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Darwinian Conservatism?

January 7, 2011, 11:03 PM

There's a lot of talk on BIG THINK about evolutionary explanations of this or that human behavior.  They're all pretty fascinating, although far from completely convincing.

Darwinian explanations, for what its worth, usually strike me as pretty conservative.  In fact, the best Darwinian political scientist, Larry Arnhart, has written a book and writes a blog called Darwinian conservatism.  Larry distinguishes Darwinian conservatism from "metaphysical conservatism."  His conservatism flows from a Darwinian understanding of the human being as a wholly natural animal, one whose behavior can be completely explained through an understanding of natural evolution. 

Metaphysical conservatives tend to emphasize what distinguishes the human being in his or her freedom, self-consciousness, personal love, technological power, awareness of his personal contingency and mortality, and longing for God.

But all conservatives tend to agree that a considerable amount of our happiness comes from doing our social duties to our families, friends, community, and country.  And understanding oneself as a liberated individual--someone who finds freedom and dignity in being autonomous or freed from relational and biological imperatives--leads one to pursue happiness but never find it.  Darwin's understanding of who we are by nature--although incomplete--frees us from transhumanist and other techno-liberationist fantasies about the possibility or desirability of transforming ourselves into something other than natural beings.

The Darwinian conservative tends to say stuff like members of our species are political animals, but so too are the chimps, bees, and ants.  And we're cute, smart, social mammals, but so are the dolphins.

The metaphysical conservative says something like:  If the other animals are so smart and political, where are the dolphin presidents and princes?

And: Where are the dolphin poets, philosophers, physicists, preachers, priests, poets, and even plumbers?

The metaphysical conservative doubts  there could be a completely satisfying evolutionary explanation of the behavior of Socrates or Jesus or Solzhenitsyn or Mother Theresa or Mozart or Shakespeare or Nietzsche or Pascal or Churchill or Lincoln.   Or even, for that matter, Hitler or Stalin.

The smarter Darwinians (like Arnhart) aren't all for atheism, of course.  They can see that religion is an indispensable social bonding mechanism, if nothing else, for animals such as ourselves.  Religion generates pro-social behavior, and that can't be bad.

For Darwinians, religion only goes wrong when it become all otherworldly or too personal, but they really can't explain why it takes those wrong turns.  A Christian would say that religion is really all about personal significance and personal love.  It's about the being who can't be reduced to merely a part of nature or anything else.  That's not to say we're not natural beings (see Thomas Aquinas), or that evolution didn't happen (see Walker Percy).

But it might be true that once evolution produces an animal smart enough to discover the theory of evolution, that animal would inevitably exhibit behavior that would show the theory to no longer be wholly true.

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Darwinian Conservatism?

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