Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Biological Conservatism?

Many conservatives who object to Darwinian conservatism seem to be open to a biological conservatism that does not assume the truth of Darwinian evolution. I wonder whether this might offer a ground of compromise.

Although the proponents of intelligent design object to evolutionary explanations of the distant causes of human biological nature, they do not seem to object to biological explanations based on more proximate causes. To find common ground among conservatives for accepting a biologically rooted natural law, we could set aside the arguments from evolutionary biology and rely only on arguments from behavioral biology. Even if we cannot agree on the evolutionary causes of human nature, we might still agree on the proximate causes of human behavioral biology.

Evolutionary causes are difficult to judge because they often are not directly observable, and we have to infer evolutionary history from indirect evidence (such as the fossil record). By contrast, proximate causes are often open to direct observation. For example, we can measure fluctuations in hormonal levels and correlate that with behavioral changes.

So, for instance, we might get general agreement among most conservatives that the human propensities to sexual differences, sexual mating, familial bonding, and parental care are rooted in human biological nature, and this challenges the radical feminist's quest to establish androgynous behavior as the norm for human beings. Such propensities of human biology are directly observable. For example, we might study the differences in male and female brains that support differences in male and female behavior. Some of us would see this as a product of Darwinian evolution. But others would see it as the work of the intelligent designer. And yet we could agree on the observable proximate causes of human sexual biology.

Conservatives such as Harvey Mansfield, Peter Lawler, Carson Holloway, and John West all seem to agree with me that there are natural norms for human conduct rooted in human biological nature, even as they disagree with me about the evolutionary causes of this biological nature. Holloway can accept the fact of evolution by natural selection. He even asserts that "religious believers can accept that the physical and even the emotional and moral constitution of human beings has been shaped by natural selection." But where Holloway departs from my Darwinian conservatism is that he believes morality cannot be secure if it is not founded on a "religiously-informed cosmic teleology." So while Holloway might accept the Darwinian account of human evolution as true, he would want to see this evolutionary history as guided by a divine intelligence directing it to some cosmic purpose. In fact, theistic evolutionists believe that Darwinian evolution is compatible with a religious belief in God as the ultimate source of evolutionary order.

Those like John West won't concede this much to Darwinian science. They insist that the intelligent designer could not, or would not, employ evolutionary mechanisms to execute his divine purpose. But even West would say that the observable biological nature of human beings supports a biologically grounded natural law in which natural human desires become normative because they manifest the moral will of God.

In a way, Holloway and West fundamentally agree with me. We all agree in that we are biological conservatives, because we believe that human biological nature supports conservative principles such as traditional morality, family life, property, and limited government.

We disagree, however, about the Darwinian basis of biology. My biology is completely Darwinian. Holloway's biology is partially Darwinian. West's biology is completely anti-Darwinian.

I argue that for a biologically based conservative morality, Darwinian biology is sufficient in providing an immanent teleology. But Holloway and West argue that this is not sufficient. No healthy morality can survive, they believe, without a religiously-grounded cosmic teleology. Holloway provides that cosmic teleology by adopting the position of theisitic evolution. West provides that cosmic teleology by adopting the position of intelligent design theory that denies Darwinian evolution completely.

Some of this might come up at the APSA panel in Philadelphia with me, Holloway, and West as participants.


wmr said...

Could you take mercy on an amateur in both biology and philosophy and explain what you mean when you say "immanent teleology"?

Larry Arnhart said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Larry Arnhart said...

Aristotle's biological teleology is not a cosmic teleology but an immanent teleology, and this immanent teleology is confirmed by Darwinism (see my DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT, 238-48). Darwinian theory apparently does away with any cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole would be seen as ordered to some end. The 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 specific ends. Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care for the young--these and many other activities of organisms 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 thus 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" (Kass, TOWARDS A MORE NATURAL SCIENCE, 249-75).

wmr said...

Thanks for the explanation. I haven't replied because I've been waiting for your book to arrive at my local library from a nearby university.

As I said, I am an amateur in these matters, but my understanding of evolution by natural selection does not include organisms other than humans - and perhaps other primates - having goals. I was under the impression that they simply engaged in behaviors which had proved useful for their ancestors and which were genetically linked.

IMO the goals you see such organisms pursuing are a projection of your internal unconscious "theory of other minds".

Does this have any bite or have I simply - and embarrasingly - reaffirmed my amateur status?

Anonymous said...


I am trying to decide whether to agree with you on the sufficiency of an "immanent teleology" for an enduring morality.

You are persuasive in previous blog posts that natural law, strictly speaking, needs no religious grounding. The typical individual's moral sentiments resulting from natural law exist regardless of whether that individual has religious belief. Therefore, there seems to be some common ground for religious believers and agnostics/atheists/etc to agree on basic moral concepts vital to good political order.

You critique some authors (such as Holloway) for not accepting this point. Their accusation of your Darwinian morality as being too reductionistic is weakened, because you think that a morality resulting from a religiously-grounded cosmic teleology and an immanent teleology is effectually the same. Indeed, both have some observable natural causes.

However, your effort to persuade conservatives of this compromise might be extremely difficult because of the religious nature of the right.

Regardless of how many conservative religious believers accept natural law, they cannot accept a totally natural explanation of morality because of their predisposition to connect morality to belief in a first religious cause. To tell such people that you need no such religious cause is faulty because their daily lives consist in making moral decisions based on religious belief, which they do not readily see as being natural. To them, saying that morality can rely only upon natural causes is not something that they can accept, because they themselves have never thought of themselves as accepting it in their daily life (regardless of how you would account for religious behavior as being a fundamental natural desire of all humans). How do you expect to convince such religious conservatives?

More than that, I offer a second critique. You yourself have admitted that religion can promote morality in individuals, and that religion is compatible with Darwinian conservatism. I do not dispute this. However, isn't revealed religion good at developing morality because it claims to have moral orders that came from a supernatural being? Even if religion is an artificial social construct based upon a natural desire, it is a good artificial construct (perhaps a noble lie?) that should be promoted by politicians and philosophers alike. If an immanent teleology became part of the mass public, would it not weaken society because of weakening (though not destroying) of morality? Without religion calling for a high morality, some might fear that a society would weaken. Without a God calling for great sacrifices in daily life, societies might weaken, since societies would then consist of individuals living in the same location rather than individuals living in community.

Such might be the view of those that fear that your Darwinian conservatism is reductionistic, even if those same people hold to natural law.