Monday, May 07, 2007

Darwin, Lincoln, and the Progressives: A Reply to Steven Hayward

The debate on Darwinian conservatism at the American Enterprise Institute last Thursday was moderated by Steven Hayward, who began the debate with some introductory comments that were misleading. The full debate is available as a webcast video, which can be found here. Some of Hayward's comments were reported in Patricia Cohen's article in the New York Times, which can be found here, and in Andrew Ferguson's article in the Weekly Standard, which can be found here.

As examples of the political influence of Darwinian science, Hayward cited the proslavery defense of the Confederacy by Alexander Stephens, who appealed to racial science, and the defense of Progressivism by Woodrow Wilson, who said that "living constitutions must be Darwinian in structure and in practice." Hayward thus implied that insofar as American conservatives are opposed to the proslavery cause of the Confederacy and the progressive cause of Wilson, they should also be opposed to the Darwinian science supporting those causes.

There are problems with this reasoning. First of all, Alexander Stephens did not invoke Darwin. Rather, he appealed to the racial science developed prior to the 1859 publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. This racial science--coming from people like Josiah Nott and Samuel Morton--argued that the human races were actually separate species, and this was commonly used by proslavery fanatics as a scientific justification for slavery. Darwin, however, was staunchly anti-slavery throughout his life. And in The Descent of Man (1871), he refuted racist science in arguing for the unity of all human races as belonging to the same species. Hayward did not mention this.

It is true that Woodrow Wilson--and other progressives--often cited Darwinian evolution as supporting a progressive historicism. But it is also true that Wilson and the other progressives often cited Abraham Lincoln as supporting the same idea of progressive history. The quotation from Wilson about "living constitutions" being "Darwinian in structure and in practice" is from Wilson's The New Freedom. But in that same collection of speeches, Wilson also invokes "the immortal figure of the great Lincoln" as a model of progressive leadership. In 1909, Wilson gave a speech on "Abraham Lincoln, Man of the People," in which he reminded his audience that Lincoln and Darwin were born on the same day--February 12, 1809--and he elaborated on the point that Lincoln and Darwin were proponents of the new idea of progressive history. So if Darwin was responsible for Wilson and progressivism, Lincoln is equally responsible.

But I suspect that since Hayward is a good student of Harry Jaffa, he would say that Wilson and the progressives misinterpreted Lincoln as an effort of rhetorical manipulation. So why not say the same about their use of Darwin? (The distortion of Lincoln in progressive rhetoric has been carefully studied by a graduate student of mine--Jason Jividen--in his dissertation on "The Use and Abuse of Abraham Lincoln.")

The historicism of the American progressives came neither from Darwin nor from Lincoln, but from Hegel's philosophy of history.

As I have shown on this blog, Lincoln and Darwin had more in common than just their birthday. Both were anti-slavery. Both were accused of being "infidels." And both saw the world as a product of evolutionary development. Lincoln's friend and law partner William Herndon said that Lincoln was persuaded by Robert Chambers' book The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation to accept the idea of evolutionary development. This book caused an intense controversy when it was published in 1844, because many people interpreted it as a challenge to traditional creationism. Later, Darwin cited the book as an early forerunner of his work.

I go more deeply into some of these points in the chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right.


Jason Jividen said...

Dr. Arnhart,

It seems to me that the progressives can misappropriate Darwin and well as Lincoln. You say, “But I suspect that since Hayward is a good student of Harry Jaffa, he would say that Wilson and the progressives misinterpreted Lincoln as an effort of rhetorical manipulation. So why not say the same about their use of Darwin?” Hayward does argue, in print, that the progressives misappropriate the Lincoln image and distort his view of equality. See Steven Hayward, “The Children of Abraham,” REASON, 23 (May, 1991): 24-31. Although this article doesn’t go into great detail as to the use of the Lincoln image in progressive rhetoric, Hayward mentions the appeal to Lincoln in Croly, FDR and Cuomo. Following Jaffa, at bottom, his general argument is the same as mine. Bottom line: radicalized egalitarianism in America can’t be laid at the foot of Lincoln. Rather, it originates with the historicist progressives. I cite this article liberally in the dissertation.

With respect to progressivism and Darwin, see page 27, where Hayward suggests that “Progressive thought begins with the premise that the revolution in natural science makes necessary a revolution in political science as well. Certainly Woodrow Wilson thought so.” He then quotes Wilson’s statement about living political constitutions being Darwinian in structure and continues by suggesting that, according to the progressive view, “Nature cannot tell us anything definite about the rights of man or the limits of government because nature is changeable.”

Dean said...

Dr. Arnhart,
Though I myself and skeptical of Darwinian Biology as a basis for conservative thought, Hayward's link of Alexander Stephens to Darwin is simply historically incorrect. The "Cornerstone" speech in which Stephens (a Southern Whig and skeptic on seccession) defended the new Confederate Constitution relied more on Genesis than Darwin.

Stephens characterized the anti-slavery position as "attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal."

Going further Stephens argues, "[m]any governments have been founded upon the principle of the subordination and serfdom of certain classes of the same race; such were and are in violation of the laws of nature. Our system commits no such violation of nature’s laws. With us, all of the white race, however high or low, rich or poor, are equal in the eye of the law. Not so with the negro. Subordination is his place. He, by nature, or by the curse against Canaan, is fitted for that condition which he occupies in our system."

The curse of Canaan is from the Genesis account where G-d curses Canaan the son of Ham because of his sin with Noah. This is a common theme in Christian White Supremacy literature and was often argued by even mainstream Christian leaders in the segregationist South for inequality between the races. It seems Stephens was using an either or philosophy. Either the Bible supports my view or science. I do not suppose that we should reject either merely because the misguided misappropriated their use.

I am glad to see that Alexander Stephens has made a return to public conscientiousness. I reside in Athens, Georgia, home to the University of Georgia where he graduated. One of his great-great nephews is our Chief Superior Court Judge. A placard still marks the window on our oldest building Old College, where he and Crawford Long, an innovator in medecine resided.
Stephens despite his other efforts in moderation at the time will be forever linked to his "Cornerstone" speech. A fair warning to any of us who would put too much faith in any attempt to rigidly explain and categorize the human condition, in order to bolster our political fortunes.

Dean Clark,Jr.
Athens, GA

Gene Callahan said...

"So if Darwin was responsible for Wilson and progressivism, Lincoln is equally responsible."

Being that Lincoln was a monstrous tyrant, this doesn't really get you far!