Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Is Darwinism A Friend Or Foe Of Conservatism?

The American Enterprise Institute held a debate on this topic. Tom Bethell reflects.


Early in May, the American Enterprise Institute held a debate about Darwinism, a faith embedded in many debates, whether scientific, religious or political.


Arnhart, the author of Darwinian Conservatism (2005), has carved out a nice niche for himself by arguing that conservatives need Darwin. He makes his case by presenting conservative political ideas and arguing that Darwin’s theory of natural selection supports them. Darwinian mechanisms give rise to a “spontaneous order,” he said at one point, contrasting it favorably with the “utopian vision” of liberals.


In Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest (2006), and in his talk, West rejected the claim that Darwinism supports traditional moral teachings. Darwin’s Descent of Man, published 12 years after The Origin of Species, overflows with arguments embarrassing to conservatives and liberals alike. “Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide,” West writes, describing Darwin’s explicit position. “Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be one’s parents.”

The truth is that Darwinism is so shapeless that it can be enlisted in support of any cause whatsoever. Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at AEI, made this clear in his admirable introduction. Darwinism has over the years been championed by eugenicists, social Darwinists, racialists, free-market economists, liberals galore, Wilsonian progressives and National Socialists, to give only a partial list. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, Communists and libertarians, and almost anyone in between, have at times found Darwinism to their liking. Spencer himself first used the phrase “survival of the fittest,” and Darwin thought it an “admirable” summation of his thesis.

Both selfishness and (with a little mathematical ingenuity) altruism can be given a Darwinian gloss. Any existing psychological trait, from aggression to pacifism, can be deemed adaptive by inventing a just-so story explaining how genes “for” that trait might have arisen. The genes themselves do not have to be identified, nor does the imagined historical scenario have to leave any trace behind.

The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more “fit,” or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. If an animal exists, it is “fit” (otherwise it wouldn’t exist). It is not possible to specify all the useful parts of that animal in order to give an exhaustive causal account of fitness. If an organism possesses features that appear on the surface to be inconvenient—such as the peacock’s tail or the top-heavy antlers of a stag—the existence of stags and peacocks proves that these animals are in fact fit.

So the Darwinian theory is not falsifiable by any observation. It “explains” everything, and therefore nothing. It barely qualifies as a scientific theory for that reason. The impact of Darwinism on any and all political groups can be argued any way you want and it’s not very illuminating for that reason. So the AEI discussion frequently veered off into related areas.

Inevitably, the subject of intelligent design came up. The National Review’s John Derbyshire right away sought to conflate it with creationism. Someone in the front row reminded him that there were no creationists present. Derbyshire replied that a judge had equated intelligent design with creationism and that was good enough for him.


[But Intelligent Design] is informed by science, not religion. That is why it has made Darwinians angry, and why they try to identify it with creationism. They have also imposed a rigid orthodoxy upon all whose hiring, credentialing and promotion they can control. They are not interested in any debate. Discovery Institute people told me that last year a group of graduate students from prestigious universities wanted to learn more about intelligent design. A conference was arranged in which these young people showed up and wore name tags with pseudonyms and all papers were collected up at the end. The students were afraid that their identities would be leaked to their professors. That’s the intellectual climate surrounding this issue today. There are parallels with the Soviet dissidents in the 1970s, who had to communicate by samizdat.

In the question period, I asked Derbyshire if he could think of any observation that would count as falsifying Darwinism. He said: “I think miraculous creation would do it. The miraculous appearance of an entirely new species.”

That answer at least points us in a useful direction. Pursue it, and we might be able to clarify the Darwinian conundrum. The point is that in Darwinism a philosophical assumption, rarely explicit, circumscribes the “scientific” conclusions that are permitted. The assumption is this: Only naturalistic explanations can be allowed within biology. Naturalism implies the exclusion of mind, intelligence, or absolutely anything except atoms and molecules in motion. Nothing else exists. Everything must be explained in terms of physics and chemistry and anything beyond that will be derided as “creationism.” Good Darwinians are not allowed by their own rules even to entertain the possibility that intelligence was involved in the origin or development of life. No research is needed to come to that conclusion. It is axiomatic within the theory.

Derbyshire responded: “Scientists embrace naturalism because science is a naturalistic pursuit. A working scientist is by definition naturalistic.”


Ah yes, the mind! But that, too, consists of nothing but atoms and molecules in motion, no? Which brings us to the Inner Sanctum of the materialist dogma: Mind itself is nothing but matter. Free will is an illusion, and so on. (Darwin accepted these propositions, noting “the general delusion about free will.”)

There is no reason in the world to accept the materialist faith, but once you do, then something very much like Darwinism has to be true. Life exists—we got here somehow, along with billions of other organisms. So how did it happen? Must have been that animals self assembled a little bit at a time, in a long chain of accidental survivals.

The scientists Derbyshire talks to at Cold Spring Harbor Lab say there is no controversy about Darwinism and so he counseled that “we can only defer to that consensus.” Because every observation they ever make seems to corroborate the Darwinian tautology, most scientists probably do believe that the theory is universally true. But as the philosopher of science Karl Popper saw, the same was true of Freudianism. For good Freudians, everything seems to confirm the theory because it is protected against falsification by its own logic. Likewise Darwinism. “To say that a species now living is adapted to its environment is, in fact, almost tautological,” Popper wrote. “There is hardly any possibility of testing a theory as feeble as this.”

No comments: