Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Conservative PC? More on Patrick Henry College

The article that got Erik Root into trouble at Patrick Henry College is now available here.

To see why this apparently uncontroversial article could be controversial at Patrick Henry College, look at the College's Institutional Statement of Biblical Worldview. You will notice that biology teachers at PHC are expected to teach that the Biblical book of Genesis is actually a science textbook. They must teach that the entire creation of the universe "was completed in six twenty-four hour days." They can teach Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theories, but they must make it clear to the students that the 6-days-of-creation theory must be seen "as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data." Consequently, not only would teaching Darwinian evolution as true be rejected, but even teaching intelligent design as taking longer than 6 days would be in violation of the College's mission.

I am reminded of a comment by Peter Augustine Lawler, a Catholic conservative, in his new book STUCK WITH VIRTUE: "This secessionist impulse of our evangelicals is, in part, the result of their intellectual weakness, their tendency not to read or write great books. Their Christian America is founded in the revelation of the Bible, not that realistic view of nature and human nature that all citizens can share in common" (p. 105).

Part of my argument for "Darwinian conservatism" is to present it as an appeal to "that realistic view of nature and human nature that all citizens can share in common." Most citizens--conservatives included--are not going to agree on a literal reading of the Bible that concludes that the universe was created in six twenty-four-hour days. Neither are most citizens going to agree on the details of the moral rules set forth in the Bible. If we are not going to have a biblical theocracy, then we need to appeal to some shared natural standards of truth and morality--something like the tradition of natural law. Darwinian naturalism supports such a tradition.

PHC proudly announces that it is on the Young America's Foundation list of Top 10 Conservative Colleges. American conservatives often complain about left-wing "political correctness." But now it seems that conservatives enforce their own "political correctness" at colleges like Patrick Henry, Hillsdale College, Grove City College, and elsewhere. Isn't this in violation of the great tradition of liberal arts education? Would Socrates be permitted to teach at schools like Patrick Henry? Apparently not.

Most of the students at Patrick Henry have been home-schooled by evangelical parents. Should we begin to wonder about the wisdom of this home-schooling movement, especially if these home-schooled kids are being taught that any teacher who believes the creation of the universe might have taken longer than 6 days should be scorned as a corrupter of the youth?

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mansfield's Manly Nihilism

As I indicated in my previous post, Harvey Mansfield asserts that the "manly virtue" of Plato and Aristotle depends on the eternity of species and cosmic teleology, which are denied by Darwinian evolution. In response, I have argued that Darwinian science supports the idea of natural right through an immanent teleology of species-specific natural ends.

It is odd, however, that Mansfield never actually asserts the truth of eternal species and cosmic teleology. And while he opens and closes his book by apparently endorsing the teaching of Plato and Aristotle that virtue is rooted in nature, the central chapter of his book (Chapter 4)is devoted to the "manly nihilism" of Teddy Roosevelt and Friedrich Nietzsche. He thus leaves his reader suspecting that the secret teaching of the book is the truth of "manly nihilism."

"The most dramatic statement of manliness," Mansfield asserts, "would be the one where the man is the source of all meaning," which is nihilism (82). Nietzsche is "
the philosopher of manliness in modern times" (110). Teddy Roosevelt is the best political expression of manly nihilism, particularly in the "assertiveness of executive power" (97).

Mansfield is famous for his Machiavellian defense of executive prerogative, which includes some recent articles defending President Bush's displays of the "assertiveness of executive power." Is this all in the service of "manly nihilism"? Does this support the suspicion that Mansfield and other "Eastern Straussians" really are nihilists?

There would no need for nihilism if we saw how a Darwinian naturalism supports natural right as rooted in human nature and immanent teleology.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Darwin and Mansfield on Manliness

Harvey Mansfield's new book Manliness is one of the most profound books I have read in recent years. It is a deep study of the nature of human sex differences and of the moral and political implications of those differences.

Mansfield's reasoning about the human nature of male and female is very close to what I have said about sex differences in Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian Conservatism. And yet he fails to fully embrace Darwinian science because he does not rightly understand the Darwinian account of human nature as confirming Aristotelian naturalism. Mansfield's mistakes in his view of Darwinian biology are shared with other Straussians who fail to see how Darwinism supports the idea of natural right.

