The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design Review: Darwin And Conservatism (Chapter 14)

| 29 Comments

Jonathan Wells (2006) The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. Regnery Publishing, Inc. Washington, DC.Amazon

Read the entire series.

The most virulent attacks on evolution tend to come from political conservatives, and many conservatives have argued—as Wells does in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design—that political conservatism and evolution are fundamentally incompatible. Other conservatives, most prominently Larry Arnhart, have argued that conservatism is not only compatible with the lessons of evolutionary science, but that in some ways conservatism fits better with those lessons than do leftist political theories. Although I’m not a conservative myself, and although Arnhart’s writings on the subject contain some significant blind spots, I think he has the better of this argument. But the PIG thinks otherwise, and its attack on pro-evolution conservatives in Chapter 14 is written with the irrational and histrionic tone that many “intelligent design” activists adopt when discussing the subject. Let’s take a look.

I.

First, some dislcaimers.

1) I know that many if not most of Panda’s Thumb readers are non-conservatives. What I plan to say below is not so much about whether conservatism is a good or a bad thing, but whether conservatism is really irreconcilable with evolution or not. That’s a different issue, and comments to the effect that conservatism is dumb or that George Bush is a weenie are really not going to be helpful.

2) It’s important to get some definitions straight. In America, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” tend to mean very different things than they do in Europe and elsewhere. In America, a “conservative” is usually a person who—on economic matters, at least—tends to believe government should play a relatively minor role, but that it should play a significant role in policing certain non-economic moral affairs among the citizenry. Conservatives tend to believe private property is an essential individual right, but that sexual affairs between consenting adults is properly the subject of governmental regulation. An American “liberal”, on the other hand, tends to believe in a larger role for government in economic affairs, but not so much in non-economic matters. These are extremely broad definitions, complicated recently by the extraordinarily “liberal” way in which the present-day Republican Party has governed. Complicating matters is the fact that the term “conservative” has recently referred to two fundamentally contradictory political views, best described as (a) libertarianism, and (b) traditional conservatism. This is due to historical events, but while many conservatives today continue to speak in terms of libertarianism, libertarianism and traditional conservatism are essentially opposite views of government. In fact, libertarianism is a variety of liberalism. (Unfortunately, in his defense of “Darwinian conservatism,” Larry Arnhart ignores this distinction, and writes of conservatism from a purely “fusionist” point of view which weakens his arguments considerably.)

3) The idea, unfortunately popular among defenders of evolution, that evolutionary science is completely neutral with regard to morality, is false. Evolution is not simply an object to be regarded from a distance like a rock or a fossil; it is two important things. First, it is a process whereby non-conscious, natural laws produce conscious, thinking beings without the need for any mystical intervention. This means that it is an answer to what has traditionally been the strongest argument for the existence of God—the Argument from Design. While evolution does not prove the non-existence of God (as nothing can prove a negative) it knocks the strongest pillar out from under the claim that religious intercession is responsible for the order of the universe. Is there, then, morality entirely a matter of convention? Or does moral order arise from a non-mystical means? Or are there sufficient other reasons to believe in God that evolution’s reality changes nothing? This is the focus of the moral debate after Darwin. Second, evolution was discovered through the scientific method, which has no room in it for faith. The scientific method is a way of thinking that demands evidence and logical extrapolation from the evidence and accepts no contention on the basis of mere say-so or tradition. It is rational, not authoritarian. The fact that man has been able to discover a non-mystical account of human existence—leading to countless insights into other parts of the natural world—is a powerful vindication of non-magical thinking, which some call “methodological naturalism”. Does this mean that there is no place for faith in other realms of thought? I certainly believe so; although, others disagree. They point out that faith could very well be an appropriate way of understanding other forms of existence that are not accessible by scientific reason. Many of these people believe that there is no contradiction between believing in religion as a source of morality (based on faith or tradition) and in believing in evolution as the true account of the origin of human beings.

II.

Wells doesn’t delve much into the philosophy of conservatism, but I will in part III. First, let’s look at what he does say. Evolution, Wells contends, “cannot adequately explain altruism,” and therefore cannot “provide a foundation for morality and ethics.” Of course, Wells immediately assumes that altruism is synonymous with morality—an extremely questionable proposition—but Wells is also incorrect that evolutionary science fails to explain altruism. In fact, some very interesting science has been done on the evolutionary advantages that “genes for altruism”—whatever they might be—would confer on an organism. The famous research on ground squirrels supports the hypothesis that a member of a group will risk harm to himself to benefit others in proportion to the genes that the member shares with those others. “Altruism” is a strategy, and we would expect it to evolve in proportion to its tendency to increase the reproductive fitness of its practitioners. And that is what the squirrel research has shown. A similar pattern is found in humans, who become increasingly willing to undertake burdens to benefit others if those others are related to them. Other research has discovered animals who will share a first time, but if they do not receive a share from another the next time around, are less likely to share again. Again, evolution is likely to explain this behavior: reproductive fitness is increased if you can rely on a “social safety net”. Finally, we would expect sharing to arise as a response to peer pressure in animals who face violent retribution from others if they don’t share. If other members of the tribe will kill you for the wildebeest you’ve just killed, it pays for you to give them a drumstick—or whatever wildebeests have.

