Friday, December 21, 2007

Questions and Answers for John West

In a recent blog post, John West claims that in our debates, I have refused to answer his four major questions for me. Here I will briefly summarize my answers to those questions and then pose some questions for West.

West's first question: "If Darwinism provides the standard for determining what is moral or immoral (as Arnhart claims), how can we condemn any activity that persists over time among even a subpopulation of human beings or animals?" Since Darwin indicates that practices such as infanticide, rape, and polygamy have been common in human history and thus "natural," doesn't this imply that Darwinism would endorse such practices?

The answer to this question is to be found in Darwin's account of the moral sense. Although natural selection through the "struggle for existence" shapes the social instincts of human beings and their capacities for reason, speech, and social learning, "the highest part of man's nature," Darwin indicates, comes from the moral development that arises more from habit, reason, instruction, and religion than through natural selection (Descent of Man, Penguin Classics, 163, 681-82, 688-89). So, for example, we can understand that in primitive societies, people felt compelled to kill their offspring when it was difficult or impossible to successfully rear all the infants that were born (65, 659-60). But modern conditions of life allow us to preserve our offspring without threatening the lives of others. We can also understand why polygyny (one husband with many wives) has been common in human history, while polyandry (one wife with many husbands) has been rare (655-63). Men of high status and wealth will be inclined to seek multiple mates, and polygyny has worked in many societies. But the sexual jealousy among the co-wives will always create conflicts. And while an extreme scarcity of women might make polyandry necessary, the intense sexual jealousy of males will make this almost impossible to sustain. Thus, through moral experience and moral reasoning, we can see the advantages of monogamy in securing the peaceful management of the natural desires for sexual mating. This kind of reasoning led Thomas Aquinas to conclude that while monogamy was fully natural, polygyny was partly natural and partly unnatural, and polyandry was completely unnatural.

West's second question is: "If Darwinism is so friendly toward Biblical theism (as Arnhart insists), why do the vast majority of leading Darwinists identify themselves as atheists or agnostics? Are they all stupid?"

Well, are Darwinian scientists like Francis Collins stupid for believing that theism and evolution are compatible? Was Darwin stupid for concluding The Origin of Species by describing the "grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one"? Was Pope John Paul II stupid in asserting that there was no necessary conflict between evolution and religion? I don't think so. Fanatical atheists like Richard Dawkins might not be stupid. But they are certainly remarkably shallow thinkers who refuse to ponder the mystery of the First Cause of nature, which leaves a big opening for God as the Creator.

West's third question is: "If Darwinism is so friendly toward limited government (as Arnhart also claims), why did most of the leading Darwinian biologists in the first several decades of the twentieth century champion state-sanctioned eugenics, the effort to breed a better race applying Darwinian principles? Moreover, why did these evolutionary biologists insist that eugenics was a logical corollary to Darwin's theory? Were they all stupid as well? Why and in what way?"

If grossly ignorant utopianism is stupidity, then they were stupid. The eugenicists followed in the utopian tradition of Plato's Republic, which assumed that philosopher-kings could breed human beings to improve their moral and intellectual capacities. Francis Galton openly claimed that his proposed eugenics would fulfill the dreams of utopian philosophers. This eugenics was utopian because it assumed human perfectibility in knowledge, power, and virtue. It assumed that human beings could fully understand and precisely control the mechanisms of biological inheritance so as to shape a new human race superior in physical and mental traits. This is unrealistic because complex behavioral traits are almost always shaped by the joint action of many genes interacting with the social and physical environment of the individual in ways that cannot be perfectly understood or controlled. Galton's eugenics also assumed that those people who would manage his selective breeding programs could be trusted to exercise their power for the common good without being corrupted by tyrannical interests like those of the Nazis.

West's fourth question is: "If Darwin himself only supported what Arnhart describes as 'good eugenics' such as preventing incestuous marriages, how does Arnhart explain the remarkable passage in Darwin's Descent of Man where Darwin warns of the dangers to the human race of helping the poor, caring for the mentally ill, saving the sick, and even inoculating people against smallpox? In Darwin's own words, 'no one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man . . . excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.'"

