Saturday, September 30, 2006

Michael Shermer's Darwinian Conservatism

The October issue of Scientific American has a short column by Michael Shermer on why Christian conservatives should accept Darwinian evolution. A longer statement of Shermer's arguments can be found in Chapter 8 of his new book Why Darwin Matters.

I agree with Shermer. In fact, much of what he says conforms with what I have written in Darwinian Conservatism and elsewhere. But in some ways, Shermer makes his points more clearly and concisely than I have.

As Shermer indicates, many American Christians accept evolution, and this includes those Catholics who follow the lead of Popes such as John Paul II who have endorsed the theory of evolution as true and as compatible with Christianity. And yet opinion surveys indicate that many American evangelical Christians and many conservative Republicans do not recognize the truth of evolution.

In the attempt to persuade these Christian conservatives to accept evolutionary science, Shermer makes seven kinds of arguments. I will summarize each of his arguments in my own words and adding a few points along the way.

His first argument is that Christians should accept evolution for the same reason that they accept any scientific theory--because it is true. The Bible says that God ordered the sun to "stand still" for a day to help Joshua win a battle (Joshua 10:10-15). This was cited by the Catholic church authorities who condemned Galileo's heliocentric theory as contrary to the Bible, which speaks of the sun as moving around the earth. But, of course, now all Christians see this as a misinterpretation of the Bible, because they accept the truth of the Copernican/Galilean theory of the solar system. So why shouldn't this apply to Darwin's theory as well?

His second argument is that the magnificence of God's creation does not depend on exactly how He exercised his creative activity. If He chose to act through natural evolutionary means, His work is still glorious. Darwin himself made this point when He spoke of the grandeur of God in creating one or few forms of life at the beginning and then impressing His laws onto matter so that the formative powers of nature could unfold by evolution.

Shermer's third argument is that Intelligent Design Theory and creationism present a demeaning view of God by conceiving of Him as being like us, but just more powerful and more intelligent. God is reduced to working like a human artisan who must employ whatever materials are available to make his product, just as a watchmaker makes a watch.

Shermer's fourth argument is that the Darwinian account of human morality supports traditional morality by showing how the human dispositions to cooperation, sympathy, reciprocity, and social bonding generally could have become part of evolved human nature. Far from subverting healthy morality, Darwinian science shows how it can be rooted in human nature.

Of course, human beings are naturally bad as well as naturally good, competitive as well as cooperative. Christians would explain this as a result of the Fall and original sin. But as his fifth argument, Shermer suggests that evolutionary theory can explain the negative side of our evolved nature as well as the positive side. Our species has evolved to be both altruistic and selfish, and much of our moral experience has to do with finding ways to overcome the conflicts this creates. Darwin speaks of the moral experience of regret or remorse: we follow some selfish impulse of the moment, only to discover later that this contradicts our social nature, and we regret what we have done, which gives rise to guilt and conscience.

Shermer goes on, as a sixth argument, to indicate how evolutionary theory explains the need for moral and religious codes to manage the conflicts in our evolved natures. We evolved in small bands in which the members had to cooperate with and trust one another in order to compete with those outside the band. Moral emotions, such as love, guilt, and shame evolved to enforce cooperation with one's family and friends. But this cooperative behavior did not extend beyond the band or tribe. We are naturally inclined to cooperate with our in-group but not with out-groups. This is manifest in the Old Testament, which teaches trust and cooperation within the community of Israelites, while also teaching brutal attacks on those outside the community. Gradually, the advantages of extended exchange and cooperation in ever wider circles allowed human beings to live in larger communities. The Christian morality of the New Testament promotes principles such as the Golden Rule to sustain such extended cooperation. But even Christian morality shows in-group/out-group distinctions--as in the depiction of the extermination of the forces of evil in apocalyptic war in the book of Revelation.

We have evolved for monogamous mating. But we have also evolved to have inclinations to opportunistic promiscuity. In the long run, infidelity is harmful because it promotes distrust and conflict. This explains why religious morality gives so much attention to condemning and punishing infidelity and adultery.

Of course, some people think they can cheat without being punished because they think they can lie successfully. But, Shermer notes, if we have evolved to be good liars, we have also evolved to be good lie detectors. And so the best way to persuade others that we are moral people is actually to be moral people!