Wells skips past all of this, claiming that because “Darwinian evolution [sic] favors individuals who out-compete others to leave more offspring,” it is “difficult or impossible for Darwinism [sic] to explain the existence of individuals who deliberately sacrifice themselves for strangers.” But, in fact, animals rarely sacrifice themselves for genuine strangers. The same is true for humans. Not being an altruist myself, I will not attempt to defend the notion that one ought to sacrifice onself for strangers, but there are any number of reasons why such behavior might have prevailed—reasons Wells ignores. He roundly insists that “[i]f human behavior cannot be reduced to genetics, then according to neo-Darwinism it cannot be biologically inherited; if it cannot be biologically inherited, then it cannot evolve in a Darwinian sense.” With these sentences, Wells entirely ignores the theory of memetics, and the explanations by Dawkins and Dennett of how ideas might evolve and propagate themselves through a population. The meme of altruism has been spread through society by groups such as the Christian church, not always out of a concern for the welfare of others. And the spreading of such memes is explicable by natural selection. All of this, Wells simply ignores, insisting that evolution can’t explain morality. Why? Because he says so.

Then Wells goes off on a trip through all the alleged crimes of evolutionary science: eugenics, racism, and so forth. It is, of course, true that eugenics and certain racist views were defended on the grounds of evolution by various pseudoscientists, ignoramuses and charlatans throughout the twentieth century. Of course, chemistry was used to kill Jews in concentration camps; physics was used to kill the Japanese of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; and religion was used—well, the list of crimes attributable to it is too long to go into here. Wells’s ad hominem doesn’t deserve such attention.

Next, Wells touches on a point particularly sensitive to me: whether evolution “justifies laissez-faire economics”. Of course, many critics of laissez-faire have claimed that it was defended on grounds of “social Darwinism”, which, with some important exceptions, is really not true. Wells is right that, for the most part, “ninteenth-century American businessmen and economists did praise free enterprise, competition, and laissez-faire capitalism. But they got their ideas from classical economists such as Adam Smith, not from Darwin”. But evolution has always had interesting interactions with economics, and as Arnhart points out, one of the most intriguing is the similarity between Freidrich Hayek’s notion of “spontaneous order” and the orders created by biological evolution.

Hayek argued that social order is not (in fact, cannot be) the result of central planning: what he called “constructivist rationalism.” Instead, order can arise spontaneously through the interactions of individuals pursuing their own needs and implementing rules sets to serve their own needs. Although there are legitimate objections to the conclusions Hayek draws from these premises, the basic outline is undeniably similar to the evolution we see in biology, and the basic lesson—that economic and social design does not require a designer, any more than biological design—is correct. Wells, however, tries to separate Hayek from Darwin: “Hayek emphasized that he was not talking about Darwinism,” he writes. “He wrote that concepts such as ‘natural selection,’ ‘struggle for existence,’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ are ‘not really appropriate’ in the social sciences.” In fact, Darwin’s influence on Hayek was profound, despite whatever protestations he may have made. (Nietzsche made such protests, yet the extent of Darwin’s influence on him is also obvious.) And here is what Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty 59 (1960):

[I]t is worth stressing that … it was from the theories of social evolution that Darwin and his contemporaries derived the suggestion for their theories . … [S]uch conceptions as “natural selection,” “struggle for existence,” and “survival of the fittest” … are not appropriate [in social sciences, because] in social evolution, the decisive factor is not the selection of the physical and inheritable properties of the individuals but the selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. Though this operates also through the success of individuals and groups, what emerges is not an inheritable attribute of individuals, but ideas and skills—in short, the whole cultural inheritance which is passed on by learning and imitation.

Not exactly the language of a man trying to distance himself from Darwin, and in fact, what Hayek is referring to is the study of memetics which Wells has already ignored: a theory which itself would explain the evolution of such things as altruism.

In the same paragraph, Wells cites Ludwig von Mises for the claim that “economic success depends on competition, but also on ‘mutual aid’ and ‘social collaboration’—not a Darwinian struggle for existence.” Could anything be more ridiculous? A free market economic is filled with mutual aid and social collaboration: what else could a corporation or a business partnership be? Moreover, the passage Wells is citing—from Mises’ great book Socialism—shows just how out of touch Wells really is from Mises’s views. Mises was always careful to distinguish competition in the market from a “struggle for existence” which suggests conflict and hostility. And Mises was clear that the negative influence that Darwinian theories had on society were due to a misunderstanding of evolution:

When the formulas of Darwinism, which had sprung from ideas taken over by Biology from Social Science, reverted to Social Science, people forgot what the ideas had originally meant. Thus arose that monstrosity, sociological Darwinism, which, ending in a romantic glorification of war and murder. … Even Darwin, when he speaks of the struggle for existence, does not always mean the destructive combat of living creatures, the life or death struggle for feeding places and females. He often uses the expression figuratively to show the dependence of living beings on each other and on their surroundings. It is a misunderstanding to take the phrase quite literally, for it is a metaphor. The confusion is worse confounded when people equate the struggle for existence with the war of extermination between human beings, and proceed to construct a social theory based on the necessity of struggle. … The Darwinian—or more correctly, pseudo-Darwinian—social theories have never realized the main difficulty involved in applying to social relations their catchwords about the struggle for existence. [Emphasis added]

Most importantly, Mises is nowhere close to arguing that a successful society depends on self-sacrifice and enforced cooperation for a “common good.” For Mises, economic competition was a form of cooperation, a very special form of cooperation that did not impose itself on people, and in fact, could be undertaken without conscious thought on the part of the actors within it:

By confusing the fundamental difference between fighting and competition, the anti-liberal social theories sought to discredit the liberal principle of peace. … It is merely a metaphor to call competition competitive war, or simply, war. The function of battle is destruction; of competition, construction. Economic competition provides that production shall be carried on in the most rational manner. Here, as everywhere else, its task is the selection of the best.

