Defending Darwinian Conservatism
Speech to The Philadelphia Society
April 28, 2007
Department of Political Science
Northern Illinois University
Department of Political Science
The Philadelphia Society needs Charles Darwin. I say that because the Philadelphia Society has brought together the libertarian and traditionalist wings of the conservative intellectual movement, and a Darwinian view of evolved human nature supports that conservative fusion of liberty and order, freedom and virtue. So Philadelphia Society needs Darwinian conservatism.
The Left has assumed that human nature is so malleable, so perfectible, that it can be shaped in almost any direction. Conservatives object, arguing that social order arises not from rational planning but from the spontaneous order of instincts and habits. Darwinian biology sustains conservative social thought by showing how the human capacity for spontaneous order arises from social instincts and a moral sense shaped by genetic evolution and expressed in cultural evolution.
In my writing on Darwinian conservatism, I have identified the core ideas of conservatism as manifested in the political thought of five conservative thinkers—Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, and James Q. Wilson. While libertarians look to Smith, and traditionalists look to Burke, Burke’s praise for Smith’s two books—The Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations—shows their fundamental agreement. Although Hayek and Kirk often criticized one another, their points of agreement were deeper than they were willing to admit. After all, both praised Burke and stressed the importance of cultural tradition in sustaining social order. Wilson might be seen as a traditionalist conservative insofar as he emphasizes the importance of moral character for social order. But he might also be seen as libertarian conservative insofar as he shows how moral character is best nurtured through the spontaneous order of civil society. Moreover, Wilson indicates how the very possibility of moral order rests on the natural propensity of the human animal for developing a moral sense—a natural propensity that manifests human biological nature as shaped by Darwinian evolution.
In contrast to the utopian vision of human perfectibility that runs through leftist thought, conservatives see human beings as naturally imperfect in their knowledge and their virtue. 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. This broad conservative vision of ordered liberty is shared by libertarians and traditionalists, and it is sustained by Darwinian science.
At the core of my account of Darwinian conservatism is the idea of human nature. Nowadays it is common for postmodern relativists to assert that the idea of human nature is nothing more than an arbitrary social construction. But I believe there really is a universal human nature constituted by at least twenty natural desires that manifest themselves throughout history in every human society, because these desires belong to the evolved nature of the human species.
These natural desires direct human behavior into regular patterns. Men and women will marry and form families. Mothers will care for their children. Young males will compete for mates and status. Societies will organize themselves as male dominance hierarchies. Competing societies will go to war. And human beings will use language and other symbols to try to figure out what it all means.
Conservative social thought is founded on a realistic grasp of this complex and imperfect human nature. Darwinian science supports conservatism by showing how this nature arises by natural evolution.
In defense of Darwinian conservatism, I will first summarize my position
in five propositions; I will then respond to the three most common objections;
and, finally, I will suggest a possible ground of compromise with my critics.
My first proposition is that Darwinism supports the conservative view of ordered liberty as rooted in natural desires, customary traditions, and prudential judgments. A Darwinian account of social order requires a nested hierarchy of three kinds of order—natural order, customary order, and prudential order—so that custom is constrained by nature, and prudence is constrained by both custom and nature. A society of ordered liberty must satisfy the desires of human nature as shaped by genetic evolution, it must be sustained by the customs of human history as shaped by cultural evolution, and it must be promoted by the judgments of human reason as shaped by prudential deliberation. There are at least twenty natural desires that constitute our universal human nature. If the good is the desirable, then we can judge social practices by how well they satisfy the full range of these natural desires. And yet the contingencies of social history and individual temperament are so variable that we need prudence to judge what is best for particular societies and particular individuals in specific circumstances.
My second proposition is that Darwinism supports the conservative view of the natural moral sense as securing the moral order of liberty. A Darwinian explanation of morality as rooted in human biological nature sustains conservative moral thought. While those on the left explain morality as a dictate of abstract reason, conservatives see morality as founded in moral sentiments, moral traditions, and moral judgments. Darwin’s theory of the moral sense shows how these sentiments, traditions, and judgments express the evolved nature of human beings.
