Thursday, June 01, 2006


The June issue of The New Criterion has a review of Darwinian Conservatism by Paul Gross. Unfortunately, this is available online only to subscribers.

Gross generally praises the book: "The argument is conscientious, documented, and timely." He agrees with me that Darwinian science does indeed support conservative thought.

His only disagreement with me is that he thinks I go too far in conciliating the proponents of "intelligent design." I suggest that it could be good for high school biology students to study the "intelligent design" arguments compared with Darwinian science. He dismisses "intelligent design" as not being a true science, and so he thinks it has no place in a science class. He also questions my recommendation that high school students read Darwin's own writings. He doesn't think this would work. He might be right.

In any case, I am encouraged that some of the reviews in conservative journals are favorable to my book, which suggests that there is a growing openness among conservatives to the idea of Darwinian conservatism.


Robert said...

I think anyone recommending Darwinianism to high school students should be required to read the works of David Stove in their entirety first. This especially applies to those tempted to recommend Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene".

Anonymous said...

Conservatives are not darwinian on 'morality' though, there they want to use the government to force/regulate what they think is proper behavior. I believe in the free market in both personal matters and economics. I dont see how you can think 'darwinism' works in one area but not the other. This is the paradox about both parties, each have it half right.

Larry Arnhart said...


No, as I indicate in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, conservatives do not want governmental coercion used to enforce morality. They want a limited government that leaves civil society free as a private realm of families, churches, and other private associations that promote moral norms that arise by spontaneous order.

Darwin supports this by showing how moral order arises from a natural moral sense. Conservatives like Friedrich Hayek and James Q. Wilson elaborate conservative thinking about how morality emerges through spontaneous order.

IndianCowboy said...

sorry for the commentspam but I just wanted to apprise you guys of
Conservatives Against Intelligent Design

Although a classical liberal, I make many of the same arguments you do, for exactly the same reasons. And like you I'm extremely adamant about the lack of connection between collectivism and evolution.

The fact that you bring together a confluence of evolutionary and conservative thought makes you a prime candidate as a major ally in this group's fight.

So consider this an invitation for those who would like to blog about it at the CAID website. you can email me for further details.

Memetic Warrior said...

For conservatives, there is no way back from science to religion since science questioned the way human nature is conceived by Christianity. It is neccesary to go farther is science upto what EP call ultimate causations. Ultimate causations, derived from the selfish gene, are the ones traditional conservatives look as cynical, crude, purposeless and soulless. But hardly any science can be warm, purposeful and moral aware.

As conservative, I think that neo-darwinism support coservative thinking naturally as it explain the underlying motivations of common sense and the purpose for which evolution has evolved even the higuer feelings and motivations as innate instincts able to respond to very wide ambient conditions, just the feelings, motivations and common sense that the left claim as culturally determined, endorsing, silently sometimes, almost all the pain on earth to the cultural conditions created by capitalism and religion.

Larry Arnhart said...

I regret that I made a mistake in my post by identifying the author of the NEW CRITERION review as John Gross. Actually, the reviewer is Paul R. Gross, a distinguished professor emeritus of the life sciences at the University of Virginia and co-author of the best history of the intelligent design movement: CREATIONISM'S TROJAN HORSE: THE WEDGE OF INTELLIGENT DESIGN (Oxford University Press, 2004).

John Farrell said...

Paul Gross is superb. I look forward to reading your book. As to whether you are too accomodating to Intelligent Design advocates, it doesn't hurt to be polite. Had Michael Behe and William Dembski been independent scholars who happened upon their "soap boxes" on their own, I might be more consiliatory. But they are both, in fact, creatures of the Discovery Institue, a PR firm in its essentials, and this I think seriously undermines their seriousness.

So glad to have found your site, and glad that someone is addressing the issues you do!

Larry Arnhart said...

To John Farrell,

Yes, you are right: the Discovery Institute's "wedge strategy" is an elaborate project in public relations, and this is evident in the polemical rhetoric of Behe, Dembski, and the others.

But, of course, Eugenie Scott and the National Center for Science Education have their own public relations strategy on the other side.

Scientific controversy is often an exercise in rhetoric. And we might as well teach our high school students to recognize and analyze the rhetoric in such debates as they learn how to weigh evidence and arguments on opposing sides.

If they do this, I am convinced they will see the strength of the Darwinian position. But they will not appreciate the solidity of the Darwinian argument if they have not thought through all of the objections from the opponents. After all, Darwin himself was open in acknowledging the many "difficulties" with his theory and trying to resolve them as best he could.

Luke said...

this was supposed to be a private email to Larry Arnhart, but since his email address did not work I will post it here.

Dear Larry Arnhart,

Your new book – Darwinian Conservatism – is a very stimulating read -- so stimulating, in fact, that I am compelled to write you with some of my thoughts, criticisms, and the like which were prompted by it. Let me first say that I am myself a "conservative" as you define the term in your opening chapters, which I thought were extremely good. Adam Smith and Edmund Burke are touchstones of mine, and, I would hope, of any person with a civilized education. I am also a Darwinian in the sense that I accept Darwin's theory of natural selection (plus sexual selection, too, let us not forget) with only minor reservations. So I felt right at home in the universe of discourse in which you write.

In no particular order, then, let me offer the following comments as regards, not what I think you got right in your book (9/10ths of it) but what I think are some of the weaknesses.

Your chapter on Eugenics, in particular, was in many ways the least convincing and the most troubling. . Not that I am myself a Eugenicist, or hold out much hope in that department. Even so, I would not object in principle in a modest program of voluntary parental eugenics in certain circumstances should such a thing become practical. For example, if it becomes possible to screen sperm in such a way as to tag and select certain alleles that convey some modest improvements in general intelligence, I would not necessarily oppose the procedure for parents who might like to avail themselves of it, particularly in the case of members of certain ethnic or racial groups who currently are under handicap in that department: not to produce super-babies, or even smart babies, but rather to produce babies that are closer to the general norm, even if by only two or three points. In that hypothetical situation, what would your position be?

