May 5, 2007

Should conservatives embrace Darwin?

This article was worth reading if only to get the answer to the question I had watching the Republican debate the other day: Who were the three candidates who raised their hands to indicate their disbelief in evolution? The answer is Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo. (I found the minor candidates very hard to tell apart, even in the closeups.)

But this is a nice article going into the question of whether Darwinian theory offers good support for various conservative positions, "that Darwin’s scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today’s patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances."

The question whether to use Darwinism in political argument is, of course, different from the biological question whether the human animal resulted from evolution (which is what Brownback, Huckabee, and Tancredo look foolish rejecting).
“The current debate is not primarily about religious fundamentalism,”[John G.] West, the author of “Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest” (2006), said at Thursday’s conference. “Nor is it simply an irrelevant rehashing of certain esoteric points of biology and philosophy. Darwinian reductionism has become culturally pervasive and inextricably intertwined with contemporary conflicts over traditional morality, personal responsibility, sex and family, and bioethics.”

The technocrats, he charged, wanted to grab control from “ordinary citizens and their elected representatives” so that they alone could make decisions over “controversial issues such as sex education, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and global warming.”...

Mr. Arnhart, in his 2005 book, “Darwinian Conservatism,” tackled the issue of conservatism’s compatibility with evolutionary theory head on, saying Darwinists and conservatives share a similar view of human beings: they are imperfect; they have organized in male-dominated hierarchies; they have a natural instinct for accumulation and power; and their moral thought has evolved over time.

The institutions that successfully evolved to deal with this natural order were conservative ones, founded in sentiment, tradition and judgment, like limited government and a system of balances to curb unchecked power, he explains. Unlike leftists, who assume “a utopian vision of human nature” liberated from the constraints of biology, [political scientist Larry] Arnhart says, conservatives assume that evolved social traditions have more wisdom than rationally planned reforms.

While Darwinism does not resolve specific policy debates, Mr. Arnhart said in an interview on Thursday, it can provide overarching guidelines. Policies that are in tune with human nature, for example, like a male military or traditional social and sex roles, he said, are more likely to succeed. He added that “moral sympathy for the suffering of fellow human beings” allows for aid to the poor, weak and ill.
So Darwinism only provides a form for political argument, not the actual answers. As the article notes, lefties and righties have found ways to say what they want to say in Darwinian style. It's interesting to think about who benefits most from the acceptance of arguments in this mode. It seems to work awfully well for justifying the subordination of women. Why should we want to promote modes of argument that work too well to support things you diapprove of? I haven't read Arnhart's book, but he seems to think he can whip out "moral sympathy" to get him out of whatever jam his Darwinism gets him into. But if we actually believe in this political Darwinism, won't it affect how sympathetic we are and what we are sympathetic about?

39 comments:

Palladian said...

Science should not be politicized. Period. Nor should biological evolution be jerry-rigged into a social model. To do so is not only dangerous and anti-scientific, but it's profoundly stupid.

And on the larger question of "believing in" biological evolution, any candidate who declares that they don't "believe" in it should be considered unfit for public office. There is no way to understand biology without accepting the concept of evolution. The entire 20th century, in terms of medical and biological science, would not have happened if it weren't for understanding the concept of evolution. It's fundamental to all of biology. To declare you don't "believe" in it is either declaring that you're profoundly uneducated and therefore unfit to hold modern high office, or (more probably) that you're lying in order to get the votes of the uneducated. Sadly the latter explanation is a core principle of politics.

And before someone tries to do it, acceptance of biological evolution and acceptance of the man-made theory of global climate change are not analogous. The first is the principle upon which all of biology is based. The second is a diffuse bunch of climatological theories and conjectures that are very difficult to disentangle from a complicated political knot.

Mike said...

I guess I'm a naive scientist, but I don't see how anyone, conservative or otherwise, have a choice. Evolution is an established fact. If you don't believe it, fine. But to choose to believe or not believe based upon a political calculation is dishonest. I find the question, "Should conservatives embrace Darwin?" to be mildly offensive.

