Friday, October 11, 2013

God and Evolution at Lone Star College

The debate over the moral and religious implications of Darwin's theory of evolution continues to stir deep emotions in young people. 

I saw that when I lectured yesterday at Lone Star College-Kingwood in Houston.  I met with some faculty members in the afternoon for a discussion of my Darwinian Conservatism book.  I then lectured in the evening on "Does Darwin Subvert or Support Morality?"  There was a standing-room-only audience of 200 or more for the lecture, and we had a lively discussion after the lecture. 

I was very pleased to meet Kent Guida there.  We have been--as he says--"pen pals" for over 14 years, but we had never met.

I was impressed by the intellectual energy of both the faculty and the students at Lone Star.  They represented many disciplines--history, literature, philosophy, political science, psychology, and others--and they were able to speak with one another in a vigorous and thoughtful way.  At Lone Star, the faculty encourage this kind of interdisciplinary discussion by adopting one book that is to be discussed across the courses for a year. This is what every program in liberal education should be doing, but it's rare.

Another example of this stimulating interdisciplinary work at Lone Star is the course being taught this semester by John Barr on comparing Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

In the small group discussion with faculty members, one objection to my argument for Darwinian conservatism was that I was attacking a "straw man" in dismissing the tradition of the left as "utopian" in contrast to the "realism" of conservatism.  I admitted that this is one of the best criticisms of my argument.  I think it is true that the history of leftist thought has been largely utopian in aspiring for a total transformation of the human condition to achieve an equality of outcome in social life.  But in recent decades, especially since the collapse of the Marxist regimes in 1989, the left has largely given up its utopian aspirations as it has settled into a conservative left proposing moderate social reforms.  So, for example, socialists no longer argue for public ownership of the means of production or for confiscatory tax rates for the rich.  Similarly, as I have indicated in Darwinian Natural Right, the Israeli kibbutzim were originally utopian in trying to abolish private families and private property for the sake of complete equality, but now the kibbutzim have largely thrown out these radical aims because the people in the kibbutzim found them unbearable.  For me, this shows that the emotional costs of utopian projects are too high when they deny our evolved natural desires.

Clearly, the primary reason for the large turnout of students at the lecture was the interest in my argument for applying Darwinian reasoning to morality and religion.  Many of the students at Lone Star are serious Christians who have adopted a Biblical creationism as an alternative to Darwinian evolution.  Some of them were homeschooled by their parents, so that they could be taught Biblical science rather than evolutionary science.  But there were also some students who see no necessary conflict between their Christian beliefs and accepting Darwin's theory.  And there are others who are skeptics or atheists who embrace Darwinian science as supporting human morality without any need for appeal to the divine.

I criticized both "scientific creationism" and "intelligent design theory" for not explaining exactly where, when, and how the Creator or Intelligent Designer created all forms of life.  Actually, as some students pointed out to me, the creationists who defend a literal six-days-of-creation Biblical story actually do propose a potentially testable theory.  But do they really believe that we should be able to find evidence that all species of life were created in six days?  If so, then we should see evidence that human beings existed contemporaneously with dinosaurs and many other species of life that seem to have gone extinct before the emergence of Homo sapiens. 

The primary concern of the students, however, was not so much the scientific debate over origins but the moral debate over whether a Darwinian account of the evolution of the moral sense could sustain moral order based on a purely natural ground without any necessary appeal to supernatural religious doctrines.  My argument was that while religious belief could often provide helpful support for our morality, it was not absolutely necessary, and that when religious traditions cannot resolve great moral issues--like slavery, for example--we must turn to our evolved natural moral sense.

Some of the students thought that relying on the purely human grounds of morality--human nature, human culture, and human judgment--deprived us of any "objective" standard of right and wrong that could only come from the divine law of the Bible.  I used the illustration of the debate over slavery to suggest that sometimes the Bible is either unclear or unreliable in its moral teaching, which forces us to pass the Bible through our naturally evolved moral sense.  Before the Civil War, many American Christians read the Bible as supporting slavery as a dictate of divine law.  After the Civil War, most Christians assumed that the Bible clearly condemns slavery as wrong, despite the fact that all of the passages of the Bible specifically on slavery seem to support it.

In the discussion, I indicated that I have argued for introducing this debate into our high school and college classrooms.  Why shouldn't high school biology students be able to read texts representing all sides of this debate so that they can make up their own minds based on their weighing of the evidence and arguments?  Why shouldn't all students have the sort of open discussion that we had at Lone Star College? 

If they did have such discussions, students might discover the inescapability of the Reason/Revelation debate, and the difficulty--perhaps impossibility--of either side in that debate refuting the other.  Unfortunately, I suspect that most high school and college teachers are not prepared to handle such a discussion.  But it's good to see that such a discussion is possible at places like Lone Star College.

