Monday, December 6, 2010

Darwinian Conservatives

John West, in an article at First Principles, identifies a somewhat surprising epiphenomenon in today's ideological culture wars - Darwinian conservatism. I say it's surprising because most conservatives, especially social conservatives, are very skeptical of the claims of the Darwinians. There are some, however, who are not. West begins by preparing the ground. Here are some excerpts:
“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.
So do I. He continues:
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.
In other words, the Darwinian holds that natural processes are all that's necessary to account for living things.
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.”

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.” 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?
In the discussion which follows West makes the case that naturalistic, materialistic Darwinism is incompatible with all of these and thus with conservatism. His treatment will be helpful to anyone who's interested in the impact of Darwinism on culture. It's worth close examination and study.