Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Jeffrey Hart on American Conservatism

The WALL STREET JOURNAL has published an article by Jeffrey Hart on American conservatism entitled "The Burke Habit". Although he does not mention Darwinian biology, Hart's account of conservatism and of how Bush's Republican Party departs from true conservatism agrees fundamentally with my argument in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

Hart stresses that conservatism is based on a realist understanding of human nature as imperfectible, in contrast to the Left's utopian vision of human nature as perfectible. Conservatives reject both the "hard utopianism" of Marxist socialism and the "soft utopianism" of liberalism.

The Bush Republicans are not true conservatives, Hart observes, because they embrace a "Hard Wilsonianism" that is utopian in its vision of the fundamental goodness of mankind. They believe, as George W. Bush declared in 2003, that "the human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." I agree.

I also agree with Hart that the Bush Republicans are utopian in their devotion to an absolute ban on abortion based on their appeal to an abstract "right to life" that extends even to embryos.

The insight of "Darwinian conservatism" is seeing how Darwinian science supports the conservative realist understanding of human nature as imperfect against the utopian vision of human perfectibility. This brings together Burke and Darwin.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Fear of Teaching Darwin

INSIDE HIGHER ED has a piece by me on "The Fear of Teaching Darwin". I comment on some of the recent controversies in the United States over the teaching of evolution in both the high schools and the universities, and I lay out my proposal for "teaching the controversy by teaching Darwin."

The transcript of the federal court trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, over the teaching of intelligent design is now available online. Lehigh University biologist Michael Behe was one of the main expert witnesses for teaching intelligent design. In his testimony on October 18, he mentioned my book DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM. He quoted it as an example of how one could see Darwinian evolution as having political implications. My pride at being mentioned in this trial was countered by his mistake when he gave the title and confused it with my book DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT! Oh well, I'll take what I can get.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Darwinian Conservatism of Transcendent Morality: A Reply to Bob Cheeks

Bob Cheekshas written a review of Darwinian Conservatismfor the website. He begins:

"Dr. Larry Arnhart, professor of political science at Northern Illinois University, is on a mission to save conservatives from the curse of ignorance that afflicts those who have adamantly refused to yield to the revealed wisdom of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution. It is Arnhart's salvific purpose then to act as a modern John the Baptist and proclaim the inerrancy of 'Darwinian conservatism' that will allow conservatives to embrace 'modern science' and not be mocked as Luddites, and (God forbid)fundamentalists."

Hey, I think he's being sarcastic!

Cheeks goes on to make the criticism that I would expect from many conservatives--that a Darwinian science of human nature cannot be truly conservative because it denies the "transcendent moral worldview" that supports conservative moraltiy and politics. He refers to Thomas Aquinas and Richard Weaver as affirming this "higher, transcendent morality" of conservatism.

But if Aquinas was right to defend a "natural law" as rooted in the "instincts" or "natural inclinations" of human beings, and if he was right to distinguish this "natural law" from the "divine law" of Revelation, then why shouldn't a Darwinian biological science of human nature help us to understand that natural moral law?

After all, Darwin believed that the enduring principles of traditional morality were ultimately rooted in a natural "moral sense" of the human animal. Darwin also saw that this traditional morality was often supported by religious beliefs.

As I indicate in my book, conservatives like Edmund Burke have insisted that "religion is the basis of civil society," and that "man is by his constitution 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?

Weaver argued that every healthy culture rests on a "myth" that is a product of the human "imagination." The traditional "image" of man as created in God's image is an example of such a "myth." But the truth of this "myth" is poetic rather than factual, and its practical truth comes from is success in sustaining the traditional order of a culture.

The Darwinian explanation of religion as a means by which human beings bind themselves into cooperative communities would seem to be perfectly consistent with the conservative stance of Burke and Weaver. From this perspective, the Darwinian conservative can affirm the practical utility of any religious tradition that sustains the good order of civil society.

Does Cheeks disagree with this? Does he think that to be a conservative one must affirm the doctrinal truths of Christianity? Can Catholic conservatives and Protestant conservatives agree on these doctrinal truths? Does this exclude Jewish conservatives? Muslims? Presumably, it would exclude skeptics and atheists. If so, then skeptical conservatives like Michael Oakeshott and Friedrich 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 metaphysical truth of that religion?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

From Darwin to Hitler to Dover

Michael Behe is one of the leading proponents of "intelligent design theory." He is particularly important for the ID movement because he is a real biologist who teaches biology at Lehigh University. Proponents of ID can cite Behe's book Darwin's Black Box as evidence that some biologists object to Darwinian evolution on scientific grounds.

Behe was the leading "expert witness" for ID at the recent federal court case on the teaching of ID and creationism in the public schools of Dover, Pennsylvania. Although much of his testimony was on the scientific debate over Darwinism, he also made it clear that Darwinian theory was unlike other scientific theories because of the moral and political implications of Darwinism. In his testimony on October 18, Behe argued that Darwinism was rightly perceived by many people as having political implications. To illustrate his point, he quoted from my book Darwinian Conservatism my claim that "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 natural selection in human evolutionary history." He also made references to others--such as Daniel Dennett--who see Darwinism as a "universal acid" that denies the traditional religious grounds for morality.

Although he did not explicitly say so, Behe's talk about the moral and political implications of Darwinism evokes the fundamental fear of Darwinian science as promoting a morally corrupting atheistic materialism. A big part of my book is the attempt to dispel this fear by showing how Darwinian biology actually supports traditional morality as rooted in a natural moral sense.

The fear of Darwinian immorality is evident in Richard Weikart's book From Darwin to Hitler, which was subsidized by the Discovery Institute, the leading conservative think-tank supporting ID. Weikart argues that Darwinian biology supported a tradition of German social Darwinism that led to Hitler's Nazism. Against Weikart, I suggest in my book that he has not shown a direct path "from Darwin to Hitler."

In response to my critique, Weikart has charged that I have distorted the argument of his book. I say that his book does not show a direct line "from Darwin to Hitler," because he does not show that Darwin actually supported the ideas that Hitler expressed. But now Weikart says that the title of his book does not convey his true argument. He says to me "I don't argue the kind of straightforward 'Darwin to Hitler' thesis' that you claim." Rather, he insists that he stated clearly in his book "that Darwinism does not lead inevitably, or of logical necessity, to Nazism."

If that really is his position, then I have no disagreement with him. But my complaint is that the folks at the Discovery Institute cite Weikart's book as showing that there really is a direct line "from Darwin to Hitler," and they use this as an argument for why Darwinian science is morally corrupting, as opposed to the morally healthy teaching of ID.

As I argue in my book, what really motivates the proponents of ID is not so much the scientific arguments over Darwinian theory as the moral arguments concerning the moral implications of Darwinism. Darwin himself believed that his theory supported traditional morality. Supporters of ID deny this because they cannot believe that morality can be rooted in evolved human nature.

Friday, October 14, 2005

The Chimpanzee Politics of the Miers Nomination

Conservative resistance to President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court shows that conservatives are returning to their traditional principles of limited government and resisting the seductions of presidential democracy. In doing that, they reaffirm a realist view of human nature that is fundamental to what I have called "Darwinian conservatism."