Mansfield defines manliness as expressed in assertiveness and spiritedness. He regards such manliness as both good and bad, but essential for politics.

He thinks that in modern liberal society, manliness exists, but it is unemployed. The danger in this situation comes from either too little manliness (bourgeois softness) or too much manliness (Nietzschean will to power). We need to see the wisdom in the reasoning of Plato and Aristotle, who saw the need for a middle ground between too little manliness and too much.

Against the tendency to explain manliness as falling on one side or the other of the nature/nurture dichotomy, Mansfield explains it as emerging from the complex cooperation of nature and nurture. Manliness is a social construction that cultivates a natural inclination.

While criticizing the radical feminist pursuit of gender neutrality, in which manliness would be denied or repressed, Mansfield does not think we can go back to traditional arrangements--with women confined to the home and men free for public careers. Ultimately, he proposes a new liberal feminism based on the liberal distinction between public and private, state and society, so that there would be formal gender neutrality in the public realm but not in the private realm. He concludes: "We need to both respect and ignore sex differences" (228).

Mansfield surveys some of the evidence and reasoning from Darwinian biology that confirms his assertion of differences in men and women rooted in nature that are not likely to be radically altered or abolished by social engineering. But even as he does this, he makes four criticisms of the Darwinian view of manliness.

First, although Darwin rightly sees manliness as aggression, he does not see how that manly aggression among human males becomes assertiveness (48-49, 64-65).

Second, because Darwin does not recognize manly assertiveness, he does not see how such assertiveness supports male dominance in politics (49-50).

Third, the Darwinian denial of eternal, fixed nature and cosmic teleology prepares the way for nihilism (16, 83, 89, 196, 201).

Finally, Darwin assumes a "spontaneous nature" that denies the need for habituation and reasoning in cultivating natural inclinations (192-93, 196-97, 202, 215).

The first criticism is inaccurate. Male assertiveness is a clear theme in Darwin's writing. In The Descent of Man (London: J. Murray, 1871), Darwin wrote: "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness" (2:326). He saw men as showing "higher energy, perseverance, and courage" than women in the pursuit of "eminence" and "victory" (2:327-28).

Against the second criticism--Darwin's neglect of politics--I would point to Darwin's account of human sociability as manifested in distinct communities with leaders that lead them in competition with other communities (1:74, 79, 84-85, 95). Mansfield is simply wrong when he asserts that in Darwin's writing, we have no politics, because "all we have is the individual and the species" (1:49).

Mansfield's third criticism is hard to handle, because while he warns that the Darwinian denial of the eternity of species and cosmic teleology prepares for nihilism, he never explicitly affirms the truth of the eternity of species and cosmic teleology.

Mansfield concedes that Darwin himself was not a nihilist. He was not, I would say, because he believed that each species had a species-specific nature, so that there were natural ends for each species for as long as the species endured. This sustains an immanent teleology of species-specific ends as a ground for natural right without any need for a cosmic teleology by which the universe as a whole is ordered to some end. That species are not eternal does not deny the natural order of each species for as long as it exists. As Aristotle said: "The Idea of the Good will not be any more good because it is eternal, seeing that a white thing that lasts for a long time is not whiter than a white thing that lasts for a day" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1096b3-5). For as long as the human species exists in its present form, there will be natural differences between men and women, and we will need to take those diffences seriously.

Mansfield's fourth criticism--Darwin saw only "spontaneous nature"--is wrong, because Darwin repeatedly affirmed the importance of habit, custom, and reason in cultivating human nature. In this respect, as in many others, Darwin was close to Aristotle. Darwin explained that "the moral qualities are advanced, either directly or indirectly, much more through the effects of habit, the reasoning powers, instruction, religion, etc., than through natural selection" (2:404; see also 1:165-166, 1:173).

Darwin would agree with Mansfield that natural human inclinations--such as manliness--set a natural guide for action, but we are free to decide how to follow that natural guide as we deliberate about how best to cultivate and direct those inclinations.