Mises’s rejection of a “struggle for existence” is not an endorsement of some mystical, non-Darwinian origin of social order; instead, it is a rejection of what he believed was a misrepresentation of the nature of the free market. Wells’s reference to Mises represents a truly staggering ignorance about what Mises actually believed.

Finally, Wells gets to what he calls “the heart of the matter”: evolution, he claims, supports leftist political theories because “[f]rom a Darwinian perspective, limited resources inevitably provoke a struggle for existence that invites government regulation. But resources are not limited in the sense Darwinism assumes they are. Instead, they increase with new technological advances … [which] come from creativity.”

It’s certainly true that creativity generates wealth, and that is one big reason that I and other libertarians believe in a free economy. But nobody but Wells has ever suggested that resources are not limited in some way. Resources are virtually always limited, certainly in relation to human wants—that is why the laws of supply and demand work in the first place! Certainly the resource of time or the resource of labor is limited. And while creativity can increase the amount of resources, or change resources in ways to make them more fruitful, they remain limited. Now, whenever resources are limited and demand is not, there are alternative choices: queuing, rationing, or competitive pricing. The believer in free markets contends that competitive pricing is the most efficient solution. The socialist believes that rationing is fairer. But there is no “Darwinian” party line in choosing one over the other. One makes that choice on the basis of one’s conceptions of justice and efficiency, which are influenced by any number of factors. Wells’s contention that a belief in evolution will lead to a belief in rationing—that is, government regulation over resources in society—is a complete non-sequitur.

III.

So much for Wells. For more sophisticated intellects, there is a reason why traditional conservatism has been hostile to evolution: because of what evolution seems to say about order—and particularly moral order. The conservative attitude toward order is well expressed by an important conservative thinker, Richard Weaver. A conservative, writes Weaver,

believes that there is a structure of reality independent of his own will and desire. He believes that there is a creation which was here before him, which exists now not by just his sufferance, and which will be here after he’s gone. This structure consists not merely of the great physical world but also of many laws, principles, and regulations which control human behavior. … [T]his reality … cannot be changed radically and arbitrarily. This is the cardinal point. The conservative holds that man in this world cannot make his will his law without any regard to limits and to the fixed nature of things.

Moreover, the goal of conservative politics is not to liberate individuals, but to preserve the political order of the regime. Nobody expressed this view better than Russell Kirk, the influential conservative historian who titled his book The Roots of American Order, rather than American Freedom or any other such individualistic term. Individualism is fundamentally anti-conservative. Instead, for the conservative, “[t]o live within a just order is to live within a pattern that has beauty. The individual finds purpose within an order, and security—whether it is the order of the soul or the order of the community. Without order, indeed the life of man is poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The Roots of American Order 474 (1994).

If evolution does away with reasons to believe in God, and if it supports the belief that one should use only reason, and not authoritarianism, faith, or tradition (which are all basically the same thing: ipse dixit arguments) then what will happen to the moral and political order of the world? If morality and religion are inextricable, and if evolution means the death of God, then wouldn’t evolution mean the end of morality—and of civil society? This would take authoritarianism out of morality and politics. If morality and politics are no longer a matter of commands to be accepted, but are features of existence to be discovered, then man is able to transcend limits previously considered permanent. Evolution is a threat to such a view because it undermines the seeming sanctity of the “beautiful pattern” by suggesting there is nothing special about it—it’s just the result of historical contingencies. And that means that the order may be changed. And the conservative hastens to point out (with good reason) that those who have tried to change traditionally accepted orders have often brought bloodshed and misery in their wake. But, of course, the preservation of unjust order has also brought misery.

So is evolution truly incompatible with conservatism? On the surface, the answer is no—there are plenty of prominent conservatives, including George Will, Charles Krauthammer, John Derbyshire, and others, who have bucked the conservative trend against evolution. But at a deeper level, there is a serious problem. In his book Darwinian Conservatism, Arnhart has sought to answer this by arguing that evolution is compatible with the important political claims of conservatism: first, that human beings have certain inescapable moral qualities and needs, and second, that order is possible without a centralized planner. In fact, these points lead Arnhart to contend that conservatism is actually more consistent with the lessons of evolution than are such leftist theories as socialism. Socialism contended that man’s nature was malleable—or even that man has no nature, and that the human personality is entirely a creation of culture. By altering culture, we can change human nature, eliminating such things as private property or inequality. But evolution reveals that human nature is just as much a part and product of natural history as the nature of cats or dogs or pigs. Thus, “[t]he socialist belief in human perfectibility must deny a Darwinian science of human nature that constrains the human freedom for utopian transformation” (Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Conservatism 123 (2005); see also Paul Johnson, Intellectuals ch. 13 (1988)). Secondly, evolution is a powerful example of “spontaneous order”, which itself shows that government regulation is not necessary to produce social or economic order, and in fact that central planning is less capable of producing a good order than is the unconcerted activities of various people.

