Tuesday, July 31, 2007


The July/August issue of the International Socialist Review has an article by Phil Gasper criticizing my argument for Darwinian conservatism.

Gasper insists that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels accepted Darwin's science, which shows that the ideology of the socialist Left is compatible with Darwinism. But Gasper does not tell his reader that Marx and Engels set up a sharp dichotomy between animal nature and human culture, so that they could say that Darwinian science explained the natural world of animals and the human body but not the uniquely human world of cultural history. Although other animals have some capacity for labor, Marx claimed, only human beings have the capacity for purposeful working upon the world to conform to some plan in the imagination. By changing the natural world to satisfy his needs, man also 'changes his own nature.' This allows Marx to protect his utopian vision of socialist perfectibility from being subverted by Darwinian naturalism. This same socialist tendency towards viewing human beings as capable of a utopian transcendent freedom from nature is manifest in Gasper's appeal to Stephen Jay Gould's vision of human transcendental freedom.

The mistake that comes from such utopian transcendentalism--broadly characteristic of all Leftist thought--is refusing to recognize the limits set by human imperfectibility. For example, Marx asserted that the greatest revolutionary change would come with the rule of the proletariat, which would bring a classless society and thus the end of all domination of some over others. Against Marx, the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin warned that Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" would actually become a new "despotism of a governing minority." "He who doubts this," Bakunin insisted, "simply doesn't know human nature." Marx responded by ridiculing Bakunin's "hallucinations about domination."

Like Marx, Gasper rejects my claim "that humans instinctively seek power." According to Gasper, we can conclude that there is no "instinct for power" when we see "examples of cooperation and solidarity." He quotes from anthropologist Richard Lee's account of the Kung bushmen as showing that "the earliest human societies were not based on competition, inequality, and hierarchy." Here Gasper follows Marx's lead in arguing that pure communism would restore the original communism of primitive hunter-gatherers.

Gasper does not tell his reader that Richard Lee calculated that the homicide rate among the Kung was comparable to that of Detroit. (See Lee's book The !Kung San [1979].) Nor does Gasper tell his reader that Lee studied patterns of "leadership" among the Kung. Although there were no formal structures of leadership or government, some individuals had more status or power than others. The Kung were egalitarian in the sense that they worked hard to punish people who might become too arrogant in their bullying. But that's just the point--they had to work hard to restrain the human tendency to dominate.

Far from restraining that human tendency to domination, socialist utopias have appealed to the "instinct for power" as expressed in the yearning for revolutionary leadership. In this same issue of the International Socialist Review, there are articles on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. Castro is quoted as saying that when he was a young boy, he admired people like Alexander the Great and Napoleon. Becoming the leader of the socialist revolution allowed him to satisfy his dream of power and glory. Chavez shows the same love of glory in proclaiming "socialism for the twenty-first century." The author of the article on Chavez opens with breathless excitement: "Venezuela's 'Bolivarian Revolution' is moving ahead fast." Well, yes, and all for the glory of Hugo Chavez.

Wouldn't it be more prudent to recognize the need to limit government to protect against a potentially tyrannical "instinct for power" that is too deeply rooted in human nature to be abolished by socialism?


Anonymous said...

Hegel and Marx are worlds apart from Darwin (even though Marx did read Darwin).

Marx and Darwin come from two distinct traditions. Darwin's empiricist/English roots inspire him to focus much more on random variation, and the ultimate unpredictability of the future. Contingency plays a prime role in Darwin's thought.

Marx, influenced my continental philosophy, is less humble. He believes that when understood from a rational perspective, the story of humanity can be both comprehended and its future predicted.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, either Gasper doesn't understand the relationship between Marxism and Science or he is trying to mislead readers.

Marxist had a pragmatic/instrumentalist understanding towards science/Darwinism.

According to Marx, our Scientific conceptions arise from our relationship towards the modes of production. As the modes of production change, so to does our scientific understanding of the world around us. Science takes a secondary role to labor. Marx was no materialist in the sense which Gasper describes.

Darwin is saying something entirely different. we are tied to nature, especially contingency.

Anonymous said...

I wrote the previous post. I'm not saying that Darwin and some conceptions of Christianity are completely compatible.

The idea that freaks some Christians out is the prominent role of contingency/randomness in Darwin's thought.

To answer that question, there is a long tradition of catholic scholastics who elegantly argue that God can work through contingency. maybe this is why catholics have less difficulties with Darwin than many protestant groups.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
I am just starting to become acquainted with Prof. Arnhart's thought, so please excuse my lack of sophistication in some matters. I am a Conservative of libertarian stripe. I am educated as a physicist and a naturalist, so I lean toward Darwinism. However, in skimming the discussions, I am troubled by one important issue: Determinism. It seems to me that underlying much of the argumentation is the assumption that one's behavior is determined by biological and/or cultural forces. If that is the case, then one's behavior ought to be predictable. Having taken courses and read in the philosophy of science, I know that such a deterministic claim is overreaching. In addition to problems of measurement, Hume's problem of induction and the theorems of Goedel and Tarski undermine any effort to support strict determinism. So, it seems to me that the discussion may need to turn in a different direction.

Larry Arnhart said...

The contingency of human decisions is indicated in my recent post on political judgment.

In the chapter on "Emergence" in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, I argue that the human brain gives human beings a freedom of decision in deliberating about the present in the light of the past and the future. Such freedom does not mean, however, that we can ever be fully conscious of, or give reasons for, every factor motivating our thoughts and actions.

Haines Brown said...

Arnhart's defense against Gaspar's criticism leaves me puzzled, for I find no mention of Arnhart in Gasper's article. Perhaps I missed it.

Rather, Arnhart seems to use Gaspar as a platform from which to launch his own concerns. Today one can well accept genetic constraints on our behavior without any implication of human nature being red in tooth and claw or implying any will to power. Ethology today offers a much more positive, diversified and sophisticated image of animal consciousness.

On the other hand, Darwinian evolution makes clear there is no fixed "human nature", be it for good or ill, for evolution makes it an ongoing process.

For example, the literature on "evolutionary epistemology" in recent decades suggests that our "fitness" since 50 or 150 kyr BP applies primarily to a social environment, and this is what largely determines subsequent genetic development. An ability found in a wide variety of animals to distinguish individuals and to see the Other as another Self in a complex social environment is probably the reason for the remarkable development of our linguistic ability and thus culture and from that point in time the biological development of the Broca region of the brain.

Harry Barnes said...

I started a comment, but it disappeared. I don't know if the bit I wrote arrived with you. I just wished to argue that it is possible to be a democratic socialist without rejecting a Darwinian approach. People tend to behave in different ways depending on their background and experiences. Seeking to tackle starvation, exteme poverty,expliotation, deprevation,selfish indiviualism, anti-social views and the like can gradually help to advance values across the world of more co-operation and wider mutual assistance. There is a massive need to restrict and control selfish individualism and advance measures to tackle key world problems of greed, exploitation, ideological rigour and to confront immediate dangers such as those of climate change. Darwinism shows that there is no magic wand to do these things, but Sidney Webb's inevitability of gradualism can come into play to restain wild revolutionary tactics.

Larry Arnhart said...

Would the capitalist welfare states in the Nordic countries illustrate what you have in mind? I have written a lot about them, and I have pointed out that they tend to rank high on the Human Freedom Index of the Cato Institute.

Or would you say that they are not truly socialist because they allow for too much personal and economic freedom and not enough governmental ownership of the means of production?