If Mansfield--and other Straussian conservatives--were to recognize how Darwinian science supports Aristotelian naturalism, they might see the wisdom in Darwinian natural right and Darwinian conservatism.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Reason and Revelation at Patrick Henry College

Patrick Henry College in Purcellvile, Virginia, was founded six years ago as an evangelical Christian college promoting conservative politics. The school was specifically designed as a college for Christian conservative students who had been home-schooled by their parents. The college made a name for itself quickly because many of its first graduates found jobs in the Bush administration, which indicated the influence of evangelical fundamentalism in the Bush coalition.

About two months ago, I was contacted by Erik Root, a professor of government at Patrick Henry College and a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at Claremont Graduate School. Root had written an article in the school newspaper about Augustine's view of education, in which he spoke of the philosophic tradition of natural law. Root quoted some comments from me about how natural law might be rooted in human nature. College President Michael Farris responded to his article by criticizing him for quoting me, since I was a "known Darwinist." I advised Root to be careful about what he said, and I suggested he might be better off not quoting me.

Now I have learned that President Farris has fired Root. In response to this firing, four other faculty members have resigned in protest. Consequently, 5 of the school's 16 faculty members are leaving. News reports have quoted President Farris has saying, "I believe what the Scripture said, and that is that the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God."

So it seems that studies of science and philosophy must be subordinated to the authority of the Bible. The five faculty members who are leaving argue that Christian students need to be open to the knowledge that comes from rational inquiry outside of Biblical religion.

Beginning this summer, the College will have a new president--Graham Walker. In explaining his vision for the College, Walker says: "Most colleges today, even many evangelical schools, have veered away from truth because of their infatuation with human reason."

Isn't there something disturbing about a Biblical conservatism that thinks that college students must avoid any "infatuation with human reason," and that any college professors who defend human reason should be fired?

Wouldn't it be wiser to say that faith and reason have nothing to fear from one another, because God speaks not only through the words of the Bible as revealed to faith, but also through the works of nature as comprehended by reason?

As suggested by the quotation from Francis Bacon about God's "two books" that is the epigram for Darwin's Origin of Species, Darwinian science is open to both Biblical faith and scientific reason. So religious conservatives can also be Darwinian conservatives.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

A Reply to Jonathan Wells

The May 22nd issue of The Weekly Standard has a letter by Jonathan Wells concerning James Seaton's review of Darwinian Conservatism in the May 8th issue.

Wells writes: "In his review of Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatism, James Seaton seems to be confused about the nature of conservatism. Arnhart's argument that Darwinism supports conservative social ideals is based on evolutionary psychology, an approach based on so little evidence that even some Darwinists dismiss it. Arnhart ignores central aspects of Darwinian theory that are deeply inimical to traditional Christianity. Arnhart's argument that Darwinism supports conservative political/economic ideals obscures the fact taht Darwinian thinking underlies the 'zero-sum' concept that reduces us to competing for limited resources and justifies leftist-managed economies--the exact opposite of creating wealth through new technology and engaging in free-enterprise capitalism. It's no accident that leftists have historically embraced Darwinism while conservatives have tended to reject it."

Wells is a Fellow of the Discovery Institute in Seattle. He is best known for his book Icons of Evolution, which argues that some of the standard arguments for Darwinian science are flawed.

I cannot respond to Wells' dismissal of evolutionary psychology, because he does not specify exactly what he is criticizing. Actually, I rely very little on evolutionary psychology (of the Tooby-Cosmides sort), because I prefer to stay close to Darwin's own texts.

Likewise, it's hard to respond to the claim that "central aspects of Darwinian theory" are "deeply inimical to traditional Christianity," because Wells does not specify what he has in mind. I have a whole chapter on religion in my book. Wells does not indicate what he finds wrong in this chapter.

The only clear point that I can see in Wells letter is the assertion that Darwinian thinking promotes a "zero-sum" concept, in which one person's gain is another person's loss. By contrast, a "non-zero-sum" game is one in which players gain by cooperating.

Wells ignores my emphasis on how Darwinian thought promotes the evolutionary benefits of sympathy and cooperation that sustain free-market capitalism. As I indicate in the book, Darwin quoted Adam Smith freely about the importance of sympathy and reciprocity in social order. I also stress the Darwinian character of what Frederich Hayek called the "extended order" of civilization achieved through the "spontaneous orders" of cooperation. I have an entire chapter on how Darwinian thinking supports private property and the gains from trade.