The second argument runs into a problem, however: due to its authoritarian view of society, conservatism sits rather uneasily with the idea of spontaneous order. Spontaneous orders are individualistic orders, after all: they are the consequence of individuals pursuing their own desires freely. They are not necessarily the “beautiful pattern” that Kirk had in mind. (Kirk and Hayek, fittingly, detested each other.) Spontaneous orders are dynamic, where conservative orders are static. A spontaneous order results from what Joseph Schumpeter called “creative destruction”, which, again, is not a conservative value, since it undermines order.

It is in this sense that evolution really does run up against some serious problems with conservatism. Arnhart’s answer fails to answer this problem because at this point he starts talking about Hayek. But Hayekian spontaneous order is just what the conservative doesn’t want. Hayek’s view is an individualistic and rational view—where the conservative is seeking a permanent order based on tradition and mysticism. That is why I have argued that Arnhart has much more in common with secular libertarians like Ayn Rand than he does with genuine conservatives. For more on this, check out my review of Darwinian Conservatism in the current issue of the Reports of the National Center for Science Education.

The bottom line is this: the genuine conservatism of people like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver really is fundamentally at odds with evolution, not because of anything having to do with the free market or evolution’s alleged links with racism and whathaveyou—all of which are superficial issues relative to what conservatism is about. Evolution undermines the conservative ambition for an eternal order where each person knows his or her place in the “beautiful pattern”. On the other hand, many, if not most, of those who call themselves “conservatives” are actually libertarians—believers in individual liberty, free markets, small government, and so forth—who do not believe that we should live within a “beautiful pattern” of outwardly-enforced order. For these people, evolution presents no serious threat. Morality, aid to others, political freedom, and the rest can all be perfectly well defended from a Darwinian perspective, and Arnhart has done a very good job of doing so. Wells’ book offers no helpful contribution to this debate.

29 Comments

Reaching a bit too high, Tim. I can’t say I look forward to seeing people I basically agree with about nearly everything catfight to no purpose whatsoever.

Nice article. American conservatism, unlike European conservatism, has been for the last 40 years been an uneasy mix of libertarianism and social conservatism; the objections to evolution come almost exclusively from the latter. Moreover, European conservatives, which tend to be distinct from European liberals (who are in turn close to American libertarians) seldom have issues with evolution either. So anti-evolution conservatives are, in a global perspective, a very narrow subgroup indeed.

Burke wrote something like this: “the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.” (one gets different versions of this from different places, but this is the gist).

American conservatism. Well, what is that? It’s hard to say, but perhaps it would be best to just say that American conservatives wish to keep what they have, or at least what they think they had or have. It’s really hard to pin conservatism down to a commitment to authoritarian order alone, for it looks back to Burke and the American Revolution than it does to the hierarchical orders supposed to stem from God that the medievalists believed in. Thus they need to put their claim upon spontaneous orders, on the lines of Burke’s statement above, resisting further change via some supposed ideal reached through cultural means (naturally one might dispute this, at least on occasion, as the American revolutionaries did).

Here’s one statement on American conservatism by someone who claims to speak for it:

The conservative view of the world believes that the order of things arrived at over time is a wiser foundation than a proposed order that has been arrived at by committees or assembled in the minds of the most creative individuals, say a Marx or the philosophes who planned a revolution in France that ended in a reign of terror.

http://ee.iusb.edu/index.php?/adp/b[…]onservatism/

continuing from above:

And I found that source while looking for a statement of Russell Kirk’s conception of, yes, liberty and of spontaneous order arising out of custom. True, I didn’t find a Kirk quote, but my sense after reading one of Kirk’s books is that this claim made in Kirk’s name is legitimate:

Russell Kirk in his classic, The Roots of American Order, bases his work on the principle that there can be no liberty without order, emphasizing that order is customary and exists in thought as well as behavior. Those who value tradition, custom, and order, who support prudence in government policies, cannot feel comfortable in this era of created instability.

(from the same link)

We generally do understand liberty as having to exist in a framework of order, though we might disagree on what that order entails, and how and why it might change.

One has to consider that the morality which is said to come from God is not considered to be simply a top-down authoritarian morality in American conservatism, rather we are supposed to have the “moral law” in our hearts and minds, which appears whenever “right-minded” humans get together and produce their “species wisdom”. Thus the myth of the self-evident truths coming out of the American revolution. There is frequently a claim from the top, yes (“endowed by their creator”), yet spontaneousness of human morality and order is another strong claim, especially in American conservatism.

Conservatives are suspicious of new spontaneous order, I think there’s little doubt about that (conservative intellectuals don’t deny that change is inevitable and even needed, however, they just usually want less than most others do). But to say that they are suspicious entirely of spontaneous order is to misread American conservatism. The whole idea behind the wonders of the free markets and capitalism is that the proper order, change, and freedom will arise spontaneously by leaving the markets alone (with the usual exceptions that benefit certain parties, of course). The nobles, the aristocrats, rise to the top as God intended, and everyone receives his just deserts.

