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Nov/10

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Darwin and intellectual conservatism

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The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has a webjournal called First Principles. Here’s a bit about ISI:

In 1953, Frank Chodorov founded ISI as the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, with a young Yale University graduate William F. Buckley, Jr. as president. E. Victor Milione, ISI’s next and longest-serving president, was the enterprising individual whose efforts realized Chodorov’s plan through publications, a membership network, a lecture and conference program, and a graduate fellowship program.

And now here’s an article, Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism. It’s not just the the people at Answers in Genesis.

36 comments

  • Clark · November 29, 2010 at 5:12 am

    I’m saddened that more conservatives don’t embrace Darwinianism – especially given the place of Hayek and emergent order in conservative thought. All that said I don’t think this article is quite as critical as some say. It’s true some think that evolution could select for morality reflecting some objective morality much like selection selects for the recognition of empirical structures like distance, heat, color and so forth. (Assuming for now the question of moral realism is decided positively) However I think it safe to say that even those appealing to evolution for human morality don’t all think it reflects objective morality. This is pretty controversial, even among atheists.

    Given that it seems fair to see a conflict between Darwinian views of morality and moral realism. There may be ways around this (and I don’t think it says much of Dawinianism proper) but I’m not sure this paper’s wrong to point out the issue.

    Far more problematic is the paper’s appeal to Malthusian theory as a way of critiquing modern Darwinianism. I’ve never understood this appeal to a genetic fallacy.

    That said I think it fair to draw a distinction between Hayekian emergence (tied to individual intelligent actors) from Darwinian evolution (which is blind and purely a matter of efficient causation). Hayekian emergence is much closer to Lamarkian than Darwinian. That said the difference between genes and memes, while important, isn’t quite as big as some portray. The bigger issue is the appeal to emergence and it’s unclear why some conservatives are open to memetic evolution and not genetic evolution.

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 29, 2010 at 8:23 am

    The bigger issue is the appeal to emergence and it’s unclear why some conservatives are open to memetic evolution and not genetic evolution.

    “blank slate conservatism” – BSC.

  • Professor Booty · November 29, 2010 at 8:25 am

    It’s an interesting article, and quite correct: conservatism (in its mainstream American incarnation) is irreconcilable with Darwinism. Or, to put it another way, with reality.

    (Obviously, “interesting and quite correct” does not apply to the last section of the article, which engages in the usual right-wing special pleading in a lame attempt to discredit Darwinism per se.)

  • Author comment by CONSVLTVS · November 29, 2010 at 12:11 pm

    “it’s unclear why some conservatives are open to memetic evolution and not genetic evolution”

    Seems inconsistent, doesn’t it? My thought is that genetic theory explains the mechanism behind Darwinian natural selection, and Darwin destroyed one of the traditional proofs of the existence of God. While some religions have accepted Darwinian evolution, far too many of the faithful sense it (rightly) as a challenge to their faith. Hence, they are emotionally unable to accept it. Faith kills reason, in this case.

    Memes, by contrast, don’t seem to have anything to say about God one way or the other. So, there is no emotional barrier to the theory.

  • Susan · November 29, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Isn’t theistic evolution a mechanism for allowing people to reconcile faith and science? I could be wrong, but I thought that most mainstream Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic church promoted theistic evolution just for this purpose.

    A little side note: The ISI is the group that Christine O’Donnell sued for gender discrimination after they canned her.

  • Clark · November 29, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Yes, many groups allow for theistic evolution as a way of dealing with religious claims and scientific claims. There are groups (both the New Atheists as well as many Christian fundamentalists) who don’t think theistic evolution works.

  • Susan · November 29, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Well, it’s perfectly clear why theistic evolution doesn’t work for any kind of atheist, nor perhaps for most agnostics. And it’s also clear why theistic evolution doesn’t work for fundamentalists, virtually all of whom, I suspect, are also YECers.

    The real question, I suppose, is who will control–and dictate the discourse of–twenty-first century American conservatism. I suspect that hardcore fundamentalists are in the minority, although given the noise they make and the press attention they receive by virtue of being such an ongoing carnival sideshow, you’d suspect the opposite. But they ARE a minority, confined mostly to parts of the south and the midwest. Given that, it’s my hope that the secular, the religiously indifferent, and non-fundamentalist believers will control the conservative discourse.

  • Polichinello · November 29, 2010 at 9:58 pm

    Theistic evolution doesn’t really work because it either has to become intelligent design or deny that man was a special creation of God. Go with the former, and you deny Darwin; go with the latter and that’s it for Christianity.

