Saturday, December 30, 2006

Darwinian Liberal Education

My article on "Darwinian Liberal Education" will be published soon in the fall 2006 issue of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars. Here I will provide a few excerpts.

We all know what's wrong with higher education today. Teaching and research have become so specialized, fragmented, and incoherent that we cannot see that unity of knowledge necessary for sustaining general or liberal eduction. To renew the tradition of the liberal arts, we need a new unifying framework of thought. As far as I can tell, there is today only one plausible source for such a common ground of knowledge, and that is Darwinian evolutionary biology.

I began to move towards this conclusion as an undergrduate student at the University of Dallas in the late 1960s. My youthful excitement about philosophy was stirred by Aristotle's declaration in his Metaphysics that all human beings by nature desire to understand, a desire that leads natural philosophers to search for the ultimate causes or reasons for all things. Fascinated by Aristotle's comprehensive investigation of nature and human nature, I noticed that much of his writing was in biology, and that even his moral and political works assumed a biological understanding of human nature. So I wondered whether Aristotle's biological naturalism could be compatible somehow with modern Darwinian biology, and whether this might support a general study of human life within the natural causal order of the whole.

Reading Leo Strauss helped me to see how the fundamental dilemma of modernity explained the loss of liberal education as a comprehensive study of the whole. The natural sciences assume a materialist reductionism that cannot account for the human mind or spirit. The humanities assume a radical dualism that treats human consciousness and conduct as autonomous in their separation from the causal order of the natural sciences. The social sciences are then torn between these two contradictory positions.

We might overcome this dilemma, I thought, if we could see Darwinian biology as a comprehensive science that would unify all the intellectual disciplines by studying human experience as part of the natural whole. This would continue the Aristotelian tradition of biology, because, as Strauss observed, Aristotle believed that biology could provide "a mediation between knowledge of the inanimate and knowledge of man."

The aim of liberal education is to use all the intellectual disciplines to probe how the complex interaction of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual choices shapes the course of human experience within the order of nature. Darwinian theory provides a general conceptual framework for such liberal learning grounded in the scientific study of genetic evolution, cultural evolution, and cognitive judgment.

In my teaching and my research, I have tried to answer the intellectual objections to grounding liberal learning in Darwinian evolution. Those people who deny the truth of Darwinian science should be free to dispute it as best they can, while recognizing the weight of the evidence and arguments favoring it and the difficulty of developing alternative explanations that are scientifically testable. Those people who fear Darwinian reductionism should see how Darwinian biology recognizes the emergent evolution of complexity. Those people who fear Darwinism as morally subversive should see how Darwinian reasoning supports morality by rooting it in human nature. Those people who fear Darwinian atheism should see that Darwinian explanations leave open the question of whether the evolution of nature is ultimately the work of nature's God. At all of these points, a Darwinian pursuit of liberal education directs us to think about the fundamental questions of human existence in the world. Isn't that what a liberal education is supposed to do?

But still many people will object that integrating the liberal arts curriculum through the idea of Darwinian evolution is impracticable, because this would require a radical restructuring of academic procedures and institutions, which is unlikely. My response here is to suggest three small steps that we can take that don't require radical change.

The first step is for college and university teachers to develop courses in their departments that incorporate Darwinian ideas. Many professors are starting to do that, because they are finding that evolutionary theory offers them fruitful lines of research that they can introduce in their regular teaching. I teach courses in biopolitical theory at Northern Illinois University that attract students from many departments across the university.

The next step is for faculty members in different departments to cooperate in interdisciplinary teaching. Next year, I will be team-teaching a course on evolution with a philosopher and a biologist. Students will register in one of three coures in the Department of Political Science, the Department of Biological Sciences, or the Department of Philosophy. But the three classes with the three professors will meet together. We will explore the general ideas of evolutionary theory and then apply them to various topics crossing the fields of biology, philosophy, and political science. The different viewpoints of the three professors in each class will surely stimulate lively discussions.

A third step would be to expand this into a general curriculum that would bring together courses in many departments. The best model for this would be David Sloan Wilson's Evolutionary Studies Program at Binghamton University. (The website for Wilson's program can be found here.) This program was started by Wilson in 2002, and it is already being adopted at other schools. He has designed an integrated curriculum with a required introductory course--"Evolution for Everyone"--and a list of courses across the university from which students must earn a minimum number of credits. Wilson teaches "Evolution for Everyone" as the course in which all students in the program are introduced to the central concepts of evolutionary theory as well as some illustrative application of those concepts to various fields of study. He emphasizes the application of evolutionary ideas to human nature. In addition to the undergraduate program, there is a similar program for graduate students with the same structure. In this way, both faculty and students from across Binghamton University in many different departments are brought together with Darwinian reasoning as their common language to talk about questions of human nature and the natural world.

At Northern Illinois University, I have helped to develop "Politics and the Life Sciences" as a field of study at both the undergraduate and graduate levels within the Department of Political Science. With the help of my colleagues in other departments, I hope to eventually organize a university-wide program in evolutionary studies following the lead of Wilson's program at Binghamton.

Through such a Darwinian liberal education, we could renew the quest that began with Aristotle to satisfy our natural human desire to understand the causes or reasons for all things.


Anonymous said...

It will be interesting to see how closely your ideas line up with E.O. Wilson's Consilience. Did you find it necessary to comment on that book in your article?

Larry Arnhart said...


Yes, I do comment on Wilson's book.