Not only does Darwinian evolutionary theory support the moral and religious positions of Christian conservatism, Shermer indicates in his final argument, it also supports the economic and political thinking of conservatism. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection parallels Adam Smith's account of economic order as arising spontaneously from competitive markets. Like Darwin, Smith thought that human beings were both cooperative and competitive. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith laid out his account of the moral sentiments as rooted in the natural capacity for sympathy or fellow-feeling by which we share in the experiences of others. Darwin adopted this thinking for his account of the evolution of the moral sense. And yet Darwin also saw the selfish side of human nature, and this would support the Smithian idea of channelling the selfish motives of economic agents through free competition. Moreover, the very idea of economic order as arising spontaneously from free exchange without design by central planners follows the same logic as evolution by natural selection without design. Friedrich Hayek saw this parallel between Darwin and Smith. In fact, he believed that Darwin's insight into evolution by natural selection was simply an application to the biological world of what Darwin had learned from the Scottish moral philosophers about the spontaneous order of social evolution.

I would reinforce this last point by saying that a Darwinian view of human evolution supports a realist view of human beings as limited in both knowledge and virtue, which contrasts with the utopian view of human beings as perfectible. The belief in human perfectibility runs through the history of the Left from the French Revolution to the present. The belief in human imperfectibility runs through the history of conservatism from Adam Smith and Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek and Russell Kirk.

So there you have it--seven reasons why Christian conservatives should be Darwinians.

Shermer's column can be found here.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Adam Smith and the Neurology of Sympathy

In 1996, some Italian scientists studying the neural activity of macaque monkeys reported a remarkable discovery. They had been recording the neural activity in the premotor cortex of these monkeys whenever they engaged in a manual behavior such as picking up a raisin with their hands. Then one day, one of the scientists casually picked up a raisin with his own hand, and he was startled to notice that electrodes in the brain of the monkey were showing the same neural activity that appeared when the monkey picked up raisins. This scientific report claimed that there were "mirror neurons" in the brains of these monkeys--neurons that would fire when the monkey performed an action or when the monkey observed the same action performed by some other agent. Ever since then, research has confirmed the apparent existence of such neurons in various parts of the primate brain that suggest a neural basis for imitative learning and social understanding.

Research using brain imaging technology has shown that similar mechanisms exist in the human brain. Recent studies have uncovered a mirror system in the human brain that is more extensive and more complex than that found in other primates. Some areas of our brain become active both in response to our own actions and in response to sensory information about the same actions performed by others. This includes hearing actions or hearing language that resports such actions. If I hear someone eating candy, my brain will show activity in the same area that would be active if I were eating candy. Or if I hear a report of someone eating candy, the same brain area becomes active.

It has been suggested that these mirror systems might explain the capacity for empathy. And, indeed, it has been reported that people who score high on tests for empathy show a stronger activation of these mirror systems than people who scored low for empathy.

It seems possible, then, that our human capacity for "putting ourselves in someone else's shoes (or mind)" is literally just that. We rehearse mentally what another person is doing or experiencing by going through the same mental activity that we would have if we were ourselves doing or experiencing this.

This is what Adam Smith called "sympathy," or "fellow-feeling with any passion whatever," in the first chapter of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. In Darwinian Conservatism, I show how this underlies Smith's account of the moral sentiments, and how Charles Darwin adopted this in his biological acccount of morality. Our natural sociality, our natural capacity for imaginatively putting ourselves in the place of others, and our concern for judging how people appear to us as well as how we appear to others provide the natural basis for human morality and culture.

Now, if the research on "mirror neurons" is confirmed and deepened, this would sustain my argument about how morality and culture are rooted in human biological nature, because this would uncover the neural basis for such moral experience. Moreover, this could suggest an evolutionary pathway for human morality--the evolution of mirror systems in the primate brain could have brought about the emergence of human morality in the human brain.

Aristotle declared that human beings are by nature more political than the other political animals because by nature they have capacities for language and reason that allow them to organize communal life around shared conceptions of expediency and justice. Now we are seeing confirmation of Aristotle's biology of political animals by seeing how this political biology arises in the human brain's capacity to imaginatively project itself into the brains of others.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Darwinian Conservatism and Divine Command Theory

In the The American Conservative, Heather Mac Donald has expressed the frustrations of a "skeptical conservative" who cannot understand why so many American conservatives assume that morality and good citizenship require religious belief. Catholic conservative Michael Novak has written a response. This opens up a fundamental issue for conservatives.

In defense of Darwinian conservatism, I have argued that although religious belief can be helpful in reinforcing morality, it is not absolutely necessary, because ultimately our morality depends on a natural moral sense rooted in our evolved human nature. Religious conservatives like Carson Holloway and Peter Augustine Lawler have criticized me for not seeing how morality depends on religious belief.