Isn't Darwin right in seeing that insofar as modern civilization promotes the propagation of inherited defects, this is "highly injurious to the race of man"? Don't we know today of many genetic disorders that parents pass on to their offspring? Wouldn't it be desirable if we could eliminate or at least minimize the propagation of such disorders? So, for example, isn't it good that Ashkenazi Jews are using genetic testing to identify the carriers of Tay-Sachs and to discourage them from passing on that genetic trait to the next generation? But isn't it also right that our desire to eliminate these genetic disorders must be combined, as Darwin insisted, with a desire to aid the weak as an expression of that moral sympathy that constitutes "the noblest part of our nature" (Descent of Man, 159)?

Now let me address four questions of my own to West--questions that he has refused to clearly answer in our debates.

1. What does West mean in his book Darwin's Conservatives when he says that the alternative to a Darwinian morality of the natural moral sense is a morality grounded on a "transcendent standard of morality" (21), a "permanent foundation for ethics" (22), or "moral truth" (40)? What is the source of that "transcendent standard"? When people disagree about the meaning of that "transcendent standard," are they just stupid?

2. What does West mean when he refers to "traditional Judeo-Christian morality" (21)? Does this refer to Biblical morality--the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments--which would include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (69-71, 143)? If so, then how exactly does the Bible provide a clear and reliable moral teaching contrary to the Darwinian moral sense? When the Bible teaches the "curse of destruction" that requires killing innocent women and children (Numbers 31:1-20; Deuteronomy 20:10-20), and when the book of Revelation teaches that history is moving towards a bloody battle for extinguishing the armies of Satan, is this "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? When radical Islamists appeal to the Biblical tradition of holy war, is this also part of "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? When the Bible endorses infanticide (Genesis 22; Numbers 31; Deuteronomy 21:18-21; Judges 11:29-40) and slavery (Exodus 21:20; Leviticus 25:44-46; Ephesians 6:5), must we accept this as "traditional Judeo-Christian morality"? How do we judge the moral reliability of such Biblical teachings without appealing to some natural moral sense beyond biblical revelation?

3. What exactly does West mean when he speaks of biological desires as normative? He writes: "I am not quarreling with Arnhart's attempt to enlist biology to support traditional morality. I actually agree with him that showing a biological basis for certian moral desires could conceivably reinforce traditional morality--but only if we have reason to assume that those biological desires are somehow normative. . . . If one believes that natural desires have been implanted in human beings by intelligent design, or even that they represent irreducible and unchanging truths inherent in the universe, it would be rational to accept those desires as a grounding for a universal code of morality" (22-23). So does this mean that we are morally obligated to follow all of our natural desires if we believe they are the product of intelligent design or an unchanging nature? How exactly would that work? How can we judge that the intelligent designer or unchanging nature is good if we do not already have some independent standard of goodness? Is it possible that the intelligent designer used the evolutionary process to create the human species--as suggested by Michael Behe? If so, would that make our biological desires as shaped by evolution normative for us?

4. If "intelligent design theory" is a purely scientific theory that does not depend on religious belief, then why do the majority of scientists deny this? Are they stupid? And why is it that so many Biblical creationists--like those involved in the Dover school case--see the teaching of "intelligent design" as a way of teaching creationism as science?

1 comment:

Mark Frank said...

"If Darwinism provides the standard for determining what is moral or immoral"

This looks like another instance of a prevalent confusion. Biology plus culture are the cause of our moral beliefs. But that doesn't entail that they set the standard for determining what is moral.

Once upon a time there was a big fitness advantage for most humans in eating high calorie foods. As a result we developed a liking for sweet things. But our liking for sweet things is not a liking for high calorie foods. In the same way social groups in the distant past gave a fitness advantage for those humans that supported certain moral standards e.g. prevent others suffering. But the desire to prevent suffering is not a desire to increase biological fitness.