Friday, October 13, 2006

Peter Lawler and the Conservatism of Manly Nihilism

Many conservatives reject Darwinian science not because they believe that it's false, but because they fear that it's true.

In The Use and Abuse of History, Friedrich Nietzsche declared: "If the doctrines of sovereign becoming, of the fluidity of all concepts, types and species, of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal--doctrines that I consider true but deadly--are thrust upon the people for another generation with the rage for instruction that has now become normal, no one should be surprised if the people perishes of petty egoism, ossification and greed, falls apart and ceases to be a people."

Unlike other animals, Nietzsche believed, human beings cannot live without giving their lives meaning and importance--the meaning and importance that come from creating transcendent values as artistic illusions that elevate human life by giving it cosmic significance. In support of this tragic view of mythic art as necessary to create value and conceal the meaningless chaos of the world, Nietzsche criticized "scientific Socratism" for seeking pure knowledge through science and philosophy, which fails to see the need for artistic illusion to make human life meaningful and important.

Many conservatives have implicitly adopted this Nietzschean position in warning against Darwinian science as a "deadly truth." This is evident in a recent article by Peter Augustine Lawler--"Real Men Prove Darwin Wrong (Again)"--in the fall, 2006, issue of The Intellercollegiate Review. Identifying Harvey Mansfield and Tom Wolfe as "America's two most astute social commentators," Lawler praises them for their manly rejection of Darwinian science.

In a lecture on "The Human Beast," which can be found here, Wolfe argues that what separates human beings from other animals is the human capacity for speech. He writes: "The Book of John in the New Testament says cryptically: 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.' This has baffled Biblical scholars, but I interpret it a follows: Until there was speech, the human beast could have no religion, and consequently no God. In the beginning was the Word. Speech gave the beast its first ability to ask questions, and undoubtedly one of the first expressed his sudden but insatiable anxiety as to how he got here and what the agonizing struggle called life is all about. To this day, the beast needs, can't live without, some explanation as the basis of whatever status he may think he possesses. For that reason, extraordinary individuals have been able to change history with their words alone."

So to Wolfe it seems that human beings yearn for a transcendent meaning to life that is created by the words of "extraordinary individuals." Darwinian science threatens that human creation of values by explaining human beings as mere beasts and nothing more. Lawler and other conservatives agree.

Lawler also likes Mansfield's defense of "manliness" against Darwinian thought. While Mansfield opens and closes his book on manliness by apparently endorsing the teaching of Plato and Aristotle that "manly virtue" is rooted in nature, the central chapter of his book (Chapter 4) is devoted to the "manly nihilism" of Teddy Roosevelt and Friedrich Nietzshe. He thus leaves his reader suspecting that the secret teaching of the book is the truth of "manly nihilism."

"The most dramatic statement of nihilism," Mansfield asserts, "would be the one where the man is the source of all meaning." Nietzsche is "the philosopher of manliness in modern times." Teddy Roosevelt is the best political expression of manly nihilism, particularly in the "assertiveness of executive power." Mansfield is famous for his Machiavellian defense of executive prerogative outside the rule of law, which includes some recent articles defending President Bush's displays of the "assertiveness of executive power."

Although the underlying intent of Lawler's article is hard to discern, his praise of Wolfe and Mansfield as the alternative to Darwin suggests something like Nietzsche's position. And just as Nietzsche warned against "scientific Socratism," Lawler warns against Darwinian Socratism. He writes: "There is, after all, something Socratic in evolutionism's and neuroscience's denial of the pretensions of the individual about his soul and his identity, its denial of the very existence of 'the self' that distinguishes you from me, and us from all the other animals."

Against Nietzshce and Lawler, I would suggest that Darwinian science can be true without being deadly. Darwin often asserted (in The Descent of Man, that the mental capacities of human beings and other animals differ immensely in degree but not in kind. Conservatives like Lawler worry that this denies the freedom and dignity of human beings as uniquely spiritual animals with transcendent longings.

But Darwin sometimes spoke of the human difference as a difference in kind and not just in degree. "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."

So 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? In Chapter 8 of Darwinian Conservatism, I 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, then, is that conservatives like Lawler have no reason to fear a Darwinian science of human life as promoting a reductionistic materialism that denies human freedom and dignity. A Darwinian conservatism can explain the unique capacities of human beings for deliberate thought and action as arising from the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain.

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