Sunday, September 16, 2007


I have had a series of debates with John West, the Associate Director of the Center for Science and Culture at the Discovery Institute. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute will sponsor our next debate on November 15 at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle.

I have responded to West's book Darwin's Conservatives in various posts, some of which can be found here, here, and here.

West's new book--Darwin Day in America--is being published by ISI Books. The book will be released next month. But I have already read the book in page proofs. It is a very good book in surveying the bad effects of a crude scientific materialism in American public policy. That's why I have written a blurb for ISI Books praising it.

My one point of disagreement with West, however, is that I cannot understand why he wants to blame Darwinian science for all of the bad thinking and bad policies attributed to scientific materialism. For example, he criticizes Louis Sullivan's modern architecture for its "reductionist view of buildings as the sum of their functions and building materials." What does this have to do with Darwin? Well, Sullivan said that he was influenced by Darwin's theory of evolution, and therefore, West concludes, Darwin must have been responsible for modern architecture. But then West also notes that Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright also manifested a mystical romanticism that didn't seem very Darwinian. Again, I don't see that there is any kind of inevitable connection to Darwinian science.

Similarly, West criticizes John Watson for his behavioral psychology. But Watson's denial of human nature and affirmation that human beings come into the world as a "blank slate" with no innate propensities and open to environmental conditioning rejects any Darwinian science of human nature! And yet somehow, according to West, this behaviorist rejection of human biological nature is a consequence of Darwinism. I can't see the logic in this at all.

West assumes that Darwinian science requires a strong reductionism in which "the parts are more important than the whole--to the degree that sometimes the whole seems to be a lot less than the sum of the parts." But in Darwinian Conservatism, I argue that Darwinian biology requires the idea of emergence, in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. That's why I argue against E. O. Wilson's "consilience" as strong reductionism and in favor of "consilience" as emergent complexity.

West presents his argument in almost totally negative terms. He indicates the weaknesses in a strongly reductionist science--particularly, in its moral and political implications. But he never elaborates his positive alternative. (This reliance on negative argumentation is common for the proponents of intelligent design theory.) His argument would be strengthened if he could say: having shown the morally dubious consequences of scientific reductionism, now let me explain to you the moral strength of my alternative conception, which is . . .

West says that Darwin's science cannot support "traditional morality," because it provides no "permanent foundation for ethics," and it abolishes "transcendent moral standards." But then he never explains anywhere in his book the content or ground of those "transcendent moral standards."

At the end of the book, he criticizes Darwin for not appealing to "timeless standards of truth sanctioned by God or nature." He thinks the clearest evidence for this is the "startling passage" about how the morality of human beings would be different if they were hive-bees. If human beings lived like bees, Darwin suggests, "our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering." But why does West find this "startling"? Does he believe that the morality of bees must be the same as the morality of human beings, because all living things are governed by the same "timeless standards"? But surely what is naturally good or desirable for human beings is not the same as what would be good or desirable for bees.

West says that "according to Darwin's framework, everything that regularly occurred in nature must be regard as normal almost by nature." But Darwin's hive-bee passage says just the opposite. What is "normal" for hive-bees is not "normal" for human beings.

So, again, I ask, what is West's alternative conception of morality as based on "timeless standards of truth sanctioned by God or nature"? Could he give us an example of the "transcendent moral standards" that he has in mind? Perhaps he could say that the Bible provides such transcendent moral standards sanctioned by God. But don't we have to pass the Bible through a moral filter to get morally correct conclusions, because sometimes the Bible is contrary to our natural moral sense?

As someone deeply influenced by C. S. Lewis, West might want to appeal to Lewis's idea of the universal morality that he calls the Tao in The Abolition of Man. But isn't it interesting that when Lewis adds his appendix to that book, with examples of the Tao, he is very selective. Lewis quotes from the Bible the commandment "thou shalt not kill." But he does not quote the command to "let no breathing thing live" in the conquest of Canaan (Deuteronomy 20:10-20). Nor does Lewis quote any of the biblical passages endorsing slavery. Thus, Lewis carefully picks out those biblical passages that conform to his natural moral sense and rejects those that don't.