And to support Palladin's preemptive strike on global warming polemics, if global warming theory collects a century and a half of confirmation and development, as evolution has, then it too will be a scientific fact. But it has a long way to go to reach the stature of evolution.

Speaking as a resident of Wisconsin, I'm just glad Tommy didn't raise his hand.

vet66 said...

Darwin himself,if he were still alive, would be the first to acknowledge the abuse and misrepresentation of his observations. He had a fundamental understanding that his observations were limited. He had no idea what plate tectonics were, what the Pleistocene era would portend, and the limitations of natural selection/evolution as an overall theory on the origins of species.

Any extrapolations from his positions are wildly problematic. Global warming is an adjunct to such projections verging on unsubstantiated guesswork to junk science. A simple search of CO2 emissions from volcanic eruptions compared to human CO2 emissions over a decade is the ultimate inconvenient truth. Unfortunately, speaking such heresy is an academic capital offense.

Maxwell Scott 'The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance' answered presciently:

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend!"

Mike said...

vet66 said: Darwin himself,if he were still alive, would be the first to acknowledge the abuse and misrepresentation of his observations. He had a fundamental understanding that his observations were limited. He had no idea what plate tectonics were, what the Pleistocene era would portend, and the limitations of natural selection/evolution as an overall theory on the origins of species.

The invocation of Darwin's name is, of course, shorthand for the field which he started, but which has been expanded and modified many times between then and now. He deserves great credit, of course, because his fundamental insight proved to be correct.

Nachum said...

I think it's utterly ridiculous to extrapolate from biological evolution to political issues. While it may be true that over time societies evolve in some fashion, the mechanisms are entirely dissimilar to those involved in the evolution of species. Indeed, one could observe that some societies actually devolve over time.

Balfegor said...

Re: Nachum

Indeed, one could observe that some societies actually devolve over time.

You're applying a teleological perspective to an evolutionary framework -- doesn't really work, I think. Sure some people think that species or subspecies populations can degenerate over time too, e.g. by excessive inbreeding, or whatever. But I don't think evolution itself gives us that.

In any event, the "natural selection"-type argument is not and cannot be scientific in a political context. It's just a useful means of communicating that where we are today is path dependent -- that it's not designed, as it were, but it's not random either. We develop (or adopt) customs, habits, cultures, institutions on an ad hoc basis in response to problems that arise. Certainly not a direct analogue to biological evolution (the maladaptive people/institutions/whatever don't necessarily die, they just adopt new habits)

That said, beause the general population, for whatever reason, associate the radical futurism of National Socialism with conservatism, it would be, I think, highly unwise for conservatives to go about making Darwinian arguments in the political sphere. The comparison with Nazi-style social Darwinism (where, instead of letting natural selection work, the government decides who's maladaptive and kills them all off) is not really something conservatives want to invite.

Anthony said...

Darwinian evolution has been so abused and usurped almost since it was first published. One big problem is that the term "evolution" was applied to Darwin's theory at all; I don't believe it appeared even once in at least the first edition of the Origin. He preferred 'descent with modification' to clearly differentiate it from other evolutionary theories, such as those of Spencer, that saw 'evolution' as a far more predictable and linear process.

Left and right both have abused it over the years. Nowadays, because of the Creationist angle, we're more used to abuse from the right, but the left has had its share of abusers as well.

But it's not unique. Everything in science gets perverted when it hits the mainstream.

Ann Althouse said...

Mike: "But to choose to believe or not believe based upon a political calculation is dishonest. I find the question, "Should conservatives embrace Darwin?" to be mildly offensive"

Mike, you have to make the distinction between the question of how we evolved biologically from the use of evolution in arguments about politics. And the idea of "embracing" something is different from believing in it. I believe in death but I don't embrace it!

aquariid said...

It seems incredibly dangerous to me to tie ones political ideology to a scientific theory. Science is always changing and adjusting. What becomes permanently accepted is so broad and fundamental to its own field that it really has little use as a guiding principle in any other field. And if you start citing specifics there would be a very likely chance that what one argues today would have to be reargued differently tomorrow. Don't build on shifting sands. On the other hand, anything from science can be used to support a political position, but only in the moment, as an example, metaphor or analogy. The political question is not what should be (according to whom? Darwin?), but what do we want and can we have it?

