Saturday, September 30, 2006

Michael Shermer's Darwinian Conservatism

The October issue of Scientific American has a short column by Michael Shermer on why Christian conservatives should accept Darwinian evolution. A longer statement of Shermer's arguments can be found in Chapter 8 of his new book Why Darwin Matters.

I agree with Shermer. In fact, much of what he says conforms with what I have written in Darwinian Conservatism and elsewhere. But in some ways, Shermer makes his points more clearly and concisely than I have.

As Shermer indicates, many American Christians accept evolution, and this includes those Catholics who follow the lead of Popes such as John Paul II who have endorsed the theory of evolution as true and as compatible with Christianity. And yet opinion surveys indicate that many American evangelical Christians and many conservative Republicans do not recognize the truth of evolution.

In the attempt to persuade these Christian conservatives to accept evolutionary science, Shermer makes seven kinds of arguments. I will summarize each of his arguments in my own words and adding a few points along the way.

His first argument is that Christians should accept evolution for the same reason that they accept any scientific theory--because it is true. The Bible says that God ordered the sun to "stand still" for a day to help Joshua win a battle (Joshua 10:10-15). This was cited by the Catholic church authorities who condemned Galileo's heliocentric theory as contrary to the Bible, which speaks of the sun as moving around the earth. But, of course, now all Christians see this as a misinterpretation of the Bible, because they accept the truth of the Copernican/Galilean theory of the solar system. So why shouldn't this apply to Darwin's theory as well?

His second argument is that the magnificence of God's creation does not depend on exactly how He exercised his creative activity. If He chose to act through natural evolutionary means, His work is still glorious. Darwin himself made this point when He spoke of the grandeur of God in creating one or few forms of life at the beginning and then impressing His laws onto matter so that the formative powers of nature could unfold by evolution.

Shermer's third argument is that Intelligent Design Theory and creationism present a demeaning view of God by conceiving of Him as being like us, but just more powerful and more intelligent. God is reduced to working like a human artisan who must employ whatever materials are available to make his product, just as a watchmaker makes a watch.

Shermer's fourth argument is that the Darwinian account of human morality supports traditional morality by showing how the human dispositions to cooperation, sympathy, reciprocity, and social bonding generally could have become part of evolved human nature. Far from subverting healthy morality, Darwinian science shows how it can be rooted in human nature.

Of course, human beings are naturally bad as well as naturally good, competitive as well as cooperative. Christians would explain this as a result of the Fall and original sin. But as his fifth argument, Shermer suggests that evolutionary theory can explain the negative side of our evolved nature as well as the positive side. Our species has evolved to be both altruistic and selfish, and much of our moral experience has to do with finding ways to overcome the conflicts this creates. Darwin speaks of the moral experience of regret or remorse: we follow some selfish impulse of the moment, only to discover later that this contradicts our social nature, and we regret what we have done, which gives rise to guilt and conscience.

Shermer goes on, as a sixth argument, to indicate how evolutionary theory explains the need for moral and religious codes to manage the conflicts in our evolved natures. We evolved in small bands in which the members had to cooperate with and trust one another in order to compete with those outside the band. Moral emotions, such as love, guilt, and shame evolved to enforce cooperation with one's family and friends. But this cooperative behavior did not extend beyond the band or tribe. We are naturally inclined to cooperate with our in-group but not with out-groups. This is manifest in the Old Testament, which teaches trust and cooperation within the community of Israelites, while also teaching brutal attacks on those outside the community. Gradually, the advantages of extended exchange and cooperation in ever wider circles allowed human beings to live in larger communities. The Christian morality of the New Testament promotes principles such as the Golden Rule to sustain such extended cooperation. But even Christian morality shows in-group/out-group distinctions--as in the depiction of the extermination of the forces of evil in apocalyptic war in the book of Revelation.

We have evolved for monogamous mating. But we have also evolved to have inclinations to opportunistic promiscuity. In the long run, infidelity is harmful because it promotes distrust and conflict. This explains why religious morality gives so much attention to condemning and punishing infidelity and adultery.

Of course, some people think they can cheat without being punished because they think they can lie successfully. But, Shermer notes, if we have evolved to be good liars, we have also evolved to be good lie detectors. And so the best way to persuade others that we are moral people is actually to be moral people!