West devotes a lot of attention to the debate over the moral status of fetuses, because he sees abortion as a denial of the human dignity of the fetus. But there is no clear biblical statement that life begins at conception. On the contrary, the only biblical passage that seems pertinent suggests that a fetus's life has less value than that of a fully formed human being (Exodus 21:22-27). Even the papal statesments on abortion concede that the belief in life as beginning at conception cannot be based on the Bible. By contrast, many Jews interpret the biblical account of the creation of Adam as indicating that a fetus does not become human until there is a respiratory system in place, because Adam was less than fully human until God breathed life into him.

When readers of the Bible go through the story of God commanding Abraham to kill his innocent son Isaac as a test of Abraham's faith (Genesis 22), some readers interpret this to mean that we must obey any command of God no matter how immoral it is, and thus we are taught, as Kierkegaard said, that faith in God requires "the suspension of the ethical." But most readers assume that there must be some mistake in this biblical story, because surely God would not command what most of us recognize as an immoral act.

On this and other moral issues, it is not clear how we could grasp the transcendent moral standards sanctioned by God if we did not already have a natural moral sense.

West makes a lot of the connection between Darwin and eugenics. In Darwinian Conservatism, I argue that Darwin supported "good eugenics"--such as legally forbidding incestuous marriages that would produce harmful physical and mental disabilities. The recent efforts of Ashkenazi Jews to discourage the marriage of Tay-Sachs carriers would illustrate such "good eugenics." But I don't see any evidence in Darwin's writing that he endorsed Francis Galton's utopian schemes that we could properly condemn as "bad eugenics." West says that "Charles Darwin himself praised the idea of eugenic restrictions on marriage." But West doesn't notice that Darwin was specifically concerned about the effects of incest, which should be of concern for most people. Nor does West indicate that Galton's utopian eugenics goes back to Plato's proposal for eugenic mating in the Republic (459d). The cause of bad eugenics is not Darwin but utopianism.


Anonymous said...

Sooner or later you are going to have to directly confront the 'malice or ignorance?' question: are West's persistent misrepresentations of Darwin purposeful, and therefore malign, or are they due to pervasive ignorance and incomprehension.

After reading a wide range of ID writings and debating intelligent design creationists online, and having actively participated in defending science education during the years of efforts to inject intelligent design creationsim into the Ohio State Board of Education's standards and benchmarks for science education (efforts that were orchestrated by West's colleagues in the Disco Institute), I have concluded 'malice'.


Larry Arnhart said...


Let's remember that this is a rhetorical debate, and so we should expect people to use rhetorical tricks for their side. The best response to rhetorical deception is to expose the deception in the most rhetorically effective way.

As far as Darwin and his influence are concerned, the most egregious example of deception is how the Discovery Institute has used Richard Weikart's book FROM DARWIN TO HITLER. Weikart himself has admitted that he cannot show a direct line "from Darwin to Hitler," but the folks at Discovery continue to cite this book as if it has shown some necessary connection between Darwinian science and Nazism.

Anonymous said...

My guess is that West, like many others, is in an awkward position. The view of many religionists in the Abrahamic tradition is that human nature, due to the Fall, is so morally corrupt that moral behavior is possible only through religion.

In addition, many non-religionists have been persuaded by the views of Nietzsche, who, while not religious, had a highly negative view of human nature that he inherited in part from his Christian upbringing.

These highly negative beliefs about human nature were reasonable for a long time because so much of human nature is obscure and so people are free to make various different claims about it.

But more recently various sciences, including anthropology, developmental psychology, brain science, and evolutionary psychology, have determined that human nature is not as bad as these people claim (nor as good as leftist utopianists hold). It is, rather, pretty close to what liberalism (in the broad sense of the term) has long claimed, and includes an inborn moral sense, though it is imperfect and in competition with various other drives.