Traditionally, conservatives believe that ordered liberty requires limited government with a balance of powers under the rule of law. Leftists favor a pure democracy founded on popular sovereignty, and so they are suspicious of any system of checks and balances that limits the will of the people. Conservatives reject pure democracy unconstrained by a balance of powers, because they believe that the natural desire for status and distinction will always create political rivalry among leaders and factions motivated by the passions of ambition and avarice. Because of their realist view of human nature as imperfect, conservatives believe that any person with power is inclined to abuse it to achieve dominance over others, and therefore the only way to prevent the abuse of power is to structure things so that power checks power. Because leftists have a utopian view of human nature as perfectible, they believe that power will not be abused in a true democracy where the people are sovereign.

Darwinian science supports the conservative principle of balancing power by sustaining the realist view of human imperfectibility. Comparing the social behavior of human beings with that of other closely related animals suggests that political rivalry and the need to constrain such rivalry through a balance of power is manifest in chimpanzees and other political animals.

Frans de Waal is famous for his studies of "chimpanzee politics." From many years of observing chimp social behavior, he sees a natural drive for dominance expressed in the "alpha male" of every chimp society. But he also sees a natural drive of subordinates to resist the exploitation of the dominant male. He suggests that chimps avoid despotism by a "balance of power" in which the power of some is checked by the power of others. This drive for dominance checked by opposing power is so similar to human politics that Newt Gingrich has often recommended de Waal's book CHIMPANZEE POLITICS as one of the best books for understanding the political life of Washington, D.C.

In the American conservative tradition, the importance of the balance of power was elaborated by John Adams. He insisted that inherent in human nature was the desire of ambitious people to become dominant. And although such a desire could motivate the ambitious few to heroic leadership, he argued that to prevent despotism, there needed to be a system of countervailing powers by which the ambition of some would be checked by the ambition of others. He warned that the inclination of the French revolutionaries (and their sympathizers in the U.S. like Thomas Jefferson) to give all power to a democratic majority would tend to favor the despotic rule of a Caesaristic leader. Napoleon's rise to Emperor of France by majority consent of the citizens confirmed Adams' prediction.

Conservatives have generally been on the side of Adams and balanced government. But in recent decades, they have been seduced by presidential democracy--by the idea that a President elected directly by the people has a popular mandate to use the virtually unlimited powers of executive prerogative--particularly, in national emergencies--for the public good. A clear manifestation of this disposition has been the willingness of conservative constitutionalists to allow the President to wage war without the congressional declaration of war required by the U.S. Constitution.

In recent years, a Congress controlled by the Republican Party has generally bowed to the leadership of George W. Bush, and thus they have failed to assert the traditional conservative principle of balancing powers.

But now with the Miers nomination, many conservatives both inside and outside the U.S. Senate are challenging the claim of the President that he should be able to appoint a long-time friend to the Supreme Court whose primary qualification seems to be adulation of George Bush. This shows a healthy conservative recognition of the dangers that come from concentrated power and ambition and the need to reassert the constitutional scheme of checks and balances.

The British have faced a similar problem as the British Prime Minister has increasingly come to resemble the American president, with unchecked authority derived from popular plebiscites. And unlike the U.S., Great Britain does not have a written constitution to which they can appeal to assert the constitutional checks on the prerogative powers of the Prime Minister.

The fundamental insight of conservative constitutionalism is that because power-seeking is rooted in evolved human nature, the power of one person or group can only be controlled by the power of another. Among chimpanzees as well as human beings, liberty requires a system of limited government based on countervailing powers.

Chapter 5 of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM is devoted to this Darwinian understanding of limited government.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Teaching the Controversy by Teaching Darwin

One manifestation of the conservatives' suspicion of Darwinian science is that many of them--particularly in the U.S.--tend to oppose the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public school biology classes unless "intelligent design theory" is also taught.

Yesterday, a U.S. federal court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, began taking testimony in a dispute over the teaching of "intelligent design" in public school science classes as an alternative to Darwinian evolutionary science. The school board in Dover, Pennsylvania, wants to require that "intelligent design" be introduced into ninth grade biology classes. Some parents have filed a suit claiming that this violates the First Amendment to the Constitution by promoting "an establishment of religion." Defenders of "intelligent design theory" claim that it is a truly scientific theory that does not depend upon religious belief.

This case could eventually be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which would continue an endless debate over the public school teaching of evolution that began eighty years ago in the famous "Scopes trial" in Tennessee in 1925.

This debate has reached an impasse. I have a proposal for breaking this impasse, a proposal that I briefly lay out in my book Darwinian Conservatism.

Proponents of intelligent design at the Discovery Institute (a conservative think-tank in Seattle) have adopted the argument of "teaching the controvery." Why not teach the theory of evolution by natural selection along with intelligent design theory, so that students are fully informed about all sides of this debate?

Opponents respond by saying in effect, "What controversy?" There is no real scientific controversy over the theory of evolution. The supporters of intelligent design theory are moved not by scientific motives but by religious motives. And after all, intelligent design theory is not really a scientific theory, because it appeals to supernatural causes beyond natural experience and the scientific method.

Here's my proposal. Let's "teach the controversy" by teaching Darwin. We could have high school students read selections from Darwin's ORIGIN OF SPECIES and DESCENT OF MAN, along with some modern textbook in evolutionary theory such as Mark Ridley's book EVOLUTION (Blackwell Science).

Surely, the proponents of evolution couldn't object to having students read Charles Darwin. And yet this could also satisfy the proponents of intelligent design, because Darwin himself presents intelligent design theory as the major alternative to his theory.

In the ORIGIN OF SPECIES, Darwin frames the fundamental issue as a controversy between two theories--"the theory of special creation" and the "theory of natural selection." He indicates that until recently "most naturalists"--including himself--have accepted the "theory of special creation," which says that each species has been independently created by an Intelligent Designer. But Darwin thinks that now we have a better theory--a "theory of natural selection," which says that although the primary laws of nature may have been created by an Intelligent Designer, those general laws allow for the natural evolution of species by natural selection without need for special interventions by the Designer to design each species and each complex organic mechanism.

Darwin indicates that neither theory can be conclusively demonstrated. But we can at least judge one theory as more probable if it can explain "large classes of facts" more intelligibly than the other theory. For example, if the "theory of natural selection" can explain the geographic distribution of species between the Galapagos Islands and the South American mainland and do this more persuasively than any alternative explanation based on the "theory of special cration," then we can judge the evolutionary theory to be more probable.

Darwin acknowledges that there are many "difficulties" with his theory, and they turn out to be the very difficulties that are commonly stressed by proponents of IDT. But while Darwin admits that these difficulties are so severe as to be "staggering," he tries to answer these difficulties, while arguing that the theory of special creation has its own difficulties.

The prominence that Darwin gives to the theory of special creation as the alternative to his theory explains why Philip Appleman, the editor of the Norton Critical Edition of Darwin's writings, decided to include in the 3rd edition selected writings from Philip Johnson and Michael Behe--two proponents of IDT. Appleman recognizes that the debate over IDT continues the debate seen by Darwin himself.

Of course, the evidence and arguments for evolutionary theory have deepened since Darwin wrote. After all, Darwin didn't even understand the genetic mechanisms underlying evolution. So it would be good to have high school students read some modern survey of evolutionary science. But here again they could see the same fundamental controversy presented by Darwin.