    On an emotional level it fails as well. Think about it, theistic evolution states God set off a big bang, and then sat around for about 15 billion years doing nothing. How many organisms suffered extinction in that time, as God sat by placidly waiting for the right time to appear to Homo Sapiens? Not a very loving God, when you consider that he knew all this would happen when he set this chain of events.

    Larry Arnhart has tried to get around this problem by suggesting that Christianity could dispense with God’s omniscience–i.e., that he can’t clearly predict the future–but no serious Christian, fundamentalist or not, would accept that.

  • Susan · November 29, 2010 at 10:23 pm

    Polichinello, how many believers in theistic evolution do you suppose sit around debating, with themselves or others, the questions you raised? My feeling is…very, very few. Most people would like to believe in a benevolent higher power (and eternal life, since it’s really hard to cope with the thought of your own non-existence), but they’d also like to believe in science, technology, and the benefits those bring. So the two have to be reconciled some way, and the easiest way to do that is by not bothering to try to resolve any inherent contradictions.

    I’m okay with this kind of confusion. Ultimately it’s harmless, because the confused don’t seem to want to create an anti-intellectual theocracy. What I’m NOT okay with is people who think that the ultimate source for reliable information on physics, geology, astronomy, and evolution is the Book of Genesis. But, as I say, I think they’re a noisy minority.

  • Polichinello · November 29, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    I’m okay with this kind of confusion.

    Fine, but you can hardly build a coherent and effective movement with this sort of confusion as a foundation.

  • Susan · November 29, 2010 at 10:55 pm

    But, Polichinello, my point is that that particular kind of confusion doesn’t generally enter into the political discourse. I know conservatives who are atheist, agnostic, and–to coin a phrase–benevolently confused, or indifferently religious, or mildly religious, and who are just not inclined to resolve the contradictions I mentioned. As long as belief in God–particularly a fundamentalist God–doesn’t become the the litmus test for who’s a conservative and who’s not–who cares? If my neighbor believes in God, but also believes strongly in free markets, smaller government, and anything else a secular conservative espouses, and doesn’t believe in imposing his or her religion on me (or on the political process) what do I care what he or she believes?

  • John Turner · November 29, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    The majority of John West’s argument is completely ludicrous. He deals with (1) Darwinism and Morality, (2) Darwinism and Capitalism, (3) Darwinism, Utopianism, and Limited Government, (4) Darwinism and Religion, and (5) Darwinism and the Scientific Evidence.

    Replace ‘Darwinism’ with any other scientific theory and you see how vapid his argument is. Just imagine the headline: Electromagnetism, Utopianism, and Limited Government! Or Fluid Mechanics and Morality!

    So much for ISI being the home of American intellectual conservatives.

  • Polichinello · November 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    But, Polichinello, my point is that that particular kind of confusion doesn’t generally enter into the political discourse.

    Then why are we still talking about it?

    If my neighbor believes in God, but also believes strongly in free markets, smaller government, and anything else a secular conservative espouses, and doesn’t believe in imposing his or her religion on me (or on the political process) what do I care what he or she believes?

    All you’ve done is establish that you’re a libertarian, not a conservative. Conservatives also acknowledge communal goods, including inculcating the next generation with their customs, practices and beliefs. That means they’re either going to have to acquiesce to your teaching their kids that they’re the products of an unintelligent natural process, having no more value to the universe than the common cold virus, or start pushing to reintroduce the idea of divine action in the world around us as part of a shared public belief.

  • Susan · November 29, 2010 at 11:47 pm

    Hmm. I don’t think I established myself as a libertarian–I just didn’t recite the entire conservative catalogue, given space limitations.

    I don’t have any kids, but if I did, why would I have to teach them explicitly either of the positions you cite? Unlike most people, I wasn’t raised in any religion, but I still managed to be “good without God,” as the saying goes. There are pragmatic arguments one can make for virtually all conservative beliefs, most of them boiling down to “they work”. And you don’t need a bogeyman to reinforce them. I don’t commit crimes, but that’s not because I’m afraid of being punished in the afterlife. (And besides, if I were repentant on my deathbed, or accepted Jesus as my personal savior, then I wouldn’t have to pay for my crimes in the afterlife, would I? All would be forgiven. Which I suppose would make it possible to live a merry life a a career felon and then be forgiven at the moment of expiration. Good deal.)

    I think I can claim to being a conservative, if for no other reason than that I believe that you don’t do certain things just because…they’re not done. You don’t rob and kill an old lady for the same reason that you don’t forget to write a than you note. It’s not done.