One should note that Marxism/communism was for a very long time faulted precisely because it interferes with the virtuous “spontaneous order” effected by free markets and customary rights and restrictions. These criticisms run from Burke and Locke on down to the present day.

So whatever the reality of conservatism is today, one ought not to give up on using conservative theories of how and why order and freedom appear spontaneously as a useful analogy with evolutionary pressures. A number of conservatives see evolution in exactly that manner, and think that humanity’s current condition is owed to something like the free market, as well as to the toppling of authorities who don’t measure up in good “meritocratic” fashion.

In fact it is doubtful that humans ever did evolve under anything like free market conditions, or indeed, individualism. Yet the American conservative myth is that a just order does arise out of competition and cooperation, which is a staple of evolutionary theory at the present time.

One should note, too, that conservatives did typically view human tendencies as being inherited via both nature and nurture (which Sandefur brings up, without contrasting it with the old liberal position), at a time when most liberals were claiming that all order was merely imposed. This difference is not so visible any more, with Dawkins himself complaining about the “all nurture” diehards who continue to snipe at newer (and no doubt better) evolutionary theories. It was their (“liberal”) opposition which painted conservatives as being opposed to spontaneous orders, not the conservatives themselves. That evolutionary biology bears out the conservative claim that genes do affect social order is a fact not forgotten among the more intellectual conservatives, perhaps a reason why the intellectual conservatives typically do not share the creationistic impulses of the more reflexively and authority-believing conservatives.

Then again, some doubt that “conservative” and “liberal” mean much at all today. Many continue to divide into “right” and “left”, but the old issues between liberals and conservatives (like economics, communism, welfare (remember which president instituted welfare reform), and a genetic component to behavior) have certainly declined in recent years.

So we may argue evolution with self-proclaimed “conservatives” by appealing to traditional American conservative views about how spontaneous order arises out of collective behavior (versus “social engineering”, the old bugaboo of conservatives), but this is not going to affect the large portion of the “right” who merely wish to enshrine their religious values into education and government, heedless of any conservative or liberal legacy. Yet when it comes to American conservatism as an ongoing tradition, the spontaneous, and supposedly unforced, increases in societal order remain a virtue, one that many conservatives recognize in “Darwinism”.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

While I disagree rather vehemently about the free market (a topic for elsewhere) this is by far the best written article I’ve seen on the Panda’s Thumb. It’s eloquent for sure and points us in interesting directions. That said, I genuinely think that you, and others, have given the eugenics thing a bit of short shrift. I think this is something we have to owe up to.

I think this is quite well written, but it would be worth it to rewrite it slightly to more clearly demarcate where you are talking about factual matters (such as “the theory of evolution explains X” or “there exist people whose political philosophy is “Y”) and where you inject your own opinions.

This is a very thorough fisking, but it seems quite irrelevant. Either the theory of evolution is valid or it is not. The universe does not care whether its particulars are in harmony with any particular political philosophy. Even if ‘Darwinsm’ was guilty of all that it has been accused of, it would not affect whether it was a true decsription of how the world works. I cannot think of a more egregious example than that of the atomic bombs that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, but nevertheless, e = mc2.

Now, given that ‘Darwinism’ is true, how does that affect conservatism?

Now, given that ‘Darwinism’ is true, how does that affect conservatism?

Conservatives often pride themselves on their connection to reality. Anti-evolution conservatives are detached from reality in a very big way.

The battle against anti-evolutionism within conservative ranks in the US is very closely linked to the battle against theocratic conservatives. The recent ascendancy of the latter is coupled to the growth of anti-evo thought. Until secularists are able to regain some sort of niche within the GOP, conservatism is going to continue to be anti-scientific.

Now, given that ‘Darwinism’ is true, how does that affect conservatism?

The battle against anti-evolutionism within conservative ranks in the US is very closely linked to the battle against theocratic conservatives. The recent ascendancy of the latter is coupled to the growth of anti-evo thought. Until secularists are able to regain some sort of niche within the GOP, conservatism is going to continue to be anti-scientific.

Quite good. Its not, however, historically accurate to assert that socialist thinkers were in some sense anti-Darwinian. This is a particularly common assertion among conservatives who speak of the socialist-liberal idea of highly malleable human nature. This may be true of the Leninist-Stalinist version of Marxism but is definitely not true of other historically important strains of Marxist thinking. Engels himself was quite taken with Darwin, as was Karl Kautsky, who after Engels’ death was probably the foremost defender of Marxist orthodoxy. For anyone interested, there is a good discussion of both and of the role of Darwinist influences in volume 1 of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. Some 19th century anarchosyndicalist thinkers were influenced by Darwinist ideas. In the 19th century, it was hard to escape some Darwinist influences, whether you were right, left, or center.

The western conservatism: We found freedom, now we need laws to force its foundation.

Too bad the *claimed* foundation is often incompatible with the freedoms enjoyed. If you must indoctrinate people to accept the 1792 version of US Constitution, that already destroys the concept of freedom.