Mark Ridley is a biological anthropologist at Emory University. His book EVOLUTION is one of the leading introductory textbooks in evolutionary theory. When he surveys the "evidence for evolution," he suggests that we need to distinguish "three possible theories of the history of life"--evolution, transformism, and creationism. According to the theory of evolution, all species have evolved from a common ancestory, and they change through time. According to the theory of transformism, species have separated origins, but they change over time. According to the theory of creation, species have separate origins, and they do not change.

Ridley argues that the evidence supports the theory of evolution as superior to the other theories. Students who would read this could thus see the controversy between evolution and special creation and judge for themselves whether Darwin, Ridley, and others are right in arguing for the superiority of evolutionary theory.

Recently, I presented my compromise proposal on a panel at the convention of the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences in Washington, D.C. Chris Mooney, the author of THE REPUBLICAN WAR ON SCIENCE, was on the panel. He complained that it would not be right to allow high school students to think through these issues for themselves, because only scientific "experts" could judge the evidence for evolution. As far as he was concerned, the purpose of high school science education was to tell students what the "experts" believed, and any proposal to open up the classroom to real debate was actually part of the war on science coming from the Religious Right and George Bush.

In my book, I give my reasons why I think that the arguments for IDT as a substitute for Darwinian science are weak, and why conservatives need to see Darwin as their friend and not their enemy. But, still, I see nothing wrong with allowing students to debate these issues for themselves, which might actually teach them how to weigh scientific arguments over issues with deep moral, political, and religious implications. Shouldn't that be the purpose of public education in a free republic?

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Reply to Herbert Gintis

Herbert Gintis has written a review of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM for, in which he criticizes the book as a "failure" because it presents a "disingenuous argument." Since I have learned much from the work of Gintis--particularly in evolutionary game theory--I respect his opinion and so feel the need to respond. I will quote each of his six paragraphs, and then reply.

Larry Arnhart is a serious, perceptive ethical philosopher whose works deserve praise (and to be read), but this book is a failure. The arguments are weak and will certainly fail to convince most "conservatives" to embrace Darwinian evolutionary theory.

I agree that the opposition of some conservatives to Darwinian science is so deeply felt that my arguments are going to seem weak to them. But as I indicate in my book, many modern conservatives--such as Friedrich Hayek and James Q. Wilson--accept evolutionary theory and employ it in developing their political arguments. Furthermore, the founders of the conservative tradition--Adam Smith and Edmund Burke--belonged to a line of social thought based on the idea of spontaneous, evolutionary order that led to Darwin. Conservatives who reject evolutionary ideas will find themselves in opposition to their own intellectual tradition.

Evolutionary biology is scientifically correct, which is the main reason it must be accepted by anyone, whatever their political philosophy (Arnhart does not stress this). However, Darwinian biology can be either used or ignored in making political arguments, so I will rephrase the issue as: are there good arguments flowing from evolutionary biology for conservative political philosophy?

All political philosophy rests fundamentally on claims about human nature. Insofar as Darwin's evolutionary biology advances a general theory of human nature--particularly in THE DESCENT OF MAN--it is hard to assess Darwin's science without considering the moral and political implications of his account of human nature. For example, when Darwin early on adopted the idea of a moral sense that was rooted in human nature, he followed the lead of the Scottish moral sense philosophers (Smith, Hume, and others). Thus, Darwin's science is intertwined with this philosophic tradition of morality as founded on the moral sentiments. (In fact, some of Gintis's recent writing seems to be part of this philosophic tradition.)

We must note that at least in the USA, there are two quite different branches of conservatism, one espousing religious fundamentalism and the other classical economic liberalism. They have almost nothing in common intellectually and are simply politically linked by historical events. Arnhart does not stress this point.

There surely is a tension between the libertarian conservatism that begins with Smith and the traditionalist conservatism that begins with Burke, a tension that fuels much debate among conservatives. But in my book, I argue for a fundamental agreement between libertarianism and traditionalism, which is suggested by the intellectual friendship between Smith and Burke. Libertarians and traditionalists generally agree on a realist view of human nature as imperfecti ble and on the need for the evolved, spontaneous orders of family life, private property, and limited government as the basis for ordered liberty. Darwinian science helps to explain how those spontaneous orders conform to the evolved nature of human beings.

Arnhart's arguments directed towards religious conservatism can be summarized as: (a) evolutionary biology is compatible with belief in God; (b) evolutionary biology recognizes and reinforces the notion that religious belief is a universal element of human nature; and (c) a strong adherence to family values is part of human nature. I agree with these statements, but Arnhart never addresses the burning issues, which include abortion, homosexuality, gay marriage, and state-religion separation. He does deal with intelligent design, which he rejects as a scientific theory. This is part of why I call his book "disingenuous": he simply avoids the hard topics.

If I can persuade religious conservatives to agree with (a), (b), and (c), I will consider my book a great success. And if I can even get them to question the "intelligent design" arguments, I will be elated. As far as I'm concerned, these are the "burning issues"! It is true that I have said nothing about a wide range of policy issues such as abortion, gay marriage, and so on. But these are issues to be determined by prudential judgment rather than broad principles of human nature. For example, I argue that parental care for children is a natural human desire. But whether we should identify embryos as children and extend to them the same moral concern that we give to children is a matter for debate.

Turning to classical liberalism, Arnhart says that Darwinian evolution supports a Burkean political philosophy. I think this is a plausible argument, although Arnhart avoids all the hard questions by choosing as the alternative political philosophy an absurd caricature of the leftist alternative that is more or less 19th century Utopianism. Societies grow organically, Arnhart says, and cannot be socially engineered using the principles of Reason alone. Of course this is correct, but this is accepted by all relevant political philosophers today (except Peter Singer and his bizarre ilk). What about the proper extent of government, the treatment of poverty, the environment, and foreign relations? Nothing here.

I will be happy to have my readers agree with Gintis that I have made a good argument for Darwinian science as supporting Burkean political philosophy. That's the whole aim of my book!

If it is true that "all relevant political philosophers" have embraced a Burkean rejection of utopian rationalism, then I must be completely out of touch with the world of political philosophy today. But then what does Gintis mean by "relevant"? And does he really mean to claim that no serious political thinkers today advocate social engineering to achieve social justice? If he is right, then Friedrich Hayek's critique of rationalist constructivism has persuaded everybody. I wish.

I concede that I haven't laid out policies for treating poverty, foreign relations, and so on. But as I indicated above, I see such issues as matters of practical judgment rather than general principles of human nature.

I am not a conservative, and I don't think much of conservative political philosophy, but if I were, I would not be moved by Arnhart's arguments. (I am also not a liberal, by the way, and in fact I think the liberal/conservative dichotomy is a sick joke, but that's a topic for another day.)

The liberal/conservative dichotomy might be crude, but it is not a "sick joke." If I am right in arguing that conservatism rests on a realist view of human nature, while the Left rests on a utopian view of human nature, then the political history of the West over the past two centuries has turned on the conflict between these two visions. (Here I follow Thomas Sowell's lead in his book A CONFLICT OF VISIONS.) The claim of my book is that Darwinian science confirms the conservative realist vision of the natural imperfectibility of human beings. That's why conservatives need Charles Darwin.

Monday, September 05, 2005

"Conservatives need Charles Darwin"

That’s the message of Larry Arnhart’s new book Darwinian Conservatism, launched this month by Imprint Academic.