My third proposition is that Darwinism supports the conservative view of sexual differences, family life, and parental care as securing the social order of liberty. A Darwinian account of the natural desires for sexual identity, sexual mating, and parental care confirms the conservative commitment to the traditional social order of sex, marriage, and the family. While those on the left tend to see sexual differences, family life, and parental care as social constructions that can be changed—and perhaps even abolished—by social engineering, Darwinian biology sustains the conservative understanding of sexual conduct and familial boning as innate propensities of human nature.
My fourth proposition is that Darwinism supports the conservative view of property as securing the economic order of liberty. A Darwinian understanding of human nature suggests that there is a natural desire to own property and to trade property with others. Property satisfies a natural human instinct for possessiveness. The formal stipulation of property rights in law protects economic liberty as a private sphere of action free from arbitrary coercion.
My fifth—and final—proposition is that Darwinism supports the conservative view of limited government as securing the political order of liberty. A Darwinian view of imperfect human nature suggests that no one is to be trusted with unchecked power, even when that power has been conferred by popular election. To secure ordered liberty, we need a system of balanced government under the rule of law based on the principle of countervailing power so that power checks power. The institutions of modern constitutional republicanism satisfy the evolved desire of the ruling few to dominate while also satisfying the evolved desire of the subordinate many to be free from exploitative dominance, which secures a balance between governmental authority and individual liberty.
I have laid out my arguments for these five propositions in two books: Darwinian Natural Right and Darwinian
My arguments have been criticized by various conservatives, including
J. Budziszewski, Francis Beckwith, and Peter Augustine Lawler.[ii]
The most elaborate statements have come in Carson Holloway’s book The
Right Darwin? and John West’s book Darwin’s
These criticisms from conservatives tend to center on three objections.
The first objection is that scientific creationism and intelligent design
theory have exposed Darwinian biology as unscientific.
The second objection is that Darwinism subverts traditional morality by
promoting materialism. The third
objection is that Darwinism is atheistic and thus denies traditional religion.
CREATION SCIENCE AND INTELLIGENT DESIGN
Some conservatives believe that Biblical creationism and intelligent design theory provide better scientific explanations of the origins and nature of the living world than does Darwinian evolutionary theory. For example, Patrick Henry College is on the Young America’s Foundation list of the Top 10 Conservative Colleges. It was founded as an evangelical Christian college promoting conservative politics. The school was specifically designed as a college for Christian conservative students who had been home-schooled by their parents. The College made a name for itself quickly because many of its first graduates found jobs in the Bush administration, which indicated the influence of evangelical fundamentalism in the Bush coalition. The College’s intellectual mission is stated in its “Institutional Statement of Biblical Worldview,” which declares that biology teachers at the College are expected to teach that the Biblical book of Genesis is actually a science textbook. They must teach that the entire creation of the universe “was completed in six twenty-four hour days.” They can teach Darwinian evolution and intelligent design theories, but they must make it clear to the students that the 6-days-of-creation theory must be seen “as both biblically true and as the best fit to observed data.” Consequently, not only would teaching Darwinian evolution as true be rejected, but even teaching intelligent design as taking longer than six days would be in violation of the College’s mission.
But most conservatives are not going to agree that biological science should be based on a literal reading of the Bible that concludes that the universe was created in six twenty-four-hour days. Most conservatives would probably agree with Peter Lawler that fundamentalist creationism is “pretty implausible.”[iv] Some religious conservatives have turned to “intelligent design theory” as a better alternative. Under the sponsorship of the Discovery Institute, proponents of this view argue that the living world manifests an “irreducible complexity” or “specified complexity” that can only be explained as the work of an “intelligent designer.”
There are some serious problems with the intelligent design position. First of all, the rhetoric of intelligent design relies predominantly on negative rather than positive argumentation. For example, one of the favorite examples of biological complexity for the intelligent design proponents is the bacterial flagellum—the rotating tail that propels bacteria through water like an outboard motor propelling a boat. Michael Behe rightly points out that Darwinian scientists have not yet offered a step-by-step account of the evolutionary pathway by which bacterial flagella have arisen by random mutation and natural selection. But, of course, the Darwinians could respond by pointing out that the intelligent design proponents have not yet offered a step-by-step account of the precise pathway by which the Intelligent Designer did this. Exactly when, where, and how did the Intelligent Designer create flagella and attach them to bacteria? Advocates for intelligent design have no answer to that question. Their rhetorical strategy is to criticize the Darwinians for failing to provide detailed step-by-step explanations for the appearance of biological complexity, which refusing to provide their own explanations.
