Can Conservative Intellectuals Go Home Again?

My last post, following the lead of David Brooks and Rod Dreher, was about giving the argument for "communitarian conservatism" in the context of Dreher's decision to move back to his hometown of St. Francisville, LA.


But there are problems with that argument.

First off, it's just not true that communitarian or traditionalist conservatism is in retreat. It lives a fresh and vital existence in the moral imagination of many of our conservative intellectuals. It is an understandable response to the tendency toward moral emptiness of a high-tech, capitalist civilization.

The favorite poet of many of these highly literary intellectuals remains T.S. Eliot.  He wrote a big poem about the “wasteland” that is our world.  And one philosopher they have a sometimes unacknowledged debt to is Martin Heidegger, who said that the self-understanding of our time is technological.  We understand everything, even one another, as nothing more than resources to be exploited.  Heidegger also wrote that “the wasteland grows.”

A philosopher traditionalist conservatives admire is Alasdair MacIntyre, who claims we live “after virtue.”  Any common understanding of how to live depends on a shared moral language embedded in traditional practices, and we live in a post-traditional time and so morally empty time. 

MacIntyre’s conservatism is actually indebted to the philosopher Karl Marx, who observed that under capitalism “all that is solid melts into thin air,” meaning moral distinctions lose their weight and meaning.  From Marx’s view, we’re then stuck with facing the truth: All morality is an oppressive illusion imposed by the ruling class.

That alleged truth-facing has morphed, of course, into the leftist fashion of discrediting moral claims as actually rooted in racism, sexism, and classism.  The conservative rejoinder is that moral claims that treat us as autonomous individuals and nothing more are equally oppressive, because they chain us all to the requirements of a productive meritocracy.  The occasional conservative even observes that the effectual truth of women’s liberation, from a Marxist perspective, is to turn women into wage slaves just like men.  The result is that the virtues connected with voluntary caregiving—ones once thought to be reserved to women—are now less honored than ever.

So “communitarian conservatives” are opposed to the isolated individualism of the bourgeois way of life. That’s why they're attracted to small towns, big families, whole-life churches, local economies, agrarian virtues, and so forth.  They share the idea of buying and acting locally with the environmental left.  But they’re not about thinking globally and acting locally.  They’re more about thinking and acting locally.

We have to wonder, of course, about how much even a conservative intellectual can authentically taking his bearings from being enmeshed in a particular, quite limited place. Here's Rod's memory of how things were for him as a kid in St. Francisville, LA:

I experienced bullying and social exclusion when I was in high school—the sort of thing that you’d find anywhere, but when you live in a small town, and go to a small school, there’s really no place to find refuge. When I went off to a public boarding school for gifted kids, I found that my new friends there who had come from big-city schools were different from we who had come from small-town schools. We small-town kids mostly felt like we had finally found solid ground—a place where we wouldn’t be picked on for being weird, or bookish. The big-city kids had found their own niches in their big-city schools.

As a nerdy wimp hopelessly short on the manly and productive virtues prized by the community, Ron was bullied and excluded.  He was victimized and marginalized and wasn’t feeling the love. Teenage Ron, in fact, thought that most of his fellow, small-town kids were rather cruel and stupidor at least ignorant. 

Kids like him, he admits, are better off in larger, more diverse, more urban places.  There he would have found his people, his lunch table, his geeks.  The libertarian praise of our techno-virtual world is that it creates niches, and various kinds of people can flourish together and apart in unprecedented freedom.  Rod admits there’s something to that praise.

So Rod escaped from his small town to be a liberated intellectual, finding his niche as a journalist among those who shared his interests and passions.  And his liberation, of course, is facilitated by the technology that allows him to blog his message to people in places everywhere, that allows him to be quite the displaced celebrity celebrating the virtues of place.

There’s a lot more to say, but it’s clear enough that when Rod goes home, he doesn’t go all the way home.  He’s not really bound by the limits of his place. Let me close with a very perceptive comment by Ron Thomas--one that suggests several issues that I will get around to discussing--in the thread to the original communitarian conservative post:

It is good that Dreher is moving back to a town in which he has family; otherwise, he would find it hard to "break in." I live in a town of 11,000 here in North Carolina (Lincolnton). It is good that I am at least a Southerner (Memphis); that helps the acceptance. I wonder what he will do for a church? I had heard that he became Orthodox. Probably not many there. I suppose he will "telecommute", as opposed to working in a lumber mill. I am glad to live in a small, Southern town. It is indeed most of what Dreher is looking for, but, there is another conservative duality to face: what religions scholar Huston Smith calls spontaneous vs. deliberate tradition (or conservatism). Dreher is being deliberate, but a lot of the traditionalism/conservatism is spontaneous, i.e., just the way things are. That is not always the case, of course: my fellow members in the local "Robert E. Lee Historical Association" read First Things a lot--and I am the only Catholic in the group.

BTW, I do not think "communitarian conservative" is a tag that at all fits Kirk et al.   

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.