Ever since the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species in 1859, political and religious conservatives have had an uneasy relationship with Darwin’s theory of evolution. Many conservatives accept the Biblical doctrine that human beings were specially created by God in His image. And some conservatives believe that the living world shows evidence of being the product of an "intelligent designer". Many of these conservatives fear that the idea of humans evolving naturally from lower animals denies their moral dignity as special creatures of the Divine Intelligent Designers.

Going against this movement, Larry Arnhart aims to persuade conservatives that Darwin is their friend and not their enemy. The author claims that a Darwinian science of human nature supports the moral, political and religious ideas of conservatism. Darwinian biology confirms the conservatives’ realist view of human nature and denies the leftists’ utopian view of human nature as perfectible.

Friday, September 02, 2005

About the author

Larry Arnhart is Professor of Political Science in Northern Illinois University. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and specialises in the history of political philosophy, ethics, philosophy of science, philosophy and history of biology, philosophy and history of the social sciences and biopolitical theory.

Darwinian Conservatism (UK: Imprint Academic, 2005)

Darwinian Natural Right: The Biological Ethics of Human Nature (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998).

Political Questions: Political Philosophy from Plato to Rawls, first edition (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), second edition (Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, 1993).

Aristotle on Political Reasoning: A Commentary on the "Rhetoric" (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1981; paperback edition, 1986).

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Why conservatives are wrong to fear Darwinian biology

In his book, Arnhart sketches twenty natural desires that are innate in human beings as shaped by Darwinian evolution. And he shows how the conservative commitments to traditional morality, family values, private property, and limited government satisfy the evolved natural desires of human beings.

He indicates how the social binds of marriage and family life defended by conservatives satisfy the natural human desires for sexual mating, sexual identity, and parental care. By contrast, those on the left tend to see marriage and family life as artificial cultural constructions that can be changed, or even abolished by social engineering directed to absolute sexual equality.

Arnhart presents his arguments for why conservatives are wrong to fear Darwinian biology and why conservatives should see Darwinian science as supporting their values. Darwinian evolution is open to a religious belief in God as the First Cause of the evolutionary laws of nature.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Conservatives, Darwin & Design: An Exchange

Conservatives, Darwin & Design: An Exchange
Larry Arnhart / Michael J. Behe / William A. Dembski
Larry Arnhart
One sign of the intellectual confusion among conservatives these days is that they cannot decide what to think about Charles Darwin. Some conservatives (such as Charles Murray and James Q. Wilson) appeal to Darwinian biology as showing how moral order is rooted in human nature. But others (such as William F. Buckley, Jr. and Andrew Ferguson) reject Darwinism as a form of scientific materialism that is morally corrupting.

Consider, for example, the conservative reaction to Francis Fukuyama’s book The Great Disruption. Fukuyama used a Darwinian theory of human social behavior to support the conservative view that there really is a human nature that sets norms for social order, in contrast to the common view of cultural relativists that social rules are arbitrary constructions of cultural life. Fukuyama’s book provoked a passionate rebuttal in the Weekly Standard from Andrew Ferguson, who warned conservatives that Darwinian science promotes a crude materialism that denies the freedom and dignity of human beings as moral agents. Peter Lawler, writing in Modern Age, agreed with Ferguson and even denounced Fukuyama as a “teacher of evil.” Conservatives like Ferguson and Lawler are at least partially correct, because some Darwinians (Richard Dawkins, for example) do interpret Darwinian theory as dictating a reductionistic view of human beings as governed by their “selfish genes.” I think Fukuyama ultimately has the better argument, however, because he sees that Darwinian biology rightly understood confirms our commonsense view of human beings as naturally social animals whose social life depends on a natural moral sense, which thus supports the conservative view of human nature.

But before I can defend the goodness of Darwinism as sustaining a conservative view of human nature and moral order, I must defend its truth. Some conservatives have been persuaded by Phillip E. Johnson, Michael J. Behe, William A. Dembski, and other proponents of “intelligent design theory” that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection has little support in evidence and logic, and that Darwinians stubbornly refuse to recognize the evidence of “intelligent design” in the living world as pointing to a divine Creator.

I agree that conservatives should take seriously the good criticisms of Darwinian biology offered by people like Johnson, Behe, and Dembski. I do not assert that Darwinian theory can be demonstrated with the precision and certainty that would leave no room for reasonable doubt. I only assert that Darwinian theory is supported by the preponderance of the evidence and arguments. In fact, that is all Darwin himself ever claimed for his position. Moreover, although I do not think we can reason by logical inference from ordinary experience to the existence of a Creator, a Darwinian view of the living world as governed by natural laws is at least compatible with a theistic faith in the Creator as the supernatural source of those natural laws.

Darwin acknowledged that there were many serious objections to his theory of descent with modification through natural selection. In The Origin of Species, he devoted more than one–third of his argument to considering the “difficulties” for his theory. He admitted that some of the objections “are so serious that to this day I can hardly reflect on them without being in some degree staggered.” And yet he answered those objections and insisted that his theory would emerge as highly “probable” if one considered the “facts and arguments” in its favor.

Darwin recognized that evolutionary biology has all the difficulties that come from being a historical science concerned with unique events in the past that cannot be directly observed or experimentally replicated in the present. The record of the past—such as the geological record of fossils—is incomplete, and therefore Darwin’s theory of evolutionary history cannot be proven conclusively. Phillip Johnson exploits this limitation—one inherent in any historical science—by demanding complete historical and experimental evidence for Darwin’s theory. He can then conclude that the theory is unsupported by the evidence whenever the evidence is incomplete, as it always will be. But this rhetorical strategy is unreasonable in denigrating the impressive evidence for Darwin’s theory, evidence that has been well surveyed by Kenneth Miller in his recent book, Finding Darwin’s God, which defends Darwinism against Johnson, Behe, and other critics.

Indeed, in Darwin’s Black Box, Michael Behe concedes that there is enough evidence to support the Darwinian conclusion that all species, including human beings, arose from a common ancestor by descent with modification by natural selection. But he maintains that one kind of biological system cannot be explained by Darwin’s theory—namely, any system that is “irreducibly complex.”

An “irreducibly complex” system, Behe explains, is “a single system composed of several well–matched, interacting parts that contribute to the basic function, wherein the removal of any one of the parts causes the system to effectively cease functioning.” Such a complex system cannot be produced by natural selection working gradually to improve simpler systems, because “an irreducibly complex system cannot be produced directly (that is, by continuously improving the initial function, which continues to work by the same mechanism) by slight, successive modifications of a precursor system, because any precursor to an irreducibly complex system that is missing a part is by definition nonfunctional.”

Behe’s favorite analogy is a mousetrap, which is an irreducibly complex system because it could not perform its function of catching mice if any one of its interlocking parts were absent. From observing the mousetrap, we can infer a human designer as its creator. Similarly, Behe argues, from observing the irreducible complexity of biomolecular systems, we can infer that they were created by a divine designer rather than by natural selection working on random variation in evolutionary history. (William Dembski has extended this reasoning in using mathematical probability theory to lay out the formal criteria for detecting “design” when we see “patterned improbability” or “specified complexity.”)