Behe and others will argue that intelligent design does have a positive argument: if we see the purposeful arrangement of parts in living mechanisms, we can infer intelligent design as the cause, because we all have experience with things that show the signs of intelligent design. But this kind of reasoning is vague, because we cannot infer exactly who (or what) the intelligent designer is, and we cannot infer exactly how this intelligent designer works in nature. This reasoning also depends on a false analogy with human intelligent design. We have all seen human intelligent design at work, and so we can infer human intelligent design based on our common human experience. But we have never seen how a divine designer creates everything “out of nothing,” and so we cannot infer divine intelligent design based on our common human experience.
I could say a lot more about the scientific claims of intelligent design theory. But the primary motivation for conservatives who have adopted intelligent design theory is not intellectual but moral and religious. This is evident in the Discovery Institute’s famous “Wedge Document,” which declares that Darwinian science attacks the moral and religious foundations of Western civilization by denying the Biblical teaching that human beings were created in the image of God.[v] It’s really the moral and religious objections to Darwinian science that are crucial for conservatives.
Against the conservative objection that Darwinism promotes atheism, I would argue that Darwinian science supports the conservative affirmation of religious belief as conforming to the evolved nature of human beings. Conservatives like Edmund Burke have insisted that “religion is the basis of civil society,” and that “man is by his construction a religious animal.” But as is clear from Burke’s praise for ancient Greek and Roman religions, he affirms the practical truth of religion without presuming to decide the theological truth of any particular religious tradition. Isn’t that the proper attitude towards religion for the conservative?
Richard Weaver insisted that every healthy culture rests on a “myth” that is a product of human “imagination.” The traditional “image” of human beings as created in God’s image is an example of such a “myth.” The truth of this “myth” is poetic rather than factual, and its practical truth comes from its success in sustaining the traditional order of a culture.
Similarly, Friedrich Hayek praised religion as a “guardian of tradition,” although he was himself a skeptic, and he offered a Darwinian defense of religion as an instrument of moral evolution. “We owe it partly to mystical and religious beliefs, and, I believe, particularly to the monotheistic ones, that beneficial traditions have been preserved and transmitted at least long enough to enable those groups following them to grow, and to have the opportunity to spread by natural or cultural selection.” So, for example, while many religious founders attacked property and the family, “the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family.”[vi]
David Sloan Wilson and other Darwinian scientists have explained religion as a means by which human beings bind themselves into cooperative communities. This would seem to support the conservative stance of Burke, Weaver, and Hayek. The Darwinian conservative can affirm the practical utility of any religious tradition that sustains the good order of civil society.
Some Christian conservatives would say that this does not go far enough in affirming the doctrinal truths of Christianity. But can Catholic conservatives and Protestant conservatives agree on these doctrinal truths? Does this exclude Jewish conservatives? Muslims? Presumably, this would exclude skeptics and atheists. If so, then skeptical conservatives like Hayek are not really conservatives.
Wouldn’t it be more sensible to say that conservatives must respect the practical truth of any religion that supports social order, regardless of whether we can agree on the theological or metaphysical truth of that religion?
Moreover, conservatives should see that ultimate questions of First
Cause—questions about the origins of the universe and the origin of the laws
of nature—leave a big opening for God as Creator.
As Darwin said, “the mystery of the beginning of all things is
insoluble by us.”[vii]
The natural desire to understand the uncaused cause of everything
ultimately leads human beings to a fundamental choice—nature or nature’s
God. Some human beings will assume
that the ultimate source of order is nature.