I am fed up with I.D. theory. I suspect that various parties have conspired to create a fractious debate where there is none. The media loves it, of course, it's copy. Scientists love it because it's an easy target that allows them to show off their brilliance. The churches love it because it simply brings up the subject of religion when most would rather be doing something else. Bad science and worse theology. How so? Science has never been about looking at a natural phenomenon and saying "Golly! It's so complicated I can't figure it out! And if I can't figure it out, no one can. Therefore this must be the handiwork of a TRULY super intelligent being. Why yes! GOD!". That scientist would look like an idiot when the next day a bright grad student comes along, and building on the foundation that was abandoned, succeeds in revealing the little mystery that Prof. Dumkopf found too difficult. That's simply the way science works.

I believe in a creator God. This God is no incompetent boob. This God created all that exists with seamless perfection. If someone comes along and claims to have found a tattletale footprint that is "proof" of God's existence they are implying that God is nothing more than a clumsy fraud. What are you left with? The Super Intelligent Alien Theory? Then we should turn over our school system to be run by the Scientologists.

Mindsteps said...

I think the question "Should Conservatives embrace Darwin?" should be rephrased "Should Conservatives embrace Science?" Of course, I believe the answer should be "yes" for both conservatives and liberals.

I believe, however that the scientific enterprise is poorly understood by the majority of people (80% or more), even very bright and well-informed individuals as exemplified by the question posed in the debate. I would guess that most lawyers, politicians, reporters, parents, teachers, healthcare workers, pundits, and newscasters, etc. are confused about science, it's theories, and methods (by no fault of their own. Unless one has been exposed to the philosoply of science, I think one would not have the information available to them. Most people also do not know what is involved in performing back surgery, or corporate law, etc. This is kind of a narrow specialty) The scientific enterprise is likely at times to support conservative positions and at other times support liberal notions.

Asking the question whether someone disbelieves in evolution exposes the understandable lack of comprehension by the media and possibly by the politicians in science, because belief really does not have much of a place in science. Whether one believes for example in evolution is not really the question, rather is there, or is there not evidence supporting the theory. A belief is not the same thing as a theory. In this sense, maybe
Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, and Tom Tancredo knew what they were doing when they raised there hands (although, I suspect that one or more may not have understood the difference between theory and belief).

While science and politics, science and religion, even science and superstition, interact with one another (I still like Kuhn's explanation of the scientific process) my favorite quote about scientific belief systems came from an incredibly gifted and expressive researcher who once shared with his students that our "scientific theories are more or less useful fictions."

Balfegor said...

re: Aquariid:

The Super Intelligent Alien Theory?

Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic . . .

Mike said...

It is common fallacy for people to equate "evolution" and "progress". Biological evolution is mindless. It has no goal. It hardly seems like a good foundation from which to develop or defend a political position.

Dave F said...

What Palladian said:

Science should not be politicized. Period. Nor should biological evolution be jerry-rigged into a social model. To do so is not only dangerous and anti-scientific, but it's profoundly stupid.

blake said...

aquariid: It's so complicated I can't figure it out! And if I can't figure it out, no one can.

Isn't that Chaos Theory?

Sissy Willis said...

Like everything else under the sun, Darwin is grist for everyone proseletyzer's mill. He's probably spinning in his grave at the trash being spewn on all sides in his name. For those humble and wise enough to listen to what he actually had to say:

There is a grandeur in this view of life

Luckyoldson said...

Do we really want a President who doesn't believe in evolution??

Please...

Paul Zrimsek said...

I don't care whether the next president accepts the fact of evolution or not. Either way, if he must talk about it I would like to see him

1. Make clear whether he's talking about the actual evolution of species or using it as a metaphor for something else;
2. Never lose track of which of these two very different things he's doing.

Luckyoldson said...