In other words, rather than discussing the possibilities of modest improvements at the margin for certain disadvantaged populations, you dwell on the extreme case of "redesigning human nature," which really misses the most interesting possibilities that we might actually confront in a couple of generations. It is always a mistake to paint your opponents, or those to whom one is temperamentally opposed, in extreme terms, and this is an instance of that in my judgment. More generally, to portray "liberals" as "leftists" -- or "conservatives" as "rightists" – betrays a kind of unhealthy partisanism of which there is way too much at the present time: a healthy democracy will have plenty of liberals as well as conservatives who are able to sit down together and discuss in a civilized manner the things they think are most wrong and most right about the society they live in. So best not to paint our opponents as straw men.

I also found unconvincing your discussion of some of the issues raised by the Nazi's use of Darwinian ideas to justify their policies of racial genocide, murder of the insane and retarded, infanticide, etc... It simply will not do to say that Darwin, after acknowledging the theoretic advantages of such practices, nevertheless went on to condemn them on grounds of humanitarian sentiment ("the noblest thing in human nature") . For, in effect, you are citing the moral authority of Darwin as a great intellect (and therefore a great human being) against the very clear implications of his scientific theory, which was itself the source of his world reputation. And, what is more, as you and I both know, the source of Darwin's moral sentiments in this instance are unquestionably a product, not of his intellect, but of the approbation and disapprobation of the culture and civilization in which he was nurtured: a Christian civilization founded on a particular Hebraic conception of God. And since Darwin's theory had, whether justifiably or not, a tendency to undermine faith in the existence of such a God for the educated classes of Europe (including Darwin's own religious faith, as you are aware) you are met with a very serious contradiction. This is really terrible news for your main thesis, in my judgment: Darwin's say-so cannot replace a several thousand year old religious tradition as the ultimate foundation of a moral judgment. Tradition trumps Reason in this case, in good conservative fashion, and you would do better to admit this up front rather than quoting Darwin against himself, which only confuses the issue.

On the other hand, I thought your discussion of the issue of intelligent design in the classroom was much better in this regard, and goes some way towards correcting the problem. The issues are even more interesting than you present them. For example, you might have brought out the fact that William Jennings Bryan opposed the teaching, not of the theory of evolution (which he did not deny), nor of the astronomical age of the earth and of life on earth (which he also did not deny), nor even of the idea that human beings were descended from lower animals but rather that the latter occurred by accident or blind chance. And he did so on explicitly prudential grounds, having become alarmed by philosophical tendencies that he perceived taking place in Germany already during the period of the First World War. He proved to be prophetic in this regard and should be given credit for it.

Along the same lines: you might bring out the fact that chance and design are not mutually exclusive categories by using the example of dice; that miracles are not impossible events that contravene the laws of nature but rather improbable ones with a certain coincidental property (was it a "miracle" that Abraham Lincoln came along just when he did?); that we live in a probabilistic world that ipso facto allows for the possibility of "miracles" whose existence would neither confirm nor disconfirm the laws of nature; that the "anthropic principle" in cosmological physics raises the same philosophical issues in a context that scientists themselves are willing to discuss and debate; and a handful of related issues. Finally, it needs to be better understood that this whole discussion is not itself science but about the nature and limitations of science, and for that very reason deserves space in the discussion of such issues as the nature of chance and of physical laws and of what does and does not constitute a physical "fact" (e.g., conciousness does not qualify) that should be part of every high school science discussion. Understanding in this area is just as important as understanding the concept of variation and natural selection, and the friends of science (of which I am one) would be well advised to get on the right side of this issue before it is too late. Public support of science is necessary in a democracy.

OTH, whenever you or just about anybody else starts using the word "Christ" without definition or starts parroting theological concepts ("salvation history") I have zero idea what they are talking about (it registers as gobbledygook) even though I am a religious person myself and very much in the Judeo-Christian tradition. You should strike out all such words in future editions of your book or else give them enough historical context that a general reader can pass judgment on them. No shibboleths allowed!

You mentioned "war" as one of the twenty-odd "needs" of all human beings without elaboration. That is alarming, and doubly so in view of the weak discussion of the Nazi problem I mentioned above. You really need to tend to that or people are going to start to wonder about you.

In conclusion, "moral sentiments" work wonderfully in a civilized society with a central polity; but what does conservatism have to say about living in an anarchic world with no central authority and no civilized norms?

Post script: forgot to mention: your discussion of cousin marriage is weak. The biological disadvantages of marrying first cousins is not nearly as insignificant as you seem to imply, especially when cousin marriage is a well-established norm in society as it is in large parts of the Middle East and China; nor are its sociological ramifications always benign in so far as the institutions of a Western liberal democracy are concerned. Google Steve Sailer on the subject "cousin marriage" and you will learn a lot.

post post script:

My own view, btw, is that "God" is necessary for a world civilization: not a belief in the existence of so much as an appreciation of the importance of, on the part of our educated elites. But "God" is a proper noun designating a specific historical concept, not an abstract idea. Their can be no real belief (or disbelief) in it without an historical understanding of it. This is something sadly missing today amongst our educated classes. For further details, see here.

Luke Lea

Luke said...

Sorry, the last link was supposed to go here: My point is that historical ignorance can be just as dangerous to the future of our civilization as scientific ignorance, in fact more so. And, yes, just about any scientist who happens to be reading this comment, I am talking about you and your ignorance.