Darwin's disciples today

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of the Species,
it is time to realize that the best way to honor his legacy is to fight
its over-extension and misapplication into the realm of politics. The
second in a two-part series.

Darwin has never had a lack of enemies, but today he is more threatened
by his own misguided disciples than by any opponents of science.
Consider, in the first place, Peter Singer and his call for A Darwinian Left,
published in 1999. Singer’s aim is to convince the Left to drop Karl
Marx and take up Charles Darwin as its main source of intellectual
inspiration. This change is necessary, Singer holds, because the events
of the twentieth century have discredited Marx by revealing his
inadequate understanding of human nature. Marx dismissed fears that the
creation of an all-powerful communist state would lead to tyranny,
because he believed that the social and economic transformation that
would make such a state possible would also transform human nature so
that tyranny would no longer have to be feared. This was a mistake,
and, Singer implies, a responsible Left will have to avoid it by
embracing a more realistic account of human nature, such as the one
offered by Darwinian biology.

To propose such a change of paradigms, however, raises the question
of whether the Left can embrace Darwinism while still remaining the
Left. Singer thus has to ask: what is essential to the Left, and is it
compatible with Darwinism? In answer to the first question, Singer
holds that a certain egalitarianism, or concern with equality, is
essential to the Left, specifically a concern with supporting the weak
and seeking to ameliorate their condition. In answer to the second
question, Singer contends that egalitarianism can be made compatible
with Darwinism, but only if that egalitarianism is moderated and made
more realistic on the basis of what Darwinism teaches us about human
nature. For example, the Left’s egalitarianism teaches it to disapprove
the competition of the capitalist economy and the inequalities it
produces and to desire a more cooperative arrangement. Singer thinks
that such inclinations are compatible with Darwin, because Darwinism
teaches that human beings have naturally evolved inclinations toward
cooperation. Thus there is something in Darwinian human nature with
which the Left can work: it can seek to devise social structures that
make it easier for our cooperative inclinations to express themselves.
Nevertheless, a Darwinian Left will have to be much more modest in its
expectations for such a project. For, unlike the older, Marx-inspired
Left, which thought that competition was merely a product of social and
economic conditions, a Darwin-inspired Left will recognize that there
is a competitive and even selfish streak in human nature itself.

Has evolution dethroned homo sapiens?

While much of Singer’s argument emphasizes the limitations that
Darwinism imposes on Leftist aspirations, there is one area in which he
suggests that Darwin has something more positive to contribute to the
Left, at least indirectly, by way of debunking the assumptions of its
enemies. As an example, Singer brings forward the Biblical idea that
God gave man dominion over the lower animals. This belief, Singer
contends, still influences our thinking even though it has been
“thoroughly refuted by the theory of evolution,” which reveals “a
continuum between humans and animals,” with respect to both their
physical make up as well as their powers of mind. Animals, Darwin
showed, “are capable of love, memory, curiosity, reason, and sympathy
for each other.” Darwinism therefore eliminates the basis of the notion
that human beings are different in kind from other animals, thus
preparing a “revolution in our attitudes” toward them. “Darwinian
political thinkers,” he concludes, should therefore “be more inclined
to recognize, and base policies on, the similarities we identify
between humans and nonhuman animals.”

Singer is well-known as a defender of animal liberation, so it is
perhaps not surprising that it is here, in relation to some of his most
cherished values, that he asks Darwinism to do the most for him. It is
precisely where he asks Darwinism to do the most, however, that Singer
goes the most wrong. Knowledge of the continuum between humans and
non-human animals is less important to the question of a qualitative
difference between the two than Singer thinks. Awareness of that
continuum is not, I think, as modern a development as Singer believes.
Aristotle was aware of it, as were people in the Middle Ages, who
believed in a “great chain of being” in which human beings were down
with animals pretty close to the bottom. Indeed, this continuum was
surely well appreciated even by pre-modern people who had no knowledge
of either Aristotle or medieval philosophy. Most pre-modern people,
after all, had experience with domesticated animals and were no doubt
well aware of animal capacities for thought and emotion. Yet they all
still believed in a qualitative difference between humans and non-human
animals. They did so very reasonably, on the commonsense understanding
that things can be only incrementally different in many respects and
yet still qualitatively different in other respects.

Moreover, Singer is mistaken to think that diminishing the perceived
difference between human beings and other animals will result in better
human treatment of other animals. If we deny a qualitative difference
between ourselves and the beasts, we destroy the basis for assuming
qualitatively different obligations to them that go with our special
status. Put simply, if we claim that we are not really different than
other animals, it is not clear then why we should treat other animals
any better than they treat each other. After all, animals themselves
are not proponents of animal rights.

Can conservatives learn from Darwin? 