Paul,
Do you actually think these idiots weren't talking about the evolution of "man?"

Get real.

Paul Zrimsek said...

I don't know what they were or weren't talking about; I wasn't watching. If they were clear about it, good. If they weren't, bad.

Get polite.

Luckyoldson said...

Why are you here, discussing something you didn't see, hear or evidently even read?

What's the point?

Paul Zrimsek said...

Advice not taken, I see.

Luckyoldson said...

Paul,
Your throwing out your opinion on something you know absolutely nothing about.

Again...what is the point??

Maybe if you were to actually WATCH A TAPE OF, OR READ THE TRANSCRIPT OF THE comments being discussed??

Give it a shot.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Like many others here, I was not even talking about the debate. Asshole.

Luckyoldson said...

Oh, I see.

Here's the opening to the thread:

" Should conservatives embrace Darwin?
This article was worth reading if only to get the answer to the question I had watching the Republican debate the other day."

Of course, YOU were talking about something that didn't relate to the topic at hand.

Now I understand...jerkoff.

Ann Althouse said...

Why are you people getting so mad at each other?

Boaz said...

I'm agnostic as to whether evolution is true.

Science assumes God has no role in our affairs, as it must. One who believes in a metaphysical God who interacts with humanity can't really accept whatever science says as the entire description of reality. A metaphysical God could have created life in all sorts of ways and hid his fingerprints from science.

It is because science and religion examine seperate subjects that one can fully understand a scientific theory, or a theology, and not believe it to be truth. Science can't say that God doesn't exist, and God has not given us definitive proof of his existence, so this tension won't go away. The problem is when religion (e.g., I.D.) tries to assert itself in the scientific realm, or when science tries to make claims beyond the material world (there is no God, he didn't create the world).

I'd like to hear why a person's belief in evolution has anything to do with fitness for public office. Why isn't it enough for a person to understand evolution and the difference between science and theology?

Fen said...

Do we really want a President who doesn't believe in evolution?

Aren't religion and science trying to explain the same thing from both directions? Can't they both be right? If not, then a belief in evolution disqualifies any belief in God.

If thats the case, then your question sets up a religious test for office. You might as well ask do we really want a President who doesn't beleive in God?. Big constitutional no-no.

Thordaddy said...

I think the question of whether one believes in "evolution" is legitimate because it requires faith at its most fundamental level. It requires both a faith in life springing forth from non-life and a faith in humans descending from this original life. Both assumptions violate the most widely understood aspect of the scientific method, i.e., direct observation. If one cannot directly observe the assumptions that underlie "evolution" then it can hardly be claimed a "fact."

blake said...

Althouse,

People are angry.

Surely you've noticed.

Annie said...

The question "Do you believe in evolution?" was stupidly binary. It implied that either you believe human life evolved by a process of random mutation and natural selection, or you believe that everything was created by God in seven days a few thousand years ago.

I don't think Huckabee, Tancredo, and Brownback are that stupid. They probably believe in "theistic," or guided, evolution: that life arose through evolution but that it was not a purely random, unconscious process. Why doesn't somebody ask?

Given the stupidity of the question, it may have been brave of them to raise their hands without being allowed to explain what definition of "evolution" they were rejecting.

On the other topic:

A while ago I wrote a post called "Selective Darwinism" that began:

Terri Schiavo's case has brought me a strange thought. Liberals favor a Darwinian bioethics; conservatives favor a Darwinian economics. Each vocally decries the other's Darwinism and insists on the moral imperative to protect the weak -- as defined economically by liberals and biologically by conservatives.

Revenant said...

The question "Do you believe in evolution?" was stupidly binary. It implied that either you believe human life evolved by a process of random mutation and natural selection, or you believe that everything was created by God in seven days a few thousand years ago.

I thought it implied that you either believe that human life evolved by a process of mutation and natural selection -- or you don't. If you believe that humans evolved from earlier animals through a process directed by God, you don't believe in the scientific theory of evolution. You believe in Creationism -- just not the Young Earth kind.