As the primary evidence for his position, Behe describes six kinds of biomolecular mechanisms—bacteria moved by a flagellum, cells moved by cilia, blood clotting, cellular transport systems, the immune system, and the biosynthesis of proteins and nucleic acids. In each case, he shows first the great complexity of these systems, and then claims that no scientist has succeeded in explaining clearly and precisely how these complex biochemical systems emerged gradually by Darwinian evolution. Scientists should conclude from this, Behe insists, that the only way to explain such biological complexity is to recognize it as an effect of “intelligent design” by a Creator.

The biologists who reviewed Behe’s book had to admit that he was right in claiming that evolutionary biologists have not explained the exact evolutionary pathways for the six biomolecular mechanisms he considers. But as the reviewers indicated, this does not show that such evolutionary pathways do not exist; it only shows our ignorance. Developing such an explanation in the future remains a realistic possibility, claim the scientists, and so Behe’s argument from ignorance is weaker than he allows.

Behe often accepts the Darwinian explanations for the origin of anatomical structures. And even at the level of molecular biology, he sometimes accepts Darwinian theory as adequate. For example, he agrees with the Darwinian explanation for the origin of hemoglobin—the protein that carries oxygen in the blood—as having evolved through a natural modification of the simpler protein myoglobin. Here, he admits, “the case for design is weak.” Yet as long as there are other biological phenomena that are not explained so clearly by natural evolutionary causes, Behe thinks he can infer “intelligent design.”

It appears, then, that Behe’s argument is constructed so that it could never be falsified. Even as he concedes that Darwinian scientists can explain the evolutionary origin of many biochemical mechanisms, Behe can always say that whatever remains unexplained is the evidence for “intelligent design.” But since science will never succeed in explaining everything, he can never be refuted.

Moreover, Behe, Dembski, and the other proponents of “intelligent design theory” employ a fundamentally fallacious line of reasoning in their equivocal use of the term “intelligent design.” Dembski claims that “intelligent design . . . is entirely separable from creationism.” He explains: “Intelligent design is detectable; we do in fact detect it; we have reliable methods for detecting it; and its detection involves no recourse to the supernatural. Design is common, rational, and objectifiable.”

If this is what he means by “intelligent design,” then any rational person should accept it, and it would not be very controversial. In fact, most of what Dembski says in his book The Design Inference about how we infer design from “specified complexity” is an uncontroversial account of how we detect design by humanly intelligent agents. Up to this point, there is indeed “no recourse to the supernatural.” But clearly Dembski wants more than that. He writes: “The world is a mirror representing the divine life. The mechanical philosophy was ever blind to this fact. Intelligent design, on the other hand, readily embraces the sacramental nature of physical reality. Indeed, intelligent design is just the Logos theology of John’s Gospel restated in the idiom of information theory.” This leads Dembski to conclude that “Christ is indispensable to any scientific theory.” Here the “recourse to the supernatural” is clear.

This confusion in “intelligent design theory”—both affirming and denying “recourse to the supernatural”—arises from equivocation in the use of the term “intelligent design.” Both Dembski and Behe speak of “intelligent design” without clearly distinguishing “humanly intelligent design” from “divinely intelligent design.” We have all observed how the human mind can cause effects that are humanly designed, and from such observable effects, we can infer the existence of humanly intelligent designers. But insofar as we have never directly observed a divine intelligence (that is, an omniscient and omnipotent intelligence) causing effects that are divinely designed, we cannot infer a divinely intelligent designer from our common human experience.
Behe is right that from an apparently well–designed mousetrap we can plausibly infer the existence of a humanly intelligent designer as its cause, because we have common experience of how mousetraps and other artifacts are designed by human minds. (As Dembski indicates, common experience also allows us to identify some animals as intelligent designers.) But from an apparently well–designed organic process or entity we cannot plausibly infer the existence of a divinely intelligent designer as its cause, because we have no common experience of how a divine intelligence designs things for divine purposes.

If something appears to be intelligently designed, and we cannot plausibly explain it either as designed by human intelligence or as a product of Darwinian causes, then we are just ignorant of the causes. The writing of people like Dembski and Behe is instructive in pointing to such cases of ignorance. To assume, in such a case, that the cause is not divine requires faith in materialism. To assume that the cause must be divine requires faith in theism. Both positions—materialism and theism—ultimately rest on faith, because they go beyond common human experience. Through their equivocal use of the term “intelligent design,” the proponents of intelligent design theory hide their inescapable appeal to faith. (Of course, the scientific materialists often try to hide their own appeal to faith.) Contrary to what the intelligent design theorists claim, we cannot move by ordinary experience and logic alone to any inference about a divinely intelligent designer conforming to “the Logos theology of John’s Gospel.” For that we need faith.
Darwinism is no threat to such theistic faith. Darwinian science must ultimately appeal to the laws of nature as the final ground of explanation; but to ask why nature has the laws that it does is to move beyond nature to nature’s God. Atheistic Darwinians like Richard Dawkins cannot deny the theistic faith in God as the First Cause without assuming a materialistic faith that goes beyond the evidence and logic of empirical science. Darwin himself openly confessed that questions about first causes—the origin of life itself or the origin of the universe as a whole—pointed to mysteries that might be forever beyond his science. Thus, Darwinism is compatible with belief in the biblical God.

But is Darwinism compatible with faith in God as the giver of the moral law? That question points to the deeper issue at stake here, because most of the opposition to Darwinian theory among conservatives is motivated not by a purely intellectual concern for the truth or falsity of the theory, but by a deep fear that Darwinism denies the foundations of traditional morality by denying any appeal to the transcendent norms of God’s moral law. John G. West, Jr. is the Associate Director of the Discovery Institute’s Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture, which has sponsored many of the critics of Darwinism. He explains the conservative motivation for this position when he warns that Darwinism promotes a “scientific materialism” that subverts all traditional morality. “If human beings (and their beliefs) really are the mindless products of their material existence, then everything that gives meaning to human life—religion, morality, beauty—is revealed to be without objective basis.”

Similarly, Ferguson, in his attack on Fukuyama, warns conservatives to be suspicious of modern natural science. Insisting on a stark opposition between the scientific study of natural causes and the human experience of moral freedom, he argues that human beings as “autonomous selves” are free from the determinism of nature that is presupposed by Darwinian science. As an alternative to the “materialistic myth of the new science,” Ferguson suggests that conservatives should appeal to “the older myths” of free will and natural law as the intellectual foundation for their moral and political thought.

But Ferguson’s separation between biological nature and human freedom is a false dichotomy. A biological explanation of human nature does not deny human freedom if we define that freedom as the capacity for deliberation and choice based on one’s own desires. Darwinian science shows, for example, that there are natural differences on average in the behavioral propensities of men and women, and surely conservatives are right to argue that it is foolish for public policies to ignore those natural differences between the sexes. Unlike those on the left, conservatives should recognize—contrary to Ferguson—that human beings are not “autonomous selves” if that means being utterly liberated from their natural sexual identity.

Furthermore, Ferguson’s exhortation to conservatives to rely on “old myths” as an alternative to natural science is very bad advice indeed, because this would confirm the complaint of those on the left that conservatism requires an irrational commitment to traditional myths with no grounding in reason or nature. Like Fukuyama, James Q. Wilson, and other Darwinian conservatives, I would argue that conservatives should see that Darwinian views of human nature provide scientific support for the traditional idea of natural moral law. Human beings really are naturally social and moral animals, and therefore we can judge social life by how well it conforms to the natural needs and desires of the human animal. Natural law is not a “myth.” It is a rationally observable and scientifically verifiable fact.

