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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Darwinism and popular culture: Why so many conservatives will not vote for Darwin

In a recent post, "Darwinism and popular culture: Darwinian conservatism means "disintegration of morality"?", I addressed a recent critique of Larry Arnhart's "Darwinian conservatism" in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies.

Arnhart thinks that American conservatives are wrong to doubt Darwin, and proposes an "emergent" theory of mind. Meanwhile, I came across this passage in Jonathan Wells's Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, which offers a bit of background:
In 2005, Arnhart wrote: “Many conservatives fear Darwinism as promoting an atheistic and materialistic view of human life that is morally corrupting. Such fears should be dispelled by seeing how Darwinism actually provides a scientific understanding of the natural roots of morality and religion. . . . Instead of fearing science as the enemy of liberty, Darwinian conservatives can learn from science how liberty is founded in the nature of the human animal. That’s why conservatives need Charles Darwin.”7

Of course, many conservatives would respond that they don’t fear science—far from it—but that they are skeptical of Darwinism’s scientific pretensions. Since science is a good thing, and Arnhart equates science with Darwinism, it is not surprising that he wants to show how “modern Darwinian science helps us to explain” how human nature “was formed as a product of natural evolution.”8 In order to do this, Arnhart relies on one of Darwinism’s newer offshoots: sociobiology.

The most noted name in sociobiology is Harvard’s Edward O. Wilson (who claims the word “Darwinism” was invented by creationists to discredit, well, Darwinism). Wilson defines altruism biologically as increasing another organism’s ability to pass on genes at the expense of one’s own, and he calls it the “culminating mystery of all biology.”9 It is a mystery because Darwinian evolution favors individuals who out-compete others to leave more offspring, so it is difficult or impossible for Darwinism to explain the existence of individuals who deliberately sacrifice for the sake of strangers. Yet if Darwinism cannot adequately explain altruism, how can it provide a foundation for morality and ethics?

Sociobiology suffers from other serious problems as well. Except for some rare pathological conditions, it has been impossible to tie human behavior to specific genes. (The “gay gene” that was much hyped a few years ago turned out to be a mirage.) If human behavior cannot be reduced to genetics, then according to neo-Darwinism it cannot be biologically inherited; if it cannot be biologically inherited, then it cannot evolve in a Darwinian sense. Still another problem with sociobiology is that it has been invoked to explain just about every human behavior from selfishness to self-sacrifice, from promiscuity to celibacy. A theory that explains something and its opposite equally well explains nothing.

It’s no wonder that sociobiology and its latest manifestation, “evolutionary psychology” (called “evo-psycho” by some wags), are held in low regard even by some evolutionary biologists. Stephen Jay Gould once called sociobiology a collection of “just-so stories” in which “virtuosity in invention replaces testability as the criterion for acceptance.” And in 2000 evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne compared it to discredited Freudian psychology: “By judicious manipulation, every possible observation of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework. The same trick is now being perpetrated by the evolutionary psychologists. They, too, deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.”10

Attempts to explain human behavior and values in Darwinian terms have been criticized not only by evolutionary biologists, but also by historians and political scientists. According to Oregon State University historian of science Paul L. Farber, biology “has been singularly unsuccessful in solving social problems or providing moral guidance,” and efforts to base human values on evolutionary theory have “a dismal track record.” University of Nebraska political science professor Carson Holloway contends: “Darwinian political theorists themselves cling tenaciously
to moral aspirations—for nobility and universal justice—that cannot be adequately defended on the basis of their evolutionary naturalism.” Holloway concludes that Arnhart’s “Darwinian political theory. . . provides the basis for no useful moral teaching at all.”11 (pp. 160-62)




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