  • Susan · November 29, 2010 at 11:48 pm

    Should be “thank you note” in the last sentence.

  • Author comment by David Hume · November 30, 2010 at 12:58 am

    That means they’re either going to have to acquiesce to your teaching their kids that they’re the products of an unintelligent natural process, having no more value to the universe than the common cold virus, or start pushing to reintroduce the idea of divine action in the world around us as part of a shared public belief.

    well, if that was addressed to me, i’d react rather brutally to stuffing those sentiments implicitly into my mouth ;-)

    in any case, i’m an atheist. i don’t think theistic evolution is correct. nor do i think intelligent design is correct. but i don’t give much thought to their coherency, because i reject one of the axioms of both. i do know of people who are intelligent and sincere who believe that theistic evolution is coherent (the few creationists/ID people i’ve known don’t know much about what they even believe, so i don’t put them in the same category). i don’t find their arguments persuasive, but they’re out there, and i can acknowledge that there are intelligent people who find those arguments coherent. the debate in this area is more philosophical to me, than scientific, and so i don’t see the point is presuming we can have clear and distinct conclusions which we can all agree upon.

  • Clark · November 30, 2010 at 7:09 am

    That means they’re either going to have to acquiesce to your teaching their kids that they’re the products of an unintelligent natural process, having no more value to the universe than the common cold virus, or start pushing to reintroduce the idea of divine action in the world around us as part of a shared public belief.

    I accept theistic evolution of a sort, but I confess I don’t understand the above sentiment. First off how can anything have value to the universe unless one is a pantheist who (unlike say Spinoza) sees the universe as having a real consciousness. Certainly most theists don’t believe that anymore than most atheists believe it. So who cares what the universe thinks.

    If we are talking about some consciousness (God or human beings) then surely what counts is our value to those entities. As such I confess I don’t see much difference between the theist and the atheist. What’s weird is the equation of value with mastery that is implicit in all this. God can value us only if he masters us. This is really problematic if one isn’t a Calvinist and rejects the idea of total mastery of human beings.

    Color me confused but when theists reason like this I just don’t get it. I think this is just an area where atheists and theists ought have a lot in common. There’s just a very weird notion of value behind all this.

  • Clark · November 30, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Well, it’s perfectly clear why theistic evolution doesn’t work for any kind of atheist, nor perhaps for most agnostics.

    By work I mean logically. One can think the solution works to resolve an apparent contradiction yet still think the premises are false. So an atheist might think theistic evolution is false since there is no personal God yet think theism and evolution are compatible.

  • Author comment by mark · November 30, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    “I could be wrong, but I thought that most mainstream Protestant denominations as well as the Roman Catholic church promoted theistic evolution just for this purpose.”

    The RCC “promotes” nothing on this subject. It accepts theistic evolution, but the issue is not one the church really seeks to address to the flock (as opposed, to say, abortion).

    I don’t know where you live, but the “mainstream” Protestant demonstrations you appear to reference can hardly be called mainstream any longer–they are the outsiders, dying off quickly. The crazies have taken over the asylum, something of a mirror of what has happened at ISI. If it hasn’t hit your area yet, just wait. Unless you are in few urban areas, you will see these loonies grabbing school board seats, etc., soon enough. The pod people have arrived.

  • Susan · November 30, 2010 at 7:29 pm

    The pod people are fewer in number in my region than in other parts of the country. I’m certainly aware of the threat they represent. But are there enough of them to establish a nationwide theocracy?

    I do think they represent a real threat to a unified conservative movement. If they form a third party–and there have been rumblings that they will–then that pretty much insures a liberal plurality in most elections.

  • Mark · December 1, 2010 at 4:07 am

    I made no claim to a nationwide theocracy, and don’t believe it, at least anytime soon. But an enormous pain in the ass? We are there already in many places.

    PS: We’ll see who has to resort to a third party, if it comes to that. The former useful idiots may teach their handlers a few unexpected lessons.

  • Carol · December 1, 2010 at 2:32 pm

  • Polichinello · December 1, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    I don’t have any kids, but if I did, why would I have to teach them explicitly either of the positions you cite?

    Because those are the ultimate implications of the two positions. If you don’t work it out, someone else will.

  • Polichinello · December 1, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Clark,

    If we are talking about some consciousness (God or human beings) then surely what counts is our value to those entities.