So I am baffled as to what Wells is talking about when he asserts that "zero-sum" concepts must dominate Darwinian thinking.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Atheism of Intelligent Design Theory

In much of the journalistic coverage of "intelligent design theory" as an alternative to Darwinian science, it is assumed that ID is on the side of Biblical religion, while Darwinism is not. But this is not correct.

The proponents of ID stress the fact that they do not accept the Bible as a guide for science. Specifically, they do not take a literal reading of the Genesis story of six days of creation as superior to the Darwinian theory of evolution. They assume that the Intelligent Designer could have taken millions or billions of years to do his work. And they speak of the Intelligent Designer as a disembodied intelligence with none of the traits of the Biblical God.

The proponents of "young Earth Creationism"--such as Ken Ham of "Answers in Genesis"--scorn ID as an attack on the Bible. A recent article in Christianity Today surveys this controversy and quotes Ham as saying: "What good is it if people believe in intelligence? That's no different than atheism in that if it's not the God of the Bible, it's not Jesus Christ, it's not salvation."

This article also reports that ID proponent William Dembski has been replaced by creationist Kurt Wise as director of the program in science and theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Apparently, the Southern Baptists have found that Dembski's ID is not an orthodox Biblical doctrine.

Christian conservatives who support ID should recognize that they are rejecting the literal reading of the Bible as a guide for science. Having taken that step, I ask, why not consider the possibility of a theistic evolution that would make Biblical religion and Darwinian science compatible?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Nature's God and the Founders' Faith

In my previous post, I have claimed that the American Founding Fathers were predominantly Deists, and thus not orthodox Christians. The historical evidence for that claim is laid out clearly in a recent book--David Holmes' The Faiths of the Founding Fathers.

He shows that some of the leaders in the founding generation--such as Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams, and John Jay--were probably orthodox Christians. But he also shows that Benjamin Franklin and the first five presidents of the United States--Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe--were Deists.

The Deists believed in God, but this was--in the phrase of the Declaration of Independence--"Nature's God." In other words, they believed that God as First Cause was most clearly manifested in the lawful order of nature. Therefore, the best way to study God was through a rational and scientific study of nature as God's work.

Darwin suggested a similar thought in the epigram from Francis Bacon that begins The Origin of Species. "Let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficiency in both." Consequently, the scientific study of nature could be seen as the study of God's works, or of what Darwin called "the laws impressed on matter by the Creator."

Nature's God could work through the natural laws of evolution. And so there should be no conflict between believing in God as the First Cause of nature and the scientific study of natural evolution.

Monday, May 08, 2006

The Founding Fathers Were Not Christians

On this blog and in Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that Darwin and the evolutionary science that he founded supports religious belief, at least insofar as religion helps to reinforce the moral sense inherent in human nature. Moreover, Darwin acknowledges that the ultimate origin of life is mysterious in such a way that one cannot reject the idea of God as First Cause of life.

But for many American Christian conservatives, this is not enough. They insist that nothing less than orthodox Christian piety can support the traditional morality defended by conservatives.

One manifestation of this thought is the current obsession about the religious beliefs of the American Founding Fathers. Recently, there have been a half dozen or more books on the religious beliefs of the Founders--those who wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution--to determine whether they were orthodox Christians. Many Christian conservatives want to argue that the Founders were good Christians who saw Christian beliefs as essential for the moral and political health of the nation.

To me this ignores the obvious fact that the American Founders were not orthodox Christians but Deists. In other words, they were open to talking about how the "Almighty" created the universe, including human beings, and how this "Almighty" enforced a moral law in the universe. But they did not believe that God intervened in human affairs in answer to prayers. Nor did they believe in the divinity of Jesus as the incarnation of God. They spoke often about how important religion might be for reinforcing healthy morality. But they were not inclined to believe in the salvational power of Jesus or the efficacy of prayer for changing events.

