Sunday, May 06, 2007

Evolution and conservatism

I don't spend too much time with topics like this on this blog but I found this particular article interesting (there are several bloggers over at Scienceblogs that do put a lot of energy into these topics, so you should check it out if you want more).

Yesterday (May 5th), the New York Times science page published an article titled 'A Split Emerges as Conservatives Discuss Darwin'. I am certainly no expert in how Darwinism has been or is being invoked in the past or present by political/social figures. This article cites several books that might be a good sampling of how these ideas have evolved (pun intended).

The other night, the ten Republican presidential candidates were asked if they believe in evolution and three of them said they did not.

For some conservatives, accepting Darwin undercuts religious faith and produces an amoral, materialistic worldview that easily embraces abortion, embryonic stem cell research and other practices they abhor. As an alternative to Darwin, many advocate intelligent design, which holds that life is so intricately organized that only an intelligent power could have created it.

Maybe I am simple-minded, but what does the science of evolution have to do with abortion? This is a rhetorical question and I know the talking points, but this gets right to what I dislike about rigorous political ideologies: that one must agree with or adopt the entire spectrum of perspectives and beliefs to 'be on the team'. As for intelligent design, I'm not going to discuss that here as it has been, in my mind, thoroughly proven to not even be close to scientific practice. Period.

Yet it is that very embrace of intelligent design — not to mention creationism, which takes a literal view of the Bible’s Book of Genesis — that has led conservative opponents to speak out for fear their ideology will be branded as out of touch and anti-science.

Well, I think it's too late on that front. That ideology has already been branded as anti-science.

Some of these thinkers have gone one step further, arguing that Darwin’s scientific theories about the evolution of species can be applied to today’s patterns of human behavior, and that natural selection can provide support for many bedrock conservative ideas, like traditional social roles for men and women, free-market capitalism and governmental checks and balances.

I do like to bring up the concept of the free market with those who feel they have to be both fiscal and social conservatives. The purist view of a free market believes the system self-organizes into an efficient and collectively beneficial construct without the aid of a centralized authority (intelligent designer). This is accomplished through the balance of supply and demand, prices of goods/services, and other market 'forces' and sometimes nudged this way and that (e.g., tweaking of interest rates). There is no need for an intelligent designer! In fact, if you were to tell one of these very proud, so-called 'self-made' individuals that they are the product of the decisions of a centralized authority (intelligent designer) rather than the sum of their individual actions, decisions, and development (evolution) they would be pretty upset with you.

As for how natural selection explains traditional gender roles, I'm simply not versed in such ideas and really don't understand that. What do they mean by 'traditional'? Traditional as in the American family as portrayed on 1950s television, with the man going to work in a suit and the woman staying home wearing a dress and cooking/cleaning for him? What exactly does that have to do with natural selection? Perhaps the argument is that this is the contemporary version of the male venturing out to hunt/gather while the female stays behind to care for the offspring? There's probably a whole blog out there somewhere discussing that.

The technocrats, he [Mr. West, the author of “Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest”, 2006] charged, wanted to grab control from “ordinary citizens and their elected representatives” so that they alone could make decisions over “controversial issues such as sex education, partial-birth abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research and global warming."

Apparently, a technocrat is one who wants government run by the highly educated. Okay. I always figured that should be give-in...raise your hand if you want ignorance running the government. I suppose the opposition would charge that "technocracy" is steeped in the amoral and materialistic worldview. But, then in that case isn't the government being designed intelligently?

Is that really what the technocrats want -- to "grab control" and make decisions alone? To me, it's about actually using science to guide us to make decisions. What West is doing here is probably my biggest pet peeve --- that it all comes down to all or nothing. The all-or-nothing viewpoint is pervasive in political is completely illogical and unusable but I tend to think it's an unfortunate result (strange attractor?) in the trajectory of how society debates complex issues. Unless it's simplified to a duality of "this vs. that", and whose team are you on, the public can't understand it? But, this is a topic for another time. It's also funny (and sad) how global warming is thrown in with this list of 'controversial issues'.

The institutions that successfully evolved to deal with this natural order were conservative ones, founded in sentiment, tradition and judgment, like limited government and a system of balances to curb unchecked power, he explains. Unlike leftists, who assume “a utopian vision of human nature” liberated from the constraints of biology, Mr. Arnhart says, conservatives assume that evolved social traditions have more wisdom than rationally planned reforms.

Really? I've never heard a conservative put it that way. And what if a particular tradition becomes rigid and outdated? Isn't resisting change not accepting that things are evolving?

To many people, asking whether evolution is good for conservatism is like asking if gravity is good for liberalism; nature is morally neutral. Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard and Carson Holloway in his 2006 book, “The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy,” for example, have written that jumping from evolutionary science to moral conclusions and policy proposals is absurd.

Well said. Finally...that's a viewpoint that resonates with me. To beat down the ugly head of the all-or-nothingers, I would add that it doesn't mean we can't learn something by discussing these things...the point is to not make the leap.

Then there's a quote by Wiliam F. Buckley about how Darwinism led to the Nazis....are we still doing this? And this is a top thinker?

And then, finally...
Mr. West agreed that “conservatives who are discomfited by the continuing debate over Darwin’s theory need to understand that it is not about to go away”; that it “fundamentally challenges the traditional Western understanding of human nature and the universe.”
All is revealed. Western understanding of human nature and the universe is the concept of evolution. I think he has it backwards on what is being challenged.

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