Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Reply to John West, Part 1

The Discovery Institute Press has just published a new book by John West--Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest. West is a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, the leading conservative group in promoting "intelligent design theory" and criticizing Darwinian science. His book is an incisive and intelligent attack on the argument of my Darwinian Conservatism. Here he elaborates criticisms that he first stated in a conference paper for a panel that we were on at the 2006 convention of the American Political Science Association. The panel was sponsored by the Claremont Institute.

He analyzes my book as presenting seven main arguments: "(1) Darwinism supports traditional morality, (2) Darwinism supports the traditional view of family life and sexuality; (3) Darwinism is compatible with free will and personal responsibility; (4) Darwinism supports economic liberty; (5) Darwinism supports 'non-utopian limited government'; (6)Darwinism is compatible with religion; and (7) Darwinism has not been refuted by intelligent design" (10-11). He organizes the seven chapters of his book around those seven arguments.

In this post, I will respond briefly to his first five chapters. I will leave the topics of religion and intelligent design for a second post to come later.

Here is how West summarizes his arguments against me: "Darwin's theory manifestly does not reinforce the teachings of conservatism. It promotes moral relativism rather than traditional morality. It fosters utopianism rther than limited government. It is corrosive, rather than supportive, of both free will and religious belief. Finally, and most importantly, Darwinian evolution is in tension with the scientific evidence, and conservatism cannot hope to strengthen itself by relying on Darwinism's increasingly shaky empirical foundations" (11).

I would stress, however, that, like Carson Holloway, West agrees with me that the biological science of human nature does support conservative thought on many points (13, 31-32, 36). He disagrees with me about the ultimate causes of human biological nature. I explain those ultimate causes through evolutionary biology. He rejects evolutionary science as totally false, and he explains the ultimate causes of human biology as the work of an intelligent designer. This suggests that there is some ground of compromise. Even if we can't agree on "Darwinian conservatism," we might agree on "biological conservatism." Because we might agree that the observable biological nature of human beings supports conservative thinking, even if we disagree about the ultimate causes of that nature.

(1) Traditional Morality

In criticizing my argument that the Darwinian understanding of the natural moral sense supports traditional morality, West is vague about the ground of his support for traditional morality. Occasionally, he speaks of a "transcendent standard of morality" (21), a "permanent foundation for ethics" (22), or "moral truth" (40), but without explaining exactly what he has in mind.

West sometimes refers to "traditional Judeo-Christian morality" (21). He doesn't explain this, although he does suggest a couple of times that he is refering to Biblical morality--the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments--which would include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (69-71, 143). He sometimes suggests that he is refering specifically to the Biblical teaching "that human beings are created as the result of God's specific plan" (143). But in his entire book, he refers to only two Biblical verses (69-70)--the Old Testament declaration that "the heavens declare the glory of God" (Psalms 19:1) and the New Testament declaration of Paul that God's creation manifests his invisible attributes (Romans 1:20).

So how exactly does the Bible provide a clear and reliable moral teaching contrary to the Darwinian moral sense? West rejects Darwin's account of how the social instincts of human beings might have evolved because cooperating for the good of the group favored the group's survival and reproductive fitness in competition with other groups (20). But something similar is said in the Bible. Whenever Moses wants to give an ultimate reason for obeying his laws, he warns the people of Israel that obeying these laws is the only way for them to survive and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1-8, 4:40, 30:15-20). And just as Darwin recounts the ancient history of group against group conflict, the Bible repeatedly shows how the people of Israel had to put a "curse of destruction" on their enemies, so that all of those they conquered--including innocent women and children--would have to be slaughtered (Numbers 31:1-20; Deuteronomy 20:10-20). Is this "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"?

West is disturbed by Darwin's account of infanticide in primitive tribes, but West does not comment on the Biblical passages where infanticide seems to be endorsed (Genesis 22; Numbers 31; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Judges 11:29-40).

The Bible endorses slavery. In fact, the Biblical basis for slavery is so explicit that the proslavery Christians in the American South were adamant in defending slavery as Biblically justified. This split the Protestant denominations before the Civil War into Northern and Southern schisms. Doesn't this illustrate how the Bible does not always provide clear and reliable moral guidance? Doesn't it show that to get a proper moral teaching from the Bible, we have to pass the Bible through our natural moral sense?