I have to say I’m continually baffled as to why people think that an explanation of a thing is the same as a justification of the thing.

Why do creationists think that if evolution can’t explain how moral behaviors originated, then moral behaviors can’t be justified? Why do evolutionists think that if we can explain how moral behaviors originated, then they would be justified?

I can point to my white, middle class childhood and explain how I came to hold the center-left political views I now hold, and I can point to the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers and explain how they came to hold their moral beliefs, but why do people think that explaining how these beliefs arose has any bearing on whether they are justified?

3) The idea, unfortunately popular among defenders of evolution, that evolutionary science is completely neutral with regard to morality, is false.

I disagree. Your argument seems to be that “If God exists, then we must adopt moral theory X; evolution at least strongly suggests that God does not exist; therefore we need not adopt moral theory X.” This commits the fallacy of denying the antecedent. Furthermore, the premise that the existence of God implies the need for a particular (God-based) moral theory is almost certainly false. In order to support this assertion, you would have to be able to derive an “ought” from an “is”, in other words, overcome Hume’s Guillotine. If God does exist, it is not the case that “we must do what God says” is automatically true. Likewise, it is not the case that if evolution is true, we must adopt some allegedly evolution-based morality. In short, I am aware of no way in which the truth or falsity of evolution would have definite consequences regarding the moral assertions we are justified in making.

(As an aside, I take issue also with your assertion that “nothing can prove a negative”. This is patently false: I can readily prove that there exist no even primes greater than 2, that there exists nothing that is simultaneously red and not-red in the same respect, and that there are no penguins living on the surface of Mercury. Proving a negative is only problematic when the being in question is not obviously a logical or physical impossibility. There are, in fact, proofs of the non-existence of God that attempt to display that the existence of such a being is a logical impossibility, though I need not discuss them here.)

Finally, I would like to know how you justify the assertion that the Argument from Design “has traditionally been the strongest argument for the existence of God.” The Design Argument is relatively rare in religious writings throughout history, and presupposes a notion of “God as Master Architect” which is not necessarily accepted by all or even most theists. As Kant observed, the Design Argument, if successful, would only prove that some being arranged matter into a particular form, not that this same being created the universe itself. The Design Argument at best proves the existence of a demiurge, not the God of most monotheistic religions, and attempting to discredit the idea of God by knocking down this argument amounts to a straw-man argument. (The fact that Wells et al. seem to think the Design Argument proves the existence of the Christian God only shows their ignorance.)

Besides, knocking down a widespread or popular argument for some claim does not discredit the claim itself. At one time, the “strongest argument” (or at least the most popular) for abiogenesis was the fact that rats spontaneously generated in granaries. This turned out to be bunk, but did not discredit abiogenesis; it simply meant that other, more sound, arguments had to be used to justify it. Likewise, you have done nothing to reduce the credibility of the claim that God exists by knocking down a particular argument for God’s existence; all you have shown is that if someone believes that God exists, they must use some other argument to back up their claim.

Gerard Harbison Wrote:

The battle against anti-evolutionism within conservative ranks in the US is very closely linked to the battle against theocratic conservatives. The recent ascendancy of the latter is coupled to the growth of anti-evo thought. Until secularists are able to regain some sort of niche within the GOP, conservatism is going to continue to be anti-scientific.

The GOP has been antiscientific (SDI fantasies under Reagan, global warming denial under Bush) for numerous issues having little to do with the theocratic nutcases. There are now three or four books out that document the GOP’s war on science that I can think of.

Evolution undermines the conservative ambition for an eternal order where each person knows his or her place in the “beautiful pattern”.

Ah, but it doesn’t. An explanation of the process of evolution actually allows us to fully and wholly understand the nature of the weave of life; it exposes not merely the pattern and our place in it, but the means by which the pattern came to be.

In this sense, I believe evolution is much more compatible with conservatism than many conservatives realize — but this realization has been drowned out by the noise of religiosity, bigotry and tribalism, which are all negative aspects of conservatism, and which I believe are sourced in the same innate xenophobia that causes chimpanzees to hurl rocks at “outsider” groups.

Cholling: Very clever, but I am not denying the antecedent, because all I’m claiming is that evolutionary science and morality are not two wholly distinct matters, but that what we learn from evolution will have implications for how we approach morality. For example, evolution shows us that there is no essential thing that separates us from the animals–that we are instead the product of a gradual progression, and that there is therefore no inescapable biological line separating us from the rest of life. That has very important implications for ethics, since it rules out the idea that humans are subject to ethical laws because of some special spark in them. So we can try to find some new magical moment–say, when God breathed the spirit into the evolved body of man, or something. But in any case, my claim, that evolution and morality cannot be considered as entirely separate matters, is true.

Obviously I disagree with your comment on proving negatives. In the case of prime numbers, you can prove that prime numbers have certain qualities and therefore that if there is a prime number, it must have those qualities. That’s not the same as proving a negative. You cannot prove that there are no penguins living on the surface of Mercury. I dare you to try. (No, I don’t. Never mind.)