Not only does Darwinian evolutionary theory support the moral and religious positions of Christian conservatism, Shermer indicates in his final argument, it also supports the economic and political thinking of conservatism. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection parallels Adam Smith's account of economic order as arising spontaneously from competitive markets. Like Darwin, Smith thought that human beings were both cooperative and competitive. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith laid out his account of the moral sentiments as rooted in the natural capacity for sympathy or fellow-feeling by which we share in the experiences of others. Darwin adopted this thinking for his account of the evolution of the moral sense. And yet Darwin also saw the selfish side of human nature, and this would support the Smithian idea of channelling the selfish motives of economic agents through free competition. Moreover, the very idea of economic order as arising spontaneously from free exchange without design by central planners follows the same logic as evolution by natural selection without design. Friedrich Hayek saw this parallel between Darwin and Smith. In fact, he believed that Darwin's insight into evolution by natural selection was simply an application to the biological world of what Darwin had learned from the Scottish moral philosophers about the spontaneous order of social evolution.

I would reinforce this last point by saying that a Darwinian view of human evolution supports a realist view of human beings as limited in both knowledge and virtue, which contrasts with the utopian view of human beings as perfectible. The belief in human perfectibility runs through the history of the Left from the French Revolution to the present. The belief in human imperfectibility runs through the history of conservatism from Adam Smith and Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk.

So there you have it--seven reasons why Christian conservatives should be Darwinians.

Shermer's column can be found here.


Broken Yogi said...

Good post, good arguments, but once the "Christian conservative" has accepted them, what remains of his Christianity? Precious little, to be sure. I suppose he can take some comfort in the notion that human beings require myths, codes, and laws. But there is no particular reasons set forth that would require these myths, codes, and laws to be Christian. So why would the Christian who accepted these arguments remain a Christian? What bond of truth would require Christianity of him?

You see, the problem here is that people hold onto their sense of identity regardless of whether it is true or not. Christians identify themselves with Christianity. Without that identification, they feel lost in a world of arbitrary myths, codes and laws that have no higher significance, and which could be exchanged with some other set of myths, codes, and laws without significant loss or change. And yet, there is much resistance to such change and loss, because the very sense of identity is fixed upon them. Lose that sense of necessary identity, and what remains but a modern secularist?

So your arguments, fine as they are, are arguments for the dissolution of any Christian who accepts them. You have yet to describe how these arguments could actually strengthen and affirm a Christian's faith. And without that, no Christian who wishes to remain one would seriously accept them. Some, like the Pope, will accept a few, but not all. Those who accept all simply cannot remain Christian for long.

Anonymous said...

Are conservative evangelicals Christians?

Larry argues that New Testament morality seeks to direct altruism beyond the in-group and that the Book of Revelation -- with God's wine press crushing unbelievers into a river of blood "which flowed in a stream that was as deep as a horse's bridle for two hundred miles" -- is the exception
that proves the rule.

Unfortunately in a recent US poll (McLaughlin & Associates, 2006), an extraordinary 42% (51% of conservative Republicans) believed that the Revleation prophecies are now coming true -- that we are living in the 'last days'. These are largely the same evangelical "Christians" who endorse creationism (and cause a lot of head scratching by Protestant and Catholic Christians on the other side of the pond, who are at a loss to understand how anyone can believe such rubbish).

And it's not just a case of harmless nonsense -- Armaggedon is a place on the Jazreel Plain in modern day Israel and evangelicals like to see the Middle East conflict as a fulfilment of Revelation prophecy and a portent of the Second Coming of Christ (and their own impending Rapture).
Evangelicals play a prominent role in the Israel lobby and are more
interested in the fulfilment of prophecy (return of the 12 tribes, rebuilding of the Temple etc.) than the security of the State of Israel.

The scholarly consensus is that Revelation is a political polemic (aimed at the Roman Empire), not a work of prophecy. Orthodox Christians were bitterly opposed to the inclusion of Revelation in the biblical canon and Roman
Catholics (and many Protestants) refer to it with great caution, yet it is central to the beliefs of many evangelicals, hence the provocative title of this commentary.

Full argument at: of the Book.pdf

Keith Sutherland

Anonymous said...

Good arguments, indeed. But it seemed the issue on intelligent design was lightly touched upon. Didnt God himself humbled himself and came to us a man? The theory of intelligent design goes more complex than a watchmaker making a watch im afraid, taking everything into consideration.
If I am not also mistaken Shermer is very interested in math. Do the calculation of the number of days and years in the bible yourself, it can not be explained by the time rate of evolution.
God has created us with a bigger purpose than the life described by evolution.

Anonymous said...

I suppose the question you have to ask yourself is: what's more important? Finally having people respect you for dropping that silly discredited idea of young earth creation, or insisting in your blissful ignorance and as such not losing whatever purpose you think that gives human existence?

Perhaps evolution destroys a bit of the illusion, but ignoring the facts sure didn't land a man on the moon.

As they say, you have to lose some to win some.