Earlier this year, in a special issue of National Review devoted to “The New Century,” Charles Murray predicted: “The story of human nature as revealed by genetics and neuroscience will be Aristotelian in its philosophical shape and conservative in its political one.” I agree, because I see modern biological studies of human nature and morality as a continuation of an intellectual tradition begun by Aristotle that favors a conservative view of social order as rooted in natural human propensities.

Aristotle was a biologist, and he concluded from his biological studies of animal behavior that all social cooperation arises ultimately as an extension of the natural impulses to sexual coupling and parental care of the young. Thomas Aquinas continued Aristotle’s biological reasoning about ethics in defending his idea of “natural law” or “natural right.” “Natural right,” Aquinas declared, “is that which nature has taught all animals.” Sexual mating and parental care belong to natural law because they are natural inclinations that human beings share with some other animals. And although the rationality of human beings sets them apart from other animals, human reason apprehends natural inclinations such as mating and parenting as good. Marriage as constituted by customary or legal rules is uniquely human, Aquinas indicates, because such rules require a cognitive capacity for conceptual reasoning that no other animals have. But even so, such rules provide formal structure to desires that are ultimately rooted in the animal nature of human beings.

Although the idea of natural law is most commonly associated with Catholic moral philosophy, the same idea can be found in Protestant Christianity and Judaism. Both John Calvin and Martin Luther spoke of the natural law as the moral law written into the hearts of human beings. In Judaism, a similar teaching arises in the ancient rabbinical tradition of natural law as the “Noahide laws” that God gave to Noah and his descendants, a moral law binding on all humanity by virtue of a universal human nature. David Novak has elaborated the arguments for this Jewish understanding in his recent book, Natural Law in Judaism.

Adam Smith continued in this same tradition of ethical naturalism in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Smith showed how ethics could be rooted in the moral sentiments of human nature and the natural inclination to sympathy. Although we can have no direct experience of the feelings of others, Smith believed, we can by sympathy imagine what we would feel in similar circumstances. We take pleasure not only in sharing the feelings of others, but also in knowing that they share our feelings. As formed by nature for social life, human beings are born with a strong desire to please and a strong aversion to offending their fellow human beings. Smith inferred from this that we are inclined to act in such a way as would be praised by others. We judge the conduct of others as proper if it harmonizes with what we would feel and do in their circumstances, and likewise we judge our conduct as proper if it is such as would be approved of by others.

Darwin in The Descent of Man adopted this Smithian teaching about sympathy and the natural moral sentiments in developing his biological theory of the moral sense as rooted in human nature. A few years ago, James Q. Wilson’s book The Moral Sense showed how this Aristotelian–Smithian–Darwinian tradition of moral reasoning has been confirmed by modern social scientific research. By bringing together the philosophic tradition of ethical naturalism from Aristotle to Smith and the scientific tradition of Darwinian reasoning about human nature, conservatives could base their moral and political thought on what I have called “Darwinian natural right.”

Conservatives influenced by Leo Strauss might object to this idea by citing Strauss’ claim that Aristotelian natural right depends on a teleological view of the universe that is denied by modern science. But I would argue that Aristotle’s teleology is primarily biological, and so the question is whether teleology is necessary for living nature. Aristotle’s biological teleology is not a cosmic teleology but an immanent teleology, and this immanent teleology is confirmed by Darwinism. Darwin’s principle of natural selection explains the adaptation of species without reference to any forces guiding nature to secure a cosmic scale of perfection. Yet, although the evolutionary process does not serve goals, the organisms emerging from that process do.
Darwin’s biology does not deny—rather it reaffirms—the immanent teleology displayed in the striving of each living being to fulfill its species–specific ends. Reproduction, growth, feeding, healing, courtship, parental care of the young—these and many other activities of animals are goal–directed. Biologists cannot explain such processes unless they ask about their ends or purposes, and thus they must still look for “final causes.” In arguing for the immanent teleology of biological phenomena, I agree with Leon Kass that a crucial part of a “more natural science” would be a Darwinian understanding of teleology as rooted in “the internal and immanent purposiveness of individual organisms.” Explaining natural right as rooted in human biological nature would move towards what Strauss identified as “comprehensive science,” a science of nature that would include the ethical striving of human nature as part of the natural world.
Adopting a Darwinian view of human nature and ethics would have both theoretical and practical benefits for conservatism. The theoretical benefit in a Darwinian conservatism is that an Aristotelian conception of natural right rooted in a Darwinian understanding of human nature would provide a solid intellectual basis for conservative political thought. Oddly enough, this point becomes clear if one reads Peter Singer’s new book, A Darwinian Left. Singer recognizes that the traditional left has rejected the idea of a fixed human nature and affirmed the malleability and perfectibility of humankind, because the left has wanted to radically transform human life by changing the social and economic conditions that supposedly determine human history. Like Ferguson, the traditional left has assumed that human history transcends natural history. The collapse of Marxist and other socialist regimes in the twentieth century seemed to confirm, however, the prediction of Ludwig von Mises in 1922 that socialism would fail because it was contrary to human nature. Singer’s response is to try to persuade his fellow leftists to adopt a Darwinian view of human nature. “A Darwinian left,” he explains, would accept “that there is such a thing as human nature, and seek to find out more about it, so that policies can be grounded on the best available evidence of what human beings are like.” But the strain in his argument is clear when he confesses, “In some ways, this is a sharply deflated vision of the left, its utopian ideas replaced by a coolly realistic view of what can be achieved. That is, I think, the best we can do today.” In fact, most of what he suggests as part of his “sharply deflated vision of the left” would be acceptable to conservatives, who have long assumed that conformity to human nature is a fundamental goal of good social policy. Without realizing what he has done, Singer implicitly shows how a Darwinian understanding of human nature supports a conservative view of social order.

Conservatives such as Ferguson, who reject a theoretical foundation in human nature, must ultimately appeal to “myth” as their final ground of judgment, which follows the lead of such conservative thinkers as Richard Weaver who spoke of the “metaphysical dream” of transcendent order as a poetic creation necessary for any culture. The danger here is that conservatism begins to look like a Burkean Nietz­ scheanism, in which the moral order of society requires mythic traditions as noble lies that hide the ugly truth of nihilism.

Religious conservatives might rely on God’s moral law as the transcendent ground of their conservatism; but if they see no natural law rooted in human nature, they have no common ground of moral discourse with those who do not share their particular religious faith. David Novak has said that “natural law is that which makes Jewish moral discourse possible in an intercultural world.” The same could be said about the moral discourse of Catholics and Protestants.

The practical benefit in a Darwinian conservatism is that it would sustain conservative reasoning about public policy. Although Darwinism cannot prescribe specific policies, it can remind us of the propensities of human nature to which any successful policy must conform. Consider, for example, the issues of policy associated with crime, family life, and military service. Violent crime is committed mostly by young unmarried men, and thus preventing or controlling such crime depends on understanding the biological nature of young men and the universal need in every society to channel their male propensities into socially acceptable behavior. The stability of family life is fundamental for every society because the dependence of the young on parental care is a natural characteristic of the human animal, and thus every good society must regulate sexual mating, conjugal bonding, and parental attachment to children to secure the natural ends of family life. Training for military combat is predominantly a young male activity, and the natural differences in the temperament of men and women will always impede any attempt to eliminate sexual differences in military service. Although cultural and historical circumstances create great variability in the behavioral patterns of crime, family life, and military service, conservative policies should recognize the natural inclinations of human biology that constrain policy choices in these areas of life.

