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.


Kent Guida said...

I agree the review is a big step forward for the Standard, and Wells' letter and your reply are useful additions. I hope you will keep us informed about other reviews as they appear.

Along the same lines, I hope you will comment on two other recent treatments of related subjects:
Harry Jaffa's "Who Ownes the Copyright to the Universe" in the Claremont Review, available at:

And Harvey Mansfield's discussion of Darwin in Chapter 2 of his new book, MANLINESS.

Neither mentions you work specifically, but your vast fan base, of which I am the president for life, would be most interested in seeing your responses.

Best regards,
Kent Guida

Larry Arnhart said...


I hope to post some comments on Jaffa and Mansfield later this week.