I have defended my position as a Darwinian version of traditional natural law reasoning. Human moral experience is natural insofar as it arises from those natural inclinations that we can know by reason alone. Of course, that natural moral law can be taught by religion, but it can stand on its own natural ground even without religion. Darwin shows how that natural moral law could have arisen by natural evolution.

Michael Novak seems to agree with my view of natural law when he says it is "the law discovered by reason alone, without revelation," although revelation provides a helpful "short cut" to this natural law. Here then would seem to be common ground for all conservatives: morality can be known by natural experience alone because it is rooted in the natural moral sense, but religion can reinforce this moral law for believers.

And yet there is still a strong inclination among religious conservatives to a divine command theory of morality that drives much of the criticism of my Darwinian conservatism. The assumption of divine command reasoning is that moral obligation must be grounded in the commands of a good and loving God. If God did not exist, there could be no moral obligations.

One of the best statements of this divine command theory of morality is C. Stephen Evans' book Kierkegaard's Ethic of Love: Divine Commands and Moral Obligations (Oxford University Press, 2004). (A paperback edition of this book is being published this month.). Evans has a chapter criticizing my reasoning in Darwinian Natural Right as an example of "evolutionary naturalism." Evans endorses what he takes to be Kierkegaard's divine command morality as founded on the command of Jesus to love our neighbors, understood as a universal and disinterested love of all human beings equally. Evans then criticizes my reasoning as flawed insofar as I don't acknowledge that all morality must be rooted in such a divine command.

Darwin sees a natural tribalism in human morality. We are inclined to be more cooperative with those close to us--relatives, friends, and fellow citizens--than to those far away. Human beings are naturally inclined to cooperate within groups so as to compete successfully with other groups. Darwin thinks a universal sympathy for humanity is possible, but only as an extension of social emotions cultivated first in small groups. He assumes that as we expand our social sympathies to embrace all of humanity, these sympathies become weaker as we move farther away from our inner circle of family, friends, and fellow citizens. And yet this extension of sympathy to embrace all of humanity is strong enough to support the Golden Rule as the foundation of morality. Still, the tribalism of morality can never be eliminated. Charity starts at home. And in war, we properly celebrate the virtuous courage of soldiers in killing the enemy.

Although Evans does not draw out the full implications of his view of universal love as a divine command, he suggests that this requires absolutely disinterested love for all human beings equally, which would require absolute pacifism (see pp. 319, 328 in his book). To favor our friends, relatives, and fellow citizens over strangers would violate this universal love commandment. To use violence against evil individuals would violate it. And to fight in war would certainly violate it. Such universal love might even require the abolition of private property and family life. Some kind of pacifist socialism would seem to be required. It is hard to see that many human beings could embrace this as morally acceptable.

Evans finds Gods commands in the Bible. But it is not clear that the Bible provides the clear moral teaching of universal love that Evans wants. God commanded Abraham to kill his son Isaac. Evans says that while God might have commanded human sacrifice in the past, we know that God cannot command that "today." He seems to assume that the love command of Jesus in the New Testament overrides the bloody commands of the God of the Old Testament. (The brutal commands of the Old Testament God include orders to slaughter innocent women and children as part of God's conquest of Canaan.) But even the New Testament concludes with the bloodiest book of the Bible--the Bible of Revelation with its vision of the apocalyptic battle of the saints against Satan at the end of history.

Evans criticizes my Darwinian arguments for the abolition of slavery and insists that the immorality of slavery arises only from its violating God's love command. But Evans says nothing about the fact that all the passages in the Bible on slavery endorse it, and thus the antebellum Christians in the American South were justified in believing that slavery was biblically sanctioned. (The recent book by Mark Noll on the theological debates surrounding the civil war tells this story well.)

As I have argued previously on this blog, the Bible lacks the authority, clarity, and reliability necessary for being a source of moral guidance. If the Bible reinforces morality, it is only because we pass it through our natural moral sense. We know that the biblical account of God ordering Abraham to kill his son must be somehow mistaken, because we know by natural moral experience that this is wrong. We know that the Bible's endorsement of slavery is mistaken, because, again, our natural moral sense condemns it. If we elevate the Golden Rule over other teachings in the Bible, its because we have arrived at the rule through natural experience. That experience also teaches us, however, that disinterested, universal love cannot be absolutely observed because we must favor family, friends, and fellow citizens over strangers. The Christian tradition of "just war" reasoning shows how our natural moral sense corrects the dangerous utopianism of a universal love ethic.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Biblical Darwinism

Biblical believers (like Carson Holloway and John West) often criticize Darwin for promoting a materialist view of morality that is morally corrupting. They argue that healthy morality requires biblical religion.

