Saturday, April 29, 2006


The May 8th issue of The Weekly Standard has a review of Darwinian Conservatism by James Seaton, a professor of English at Michigan State University.

I am grateful to Seaton for his accurate summary and general praise of the book. For such a review to be published in a conservative journal such as The Weekly Standard suggests that some conservatives are open to my arguments.

Seaton makes the point that conservatives are opposed not so much to science as to "scientism." He defines "scientism" as "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities)." In M. D. Aeschliman's article on "Science and Scientism" in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006), "scientism" is identified with a reductionistic materialism that denies human purposefulness, freedom, and rationality.

In Darwinian Conservatism, I respond to this conservative fear of "scientism" in the chapter on "Emergence." I argue that a Darwinian conservatism can recognize the special capacities of the human soul as manifesting the emergent complexity of life, in which higher levels of organization produce mental abilities that cannot be found at lower levels. The emergence of novelty is manifested throughout the evolution of the universe. As we pass through levels of complexity, we find new properties at higher levels that are not fully reducible to the lower levels.

This idea of emergence denies strong reductionism, because it denies that the higher levels of organization can be completely reduced to the lower levels. But the idea of emergence also denies dualism, because it denies any radical separation of matter and mind.

We can see the emergent evolution of the soul in the brain that sustains human freedom and reason. The evolution of the primate brain shows a trend towards increasing size and complexity of the neocortex, which allows for greater behavioral flexibility in primates. This trend reaches its peak in the human brain. In human evolution, the growth in the size and complexity of the frontal lobes passed over a critical threshold allowing human beings to use words and images to compare alternative courses of action through mental trial and error. Consequently, human beings show emergent mental capacities for freedom of thought and choice that are uniquely human, although they have arisen from an evolutionary trend seen in other animals.

Since the soul emerges as an activity of the brain, the soul is not an immaterial or disembodied spirit. Research in neuroscience shows that the soul depends on the brain, because brain damage or disability produces mental disorders. And yet a normally functioning brain allows the human soul to exercise a freedom of thought and choice that no other animal has.

In this way, a Darwinian conservatism can reject the "scientism" of strong reductionism and affirm the unique freedom of human beings for deliberate thought and action as arising from the emergent evolution of the soul.