Monday, May 08, 2006

Darwinian Conservatism

A review of a book by that title in the weekly standard.
Larry Arnhart has news for both sides. He argues that "conservatives need Charles Darwin" to make their case that there is such a thing as "human nature" as against the left's need to believe that "human nature" is only a social construction. Conservatism is suspicious of grand schemes of social transformation, since it recognizes that human nature cannot be radically altered. The left, on the other hand, needs to believe that human beings are infinitely malleable and thus ultimately perfectible to justify its quest for absolute equality.

As Arnhart puts it, "conservatives have a realist vision of human nature" while "those on the left have a utopian vision of human nature." He argues, convincingly, that Darwinian science supports the realist vision rather than utopian hopes. Arnhart points out, for example, that the Darwinian narrative explains why it is human nature to "feel more attachment to those close to us . . . than we do to strangers who are far away."

Of course, conservatives like Edmund Burke did not need Darwin in order to understand and celebrate the attachment of human beings to "the little platoon," and admirers of Darwin like Karl Marx and Peter Singer have not been deterred from doing their best to stifle such attachments, whether they, like Marx, call for world revolution or, like Singer, explain why it is unethical to care more about one's mother than about a stranger.

Arnhart's point, however, remains. Darwin, properly understood, provides support for the conservative "realist vision" rather than for the leftist "utopian vision." But neither Darwin's putative allies nor his adversaries have been willing to limit the debate to anything as straightforward as the implications of evolutionary theory for an understanding of human nature.
A great review ...especially for one who hews more to the conservative philosophy than the other. Some nuggets:
Although Arnhart successfully demonstrates that Darwinian theory undermines the leftist dream of a transformation of human nature through social engineering, he does assuage the fears of some Christians and other believers that Darwin also undermines belief in God, or at least the God of the Bible. Arnhart's acknowledgment that "Darwinian biology cannot confirm the supernatural truth of Biblical religion in its theological doctrines" is a considerable understatement, especially for those whose "theological doctrines" include the view of creation affirmed in Genesis. Believers in the Bible as literal truth are unlikely to be comforted by Arnhart's assurance that "Darwinian biology can confirm the natural truth of Biblical religion in its practical morality." And it is not only evangelicals and fundamentalists who might find aspects of Arnhart's version of Darwinism troubling. He informs the reader that "rhesus monkeys manifest despotic dominance" while "among chimpanzees, the dominant chimp often acts to protect subordinates, and if he becomes a bully, he can provoke an alliance of subordinates to throw him out of power."

Even after being made aware of this contrast between monkeys and chimps, however, those who think the aspiration for political freedom arises from a conviction that human beings are, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, "endowed by their Creator" with "unalienable rights" may be unsatisfied with Arnhart's willingness to account for humanity's "natural desire to be free from despotic exploitation" by observing that "in their style of political dominance, human beings are more like chimpanzees than rhesus monkeys."
He does this well, and accomplishes a more difficult task achieved by only the most accomplished scientists and thinkers: He makes connections between science and human life without succumbing to the temptations of scientism.

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