But I would say that in The Descent of Man, Darwin lays out a moral psychology that coincides with what one finds in the Bible.

Darwin sees moral progress in human history as a product of the complex interaction of innate sociality, cultural learning, rational reflection, and religious belief. "Ultimately, our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment--originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit" (Penguin Classics edition, p. 157).

In the primeval history of human beings, Darwin sees morality emerging through tribal conflict. Those tribes with more cooperative and courageous members would tend to prevail over those tribes that were less cooperative and courageous. Biblical believers criticize this as endorsing a crude morality of tribal brutality.

But the Old Testament confirms Darwin's history. Moses commands the people of Israel that in conquering the land of Canaan, they must put every town under "the curse of destruction"--every living thing must be killed (Deuteronomy 20:10-20). They must do this if they want to be successful in their conquest. They must cooperate among themselves to compete with enemy tribes with whom they cannot cooperate without being destroyed. Whenever Moses gives the reasons for obeying his laws, he explains that obeying these laws is the condition for the survival and reproduction of the people of Israel (Deuteronomy 30:15-20).

Of course, biblical believers might remind us that in the New Testament, Jesus offers a new moral law surpassing the Mosaic law. He teaches the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12).

But Darwin quotes this verse from the Sermon on the Mount and endorses the Golden Rule as "the foundation of morality" (p. 151). He sees this as a moral conception that human beings had to learn over a long history of moral experience by which they learned to extend their humanitarian sympathy to ever wider communities. "As man advances in civlization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races" (p. 147).

This quotation from Darwin is the epigram for Robert Wright's book Nonzero. Wright argues that the moral and political history of human civilization is a history of cultural evolution in which human beings discover ways of expanding the range of tit-for-tat reciprocity to resolve "prisoner's dilemma" problems. Learning how to cooperate with those who are trustworthy while punishing those who are not trustworthy will be favored by both natural selection and cultural evolution.

Of course, Jesus' commands to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemies" would seem to subvert the moral logic of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which requires that cheaters be punished by retaliation. But generally Christians have read this non-resistance teaching as a teaching of perfection that is not attainable in earthly life, because most Christians understand the reasonableness of the Darwinian claim that the success of morality depends on punishing the immoral.

So it seems that in some respects, the moral teaching of the Bible is Darwinian.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Has Anyone Seen Evolution?

Has anyone ever seen the evolution of a new species from ancestral species? This question points to the fundamental difficulty in Darwinian evolutionary theory, a difficulty stressed by creationists and intelligent design proponents. If the evolution of new species occurs usually over long periods of evolutionary history, then no human being has ever directly observed this history, and so the evolutionary scientist must spin out scenarios that are more or less plausible, but still open to doubt.

Darwin admitted that he could not lay out the step-by-step pathway of the evolution of species based on clearly observable evidence. In the concluding chapter of The Origin of Species, he wrote: "Any one whose disposition leads him to attach great weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of a certain number of facts will certainly reject my theory." Here he foresaw the rhetorical strategy of the intelligent design proponents who rely on negative argumentation--pointing to gaps in Darwinian science and then inferring that ID must be true by default.

Darwin recognized that the ID theorists were unable to offer a positive theory of their own that would explain exactly when, where, and how the intelligent designer does his work. He asked: "Do they really believe that at innumberable periods in the earth's history certain elemental atoms have been commanded suddenly to flash into living tissues? Do they believe that at each supposed act of creation one individual or many were produced? Were all the infinitely numerous kinds of animals and plants created as eggs or seed, or as full grown? And in the case of mammals, were they created bearing the false marks of nourishment from the mother's womb? Although naturalists very properly demand a full explanation of every difficulty from those who believe in the mutability of species, on their own side they ignore the whole subject of the first appearance of species in what they consider reverent silence."

A few years ago, I lectured at Hillsdale College as part of a week-long lecture series on the intelligent design debate. After Michael Behe's lecture, some of us pressed him to explain exactly how the intelligent designer created the various "irreducibly complex" mechanisms that cannot--according to Behe--be explained as products of evolution by natural selection. He repeatedly refused to answer. But after a long night of drinking, he finally answered: "A puff of smoke!" A physicist in the group asked, Do you mean a suspension of the laws of physics? Yes, Behe answered. Well, that's not going to be very persuasive as a scientific answer. And clearly Behe and other ID proponents prefer not to answer the question.

