Wednesday, October 27, 2010

John West in "The Intercollegiate Review"

The Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review has two articles on the debate over Darwinian conservatism. My article is entitled "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism." John West's article is entitled "Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism." This issue of the journal is available online.

West works at the Discovery Institute in Seattle, where he leads the campaign for "intelligent design theory" as the alternative to Darwinian science. In response to my book Darwinian Conservatism, West wrote Darwin's Conservatives: A Misguided Quest (Discovery Institute Press, 2006). I have written many posts responding to his criticisms. Some of them can be found here, here, here, here, and here.

Since West's article adds nothing to his earlier book, I see no need to add much to my earlier responses to his book. But I should make a few points.

West's main idea is that conservatives should reject Darwinian science because it represents "scientism," which he defines as "a credulous belief that modern science can answer all important questions about human life and that scientists have the right to dictate public policy merely because of their presumed technical expertise" (34). More specifically, he says that Darwinian scientism "refers primarily to the claim that the mechanism of evolution is an undirected material process of natural selection acting on random mutations, and furthermore to the reductionist corollary of this view that seeks to understand mind, morality, and religion as fully explicable by such a blind material process" (35).

West does not cite any passage in Darwin's writings that would support such a reductionist view of "mind, morality, and religion." In fact, West ignores Darwin's extensive comments on how cultural evolution, rational judgment, and religious belief shape moral history in ways that cannot be reduced to evolution by natural selection. In The Descent of Man, Darwin repeatedly indicates that although natural selection has shaped the social instincts of human beings, the primary causes of moral progress are "the approbation of our fellow-men--the strengthening of our sympathies by habit--example and imitation--reason--experience, and even self-interest--instruction during youth, and religious feelings" (Penguin edition, p. 163). This doesn't look like reductionism to me.

Moreover, throughout my writing, I have emphasized how explaining moral and political order requires a complex interaction of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and deliberate judgments. West ignores all of this in his claim that Darwinism requires genetic reductionism.

West's article is organized around five questions: "(1) Does Darwinism support or subvert traditional morality? (2) Does it erode or reinforce the basis of capitalism? (3) Does it promote or undermine limited government? (4) Does it nurture or weaken religious faith? (5) Finally, is the evidence for Darwinism so overwhelming that all rational people must accept it?" (35).

(1) TRADITIONAL MORALITY. "According to Darwin," West claims, "specific moral precepts develop because under certain environmental conditions they promote survival. Once those conditions for survival change, however, so too do the dictates of morality" (36). West doesn't cite any passages from Darwin to support this sweeping assertion.

Survival surely is important for morality. Or does West deny this? Whenever Moses has to give a reason for the people of Israel to obey his laws, he says that obeying the law will allow them to live and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1, 4:40, 5:29, 6:1-3, 24, 8:1, 11:8-9, 20, 22:7, 23:9-14, 25:15, 30:15-20). Does West disagree?

Of course, survival is only a minimal condition of morality. I argue that the natural desire for life is only one of 20 natural desires that constitute the natural standards for moral order.

Through experience and reasoning, Darwin declares, we can conclude that the Golden Rule--doing unto others as we would have them do unto us--"lies at the foundation of morality" (Descent, 151). West doesn't comment on this claim or explain how it can be part of a crudely reductionist view of morality.

West complains that Darwin recognizes that polygamy has been practiced in many societies, which West interprets as an attack on monogamy. Would West say that that the Old Testament and the Koran are immoral because they teach the propriety of polygamy? Thomas Aquinas noted that polygamy was "partly natural," although it was "partly unnatural" in that the sexual jealousy of the co-wives promotes disorder. A Darwinian view of marriage would support this same conclusion in favoring monogamy over polygamy, while acknowledging that in some circumstances polygamy might be justified. It's not clear to me why West rejects this.

Like many of Darwin's critics, West is deeply disturbed by Darwin's suggestion that if bees had morality, their morality would differ from human morality. But does West mean to suggest that bee morality should be exactly the same as human morality?

(2) CAPITALISM. West claims that Darwinism cannot support capitalism, because a Darwinian understanding of commerce would require a Malthusian view of economics as a zero-sum game. But in making such a claim, West has to ignore all of the Darwinian research on the evolutionary benefits of cooperation and reciprocity. Robert Wright's book Nonzero summarizes much of this research.

(3) LIMITED GOVERNMENT. West argues that Darwin promoted a utopian eugenics, which subverted the conservative principles of limited government. To do this, West has to denigrate Darwin's insistence that utopian eugenics (like that proposed by Francis Galton) violated our "sympathy," which is "the noblest part of our nature" (Descent, 159). The only form of eugenics that Darwin ever endorsed was laws against incestuous marriages.

Darwin observes that in civilized societies, we "check the process of elimination" by protecting the weak and disabled. This "must be highly injurious to the race of man." This is what West quotes as evidence that Darwin favored the sort of eugenics that would later be practiced by the Nazis.