As Aristotle and Darwin recognized, deciding such practical issues requires the prudence that can determine what would be best for particular situations in particular societies. The biology of human nature is not about natural necessities that hold in all cases, but about natural propensities that hold in most cases. A Darwinian conservatism would therefore respect the variability in human affairs. And yet the universality of human biological nature would allow us to judge divergent policies of action by how well they nurture the natural desires and capacities of human beings as social animals.

We can anticipate that the future will bring wondrous advances in the scientific study of human nature. These advances will come from many fields of biology, such as genetics, neurobiology, animal behavior, developmental biology, and evolutionary theory. If conservatism is to remain intellectually vital, conservatives will need to show that their position is compatible with this new science of human nature.

That’s why conservatives need Charles Darwin.

Larry Arnhart is Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University.

Michael J. Behe
I’m sorry to be blunt, but the notion that Darwinism supports conservatism is absurd. Steven Pinker notoriously gleaned support for infanticide from the Origin of Species. Other Darwinists have argued that rape and inner–city teenage pregnancy are evolutionary adaptations. None of these is a conservative goal. If Professor Arnhart’s ideas were correct we would expect that university biology departments would be hotbeds of conservatism. Take it from me, they aren’t. Perhaps Prof. Arnhart should explain to John Maynard Smith, the prominent evolutionary theoretician and Marxist, how natural selection supports conservative principles. Or Steven Jay Gould. Or—to show the historical roots of conservative Darwinism—J. B. S. Haldane, who was a big fan of Stalin.

Darwinism—even if true—has no resources to support any real philosophy, whether conservative or liberal, vegetarian or royalist. Organisms have traits, the traits vary, some variations help the organism leave more offspring than other organisms—that’s the whole Darwinian ball of wax. Nothing in Darwinism tells you what those traits should be, either now or in the future, or even what a “trait” is. Nothing says whether it is the average of the traits that is important, the novelties, or the most extreme variation. “Important” has no meaning in Darwinism other than to leave more offspring, which can be done by means pleasant or brutal. A person can use Darwinism to justify any preference; he simply points to some person or animal with the trait he likes and argues that it’s natural. And everyone else can do the same. Postmodernists are not known to be hostile to natural selection.

Like most Darwinian enthusiasts, Prof. Arnhart does not distinguish between what the theory actually explains, which is very little, and what it merely rationalizes post hoc, which is practically everything. Consider, as an example, that Darwinism predicts ultimately selfish behavior as organisms strive to continue their own genetic line. By looking around them, however, Darwinists belatedly noticed that humans happily cooperate and, in cases such as celibate clergy, even sacrifice their own “genetic good” for others. Something was amiss. So computer models were generated to try to squeeze human behavior into a Darwinian framework. Lots of computer models. Some models didn’t work at all; others gave the Darwinists something close to what they were looking for. But the entire procedure was an exercise in rationalization. Darwinists didn’t tell us what human nature is or should be—they looked to see what humans were doing and then tried to fit it into their theory. Nor did they tell us how humans came to have such unique and complex abilities as speech and abstract thought. Rather, they started with the fact that we have them.

Darwinists effectively exploit popular confusion over the word evolution. Sometimes the word indicates simply descent with modification, leaving open the question of how the staggering changes in life forms could possibly have occurred. Other times Darwin’s particular mechanism of natural selection is added to the meaning. It is critical for people interested in the subject to understand, when they hear it said that evolution is supported by overwhelming evidence, that virtually all of the evidence concerns just common descent. The experimental evidence that natural selection could build a vertebrate from an invertebrate, a mammal from a reptile, or a human from an ape is a bit less than the experimental evidence for superstring theory—that is, none at all.

Prof. Arnhart has numerous misconceptions about my position. Most importantly, while I do agree that common descent is supported by the bulk of the evidence (although admittedly there are difficulties at higher phylogenetic levels), I certainly do not think we have any reason to suppose the process occurred by random mutation and natural selection, the position Prof. Arnhart attributes to me. Rather, before we make hasty, uninformed guesses about things as enormously complicated as whole organs and animals, we must first look at life’s foundation—molecules and cells—to see what natural selection can explain there. As I’ve written, Darwinism quickly runs into nasty problems even at the ground level of life—the one we can examine in greatest detail. To say the least, that makes me skeptical that natural selection can explain significant developments at higher levels of biology. It is much more plausible that the purposeful design everyone sees in life is real, rather than just apparent.

Prof. Arnhart worries that conservatives rely on “old myths” and wants them instead to depend on the eternal verities of Darwinism. Those verities, however, have had very bad times of late. Icons of evolution such as Haeckel’s embryos, peppered moths, and classic origin–of–life experiments have been shown to be more mythic than scientific, even though they still live as textbook orthodoxy. One prominent evolutionary biologist recently wrote, “In science’s pecking order, evolutionary biology lurks somewhere near the bottom, far closer to phrenology than to physics.” Conservatives who want to add the luster of science to their philosophy would do much better hooking up with astronomy or computer science.

The relationship between Darwinism and real science is parasitic. The theory’s main use is for Darwinists to claim credit for whatever biology discovers. If research shows that humans are selfish, Darwinism can explain that. If science shows we are unselfish, why, it can explain that, too. If we are a combination of both—no problem. If cells are simple or complex, if sexual reproduction is common or rare, if embryos are similar or different, Darwinism will explain it all for you. The elasticity of the theory would make Sigmund Freud blush.

Darwinism is now seeking to become parasitic on politics, too, by offering shallow, ad hoc justifications for what we already know about human nature. Yet conservatives developed their political philosophy over the course of centuries with no help from Darwinists, and with no reference to shifting Darwinian stories. I recommend that conservatives decline the kind offer of Darwinists to take credit for their ideas.

Michael J. Behe, Professor of Biochemistry at Lehigh University and a fellow of the Discovery Institute, is the author of Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.
William A. Dembski

According to Larry Arnhart, “Most of the opposition to Darwinian theory among conservatives is motivated not by a purely intellectual concern for the truth or falsity of the theory, but by a deep fear that Darwinism denies the foundations of traditional morality by denying any appeal to the transcendent norms of God’s moral law.” I want here to challenge this statement, especially with regard to my own opposition to Darwin’s theory.

For critics like Professor Arnhart, it is inconceivable that someone once properly exposed to Darwin’s theory could doubt it. To oppose Darwin’s theory requires some hidden motivation, like want­ ing to shore up traditional morality or being a closet fundamentalist.

For the record, therefore, let me reassert that my opposition to Darwinism rests strictly on scientific grounds. Yes, I am interested in and frequently write about the theological and cultural implications of Darwinism’s imminent demise and replacement by intelligent design. But the only reason I take seriously such implications is because I am convinced that Darwinism is on its own terms an oversold and overextended scientific theory.