The Argument from Design may or may not be “relatively rare” (I doubt that’s the case), but perhaps I should have said it is the strongest logical argument for the existence of God. I certainly don’t claim that denying it will, by itself, discredit the idea of God. (Again, I don’t think the non-existence of God can be proven), but I do think it deals an enormous blow to theology. All I meant was, as you say, that if someone continues to believe that God exists, they must use some other argument. (And that it is not up to me to prove that God does not exist, because He could very well be out there superintending those Mercurial penguins.)

I can point to my white, middle class childhood and explain how I came to hold the center-left political views I now hold, and I can point to the biographies of the 9/11 hijackers and explain how they came to hold their moral beliefs, but why do people think that explaining how these beliefs arose has any bearing on whether they are justified?

This one drives me bonkers too. I figured out the difference between a reason and an excuse when I was about 12. Confused the bejeezus out of my father, in fact.

The only way I can explain it is that some people are very successful at the business of selling confusion among different ideas and logical principles.

SDI fantasies under Reagan

Oh, I see, so looking for a science based approach to defend the US from missile attack is antiscientific. Hope someone told the thousands of scientists who worked on the program.

Thanks for reminding me why I am a conservative.

Andrew Lee: If your ethical beliefs were formed under less than ideal situations (whatever that would be exactly) it would be evidence (though not conclusive evidence) that they were not well justified over all.

That said, of course there is a difference between a reason and an excuse.

William Emba Wrote:

The GOP has been antiscientific (SDI fantasies under Reagan, global warming denial under Bush) for numerous issues having little to do with the theocratic nutcases.

That SDI was unscientific will be news to the thousands of scientists who worked on the program.

A few comments which are quite irrelevant to your topic, but I cannot let them pass without responding:

Evolution is not simply an object to be regarded from a distance like a rock or a fossil; it is two important things. First, it is a process whereby non-conscious, natural laws produce conscious, thinking beings without the need for any mystical intervention. This means that it is an answer to what has traditionally been the strongest argument for the existence of God—the Argument from Design. While evolution does not prove the non-existence of God (as nothing can prove a negative) it knocks the strongest pillar out from under the claim that religious intercession is responsible for the order of the universe.

If there is any science which says that natural laws produce thinking being without the need for any mystical intervention, it would be something like biochemistry, reproductive biology, or developmental biology, not evolutionary biology. Evolution deals with changes to populations, not individuals. And it is individuals which are thinking beings, not the species Homo sapiens. Anti-evolutionists complain about things like the natural origins of the structure of the vertebrate eye, not about the natural origins of J. Doe. (Although anti-evolutionists are as careless about this as they are about most other things.)

The Analogy of Design (I cannot bring myself to dignify it by calling it an “argument” ) is merely a bad analogy. It is puffing it up to say that it is the “strongest pillar” for “religious intercession.”

It is simply false that “nothing can prove a negative”. Examples abound of proofs of negatives: Euclid’s proof that there is no largest prime number. The assertion happens to be self-defeating, for it is itself a negative: nothing can prove a negative; if it were true, then it couldn’t be proved.

Oh, I see, so looking for a science based approach to defend the US from missile attack is antiscientific.

No, but the refusal to accept the scientific evidence that the system (as originally conceived: remember lasers in orbit and “smart pebbles”) couldn’t work, was unscientific. The science that came out of the program (e.g. adaptive optics for large telescopes like the Keck) was fabulous. One might dispute whether cosmology should be so high a budget priority, or how large a nail SDI was in the coffin of the Soviet Union, but certainly the promises made for SDI were overblown to a degree that could be called unscientific.

Evolution is not simply an object to be regarded from a distance like a rock or a fossil; it is two important things. First, it is a process whereby non-conscious, natural laws produce conscious, thinking beings without the need for any mystical intervention. This means that it is an answer to what has traditionally been the strongest argument for the existence of God—the Argument from Design. While evolution does not prove the non-existence of God (as nothing can prove a negative) it knocks the strongest pillar out from under the claim that religious intercession is responsible for the order of the universe.

The “argument from design” was long secondary (IIRC, Aquinas didn’t bother with it in his “proofs of God”) to arguments like “God is needed to explain existence”, or the like (Greek philosohers didn’t believe in either argument, but others, of course, did). In fact is is questionable if many believed in biological design at all, instead seeing the creation of life as a kind of generational process (via God). It was in later ages that the “argument from design” became what was probably the strongest assertion (‘most persuasive assertion’ is what I mean) in the theologians’ arsenal, as we note with Paley.

Atheists did seem to be concerned about Paley’s “design argument”, even though they were able to poke holes in it (like they did Leibnitz’ “best of all possible worlds”). The claim that God must be responsible for “matter/energy” seemed like a useless regress, to the atheists, and apparently to some of the better theistic minds as well. Also, science was the intellectual queen of that era, so that if you could come up with a “scientific” argument for God, that would be the strongest argument of all.

The semantic quibble I’d have with Sandefur is that the design argument isn’t strictly a logical argument, it poses as an empirical/perceptual, a scientific, argument (which is probably what he meant, using “logical” in the colloquial sense). Science still rules, even if it doesn’t awe the masses as it once did, leading the IDists to pull the tired old claims out of the closet. Press some of them, and the old regress to “god is needed to explain the universe” comes up again (and surely cosmology has the most important unanswered questions—evolution barely has any ‘great questions’ left), but for many of them the “clear” and “obvious” case for God is made through the “design argument”. Even many “fine-tunists” admit that their “argument” is more nebulous than biological ID is portrayed to be, even though cosmic ID is supposed to be quite persuasive.

