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Darwinian ConservatismReview - Darwinian Conservatism
A Disputed Question
by Kenneth C. Blanchard (Editor)
Imprint Academic, 2009
Review by Gustav Jahoda
Nov 2nd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 44)

In 2005 Larry Arnhart published a book with the same title, but without the sub-title of the present one.  The original one is reprinted here, followed by a series of  pro and con commentaries .Many American conservatives reject Darwinism, believing that it espouses materialist atheism. Arnhart's aim was to persuade them that such views are unjustified and that the two are  not just compatible, but that Darwinism provides a firm biological basis for conservatism.

Arnhart's essay is closely argued, erudite, and wide-ranging historically and in terms of topics covered, including philosophy, politics, neuroscience, and biotechnology. He traces two broad historical trends, One is from Aristotle via Thomas Aquinas to Enlightenment (Adam Smith and especially Edmond Burke) and 19th-century liberalism to modern conservatism.  What they have in common is the  view that human nature is' imperfectible' [sic] and realist politics has to take account of this fact. He argues that Darwin's position is essentially the same. He dates the second trend, called 'utopian', from the French Revolution, via Marxism to modern socialism. The essential feature of utopians is that they regard human nature as plastic and capable of being shaped into members of an ideal society.

Much of the work is taken up with a characterization of human nature according to the first of the above trends which, it is suggested, parallels that to be found in Darwin's writings. For instance, Arnhart proposes a list of twenty 'natural desires' said to be shared universally. The various chapters mainly deal with particular human desires and the related institutions. These include the moral sense, family, property (allegedly rooted in part of the brain), religion, and others. Throughout the author makes an effort document the Darwinian correspondences and to deal with objections. One important point made is that in the course of increasing levels of evolution new features develop, irreducible to early ones, by a process of 'emergence'. In his discussion of evolution, Arnhart makes use of the recent scientific theories such as the concept of 'gene-culture co-evolution'. His central conclusion, after referring to natural human imperfection, is in the following:

And yet conservatives believe that human beings do have a natural moral sense that supports ordered liberty as secured by the social order of family life, the economic order of private property, and the political order of limited government. A Darwinian science of human nature shows how these conditions for ordered liberty conform to the natural desires of  the human species as shaped by evolutionary history.

The force and skill of Arnhart's exposition compels admiration, but the matter is of course a highly contentious one and few, including myself as a reviewer, are likely to remain neutral (as is perhaps already apparent). Yet generally I shall leave the attack and defense of the thesis to the contributors to the second part, except for mentioning one specific issue that is not touched by them.

          Arnhart is in favor of  students in school biology classes debating the relative merits of Darwin and 'intelligent design',  which as he rightly says is puzzling for Europeans; so he enlightens them: ' . . . what these Europeans cannot understand is that debating these questions shows the unique intellectual and spiritual vitality of American life..' Does it really?

          Let me now turn to a quasi-telegraphic account of some of the positions maintained in the second part, which is mainly critical  It is noteworthy  that only one out of nine contributors is a biologist, the rest being mostly political scientists. The biologist expresses surprise that Darwinism, as a science, should be taken to support a political stance.  Others include the following: Darwinism supports both conservative and progressive politics;  one cannot derive ethical principles from human nature alone;  Darwin and Locke are contrasted, and both are said to miss the point;  'intelligent design' is superior to Darwinism;  'seeking support for conservatism from Darwin is about as futile as trying to squeeze grape juice from raisins.'  Then Arnhart mounts a defense of his thesis, and the last contributor supports him by arguing that Darwin is not just compatible with Aristotle but completes Aristotle's story!

          Readers who enjoy lively discussions, and the tossing around of ideas, will like this book. Others who look for some kind of conclusion, not possible owing to the nature of the topic, are liable to be disappointed.         

 

© 2010 Gustav Jahoda

 

 

Gustav Jahoda, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. His main fields of interest are cross-cultural and social psychology, especially the development of social cognition. He is the author of A History of Social Psychology (Cambridge University Press).


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