This puts the Nietzscheans and he sin-centered religiouists in a very awkward position. They can't really deny what the scientists have found, but they also can't admit its truth as it undermines their deeply held religious beliefs. So try to fight it by misrepresenting the findings and arguments of people like our blog master, and presenting various specious arguments.

What gives me hope is that the science seems to be winning out. I think the present college generation is reading people like Pinker, and as a consequence is coming to a much more accurate view of human nature.

--Les Brunswick

Larry Arnhart said...

To Les Brunswick:

Thanks for your well-stated observations. I agree with you.

Anonymous said...

But the question implicit in RBH's comment above is still unanswered: if, as RBH plausibly concludes, West's persistent representations of Darwin (and modern evolutionary science) are malicious, why are you endorsing his book? The best response to rhetorical deception is surely not to provide a blurb for it.

Larry Arnhart said...

90% of West's new book is a history of how a crude form of scientific materialism has distorted American public policy in various ways. That critical history is good, although the other 10% of the book--attributing all of this to Darwin--is wrong. If I were looking for 100% agreement, I doubt that I could ever endorse any book.

Anonymous said...


Regarding whether or not West is being "malicious," the term generally refers to someone intentionally doing harm. I do think that he is being dishonest in some of what he says, but I also think he honestly believes that doing this is for the best. A better lable would be "misguided."

I get angry at West, but I also feel some sympathy for him. As I explained above, he is in an awkward position. He apparently is a Christian, and sincerely believes that the sorts of ideas Dr. Arnhart is promoting would undermine true religion, and furthermore that the only way he can fight this is to says some claims that are not actually true. What West is doing may be wrong, but I don't think it is an example of malice.

There is a larger point here. Dr. Arnhart is promoting a version of the liberal view of human nature. According to this view, human beings are limited and conflicted creatures. While some do bad because they have no concern for the good -- sociopaths, as we refer to them today -- much more often bad behavior is the result of circumstances or human failings. And it is important for liberal society that we disguish between those two cases, as they call for different sorts of individual and social responses. In particular, it is key for the sort of rational debate that is essential for democracy. So in the case of West we should be as understanding as we reasonably can be.

-- Les Brunswick

Anonymous said...

It's not merely, I submit, a matter of to what degree you agree with the book (and I don't see why one couldn't in good conscience endorse a book that one disagreed with strenuously, so long as it had other virtues, such as treating its topic honestly, carefully, and thoroughly). It's a matter of whether the book's effect is going to be on balance harmful. Is West's book intended to, and is it likely to, contribute to scholarship anywhere near as much as it is intended to, and likely to, serve as a weapon in the Discovery Institute's culture war against the teaching of evolution? And if not, is endorsing it really such a good idea after all?

Anonymous said...

A case in point: West just posted a vicious if inane attack on Eugenie Scott of the NCSE as part of his publicity campaign for Darwin Day in America. Is this, too, something you endorse? If not, will you at least denounce it here on your blog, if not somewhere more public?

PatricktheRogue said...

L. Brunswick' remark that scientists "have determined that human nature is not as bad as these people [religionists] claim," but also not as good as "utopian leftists" claim captures the fascinating implications of recent developments in understanding the brain and human nature. I find it interesting that many scientists, like Steven Pinker and E.O. Wilson, are politically left, while I read their works as confirming my traditionally conservative, "tragic" view of human nature. In other words, we are not blank slates, not perfectable, and subject to some 10-20 strong inherent drives that impel much of our behavior, with some modifications possible. This idea has implications across the fields of public policy that are only beginning to dawn on those who have stakes in the old party lines. Wait for the assault from both sides on these scientists, I am certain it is imminent.

domenico said...

I can't understand.
Darwin writes: "Hence we must bear without complaining the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind; but there appears to be at least one check in steady action, namely the weaker and inferior members of society not marrying so freely as the sound; and this check might be indefinitely increased, though this is more to be hoped for than expected, by the weak in body or mind refraining from marriage".

Darwin clearly refers to "weaker and inferior members".
Why prof. Arnhart writes about marriages incest? I don't see it in Darwin words..