October 25, 2010


Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism (John G. West , Fall 2010, Intercollegiate Review)

It should be made clear from the outset that the term “Darwinism” does not refer merely to “change over time” or even to the idea that all living things share a common ancestor. Instead, in its modern formulation, Darwinism refers primarily to the claim that the mechanism of evolution is an undirected material process of natural selection acting on random mutations, and furthermore to the reductionist corollary of this view that seeks to understand mind, morality, and religion as fully explicable by such a blind material process.

Charles Darwin thought he had explained the origin of the appearance of design throughout nature through a process that did not have the design of particular organisms or biological structures in mind. The only “purpose” of natural selection is immediate survival. Natural selection is blind to the future, and thus in no sense are particular organisms or biological features—say the wings of a butterfly—to be considered the “purposeful” result of evolution. This truth applies even to the development of human beings. In the famous words of Harvard paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson, “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.”3

It is important to understand that the rejection of teleological evolution was Darwin's own view, not something grafted onto his theory by others. As Darwin himself emphasized: “No shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations . . . were intentionally and specially guided.”4 It is equally important to understand that Darwin thought his theory provided a reductionist explanation for the development of mind, morality, and religion, and that he believed his theory had implications for social policy.

Having clarified the meaning of Darwinism, we are ready to scrutinize the claims of Darwinian conservatives in five key areas: Does Darwinism support or subvert traditional morality? Does it erode or reinforce the basis of capitalism? Does it promote or undermine limited government? Does it nurture or weaken religious faith? Finally, is the evidence for Darwinism so overwhelming that all rational people must accept it?

The question of whether Darwinian evolution supports traditional morality is an old one. In a famous essay on “Evolution and Ethics,” Darwin's “bulldog,” Thomas Huxley, vigorously argued the opposite: “The practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.”5 In Huxley's view, “The ethical progress of society depends, not on imitating the cosmic process [of evolution] . . . but in combating it.”6

Larry Arnhart disagrees, arguing that Darwinism provides a biological grounding for universal moral standards.7 But it is hard to see how this is the case. According to Darwin, specific moral precepts develop because under certain environmental conditions they promote survival. Once those conditions for survival change, however, so too do the dictates of morality. That is why we find in nature both the maternal instinct and infanticide, both honoring one's parents and killing them when they become feeble. In short, natural selection “chooses” whatever traits best promote survival under the existing circumstances. Sometimes that may include traits we consider “moral,” but other times it will include shocking immoralities.

The Darwinian view makes it very difficult to condemn as evil any human behavior that has persisted among human beings, because every trait that continues to exist even among a subpopulation has an equal right to claim nature's sanction. Presumably even antisocial behaviors such as fraud and pedophilia and rape must continue to exist among human beings because they were favored at some point by natural selection and therefore have some sort of biological basis. Of course, one could still justly condemn such behaviors if there existed a permanent moral standard independent of natural selection. But the existence of such a standard is precisely what Darwinism denies.

...not both.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2010 5:52 AM
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