A few of my many posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here., and here.

For the opponents of evolution, a good theme song might be Tecumseh Fitch's "I Don't Believe in Evolution"


Richard Nelson said...

As one who accepts the Genesis record, reading your experience and comments at Lone Star College was very enjoyable. Since neither de novo evolution or creation can be experimentally tested, both are left with evaluating historical science.
In what is referred to as the Cambrian Explosion, the Genesis account actually accords better with the fossil record evidence. There are many papers and books on this subject. The most recent is Stephen Meyer’s book entitled Darwin’s Dilemma.
Slavery is the result of the fallen nature of man; man wanting to control rather than walking with God. While Charles Darwin was against slavery, his endorsed the extermination of the “uncivilized” – which included the Feugians and Aboriginals. Darwin was also against the state giving money to the poor known as the “Poor Laws” at the time. Supporting the disenfranchised was thought to undermine the process of natural selection.
Darwin’s perspective on these types of social issues gave rise to Social Darwinism. Adolf Hitler personified the essentials of Darwin’s social perspectives, except for slavery. Hitler largely ran his war machine largely on slave labor.
The slave trade is now estimated to be larger than at any other time in the history of the world, from the textile industry to the sex trade.
Since the slave trade is simply further evidence that man continues to be in rebellion against God, the Lone Star College discussion of slavery in association with the Reason/Revelation debate needs to become a global discussion.

Larry Arnhart said...

The Christian slaveholders in the American South thought they were "walking with God," because they saw that the Bible endorses slavery and never condemns it. Fred Ross's SLAVERY ORDAINED OF GOD (1856) examines every verse of the Bible on slavery to support his conclusion.

Sean Parker said...

Dr. Arnhart, as an English professor at Lonestar-Kingwood and an ordained Missouri Synod (conservative) Lutheran pastor, I have a dual interest in your discussion of slavery. Operating from Engish equivalents and a Western mindset will inevitably hinder our understanding of slavery in the ancient East. As you know, the Hebrew eved and Greek doulos both have connotations we can't possibly render in English, complicated still further by Paul's insistence that believers are douloi of Christ. Southern slaveowners of the 19th century were, of course, tainted by personal, social, and political exigencies, and we are today heavy-laden by post-post (post?)modernism. Understanding the social status of ancient Eastern slaves/servants is as difficult as explaining the TAO. (Interestingly, I believe Tao scientists meld spirit and flesh in their discoveries in ways we Westerners cannot comprehend.) Glad your visit to LSC-K was so positive for you. I love teaching here, especially because I love my students. They are my kids!

Larry Arnhart said...

Professor Parker,

The Bible is clear about the meaning of slavery: slaves are property that can be bought and sold (see, for example, Exodus 21:20-21 and Leviticus 25:44-46).

Kent Guida said...

I too was impressed with the attention the Lone Star students gave your remarks and the interest they showed by their questions.

John Barr and his colleagues are doing their students a great service by bringing in challenging speakers and creating an environment for discussion. One hopes the students will come to appreciate their good fortune.

On the question of whether the uptopianism of the left is a straw man -- is there really a left without utopianism? Without the attack on private property, for example, which was cornerstone from the time of Morelly and Babeuf, what is there? And might it not also be true that the denial of utopianism is a mere pose, like Communists 70 years ago referring to themselves as progressives? Or Castro presenting as an agrarian reformer?

I would be more sympathetic to the straw-man argument if I saw leftists signing on to your list of natural desires as irreducible elements of human nature, but instead I see the assumption that the desires one does not like, such as war and domination, can be bred out of the species.

Sean Parker said...

Well that was a dismissive response. Why did I earn such arrogance from a scholar? Hmmmmmm. I thought your point was open minded consideration. I suppose that must be unilateral. (I actually have read the Old Testament--in Hebrew. But thanks for proof texting in the most elementary way.

Larry Arnhart said...

Professor Parker,

Could you help me to understand your point here?

Are you saying that since you read the Old Testament in the Hebrew, you can see that my citation of the passages in Exodus and Leviticus do not provide a clear meaning for slavery as holding human beings as property?

If you could provide me with your explanation, I would be grateful.

Stephanie said...

In the Third World, anti-evolution religious views will always rule the roost. These people only have average IQs 75 - 85.

However, in the West today, anti-evolution fundamentalists have very little political power.

In fact, over the past 100 years, much of of the anti-Darwin impetus has actually come from the political left.

It was Franz Boas and later Cultural Marxists who sought to remove all Darwinism from the social sciences.


I like your blog, Larry.

Anonymous said...


What you are noting does not make sense.

First, IQ does not correlate to wisdom.

Second, many of the religious views of the third world "roost" are dictated from Rome--a place where we may presume the IQ's are much higher, no?