A contemporary effort from the Right to derive political guidance from Darwin can be found in Larry Arnhart’s 2005 book Darwinian Conservatism.
For Arnhart, contemporary conservatism should take its ethical bearings
from Darwinism, which suggests that traditionally conservative
principles conform to evolved human nature. Darwinism, Arnhart
contends, reveals “at least twenty natural desires that constitute our
universal human nature.” These desires, he continues, provide the basis
for standards of political right: “If the good is the desirable, then
we can judge social practices by how well they satisfy the full range
of these natural desires.”

The Darwinian conception of human nature, Arnhart suggests, supports
conservative principles across a whole range of issues. For example,
Darwinism teaches that human beings are by nature sociable creatures,
and therefore joins conservatism in counseling against Leftist efforts
to re-engineer social order, which are often based on the assumption
that all social order is constructed artificially anyway. Again,
Darwinism teaches that human beings are naturally self-interested
beings, and thus it supports conservatism in preferring both limited
government, since political power is apt to be abused by self-seeking
human beings, as well as private property, which accords with our
natural self-regard and sense of justice.

Arnhart is correct that Darwin’s realistic account of human nature
offers a wholesome restraint on utopian Leftism. Nevertheless, his
attempt to ground moral principles only in Darwinian human nature
creates a fatal weakness in his Darwinian conservatism. Arnhart
plausibly contends that many conservative principles find support in
human nature as it is understood by Darwinian biology. But it is also
true, given the diversity of our evolved desires, that departures from conservatism correspond to human nature as well. It is fair to
say, for instance, that Darwinism lends support to conservatism by
showing that private property is not a pure social convention but is
based upon an innate human acquisitiveness. This impulse is often
accompanied, however, by an equally natural propensity to seize the
property of others by force. Arnhart himself concedes this by listing
“war” as a natural human inclination, noting that human beings have an
inherent tendency to use force to advance group interests. Accordingly,
Darwin thought property was grounded in human nature, but
simultaneously held that “stealing from strangers outside one’s own
society might be permitted or even honored.”

An adequate account of private property calls for respect for the
rights of other human beings by virtue of their humanity. Darwinism
cannot foster such respect, however, because Darwinian morality is
tribal in character. Arhnart’s Darwinian conservatism rests on the
sociable emotions, but Darwin himself held that “the social instincts
never extend to all the individuals of the same species.” Its
evolutionary origins confine human sociability to the small group.
After all, according to the evolutionary account of human origins, our
capacity for morality grew out of our need “to cooperate within groups
in order to compete with opposing groups.” As a result, our complement
of moral passions includes not only a rather narrowly focused sympathy,
but also an active hostility towards outsiders—those that we may need
to harm or kill in the pursuit of our own group interests. Hence
Arnhart’s observation that “our sympathy is not indiscriminate…we feel
more attachment to those close to us,” and “our disposition to
distinguish friends from enemies” sometimes “inclines us to be cruel to
outsiders.” Because such cruelty is no less natural than sympathy, it
is—at least for a purely naturalistic ethics such as Darwinian
conservatism—just as good as sympathy. Needless to say, it is
difficult to gain clear moral guidance from a doctrine that counsels us
to follow our nature—while adding that industry and theft among
individuals, and commerce as well as war among nations, are equally
natural undertakings.

The temptation of seeking "scientific" credibility

Why, we may wonder, have efforts to find political prescription in
Darwinian biology so consistently foundered? I would suggest that the
difficulty is inherent in the undertaking, and not merely the result of
secondary errors in reasoning that future Darwinian political theorists
might avoid. As John Dewey correctly observed, modern science, of which
Darwinism is a part, emerged as a rejection of an older natural science
concerned with the natural purposes or ends of things, and hence with
what could be considered their natural flourishing. The founders of
modern science thought this older quest had proven futile, and so they
set out instead to acquire a humbler but more certain
knowledge—knowledge of where things come from and what they are made
of. Modern science has in fact achieved an impressive mastery in this
realm, and its success has given it great social respectability.

It is understandable that we would be tempted to get the authority
of modern science, including Darwinism, on the side of our preferred
political positions. The attempt to do so, however, involves using
scientific data to draw conclusions about matters—the just and the
good—about which modern science expressly disclaims any pretensions to
knowledge. Biological nature as empirically observed necessarily
includes phenomena that we find good as well as phenomena that we think
bad. Thus efforts to derive moral guidance from modern empirical
science’s account of biological nature necessarily involve preferring,
on non-scientific grounds, some aspects of nature to others. This
results in the formulation of normative political theories, on both the
left on the right, that claim a scientific status that they in fact
only appear to possess. Such false appearances introduce not scientific
enlightenment but philosophical and moral confusion into our public
discourse, and so both liberals and conservatives would do better to
resist the temptation to seek such “scientific” credibility for their
policy recommendations.

Carson Holloway is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy and a contributor to Darwinian Conservatism: A Disputed Question. This article is the second of a two-part series. This article has been reproduced with permission from Public Discourse


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