is the desire to understand the world through religion or spirituality. Religious doctrines about human relationships with divine powers or spiritual feelings of self-transcending union with the universe satisfy this longing to make sense of one's place in the universe. So here I agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their natural desire for religious transcendence.

But unlike Lawler, I see this desire as coming into conflict with the desire for purely intellectual understanding, the sort of intellectual desire that he attributes to Leo Strauss and those under his influence. The natural desire to understand the uncaused cause of everything ultimately leads human beings to a fundamental choice--nature or nature's God. Some human beings will assume that the ultimate source of order is nature. But others will assume that we must look beyond nature to God as the ultimate source of nature's order. Our desire to understand is satisfied ultimately either by an intellectual understanding of nature or by a religious understanding of God as the creator of nature. This is the choice between reason and revelation. I think that choice has to be left open, because neither side can refute the other.

Darwin always insisted that ultimate questions of First Cause--questions about the origins of the universe and the origin of the laws of nature--left a big opening for God as Creator. As Darwin said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

There is a similar mystery in explaining the origins of the human soul. Darwin often asserted that the mental capacities of human beings and other animals differed immensely in degree but not in kind. But he sometimes spoke of the human difference as a difference in kind. "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them. We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower animals have this capacity." He also identified "the habitual use of articulate language" as "peculiar to man." And he observed that "no animal is self-conscious," if this means "that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or whither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth." Here Darwin would agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their capacities for reflecting on the meaning of life and death, for self-conscious moral choice, and for articulate language, which make human beings different in kind from other animals.

How does one explain the origin of that human difference? Lawler rejects "fundamentalist creationism," and he concedes that natural evolution might explain most of human nature. But he asserts that an "ontological leap" would be necessary for the appearance of the human soul. He doesn't explain exactly how this "ontological leap" occurred. I would explain it as the human soul arising through the emergent evolution of the primate brain. With the increasing size and complexity of the frontal lobes of the primate neocortex, novel mental capacities appear at higher levels that could not be predicted from the lower levels. Even if we see this as the work of God in creating human beings in His image, we can't deny the possibility that He exercised his creative power through a natural evolutionary process.

My point here is that religious conservatives like Lawler have no reason to fear that a Darwinian science of human life will promote a reductionistic materialism that denies human freedom and dignity. A Darwinian conservatism can explain the unique freedom of human beings for deliberate thought and action as arising from the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain.

Religious conservatives like Lawler look to God's eternal order as providing a transcendent purpose for morality and politics. Skeptical conservatives like Friedrich Hayek look to the natural order of life as providing a purely natural purpose for morality and politics. Skeptical conservatives will be satisfied with Hayek's thought that "life has no purpose but itself."

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate causation and purpose. But at least it can provide a scientific account of the moral and political nature of human beings that sustains the conservative commitments to private property, family life, and limited government as the grounds for human liberty. And in a free society, individuals will be free to associate with one another in social groups--in families, in religious communities, and other voluntary associations--in which people can freely explore the ultimate questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.


Jason V. Joseph said...

"So here I agree with Lawler that human beings are unique in their natural desire for religious transcendence."

But according to your account, isn't it unnatural for human beings to have such a desire?

How could "religious" and "intellectual" desires emerge in your view? I suspect you think only desires which enable the species to survive can stick around. Such desires, especially the religious one, seem luxurious in a Darwinian account.

Larry Arnhart said...


Check out my many blog posts on the evolution of religious belief.