Consider just the most obvious evidence. The Declaration of Independence refers to God as Creator and Lawgiver. But there are no references to Jesus or Christianity. The Constitution of the United States makes no references to Jesus or God, except for dating the document "in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth." The only reference to "religion" is the clause declaring that "no religious test" shall be required for any public office (Article 6). In the Ratification Debates, this "no religious test" clause was criticized by some Christians as an anti-Christian provision.

The most revealing evidence comes from a notorious episode in the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia. On June 28th, the delegates appeared to be deadlocked in their debates because of the opposing interests of large States and small States. Benjamin Franklin rose to propose that the Convention invite some local minister to attend and offer daily prayers to invoke the aid of God. "If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without God's notice, is it probable that an empire without his aid?" According to a popular legend, the Convention accepted Franklin's proposal, and from the moment that they had these prayers, the deadlock was broken by God's providential intervention. This story has been repeated by many American ministers as evidence that the American Constitution was divinely inspired. 

I first heard this story as a child when it was part of a sermon at the First Baptist Church of Wills Point, Texas.  But years later, as a college student in a class on the American Founding, I was shocked when I looked at James Madison's notes for the Convention as edited by Max Farrand in the Yale University Press edition (particularly 1:450-52, 3:470-73, 3:499, 3:531), and I saw that this story was false. Franklin did make his proposal for daily prayer at the Convention. But the response was silence.  Finally, Alexander Hamilton offered a quip about how they did not need "foreign aid." The motion was dropped.

This is not the action of good Christians. It is the action of men who respected religious belief, but who did not believe that God would answer their prayers and intervene to promote their political success. Since the meetings of the Convention were kept secret, they were not concerned about public appearances. If the meetings had been open to the public, they surely would have felt compelled to accept Franklin's motion.

The American Founders were conservatives with a realistic view of human nature, who designed a Constitution based on their view that the concentration of power was dangerous, and therefore that the best government was a limited government of separated powers with checks and balances. Moreover, they believed in the importance of family life and private property in securing individual liberty and moral order. They also believed that religion could provide support for such principles. In all of this, they conformed to what I have called "Darwiniana conservatism."

But none of this requires a pious belief in orthodox Christianity. Anyone who wants to turn the American Founders into good Christians must deny the most obvious facts about their words and deeds.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

American Conservatives and Intelligent Design Theory

Until recently, it seemed that the Discovery Institute--a conservative think-tank in Seattle--had succeeded in persuading American conservatives to adopt "intelligent design theory" as the alternative to Darwinian evolutionary science. Their appeal to conservatives was based on the claim that Darwinian science is necessarily atheistic and materialistic in ways that deny the traditional morality that conservatives want to defend.

But now it seems that the tide is turning the other way. In December, Judge John Jones--a Republican appointee--issued a meticulous decision in the famous Dover, Pennsylvania, school case, in which he ruled that teaching "intelligent design" in public schools as a scientific theory was unconstitutional. He explained in careful detail why "intelligent design theory" was not supported by the scientific evidence.

Some conservative commentators--such as Charles Krauthammer and James Q. Wilson--have rejected "intelligent design" and defended Darwinian science. In First Things, one of the leading journals of religious conservatism, Stephen Barr has argued that there is no necessary contradiction between religious belief and Darwinian science, because there is no reason to deny that God could not have worked His creative will through the natural laws of evolution. Charles Darwin himself indicated this at the end of The Origin of Species, when he spoke of "the laws impressed on matter by the Creator."

The ultimate fear of conservatives is that Darwinian evolution is morally corrupting. But I have argued that when Darwin explains the "moral sense" as rooted in the evolved nature of human beings, he supports the conservative view of morality as founded in human nature. Moreover, the conservative commitments to family life, private property, and limited government can all be justified as conforming to human nature as shaped by evolutionary history.

As I have indicated previously, I see nothing wrong with allowing high school biology students to debate the competing claims of "intelligent design" and Darwinian science. If they were to read Darwin's own writings along with some of the "intelligent design" writings, students would see that Darwin anticipated all the major criticisms of his theory and offered plausible responses. Most importantly, they would see that his science supports traditional morality and allows for the possibility that God could be the First Cause of life.

Unfortunately, the conditions in American public schools are not hospitable to such a free and thoughtful debate. But at least now it seems that some conservative leaders are open to such a debate