Anyway, Darwinism isn't a moral framework -- just a scientific theory. It can tell us how things work, but not how we should want them to work. For example, while the theory of evolution explains why people are driven to secretly cheat on their spouses, it does not tell us whether cheating on our spouses is right or wrong.

Mindsteps said...

Ann Althouse said...
Why are you people getting so mad at each other?

Is this a trick question? OK, I'll take a shot.

Because it increases the liklihood that their genes will be passed on?

Paul Zrimsek said...

Why are you people getting so mad at each other?

As someone whose name escapes me once said: "I think showing some anger in an argument is not a huge deal. There's so much repression and passive aggression out there. It's so easy to process your emotions with those grim tools. It's what we usually do. The notion that it's crazy to display emotion is.... crazy."

hdhouse said...

The follow up question should have been "What else don't you believe that is established scientific fact? Round earth, earth orbits sun, gravity, ..what else?

These guys are running for the office of President of the United States not for some city council in the dark forest in 1357. geeeze.

Dave said...

hdhouse, equally disabling should be "do you believe in Anthropogenic Global Warming". It is based entirely on complicated models which of necessity have built-in fudge factors.

As for science, the best definition I ever heard went something like, "Science is what we believe we know and cannot disprove today, pending further investigation and evidence, written in pencil." (Sorry, I don't recall who said that.)

As one who studied under Larry Arnhart (he was on my dissertation committee) let me assure one and all that Larry is a philosopher more than a politician. His books are well worth reading. He firmly rejects any teleological types of Darwinism. His basic starting point is *always* that Darwinism provides a method of considering how humans came to be as they currently are and that knowledge of this can be used to help guide, not decide, policy.

Larry's conservatism consists mainly of pointing out that evolution is based on variation among individuals and that the variation then gets 'sieved' by environmental factors. Thus, as evolving humans faced a more-or-less hostile environment, they and their behaviors were shaped by variations in individuals and their responses (which necessarily includes collected individual or group responses) such that the more successful ones tended to persist.

Given that there was no 'philosophy' or 'science' to guide early human behavior prior to 500BC or so (and even then in very limited areas), human behavioral evolution (which is, of course, linked to our physical evolution) was by trial and error. This is a very conservative viewpoint.

Marxism, for instance, claims that such trial and error is no longer necessary, since the science of Marxism now provides the necessary guidelines for proper choice. This is inherently teleological, which is why Marxists so often resemble other religious types.

Anyway, absent *knowing* (by whatever means, religion or Marxism) what the future will or should bring, the best, safest course would appear to be variation with trail and error, a conservative stance, not a conservative end.

Arnhart is quite a good thinker and writer, and one of the more interesting people you could have a conversation with. He is pleasant, very open to alternative and opposing viewpoints, and totally dedicated to proper philosophical investigation.

Fen said...

hdhouse: "What else don't you believe that is established scientific fact?"

Hey house, how many planets in our solar system again? We seem to have lost one...

Revenant said...

Hey house, how many planets in our solar system again? We seem to have lost one...

We didn't "lose" Pluto. It is still right where it used to be, orbiting the Sun. We did, however, tighten the definition of "planet", which (unsurprisingly) means that fewer bodies qualify for the term.

hdhouse said...

I took a summer in LA in the early 70s and wondered into the Richard Feynman public lectures in Pasadena. If you remember, he was, being a good person, on the California science textbook committee at the time and California was being pressed to adopt the Texas choices. Creationism was emerging into the textbooks and Feynman made an eloquent observation about the suposed co-equality of evolution and creationism. I was at one of the lectures when he pretty much summed it up and I remember it verbatim: "Ha!".

amba said...

Revenant:

Still too binary.

The vulnerable point in the Darwinian account of things is "random mutation." It is possible that there is some intelligence at work in this process, which does not have to be labeled "God." New information now being gained about the process of mutation and inheritance generally is exponentially more complex than previously suspected.

Of course, Tancredo et.al. DO attribute it to "God." But my point is simply that in saying they don't believe in "evolution," they're saying they don't believe in a purely random, material, mindless process. In that, they might ultimately turn out to be right.