November 20, 2010


Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism (John G. West , 11/19/10, Intercollegiate Review)

Without question, modern science has bequeathed lasting and important benefits to human civilization. It has produced wonder-working drugs and miraculous inventions; it has led to a staggering increase in both freedom and the standard of living. Unfortunately, in recent years the cultural Left in America has attempted to enlist science as a weapon in its ideological arsenal, defining any disagreement with leftist ideology in areas touching upon science as a “war on science.” Whether the issue is embryonic stem-cell research, global warming, sex education, or even partial-birth abortion, if you oppose the policy prescriptions of the Left, you are likely to be smeared as “anti-science.” Underlying such rhetoric is an unthinking scientism: a credulous belief that modern science can answer all important questions about human life and that scientists have the right to dictate public policy merely because of their presumed technical expertise.

Conservative intellectuals such as Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis warned prophetically about the dangers scientism posed for politics and society during the last century. “Let scientists tell us about sciences,” Lewis wrote in the 1950s. “But government involves questions about the good for man, and justice, and what things are worth having at what price; and on these a scientific training gives a man's opinion no added value.”1

As advances in science become ever more tantalizing, claims to rule made in the name of science will likely become ever harder to ignore. One of the most formidable challenges facing conservatives in coming years is how to confront this revival of scientism and curtail the overreach of science into all spheres of human life.

Directly related to this challenge is the cultural status of Darwinian evolution, which has served as one of the most powerful engines of scientism during the past century. In the words of Richard Weaver,

as Darwinism and other theories seemed to immerse man more and more completely in nature, it was soon being asked why the methods which had explained so much of the physical world might not explain him also. With this the way was wide open for the materialistic monism which today underlies virtually all “scientistic” social science. Henceforward man was to be “nothing but” what the methods of science could reveal him as being.2

Unsurprisingly, leading contemporary Darwinists, such as E. O. Wilson, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett, have been at the forefront of promoting scientism. More surprisingly, conservative intellectuals today are divided by the debate over Darwinian evolution. Some simply ignore it as unimportant. Others are embarrassed by criticisms of Darwinism, because among the secular elite to criticize Darwinism is tantamount to allying oneself with the dreaded “religious fundamentalists.” Still others, like Larry Arnhart and James Q. Wilson, hope they can rescue Darwinism from scientism and even enlist it as a support for conservatism. These “Darwinian” conservatives claim that Darwinism can be used to defend traditional morality, economic freedom, limited government and even religion. They further contend that the science behind Darwinism is so overwhelming that conservatives must embrace it or be doomed to irrelevance. I think they are wrong on all counts.

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 New Republic did a useful survey sewfveral years ago that showed both why the Beltway Right tends to misapprehend the rest of the country and why Bill Kristol is the exception to that rule.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 20, 2010 8:40 AM
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