    Darwinian evolution takes that transcendent consciousness out of the equation. Man is no special creation. He’s the result of natural unguided processes. At best it leaves you with a weak deism. So where else can you find value? Nowhere except in ourselves, and that requires building a new moral code–not a conservative proposition.

    Sure, there are plenty of bright bulbs who can still keep the contradictory balls in the air, but it requires some effort, and sooner or later, the balls will fall.

  • Polichinello · December 1, 2010 at 7:16 pm

    I think I can claim to being a conservative, if for no other reason than that I believe that you don’t do certain things just because…they’re not done.

    Then be prepared to go through life being shocked at what is done.

  • Polichinello · December 1, 2010 at 7:22 pm

    well, if that was addressed to me, i’d react rather brutally to stuffing those sentiments implicitly into my mouth…

    Well, that is the implication of Darwinian evolution, no? We have no more implicit value than any virus. Really, given evolution’s favoring of reproductive hardihood, we may have lower standing.

    The alternative is to create our own meanings. Two hundred years down the road there may be some such code around which “Darwinian Conservatives” may rally, but for now, it doesn’t strike me that you can be both Darwinian and Conservative.

    i don’t find their arguments persuasive, but they’re out there, and i can acknowledge that there are intelligent people who find those arguments coherent. the debate in this area is more philosophical to me, than scientific, and so i don’t see the point is presuming we can have clear and distinct conclusions which we can all agree upon.

    Is evolution guided or unguided. If it’s guided, it’s not evolution. If it’s unguided, where’s the theism? I think that dilemma is pretty inescapable. You have to take one road or the other.

  • Susan · December 1, 2010 at 10:09 pm

    Actually, Polichinello, I’m never shocked, or very seldom. Part of being conservative, I think, is accepting the depravity of which human beings are capable. And acknowledging–which I did at a very young age–that no earthly utopia is possible.

    There’s a saying, traditional to old-line WASPs in New England (though I’m sure there are variations on the same thing elsewhere): “Obedience to the unenforceable.” What it means, simply, is that you do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. No one can MAKE you do the right thing. You just do it.

  • Clark · December 1, 2010 at 11:15 pm

    We have no more implicit value than any virus.

    Please explain how this is logically entailed by Darwinianism.

  • Polichinello · December 2, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    Clark,

    It’s this point that separated Darwin from Wallace. Darwin insisted that man in his entirety, including his mind, arose from natural processes, no more miraculous than the processes that created, say, the Grand Canyon. We’re the result of a bunch of events that had no direction or goal. That means the only value we can have is what value we give ourselves, and–at this point in time–that’s not a very conservative thing to do.

  • Clark · December 2, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    But why does that imply no value. I’ve yet to find a satisfactory answer to that. It’s true that the medieval mind saw all value as from God but that doesn’t mean they were correct. Surely it needs justification.

  • Polichinello · December 2, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Clark,

    I have to push the ball back into your court. If we are the latest (and not the final) product of an unguided, mindless process, where would any outside value come from?

  • Clark · December 2, 2010 at 11:49 pm

    Emergence. That’s the position you are arguing against. That only God can create value. I have absolutely no problem with values emerging out of complex systems.

  • panglos · December 4, 2010 at 2:03 am

    If Natural Selection is a law, why are monkeys still monkeys?

  • cynthia curran · December 6, 2010 at 1:55 am

    What is interesting is the left attacks the right in the Us who tends to be religous as social darwinists. In fact, while the left accepts evolution they too seem to be unconfortable with some of Darwin’s thought particulary that some individuals and species can survive better than others. Even Marx tried to put a class theory to Darwin’s thinking to make it more acceptable to the left.

  • Clark · December 6, 2010 at 10:46 pm

    Panglos, are you serious? Or is that a joke.

    Social Darwinism is a bit of a boogeyman than not even the individuals demonized (i.e. Spencer) believed in quite the way they are demonized as believing. One might argue that modern attempts at memetic evolution are just a broader sense of social Darwinism anyway.

    The problem with Social Darwinism was ad hoc theories designed to support existing prejudices anyway. (i.e. British were evolutionarily superior to those swarthy southern Europeans, not to mention native folks outside of Europe!) Interesting I sometimes think Evolutionary Psychology reminds me of just such “just so” stories in terms of defending existing values. (Think the silly EP claims about polygamy vs. monogamy relative to human sexuality)

  • Polichinello · December 7, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    I have absolutely no problem with values emerging out of complex systems.

    But those values have no universal claim on mortals. That’s the power of a transcendent source: it applies to everyone in this realm, whether they want it or not. The best your “emergent” values can be is a set of kindly suggestions.

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