Darwinian Conservatism

How Darwinian science refutes the Left's most sacred beliefs. 

An interview by Jamie Glazov with Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, about his new book Darwinian Conservatism.


Glazov:  Larry Arnhart, thanks for taking the time out to talk about your new book.


Arnhart:  It's a pleasure.  Thank you for inviting me.


Glazov:  Tell us briefly what your book is about and your main argument.


Arnhart:  I am trying to persuade conservatives that they need Charles Darwin.  Conservatives need to see that a Darwinian science of human nature supports their realist view of human imperfectability, and it refutes the utopian view of the Left that human nature is so completely malleable that it can be shaped to conform to any program of social engineering.


Glazov: How exactly does Darwinian science of human nature demonstrate the imperfectability of humans?


Arnhart: In Thomas Sowell's book A Conflict of Visions, he shows that ideological debate has been divided for a long time between what he calls the 'constrained vision' and the 'unconstrained vision.'  I see this as a contrast between the 'realist vision' of the political right and the 'utopian vision' of the political left.


Those with the realist vision of life believe that the moral and intellectual limits of human beings are rooted in their unchanging human nature, and so a good social order has to make the best of these natural limitations rather than trying to change them.  But those with the utopian vision think that the moral and intellectual limits of human beings are rooted in social customs and practices that can be changed, and so they believe the best social order arises from rationally planned reforms to perfect human nature.


Those with the realist vision see social processes such as families, markets, morality, and government as evolved rather than designed.  Darwinian science is on the side of this realist vision of the conservative tradition.  The main idea of the realist vision is evolution—the idea that social order is spontaneously evolved rather than rationally designed. Friedrich Hayek saw this.  Steven Pinker, in his book The Blank Slate, shows how modern biological research on human nature supports the insight of the realist vision that there is a universal human nature that cannot be easily changed by social reform.


Glazov: Why do you think so many Conservatives and religious people have always been so afraid and disdainful of Darwinianism?


Arnhart: They associate it with a crudely materialistic and atheistic view of the world—a 'survival of the fittest' in which the strong exploit the weak.  One of the books promoted by the Discovery Institute is Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler.  He claims that all the evils of Nazism come from Hitler's Darwinism.  But I show in my book that Weikart's arguments are weak, because there is no support for Hitler's ideas in Darwin's writings.  In response to my criticisms, Weikart now says that he cannot show a direct connection 'from Darwin to Hitler.'


Glazov:  Then what do you think about a book like Ann Coulter's book Godless?


Arnhart:  Coulter's attack on Darwinism as a threat to conservative values illustrates the sort of mistake that I want to correct.  Her arguments against Darwinism as a liberal religion are shallow.  It's clear that she has never read Darwin and doesn't really know what she's talking about.  She has memorized some talking points from the proponents of intelligent design theory at the Discovery Institute—people like Bill Dembski and Mike Behe.  But she hasn't thought through any of this.  For example, she assumes that Darwinism promotes an immoral materialism.  But she says nothing about Darwin's account of the natural moral sense implanted in human nature.  And she doesn't recognize that conservative thinkers like James Q. Wilson have adopted this Darwinian view of the moral sense.


Glazov: Can you tell us a bit about Darwin's account of the natural moral sense that is implanted in human nature? This in itself is an argument for the existence of a God right?


Arnhart: It could be.  If you already believe in God as a moral lawgiver, then you might see the natural moral sense as created by God.  In The Descent of Man, Darwin sees morality as a uniquely human trait that is a product of human evolutionary history.  We are naturally social animals who care about how we appear to others.  This natural human concern for social praise and blame combined with human reason leads us to formulate and obey social norms of good behavior.  Darwin drew ideas from Adam Smith's book The Theory of Moral Sentiments, particularly Smith's claim that morality depends on 'sympathy,' the human capacity for sharing in the experiences of others, so that we feel resentment when others are victims of injustice.  Darwin thought these moral emotions of indignation at injustice would have evolved to favor cooperative groups.


Glazov: What do you make of the creation/intelligent design/evolution debate?


Arnhart:  In my book, I explain why the arguments of the intelligent design folks are weak.  They assume unreasonable standards of proof in dismissing the evidence for Darwin's theory, and they don't offer any positive theory of their own as an alternative.  But, still, I don't see anything wrong with allowing public school biology students to read some of the intelligent design writing along with Darwinian biology, and then they can decide for themselves.


The problem, of course, is whether this could be done without introducing Biblical creationism.  In the case last year in Dover, Pennsylvania, school board members who wanted to teach a literal 6—days—of—creation story used the idea of intelligent design as a cover for what they were doing.  In fact, the Discovery Institute actually opposed the policy of the school board because their motives were purely religious, and they had no interest in the scientific debate.  In Ann Coulter's book, she misses this point entirely.


Glazov: Ok, kindly expand on why you think conservatives should welcome Darwinian science rather than fear it.


Arnhart:  Sure.  I argue that Darwinism can support some of the fundamental conservative commitments to traditional morality, family life, private property, and limited government.  For example, a Darwinian view of human nature would reinforce our commonsense understanding of the importance of parent—child bonding and family life generally as rooted in our evolved nature as human beings.  Or a Darwinian view of human imperfection might support the need for limited government with separation of powers as a check on the corrupting effects of political power.  Religious conservatives fear Darwinism because they think it has to be atheistic.  But that's not true.  There is no reason why God could not have used natural evolution as the way to work out his design for the universe.


Glazov: Can you talk a bit more about on the theory and possibility of how God may have engineered a natural evolution? And why would anyone think this is not a religious concept? Even Pope John Paul accepted the reality of evolution.


Arnhart: Yes, the statement of John Paul II in 1996 assumed that all life could have evolved by natural causes.  Traditionally, Catholics have had no objections to Darwinian evolution, because they believe that God works through the laws of nature, which could include the sort of natural evolution identified by Darwin.  The religious objections toDarwin come from fundamentalist Christians and Muslims who read the opening chapters of Genesis literally, so that God created everything in six days.  But very few religious believers take that seriously.  Even William Jennings Bryan, at the Scopes trial, admitted that the six days of Creation did not have to be 24—hour days.


Glazov: Larry Arnhart, thank you for taking the time out to talk about your book. 


Arnhart: Thank you for having me.

If you experience technical problems, please write to helpdesk@americanthinker.com