Sunday, May 06, 2007

Response to Andrew Ferguson's WEEKLY STANDARD Article

The AEI debate continues to draw commentary. Andrew Ferguson has written an article on the debate for the Weekly Standard, which can be found here.

Although Ferguson's report is generally accurate as a brief summary, a few points need clarification.

His opening is cute: "They only had two and a half hours to settle some knotty questions--Does reality have an ultimate, metaphysical foundation? Is there content to the universe?--so they had to talk fast. But not fast enough."

Ok, I did talk fast, but not because I was silly enough to think I could answer such questions. Just the opposite: I explicitly stressed in my comments that ultimate questions of First Cause must be left open. To answer such questions, we must appeal either to nature or to nature's God, which means appealing either to reason or revelation, and this requires a fundamental choice between alternatives that must always be open, because neither side can refute the other.

Ferguson quotes from Steven Hayward's introductory remarks the claim that social Darwinist principles were "invoked by the Confederacy's most articulate theorist, Alexander Stephens." What he doesn't say is that Darwin explicitly criticized slavery and the Confederacy and argued against the claim of scientific racists that the human races were actually separate species. Nor does he say that the American proslavery folks were able to quote the Bible as supporting slavery. I have commented on this extensively on this blog and in Darwinian Natural Right.

Ferguson quotes a passage from chapter 5 of Darwin's Descent of Man a passage that appears to endorse Francis Galton's eugenics. But Ferguson very carefully does not quote the immediately following passage in which Darwin declares that "sympathy" as "the noblest part of our nature" teaches us that we must care for the weak and the helpless. Nor does Ferguson quote from Darwin's comments in the last chapter of Descent in which he rejects Galton's eugenics as "utopian". I have a whole chapter on social Darwinism and eugenics in Darwinian Conservatism.

Ron Bailey of Reason magazine was more favorable to my side of the AEI debate. His post can be found here.


David Gordon said...

The claim that Darwinism inspired Stephens's "Cornerstone" address, which I assume Hayward has taken from
Harry Jaffa, cannot be sustained. The Origin of Species, which was published about 16 months before Stephens's speech, does not discuss human evolution and mentions Negroes only a few times, always innocuously.

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, you're right. In my chapter on slavery in DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT (chapter 7), I refer to Stephens' "cornerstone" speech (p. 204-205) in my account of how the proslavery people relied on the racist science of Josiah Nott, Samuel Morton, and others. A big part of Darwin's DESCENT was to refute that racist science behind the proslavery position.

You're also right that Hayward draws this from Harry Jaffa. Actually, Jaffa is a little strange on this issue. He praised my DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT book. But he regularly denounces Darwinian science as immoral. Oddly enough, he once confessed to me that he had never read Darwin!

It's also significant that Jaffa doesn't comment on Abraham Lincoln's acceptance of the evolutionary theory promoted by Robert Chambers' VESTIGES OF THE NATURAL HISTORY OF CREATION, which Darwin identified as an early forerunner of his view. As I have noted on this blog, there are many similarities between Lincoln and Darwin that make it remarkable that they were born on the same day--February 12, 1809.

John Farrell said...

Excellent post, Larry.

When it comes to science, Ferguson's slipshod, dishonest journalism is, I'm sad to say (as a conservative author who has written on occasion for mags like National Review) the standard swill being recycled in virtually every conservative magazine, whether it's NR, The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator or even Commentary. That conservative journalists should be so cyncial is one of the most depressing things I've learned over the past decade.

Ferguson ought to be ashamed of himself. For that matter, so should the editors of the Standard. One expects NR to basically parrot whatever the latest talking points of the Discovery Institute are, but I would've though Bill Kristol and co. had more brains.

Kent Guida said...

Ferguson is a great writer, but he suffers from lack of basic information and terminal superficiality on this issue. But this piece was not nearly as bad as his earlier effort in TWS:
Evolutionary Psychology and Its True Believers
03/19/2001, Volume 006, Issue 26

I wouldn't go as far as Mr. Farrell, but I do think it is legitimate to demand that journalists like Ferguson and other writiers for political journals covering this area actually read your books before writing about your ideas.

The conservative journals Mr. Farrell mentions are really doing a great disservice to their readers by not discussing these questions with the seriousness they deserve.