Others will assume that we must look beyond nature to God as the ultimate
source of nature’s order. Our
natural desire to understand is satisfied ultimately either by an intellectual
understanding of nature or by a religious understanding of God as the Creator of
nature. This is the choice between
reason and revelation. That choice
has to be left open, because neither side can refute the other.
Ann Coulter speaks for many conservatives when she warns that Darwinism subverts all traditional morality by teaching: “Nothing is ever wrong as long as you follow your instincts. Just do it.” According to Coulter, Darwinian science denies the foundation of all healthy morality by denying the religious ground of morality and particularly the Biblical teaching that all human beings were created in God’s image. “Once man’s connection to the divine is denied,” she warns, “you can reason yourself from here to anywhere. As Jean-Paul Sartre said, ‘If God is dead, everything is permitted.’” By contrast, she explains, “religious people have certain rules based on a book about faith with lots of witnesses to that faith.”[viii]
All of the conservative critics of Darwinian conservatism agree in some manner with Coulter: Darwinism promotes immorality by denying the necessary roots of morality in religion. For example, Holloway insists that a Darwinian account of morality as rooted in human nature cannot sustain morality, because morality is impossible without religion.
Darwin explains morality as expressed in a moral sense that is part of the evolved nature of human beings. He sees moral progress in human history as a product of the complex evolutionary interaction of innate sociality, cultural learning, and prudential deliberation. “Ultimately,” he observes, “our moral sense or conscience becomes a highly complex sentiment—originating in the social instincts, largely guided by the approbation of our fellow-men, ruled by reason, self-interest, and in later times by deep religious feelings, and confirmed by instruction and habit.” This moral sense “perhaps affords the best and highest distinction between man and the lower animals.”[ix]
This Darwinian account of the natural moral sense provides a biologically grounded version of traditional natural law reasoning. Human moral experience is natural insofar as it arises from those natural inclinations of the human animal that we can know by reason alone. Of course, as Darwin indicates, that natural moral law can be taught by religion, but it can stand on its own natural ground even without religious belief. Darwin shows how the natural moral law could have arisen by natural evolution. Here then would seem to be common ground for all conservatives: morality can be known by natural experience alone because it is rooted in the natural moral sense of our evolved human nature, but religion can reinforce that moral law for believers.
And yet there is a tendency among religious conservatives to a divine command theory of morality that drives much of the criticism of Darwinian conservatism. The assumption of divine command reasoning is that moral obligation must be grounded in the commands of a good and loving God. If God did not exist, there could be no moral obligations. But there are some serious problems with such a divine command morality, including the implicitly nihilistic assumption that morality is an arbitrary creation of God’s will that has no natural ground of its own.
When Holloway rejects the naturalistic morality of Darwinian science and says that morality necessarily depends on religion, what does he mean by “religion”? Any religion? Would Holloway agree with conservatives like Burke and Kirk who quote pagan philosophers like Cicero on the virtues of religious belief, and thus imply that pagan religion is as good as any other? Or does a morally healthy religion depend on specific doctrines that supply the necessary and sufficient support for morality?
Holloway repeatedly asserts that religion supports some very specific moral positions—such as condemning slavery. But he never cites any specific religious texts to show how they necessarily support the moral positions that he favors. The case of slavery and “universalism” illustrates the problem. He assumes that religion necessitates a “universal” morality that would deny the morality of slavery. But many religious traditions have allowed slavery, and the Bible never condemns slavery or calls for its abolition. On the contrary, in the American debate over slavery, Christian defenders of slavery cited specific biblical passages in both the Old Testament and the New Testament supporting slavery. Opponents of slavery had to argue that general doctrines such as the creation of human beings in God’s image implicitly denied the justice of slavery. But they could never cite any specific passage of the Bible for their position. This conflict over slavery split the major Protestant denominations—including the Methodists and the Baptists—with Southern Christians defending slavery as biblically sanctioned and Northern Christians attacking it. So here is a clear case of where the moral teaching of the Bible depends on our coming to it with a prior moral understanding that we then read into the scriptural text.
