Darwinism at AEI

By Bethell, Tom | The American Spectator, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

Darwinism at AEI


Bethell, Tom, The American Spectator


EARLY IN MAY, the American Enterprise Institute held a debate about Darwinism, a faith embedded in many debates, whether scientific, religious, or political. The recent irruption of atheism can be traced to the Darwinian creed, for the well-publicized testimonials of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens all have recourse to Darwinism at various points.

It purports to explain how we got here without any need for God or gods. Darwinism is best seen as 19th-century philosophy-materialism-dressed up as science, and directed against a theological argument for the existence of God. (The only one of St. Thomas Aquinas's "proofs" that resonates with us today is the "argument from design.") Richard Dawkins famously said that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection "made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Political theory was uppermost at AEI-it is, after all, a public-policy think tank. The question before the house: "Darwinism and Conservatism: Friends or Foes?" The main combatants were Larry Arnhart, a professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, and John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute in Seattle. Also on the podium were John Derbyshire, who writes books about mathematics and is the "designated point man" against intelligent design at National Review; and George Gilder, the well-known writer who is also with the Discovery Institute.

Arnhart, the author of Darwinian Conservatism (2005), has carved out a nice niche for himself by arguing that conservatives need Darwin. He makes his case by presenting conservative political ideas and arguing that Darwin's theory of natural selection supports them. Darwinian mechanisms give rise to a "spontaneous order," he said at one point, contrasting it favorably with the "Utopian vision" of liberals.

West argued that the issue is not really amenable to a left-right analysis. He quoted the late novelist Kurt Vonnegut, a self-described secular humanist, who said last year that our bodies are "miracles of design," and faulted scientists for "pretending that they have the answer as to how we got this way."

In Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest (2006), and in his talk, West rejected the claim that Darwinism supports traditional moral teachings. Darwin's Descent of Man, published 12 years after The Origin of Species, overflows with arguments embarrassing to conservatives and liberals alike. "Maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide," West writes, describing Darwin's explicit position. "Care toward family members is natural, but so is euthanasia of the feeble, even if they happen to be one's parents."

The truth is that Darwinism is so shapeless that it can be enlisted in support of any cause whatsoever. Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at AEI, made this clear in his admirable introduction. Darwinism has over the years been championed by eugenicists, social Darwinists, racialists, free-market economists, liberals galore, Wilsonian progressives, and National Socialists, to give only a partial list. Karl Marx and Herbert Spencer, Communists and libertarians, and almost anyone in between, have at times found Darwinism to their liking. Spencer himself first used the phrase "survival of the fittest," and Darwin thought it an "admirable" summation of his thesis.

Both selfishness and (with a little mathematical ingenuity) altruism can be given a Darwinian gloss. Any existing psychological trait, from aggression to pacifism, can be deemed adaptive by inventing a justso story explaining how genes "for" that trait might have arisen. The genes themselves do not have to be identified, nor does the imagined historical scenario have to leave any trace behind.

The underlying problem is that a key Darwinian term is not defined. Darwinism supposedly explains how organisms become more "fit," or better adapted to their environment. But fitness is not and cannot be defined except in terms of existence. …

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