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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Is Darwinism left or right?: Were the deck chairs on the Titanic wood or metal?

In a review of Larry Arnhart's Darwinian Conservatismin Weekly Standard, James Seaton offers "Yet another reason to admire the author of 'The Origin of Species.' "
"conservatives need Charles Darwin" to make their case that there is such a thing as "human nature" as against the left's need to believe that "human nature" is only a social construction. Conservatism is suspicious of grand schemes of social transformation, since it recognizes that human nature cannot be radically altered. The left, on the other hand, needs to believe that human beings are infinitely malleable and thus ultimately perfectible to justify its quest for absolute equality.
That's all true, but it doesn't follow that conservatives need Darwin to make their case. Their case was made successfully for thousands of years before Darwin, based on simple observation of current humans in real time.

Or, if one believes that their case wasn't successfully made, the best conclusion to draw is that it is not a good case. After all, they have had plenty of research opportunities.

Reviewer Seaton, who is clearly in Arnhart's camp, valiantly argues that
Arnhart succeeds in his limited goal of demonstrating that Darwinian theory, properly understood, supports conservative social and political ideas while discrediting leftist utopianism. The catch is, of course, the "properly understood" part. One lesson to be drawn from the long history of Social Darwinism and other such putatively scientific "isms"--one danger sign is a proper name prefixed to the "ism," cf. Marxism, Freudianism--is that it is a mistake to suppose that the natural sciences, including biology, provide clear and unmistakable evidence in support of any particular doctrines about politics, economics, morality, or metaphysics.

Ah, but that is just the trouble. Seaton admits that key figures of the left have been just as comfortable with Darwinism as key figures of the right.

Darwin's theory is, in my view, "properly understood" as the creation story of materialism. If you are okay with materialism, you can accommodate it to views across the spectrum.

Seaton wishes that Darwinism would stay confined to biology. But the problem with modern Darwinism (neo-Darwinism) is that it spawns pseudo-disciplines like evolutionary psychology which - instead of examining human nature as we know it to be - attempt to explain it by what Cave Guy and Gal "would have done" two hundred thousand years ago. Or whenever.

In other words, instead of going from the known to the unknown, we attempt to reverse the process and go from the unknown to the known.

Recently, there was a huge dustup on ID mathematician Bill Dembski's Uncommon Descent blog following Dembski's reference to evolutionary psychology as "the idiot stepchild" of evolutionary biology. Most of the comments were pulled last time I checked, and in the ensuing uproar, the moderator effectively resigned and Dembski contacted me and asked me to be moderator, sharng the blog with him.

Anyone wondering what sort of changes will ensue at UD should note that I am a journalist and my main interest is in promoting a responsible public discussion of ID. I am not qualified to evaluate hypotheses in mathematics, biochemistry, or exobiology. But I am well qualified to study public issues and attempt to pull a discussion back from the abyss. The blog policy rules at the bottom of the day's posts provide some idea of my likely course.
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?. You can read excerpts as well.

Are you looking for one of the following stories?

A summary of recent opinion columns on the ID controversy

A summary of recent polls of US public opinion on the ID controversy

A summary of the Catholic Church's entry into the controversy, essentially on the side of ID.

O'Leary's intro to non-Darwinian agnostic philosopher David Stove ?

An ID Timeline: The ID folk seem always to win when they lose.

O’Leary’s comments on Francis Beckwith, a Dembski associate, being denied tenure at Baylor.

Why origin of life is such a difficult problem.
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