Even so, Prof. Arnhart is convinced I must be deluding myself. Here is his reasoning: Dembski’s principal claim to fame is for developing a method to detect design (cf. my book The Design Inference, Cambridge University Press, 1998). According to Prof. Arnhart, this method works just fine for detecting human design. Nonetheless, he claims, it breaks down for detecting nonhuman design. What’s more, since the only designing intelligence that could have played a role in the origin and history of life (including human life) must have been nonhuman, my theory of design detection is irrelevant and misleading for biology. As Prof. Arnhart puts it, “If something appears to be intelligently designed, and we cannot plausibly explain it either as designed by human intelligence or as a product of Darwinian causes, then we are just ignorant of the causes.”

This statement doesn’t quite express Prof. Arnhart’s intention. Name your favorite nonhuman but embodied intelligence, and a counterexample to Prof. Arnhart’s statement readily comes to mind. Consider beaver dams. They are not the product of human intelligence nor are they the product of Darwinian causes, but we are not ignorant of their causes. Beaver intelligence is responsible for beaver dams. (Note that invoking the Darwinian mechanism to explain why beavers build dams is not illuminating because if beavers didn’t build dams, the Darwinian mechanism would readily account for this as well.) Or consider extraterrestrial intelligences sending meaningful messages to earth (e.g., a long sequence of prime numbers as in the movie Contact). Such messages would bear the clear marks of design, but would not be designed by a human intelligence or be the product of Darwinian causes.

So my theory works well for nonhuman design as well. But what if Prof. Arnhart admits that beavers and even extraterrestrials can be detectable designers, but that my method cannot detect an immaterial designer—that if no material or embodied agent can be found for some effect, we have to plead ignorance?

In the present article Prof. Arnhart offers no argument for why an immaterial designer should be empirically inaccessible, leaving us to feel that there must be something fundamentally different between embodied and immaterial design. Prof. Arnhart has elaborated on this point at a conference we both attended, so I might as well take the opportunity here to quickly rebut this argument.

The claim I make is this: design is always inferred, it is never a direct intuition. We don’t get into the mind of designers and thereby attribute design. Rather we look at effects in the physical world that seem to have been designed and from those features infer to a designing intelligence. The philosopher Thomas Reid made this same argument over two hundred years ago. The virtue of my work is to formalize and make precise those features that reliably signal design, casting them in the idiom of modern information theory.

Prof. Arnhart’s counterclaim is this: people don’t infer design as I suggest, but rather reflect on their own intelligence and attribute design when they recognize something it takes intelligence to do. Such introspection, though, is not an empirical basis for inferring an immaterial designer. Though at first blush plausible, this argument collapses quickly when probed. Piaget, for instance, would have rejected it on developmental grounds: babies do not make sense of intelligence by introspecting their own intelligence but by coming to terms with the effects of intelligence in their external environment. For example, they see the ball in front of them and then taken away, and learn that Daddy is moving the ball—in effect reasoning from effect to intelligence. Introspection (always a questionable psychological category) plays at best a secondary role in how initially we make sense of intelligence.

Even later in life, however, when we’ve attained full self–consciousness and introspection can be performed with varying degrees of reliability, I would argue that intelligence is still inferred. Indeed, introspection must always remain inadequate for assessing intelligence. (By intelligence I mean the power and facility to choose between options—this coincides with the Latin etymology of “intelligence,” namely, “to choose between.”) For instance, I cannot by introspection assess my intelligence at proving theorems in differential geometry. It’s been over a decade since I’ve proven any theorems in differential geometry. I need to get out paper and pencil and actually try to prove some theorems in that field. How I do—and not my memory of how well I did in the past—will determine whether and to what degree intelligence can be attributed to my theorem–proving.

I therefore continue to maintain that intelligence is always inferred, that we infer it through well–established methods, and that there is no principled way to distinguish human and divine design so that human design remains empirically accessible but divine design is rendered empirically inaccessible. This is the rub. Convinced Darwinists like Prof. Arnhart need to block the design inference whenever it threatens to implicate God. Once this line of defense is breached, Darwinism is dead.

William A. Dembski is a fellow of the Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture at the Seattle–based Discovery Institute. His latest book is Intelligent Design: The Bridge Between Science and Theology.

Larry Arnhart replies:

I have argued that Darwinian biology supports the conservative appeal to natural moral law as rooted in human biological nature. Michael J. Behe dismisses this as absurd, because he thinks Darwinism is so flexible in its philosophic implications that it could support Marxism as easily as conservatism. I disagree.

As I indicated in my essay, Darwinism denies the fundamental assumption of Marxism—the radical malleability of human nature as a contingent product of social and economic conditions. Only if human nature were radically malleable could a socialist revolution transform human beings to conform to a socialist utopia. Although Marx and Engels accepted Darwinism in explaining the animal world, including human physiology and anatomy, they thought that human history manifested the uniquely human freedom to transcend nature. Lenin expressed this thought when he said that “the transfer of biological concepts into the field of the social sciences is a meaningless phrase.” Contemporary Marxist biologists such as Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould continue this tradition when they insist on the freedom of human history from the constraints of biological nature.

By contrast, conservatives see the failure of Marxian socialism as confirming the warnings of Ludwig von Mises in 1922 in his book Socialism. By attempting to abolish private property through socialist economics, and attempting to abolish marriage and the family through “free love,” the socialist communities, Mises predicted, would eventually collapse, because “we have no reason to assume that human nature will be any different under socialism from what it is now.” Mises rejected “Social Darwinism” as “pseudo–Darwinism,” because it ignored the importance of “mutual aid” in the animal world. And he suggested that Darwinian biology rightly understood would sustain his conclusion that social cooperation through a division of labor was rooted in the biological propensities of human nature.

Recently, Richard Pipes, in his book Property and Freedom, has argued that acquiring property is a natural instinct for human beings, and therefore societies that try to restrict or abolish property—such as Tsarist or Marxist Russia—tend to deny freedom and promote tyranny because they must repress human nature. To support his claim that property is natural, Pipes appeals to biological studies of possessiveness and territoriality among human beings and other animals. Here then is one of many possible illustrations of how a Darwinian understanding of human nature confirms conservative social thought.

Of course, this assumes the truth of Darwinism. But Professor Behe and William A. Dembski argue that “intelligent design theory” gives us a better scientific account of living nature than does Darwinian biology. As indicated by the recent debates (in Kansas and elsewhere) over the public school teaching of evolution, they are persuading many conservatives to join them in their attack on evolution.

To infer that the laws of nature point to God as the First Cause of those laws is a reasonable position. Such thinking is implied in the traditional appeal in American political thought to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” It is also compatible with Darwinism. Indeed, theistic evolutionists (from Asa Gray to Howard Van Till) see no necessary conflict between theistic religion and Darwinian science. But Profs. Behe and Dembski are not satisfied with this.
Do they believe that the “intelligent designer” must miraculously intervene to separately create every species of life and every “irreducibly complex” mechanism in the living world? If so, exactly when and how does that happen? By what observable causal mechanisms does the “intelligent designer” execute these miraculous acts? How would one formulate falsifiable tests for such a theory? Proponents of “intelligent design theory” refuse to answer such questions, because it is rhetorically advantageous for them to take a purely negative position in which they criticize Darwinian theory without defending a positive theory of their own. That is why they are not taken seriously in the scientific community. And that is why it would be a big mistake for conservatives to think that “intelligent design theory” offers a serious scientific alternative to Darwinism.