But West acknowledges that this passage is immediately followed by Darwin's warning that we should not practice such eugenics. Darwin writes:

"The aid which we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy, which was originally acquired as part of the social instincts, but subsequently rendered, in the manner previously indicated, more tender and more widely diffused. Nor could we check our sympathy, even at the urging of hard reason, without deterioration in the noblest part of our nature. The surgeon may harden himself whilst performing an operation, for he knows that he is acting for the good of his patient; but if we were intentionally to neglect the weak and helpless, it could only be for a contingent benefit, with an overwelming present evil. We must therefore bear the undoubtedly bad effects of the weak surviving and propagating their kind."

This seems to be a clear rejection of eugenics--to "neglect the weak and the helpless" would be "evil," because it would violate that "sympathy" that is "the noblest part of our nature." Amazingly, West dismisses this casually with the comment that "such misgivings represented a lame objection at best." "A lame objection"? How could it be a "lame objection" to see eugenics as violating "sympathy," when Darwin insists, again and again, that "sympathy" is the foundation of our natural moral sense? Here we see West straining in his effort to distort Darwin's text to get the conclusions he wants.

(4) RELIGION. I have argued that Darwinian science leaves open the question of religious belief. In searching for the unexplained ground of all explanation, we can either invoke "Nature" as the final ground, or we can look beyond Nature to "Nature's God." Darwin suggested this when he spoke about the "two books"--the Book of God's works, and the Book of God's words--as the two sources of understanding. He ended the Origin of Species with a vivid image of God as the Creator of Nature's laws. It is possible, therefore, to be a theistic evolutionist.

West rejects any possibility of being a theistic evolutionist. He doesn't even mention that Michael Behe--the leading biologist supporting "intelligent design"--suggests the possibility of theistic evolution in his book The Edge of Evolution. Behe says that treating the Bible as a science textbook would be "silly" (166), and he insists that there should be "no relying on holy books or prophetic dreams" (233). If one does not read the Creation Story literally as six-days-of-creation, then it is possible to combine belief in an intelligent designer with belief in the natural laws of science. "The purposeful design of life to any degree is easily compatible with the idea that, after its initiation, the universe unfolded exclusively by the intended playing out of natural laws" (232).

West concedes that Darwinian science leaves open the possibility of God as "first cause." "But this 'first cause' allowable by Darwinism cannot be a God who actively supervises or directs the development of life. Such an absentee God is hard to reconcile with any traditional Judeo-Christian conception of a God who actively directs and cares for His creation" (40).

But notice that West here is silent about something he acknowledges in some of his other writing: the "intelligent designer" of "intelligent design theory" is not the Biblical God. That's why many "creationists" have rejected "intelligent design theory" as a new form of atheism. After all, West rejects "biblical literalism" (41). As Behe says, intelligent design theory does not tell us "whether the designer of life was a dope, a demon, or a deity" (238).

(5) SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE. In claiming that scientific evidence denies Darwinism, West cites an article by Douglas Axe, who is an employee of the Discovery Institute. West doesn't tell his readers that some biologists have disputed the way West uses Axe's article. For example, in one analysis of the article, the author concludes: "the claims that have been and will be made by ID proponents regarding protein evolution are not supported by Axe's work. As I show, it is not appropriate to use the numbers Axe obtains to make inferences about the evolution of proteins and enzymes. Thus, this study does not support the conclusion that functional sequences are extremely isolated in sequence space, or that the evolution of new protein function is an impossibility that is beyond the capacity of random mutation and natural selection."

I have debated John West on various occasions. A few years ago, one of our debates received coverage in the New York Times, which can be found here.


Troy Camplin said...

Behe is right about one thing: the intelligent designer would have to be either a dope or a demon. A deity wuold either be a creator-God, or one who sparked the universe and allowed it to evolve as it would evolve, having put the laws in place that would have allowed for the creation of intelligent beings. I'll accept either of those as rational (though the latter only has the evidence to support it), but intelligent design theory cannot have an *Intelligent* designer. Wouldn't an intelligent God have the ability to create a universe where He has no need to intervene to create systems of ever-greater complexity? The God of the intelligent designers is a fumbling idiot.

Roger Sweeny said...

Your discussion and quote from Darwin about eugenics in (3) above reminded me of another quote that is often misrepresented by cutting it off partway through.

Adam Smith talks about an earthquake killing 100 million people in China. People in England talk about it and say how awful it is but then sleep soundly that night. On the other hand, says Smith, if a person knew he were to have a finger cut off in the morning, he would toss and turn all night.

Stop there and it seems like Smith is calling people selfish and hypocritical, making a show of caring about other people but actually only being concerned about themselves.

Yet Smith actually goes on. If any of those people were offered the choice: save your finger, or lose your finger and in the process save the Chinese--only a few morally reprehensible people would choose to keep their finger.

We all "look out for number one" but sympathy is real and has real effects.