Another reason that the “design argument” is important to them is that all of the old arguments for God/creation assumed that we were the focus of the creation of the universe. Yes, it might be more impressive to make the earth, the sun, and the stars, than flesh and bone humanity. But these are nothing without humans (in their view), they get their very purpose from humans and their creation. Make humans out to be accidental in the old sense, and there is no reason for the sun, moon, and stars to exist (again, according to their psyches). So that showing humanity to be “accidental” in the sense of “not purposefully made” takes the psychological force out of the cosmological arguments and metaphysical arguments. If the purposive beings were not purposefully made, then what is the purpose of the non-purposive objects and processes?

And yes, evolution is important to any explanation of consciousness, though physics has to be more or less the “ultimate explanation”, as it is in liver function.

I agree that the design analogy is a bad analogy, but it is used as the “strongest pillar” by those desperate to produce some hard evidence.

Real mathematical proofs of negatives exist, as Gerard points out, and so do “proofs” like the reductio ad absurdam which may wipe out a claim that something was the consequent of another thing. Negatives can be “proved” in a number of constrained scenarios. The negatives that can’t be “proved” are those which are open-ended, like the claim that an omnipotent omniscient deity exists, without any pre-existing conditions pointing to its existence. If I had said, though, that God exists because I am a unicorn, the negative of this statement could be proved (and now I’m not using quotes now because I’m only discussing logical relations) by showing that I am not a unicorn. Proving that negative would not prove that God does not exist, it just proves that God does not exist because of the purported fact that I am a unicorn (the antecedent is not true, so the consequent is negated—but only in that logical statement).

The negatives which can be proved or “proved” are not the kind that Sandefur was discussing, of course, and certainly God cannot be proved not to exist. So while it might be better not to say that “negatives can’t be proved”, Sandefur’s point about God is unrefuted.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

Sorry, it was TomS who pointed out that negatives can be proved.

Glen D http://tinyurl.com/b8ykm

Timothy, I elaborated further on my initial response to your comment about the way evolution undermines conservative pattern-seeking, but it might be a case of missing your intention.

I’m arguing that evolution can actually enhance true conservatism, and that the ones who are threatened by evolution are actually xenophobes, not conservatives.

What an interesting article. Thank you.

Tim Sandefur Wrote:

Obviously I disagree with your comment on proving negatives.

I wouldn’t have thought it obvious that you would persist in a blatant and silly error even after it had been corrected. If it were impossible to prove a negative, then it would be impossible to prove any statement, since any statement P can be recast as “not not P”. In fact, it is only universal negatives, and empirical universal negatives at that, that cannot be proved; statements such as “there are no chartreuse ravens”; (some instances of) other sorts of negatives can be proved. For instance, it can be proven that 7 is not the square root of 2 and that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t mention George Bush by name. And, as Cholling noted, it is provable that there are no even primes greater than 2; your comment about “certain qualities” is point-evading gobbledegook.

Glen Davidson Wrote:

certainly God cannot be proved not to exist

This is not “certainly” so – since when do scientists talk like that? As Cholling noted, there are (alleged) “proofs of the non-existence of God that attempt to display that the existence of such a being is a logical impossibility”. All such attempts at proof may be flawed, but they are not “certainly” all flawed – not without providing some reason to think so. Proofs of logical impossibility are not empirical and thus are not the sort of universal negative that isn’t provable.

So while it might be better not to say that “negatives can’t be proved”

Indeed it might be better not to make blatantly erroneous statements that are ignorantly abbreviated from a considerably more constrained form.

Sandefur’s point about God is unrefuted.

Sandefur claimed that it’s impossible to prove that God does not exist; his justification for the claim, that one cannot prove a negative, is demonstrably erroneous. Therefore, his argument has been refuted. It may be true that it is impossible to prove that God does not exist, but neither Sandefur (“cannot prove a negative”) nor you (“certainly”) have demonstated that.

On the substantive issue, “goddogtired” and “tom” have it right, IMO. Wells’ argument is consequentialist, and therefore fallacious, and delving into the nature of conservatism just serves to legitimize his form of argument, and to foster needless battles among supporters of science.

Sheesh, you are an idiot. Fraud is not a “science based approach”. Putting your fingers in your ears and not listening to scientific consensus is not a “science based approach”.

There were a heck of a lot of scientists at the BMDO meetings I attended that didn’t seem to have heard about the ‘consensus’.

And lose the personal attacks.

The science that came out of the program (e.g. adaptive optics for large telescopes like the Keck) was fabulous.

Freeman Dyson notoriously justified accepting SDI grant money, despite knowing that SDI was fraudulent, on the basis that it funded worthwhile physics research.

Sheesh, you are an idiot.

It’s useful to distinguish idiocy from ideology. The latter can cause generally intelligent folks to be idiotic in regard to certain issues.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Timothy Sandefur published on November 29, 2006 1:42 PM.

Just so stories was the previous entry in this blog.

Microbiology pioneer dies is the next entry in this blog.

Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.

Categories

Archives

Author Archives

Powered by Movable Type 4.381

Site Meter