Moreover, Holloway’s appeal to the moral “universalism” of the Bible is dubious. I don’t see a universal morality in the Old Testament. For example, Moses ordering the slaughter of the innocent Mideanite women and children manifests a xenophobia that runs through much of the Old Testament. The New Testament seems more inclined to a universal humanitarianism. But the Book of Revelation teaches that at the end of history the saints will destroy the Antichrist and the unbelievers in a bloody battle. The brutal bloodiness of this vision has been dramatized throughout the history of Christianity, and it continues in Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind novels, which are popular with evangelical conservatives.
Like Holloway, West criticizes my argument that the Darwinian understanding of the natural moral sense supports traditional morality. But West is vague about the ground of his support for traditional morality. Occasionally, he speaks of a “transcendent standard of morality,” a “permanent foundation for ethics,” or “moral truth,” but without explaining exactly what he has in mind.[x]
West sometimes refers to “traditional Judeo-Christian morality.” He doesn’t explain this, although he does suggest a couple of times that he is referring to Biblical morality—the moral teaching of the Old and New Testaments—which would include Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He indicates that he is referring specifically to the Biblical teaching “that human beings are created as the result of God’s specific plan.” But in his entire book, he refers to only two Biblical verses—the Old Testament declaration that “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 19:1) and the new Testament declaration of Paul that God’s creation manifests his invisible attributes (Romans 1:20).[xi]
So how exactly does West see the Bible providing a clear and reliable moral teaching contrary to the Darwinian moral sense? He rejects Darwin’s account of how the social instincts of human beings might have evolved because cooperating for the good of the group favored the group’s survival and reproductive fitness in competition with other groups.[xii] But something similar to Darwin’s account of moral evolution can be found in the Bible. Whenever Moses wants to give an ultimate reason for obeying his laws, he warns the people of Israel that obeying these laws is the only way for them to survive and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1-8, 4:40, 30:15-20). And just as Darwin recounts the ancient history of group against group conflict, the Bible shows how the people of Israel had to put a “curse of destruction” on their enemies, so that all of those they conquered—including innocent women and children—would be slaughtered (Numbers 31:1-20; Deuteronomy 20:10-20). Is this “traditional Judeo-Christian morality”?
Like Holloway and West, Lawler worries that traditional morality cannot survive without religious belief. But Lawler also worries that evangelical fundamentalism relies too much on Biblical literalism as the only source of moral authority. He writes: “This secessionist impulse of our evangelicals is, in part, the result of their intellectual weakness, their tendency not to read or write great books. Their Christian America is founded in the revelation of the Bible, not that realistic view of nature and human nature that all citizens can share in common.”[xiii]
My moral argument for Darwinian conservatism is that it provides
scientific support for “that realistic view of nature and human nature that
all citizens can share in common.” Most
citizens—including most conservatives—are not going to agree on a literal
reading of the Bible that concludes that the universe was created in six
twenty-four-hour days. Neither are
most citizens going to agree on the details of the moral rules set forth in the
Bible. If we are not going to have
a Biblical theocracy, then we need to appeal to some shared natural standards of
truth and morality—something like the tradition of natural law. Darwinian naturalism supports such a tradition of natural
Many conservatives who object to Darwinian conservatism seem to be open to a biological conservatism. This might offer a ground of compromise.
Although the proponents of intelligent design object to evolutionary explanations of the distant causes of human biological nature, they do not seem to object to biological explanations based on more proximate causes. To find common ground among conservatives for accepting a biologically rooted natural law, we could set aside the arguments from evolutionary biology and rely only on arguments from behavioral biology. Even if we cannot agree on the evolutionary causes of human nature, we might still agree on the proximate causes of human behavioral biology.
Evolutionary causes are difficult to study because they are not directly observable, and we have to infer evolutionary history from indirect evidence (such as the fossil record). By contrast, proximate causes are often open to direct observation. For example, we can measure fluctuations in hormonal levels and correlate that with behavioral changes.
So, for instance, we might get general agreement among most conservatives that the human propensities to sexual differences, sexual mating, familial bonding, and parental care are rooted in human biological nature, and this challenges the radical feminist’s quest to establish androgynous behavior as the norm for human beings. Such propensities of human biology are directly observable. For example, we might study the differences in male and female brains that support differences in male and female behavior. Darwinian conservatives would see this as a product of Darwinian evolution. But others would see it as the work of the intelligent designer or God. And yet we could agree on the observable proximate causes of human sexual biology.