West writes: ". . . I am not quarreling with Arnhart's attempt to enlist biology to support traditonal morality. I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certain moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality--
but only if we have reason to assume that those biological desires are somehow normative. . . . If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or even that they represent irreducible and unchanging truths inherent in the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality. . . ." (22-23).

Does West really mean this--that we are morally obligated to follow all of our natural desires if we believe they are the product of intelligent design or an unchanging nature? How exactly would that work?

(2) The Traditional Family

Darwin noted that in human history polygamy was common. West scorns this as contrary to "the Judeo-Christian conception of marriage as an institution ordained from the inception of humanity" (26-26). But polygamy is endorsed in the Old Testament and in the Islamic tradition, which follows the Old Testament teaching. Thomas Aquinas justified polygamy as "partly natural," although it was also "partly unnatural," because of the conflicts from the sexual jealousy of the co-wives. Darwinian biologists can see the same problem: although polygyny--multiple wives--has been common in history, it is disruptive because of the jealousy within the household.

There is a long Christian tradition of trying to abolish the family. In Darwinian Natural Right, I comment on the history of "Bible communism" in the Oneida Community, where Christians tried to abolish marriage and the family as a step to Christian perfection. Would West say that this is a misinterpretation of the Bible? If so, how exactly do we ensure correct interpretations of Biblical morality?

(3) Free Will

West claims that Darwinian biology must reject the idea of free will as the ground of personal responsibility. But if by "free will" West means "uncaused cause," then I would say--along with Jonathan Edwards and others--that only God has "free will" in this sense, because only God is an "uncaused cause." But if "free will" means acting on our natural desires in the light of our deliberate choices, then I would accept this as compatible with Darwinian science. Darwin's comments on the importance of practical deliberation--acting in the light of past experience and future expectations--show this kind of moral freedom.

I speak of human moral freedom as an "emergent" product of the evolution of the human brain. West rejects this as contrary to "the traditional Judeo-Christian belief in an immaterial soul" (38). But doesn't the New Testament teaching about the resurrection of the body suggest that the resurrected soul depends on a resurrected body (I Corinthians 15)? The dualism of immortal soul separated from mortal body seems more characteristic of pagan philosophy than Biblical teaching.

(4) Economic Liberty

I argue that Hayek's conception of "spontaneous order" is a point of contact between Darwinism and conservatism. West rejects this by saying that the spontaneous order of an economy or a society arises not through genetic evolution but through cultural evolution. But this ignores my point--stressed in Darwinian Conservatism--that we need three sources of social order: genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and deliberate reasoning. Genetic evolution and cultural evolution show spontaneous order. Deliberate reasoning shows intelligent design. I draw this trichotomy from Darwin who often emphasizes the importance of cultural learning along with reasoning as interacting to create moral norms. As an example of this, I show how the history of property moves through three levels--natural property, customary property, and formal property.

(5) Limited Government

West is right that the utopian eugenicists and the American progressives identified themselves as Darwinians in arguing for the expansion of governmental power for utopian ends. But, as I indicated in my chapter on Social Darwinism, these "social Darwinists" were not really acting out of a clear and accurate understanding of Darwinian science. One might as well say that Christianity was responsible for Hitler's anti-Semitism because Martin Luther's anti-Semitism was often cited by the Nazis.

Moreover, on the matter of eugenics, I think Darwin was reasonably clear. For example, he thought that the laws prohibiting incestuous marriages should be based on accurate studies of the effects of inbreeding, so that cousin marriages should be permitted if they did not pose any great risks of increased physical or mental harm to the offspring of such marriages. The same kind of reasoning would justify the work of Ashkenazi Jews in discouraging the marriage of those who are carriers for Tay Sachs disease. This illustrates the "good eugenics" that almost all of us would support--as opposed to the "bad eugenics" of the Nazis.

I will have more to say in response to John West's book in a future post.

1 comment:

Larry Fafarman said...

My response to the "limited government" issue is at the following location: