Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Darwinian Conservatism of Transcendent Morality: A Reply to Bob Cheeks

Bob Cheekshas written a review of Darwinian Conservatismfor the website. He begins:

"Dr. Larry Arnhart, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, is on a mission to save conservatives from the curse of ignorance that afflicts those who have adamantly refused to yield to the revealed wisdom of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. It is Arnhart's salvific purpose then to act as a modern John the Baptist and proclaim the inerrancy of 'Darwinian conservatism' that will allow conservatives to embrace 'modern science' and not be mocked as Luddites, and (God forbid)fundamentalists."

Hey, I think he's being sarcastic!

Cheeks goes on to make the criticism that I would expect from many conservatives--that a Darwinian science of human nature cannot be truly conservative because it denies the "transcendent moral worldview" that supports conservative moraltiy and politics. He refers to Thomas Aquinas and Richard Weaver as affirming this "higher, transcendent morality" of conservatism.

But if Aquinas was right to defend a "natural law" as rooted in the "instincts" or "natural inclinations" of human beings, and if he was right to distinguish this "natural law" from the "divine law" of Revelation, then why shouldn't a Darwinian biological science of human nature help us to understand that natural moral law?

After all, Darwin believed that the enduring principles of traditional morality were ultimately rooted in a natural "moral sense" of the human animal. Darwin also saw that this traditional morality was often supported by religious beliefs.

As I indicate in my book, conservatives like Edmund Burke have insisted that "religion is the basis of civil society," and that "man is by his constitution a religious animal." But as is clear from Burke's praise for ancient Greek and Roman religions, he affirms the practical truth of religion without presuming to decide the theological truth of any particular religious tradition. Isn't that the proper attitude towards religion for the conservative?

Weaver argued that every healthy culture rests on a "myth" that is a product of the human "imagination." The traditional "image" of man as created in God's image is an example of such a "myth." But the truth of this "myth" is poetic rather than factual, and its practical truth comes from is success in sustaining the traditional order of a culture.

The Darwinian explanation of religion as a means by which human beings bind themselves into cooperative communities would seem to be perfectly consistent with the conservative stance of Burke and Weaver. From this perspective, the Darwinian conservative can affirm the practical utility of any religious tradition that sustains the good order of civil society.

Does Cheeks disagree with this? Does he think that to be a conservative one must affirm the doctrinal truths of Christianity? Can Catholic conservatives and Protestant conservatives agree on these doctrinal truths? Does this exclude Jewish conservatives? Muslims? Presumably, it would exclude skeptics and atheists. If so, then skeptical conservatives like Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich Hayek are not really conservatives.

Wouldn't it be more sensible to say that conservatives must respect the practical truth of any religion that supports social order, regardless of whether we can agree on the metaphysical truth of that religion?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

From Darwin to Hitler to Dover

Michael Behe is one of the leading proponents of "intelligent design theory." He is particularly important for the ID movement because he is a real biologist who teaches biology at Lehigh University. Proponents of ID can cite Behe's book Darwin's Black Box as evidence that some biologists object to Darwinian evolution on scientific grounds.

Behe was the leading "expert witness" for ID at the recent federal court case on the teaching of ID and creationism in the public schools of Dover, Pennsylvania. Although much of his testimony was on the scientific debate over Darwinism, he also made it clear that Darwinian theory was unlike other scientific theories because of the moral and political implications of Darwinism. In his testimony on October 18, Behe argued that Darwinism was rightly perceived by many people as having political implications. To illustrate his point, he quoted from my book Darwinian Conservatism my claim that "Darwinian biology sustains conservative social thought by showing how the human capacity for spontaneous order arises from social instincts and a moral sense shaped by natural selection in human evolutionary history." He also made references to others--such as Daniel Dennett--who see Darwinism as a "universal acid" that denies the traditional religious grounds for morality.

Although he did not explicitly say so, Behe's talk about the moral and political implications of Darwinism evokes the fundamental fear of Darwinian science as promoting a morally corrupting atheistic materialism. A big part of my book is the attempt to dispel this fear by showing how Darwinian biology actually supports traditional morality as rooted in a natural moral sense.

The fear of Darwinian immorality is evident in Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler, which was subsidized by the Discovery Institute, the leading conservative think-tank supporting ID. Weikart argues that Darwinian biology supported a tradition of German social Darwinism that led to Hitler's Nazism. Against Weikart, I suggest in my book that he has not shown a direct path "from Darwin to Hitler."

In response to my critique, Weikart has charged that I have distorted the argument of his book. I say that his book does not show a direct line "from Darwin to Hitler," because he does not show that Darwin actually supported the ideas that Hitler expressed. But now Weikart says that the title of his book does not convey his true argument. He says to me "I don't argue the kind of straightforward 'Darwin to Hitler' thesis' that you claim." Rather, he insists that he stated clearly in his book "that Darwinism does not lead inevitably, or of logical necessity, to Nazism."

If that really is his position, then I have no disagreement with him. But my complaint is that the folks at the Discovery Institute cite Weikart's book as showing that there really is a direct line "from Darwin to Hitler," and they use this as an argument for why Darwinian science is morally corrupting, as opposed to the morally healthy teaching of ID.

As I argue in my book, what really motivates the proponents of ID is not so much the scientific arguments over Darwinian theory as the moral arguments concerning the moral implications of Darwinism. Darwin himself believed that his theory supported traditional morality. Supporters of ID deny this because they cannot believe that morality can be rooted in evolved human nature.