Conservatives such as Lawler, Holloway, and West all seem to agree with me that there are natural norms for human conduct rooted in human biological nature, even as they disagree with me about the evolutionary causes of this biological nature. Lawler follows the lead of Pope John Paul II in conceding that life can be generally explained as the product of Darwinian evolution, while still insisting that an “ontological leap” is required for the appearance of the human soul. Holloway accepts the fact of evolution by natural selection. He even asserts that “religious believers can accept that the physical and even the emotional and moral constitution of human beings has been shaped by natural selection.” But where Holloway departs from my Darwinian conservatism is that he believes morality cannot be secure if it is not founded on a “religiously-informed cosmic teleology” by which all of nature is directed to some final goal. So while Holloway accepts the Darwinian account of human evolution as true, he wants to see this evolutionary history as guided by a divine intelligence directing it to some cosmic purpose. Here he agrees with theistic evolutionists who believe that Darwinian evolution is compatible with a religious belief in God as the ultimate source of evolutionary order.
Conservatives like West won’t concede this much to Darwinian science. He insists that the intelligent designer could not, or would not, employ evolutionary mechanisms to execute his divine purpose. But even West would say that the observable biological nature of human beings supports a biologically grounded natural law in which natural human desires become normative because they manifest the moral will of God.
So, in a way, Holloway and West fundamentally agree with me. We all agree in that we are all biological conservatives, because we believe that human biological nature supports conservative principles such as traditional morality, family life, private property, and limited government.
We disagree, however, about the Darwinian basis of biology. My biology is completely Darwinian. Holloway’s biology is partially Darwinian. West’s biology is completely anti-Darwinian.
I argue that for a biologically based conservative morality, Darwinian biology is sufficient in providing an immanent teleology, so that the human species has evolved to have species-specific desires that point to ends or goals for human thought and action. But this is not enough for Holloway and West. No healthy morality can survive, they believe, without a religiously-grounded cosmic teleology. Holloway provides that cosmic teleology by adopted the position of theistic evolution. West provides that cosmic teleology by adopting the position of intelligent design theory that denies Darwinian evolution completely.
Some conservatives will embrace Darwinian conservatism completely as a scientific account of evolved human nature that supports conservative thought. Those who cannot embrace it completely might still accept the idea of a biological human nature as supporting conservatism, even if the ultimate cause of that nature is disputed. In any case, Darwinian conservatism should help conservatives to ponder the ways in which natural science sustains conservatism.
That’s why conservatives need Charles Darwin.
[i] Larry Arnhart, Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: The State University of New York, 1998); Darwinian Conservatism (Exeter, UK: Imprint Academic, 2005).
[ii] J. Budziszewski, “Accept No Imitations: The Rivalry of Naturalism and Natural Law,” in William Dembski, ed., Uncommon Dissent: Intellectuals Who Find Darwinism Unconvincing (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2004), 99-113; Francis Beckwith, “Natural Law without a Lawgiver,” Review of Politics 68 (2006): 680-82; Peter Augustine Lawler, Stuck with Virtue: The American Individual and Our Biotechnological Future (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005).
[iii] Carson Holloway, The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Dallas: Spence Publishing Company, 2005); John G. West, Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest (Seattle, WA: Discovery Institute Press, 2006).
[iv] Lawler, Stuck with Virtue, 174.
[v] See Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 25-33.
[vi] Friedrich Hayek, Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 136-37.
[vii] Charles Darwin, The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, ed. Nora Barlow (New York: Norton, 1958), 94.
[viii] Ann Coulter, Godless: The Church of Liberalism (New York: Crown Forum, 2006), 277, 280-81.
[ix] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (New York: Penguin Books, 2004), 151, 157.
[x] West, Darwin’s Conservatives, 21-22, 40.
[xi] West, Darwin’s Conservatives, 21, 69-71, 143.
[xii] West, Darwin’s Conservatives, 20.
[xiii] Lawler, Stuck with Virtue, 105.