Some Darwinian biologists would say that we have seen the evolution of new species--for example, in the work of Peter and Rosemary Grant studying Darwin's finches in the Galapagos Islands. There are 14 species of finches in the Galapagos. In 1977, there was a severe drought. As a result, finches with small beaks found it hard to eat the hard seeds that were left over from the drought. Finches with large beaks more adapted for eating these seeds were more likely to survive. So here, the Grants proclaimed, was natural selection in action!

The creationists and ID proponents say that this shows microevolution but not macroevolution. Natural selection was favoring some varieties of finches over other varieties. But this did not create a new species. In fact, the Grants saw that in 1983 the rainfall returned to normal, and the effect of natural selection was reversed. And yet they speculated that if there were at least one drought per decade over a 200 year period, this would push natural selection towards transforming the medium-sized ground finches into a new species. But the problem with this scenario is that it is only a speculative extrapolation that has not yet been observed.

Darwinian scientists insist that the difference between microevolution and macroevolution is only a difference in degree. As Darwin argued, every variety is an incipient species. At some point, the evolutionary change in a variety becomes so great that it becomes a new species. It's like the evolution of language. Every human language has various dialects. And eventually the cultural evolution of a dialect can turn it into a separate language, although it may be impossible to say when a dialect becomes a new language.

But then the Darwinians need to shift the burden of proof back on their critics. The species of finches found in the Galapagos are not found anywhere else in the world. But they resemble the finches on the mainland of South America. We might infer, therefore, that the ancestors of the Galapagos finches migrated from the mainland and then radiated out across the islands, so that eventually the evolution of varieties created new species. What's the alternative? If the intelligent designer did it, why did he specially create finch species unique to the Galapagos that resembled the finches on the mainland? Of course, we can't deny the possibility that this reflects some arbitrary choice of the designer that we can't explain. But Darwin thinks that his explanation is more inherently plausible.

As I have argued previously, none of this denies the work of the Creator in his original creation of the laws of nature--including evolutionary mechanisms--that could eventually bring about the evolutionary history studied by the Darwinian biologist. But it throws into doubt the assumption of special creationism and intelligent design theory that the Creator had to repeatedly intervene in the history of life to perform special miracles to create irreduciblly complex structures of life. Why do we have to assume that God was either unable or unwilling to employ the general laws of nature to carry out his creative plan?

I have written a post on the evolution of Darwin's finches in the Galapagos.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Peter Lawler's Review in MODERN AGE

Peter Augustine Lawler has written a review of Darwinian Conservatism in the summer 2006 issue of Modern Age. Unfortunately, that journal of conservative thought is not available online.

Last June 16th, I posted a reply to Lawler's most recent book--Stuck with Virtue. In that post, I anticipated the main ideas in Lawler's review.

In the review, I see again Lawler's ambivalence about Darwinian science--an ambivalence shown by many conservatives. He welcomes the way in which Darwinian science reinforces conservative ideas about traditional morality as rooted in human biological nature. He even rejects fundamentalist creationism as unreasonable. And yet he worries that Darwinism does not properly recognize the transcendent longings of the human soul for immortality as an escape from death.

As he says in his review, the "big issue" is "Darwin and death." Darwin's naturalistic view suggests that death is unavoidable. But human beings have a natural longing to live forever, a longing that is unique to human beings, a longing that leads them to religious belief in an afterlife.

As I indicate, Darwin recognizes that human beings really are unique in the living world in that they are the only animals that reflect on the meaning of life and death. And as I indicate in my books, I believe that the natural desire for religious understanding leads many human beings to long for some transcendent escape from earthly mortality.

But unlike Lawler, I don't see why all human beings must feel such transcendent longings. Some human beings will pursue an intellectual understanding of nature as the comprehensive order of the cosmos, and within that natural order, they will accept their mortality. For Lawler, this is a diversion from the inescapable longing for immortality and redemption from earthly life.

I don't see why conservatives have to agree on Lawler's Heideggerian existentialism and his claim that all human beings are "aliens" in the universe in that they desire a transcendent escape from death through immortality. Certainly, a skeptic like Friedrich Hayek would not agree with Lawler on this.

Darwinian science does not either support or refute Lawler's religious transcendentalism, which lies beyond the realm of natural human experience.

It's not clear to me why conservatives shouldn't embrace Darwinian conservatism as a position that all conservatives--religious believers as well as skeptics--can embrace