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ISR Issue 54, July–August 2007


Darwin's dangerous ideas

Why evolutionary biology creates a problem for the Right


DO YOU believe in evolution? That was one of the questions posed to the ten white men currently seeking the Republican presidential nomination during their first debate, held at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley on May 3, 2007. Three of the candidates—Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Representative Tom Tancredo of Colorado—raised their hands to indicate that they do not.

Did this public display of scientific ignorance illustrate the continuing influence of Christian fundamentalism on American politics, or does the fact that seven of the candidates kept their hands down, show that the religious Right is in decline? Your guess is as good as mine, but a few days later, the New York Times ran an article detailing the sharp debate that has emerged in conservative circles in recent years about what to say about Charles Darwin.

According to the Times report, “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.” Driven largely by religious motivations, members of this group advocate old-fashioned Biblical creationism or new-fashioned intelligent design (which posits a designer for at least some components of living things without explicitly using the label “God”).

For the past thirty years or so, the Republican Party has depended on an alliance with the religious Right to win elections. The latter were given the opportunity to promote their reactionary social agenda, while the party bigwigs and their corporate sponsors pushed through economic policies that sharply increased inequality and benefited the wealthy at the expense of everyone else. But the alliance has always included contradictory elements and the squabble over evolution reported by the Times exposes one of them.

Simply put, the religious fundamentalist attack on Darwin’s ideas amounts, in effect, to an attack on the scientific method itself. Rejecting evolutionary biology means rejecting along with it large portions of physics, astronomy, cosmology, geology, and other sciences, which provide evidence for evolution or employ similar methods. But capitalism depends on the accumulation and exploitation of new scientific knowledge. In the short term if religious anti-evolutionists are successful in a particular locality, they can do serious damage to science education, deter researchers from accepting university positions, and create a climate hostile to high-tech industry and investment. In the longer term they can pose a threat to scientific reason itself. Because of this, opposition to creationism and intelligent design has emerged within the conservative movement itself.

Science aside, some conservatives also think that social Darwinism—the idea that the “fittest” rise to the top in human societies—is a useful ideological tool. As the Times notes, “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.”

The split among conservatives, and the claims by some of them that evolutionary thought offers support to the status quo, is simply the latest recapitulation of a debate that started 150 years ago and should long since have been put to rest. When Darwin first published The Origin of Species in 1859, he correctly expected that there would be fierce opposition from defenders of traditional religious ideas, who saw evolution as an attack on both religion and morality, and thus a threat to the established order. But within a few years, some bourgeois ideologists had embraced evolutionary theory.

The so-called social Darwinists, for example, attempted to defend nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalism on the grounds that the misery, poverty, and death that it caused would result in the survival of the fittest and thus, ultimately, the general improvement of the human race. Social Darwinism is utter nonsense since, among other things, success in a competitive social and economic system has nothing to do with the notion of biological fitness, and the workings of such a system—as is becoming more and more apparent—may produce an ecological catastrophe that would threaten our species’ very survival.

Social Darwinism is only one way in which conservatives have attempted to use (or, rather, abuse) Darwin’s ideas for their own purposes. The argument that capitalism is in some sense natural because of the way that evolution has shaped human psychology has been another popular gambit for almost as long. Political science professor Larry Arnhart offers a recent version of this argument in his 2005 book Darwinian Conservatism. Among other things, Arnhart claims that evolutionary theory shows that humans instinctively seek power and the accumulation of wealth, and offers support for organizing human societies as male-dominated hierarchies based on the supposedly traditional nuclear family. On this basis he argues not just to keep gays but also women out of the military. He narrowly avoids making the argument that women should also be denied the right to vote.

It is almost embarrassing to have to engage with claims of this kind, which are based not on real evidence, but on speculative hypotheses and a highly selective misreading of the historical record. The speculative hypotheses consist of attempts to show that it may have been advantageous for our early human ancestors to have developed certain psychological characteristics (such as an instinct for power), which may then have become hard-wired into our brains. But speculative hypotheses need evidence to be taken seriously, so here enters the selective misreading of history. Find historical examples of the characteristic in question being exhibited, ignore all counter-examples in which the characteristic is apparently missing, and then argue that the characteristic is genetically programmed into our psyches. It’s certainly easy to find examples of humans ruthlessly seeking power or dominating and humiliating others, for instance, and if you ignore all examples of cooperation and solidarity, you can then conclude that human beings are naturally power-hungry and domineering.

But, in fact, examples of cooperation and solidarity abound, and the best available archaeological and anthropological evidence strongly supports the view that the earliest human societies were not based on competition, inequality, and hierarchy. According to the anthropologist Richard Lee, for example,

Before the rise of the state and the entrenchment of social inequality [about 5,000 years ago], people lived for millennia in small-scale kin-based social groups, in which the core institutions of economic life included collective or common ownership of land and resources, generalized reciprocity in the distribution of food, and relatively egalitarian political relations.

Similar examination of the historical record shows that male domination and the nuclear family are not part of human nature.
The general strategy of drawing political conclusions from an account of human nature is a sound one. But the most striking feature of human behavior is not that the same patterns remain unchanged throughout history, but that it is so variable. This suggests a very different account of human evolution to the one proposed by conservatives like Arnhart. As the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once put it:

Human uniqueness lies in the flexibility of what our brain can do. What is intelligence, if not the ability to face problems in an unprogrammed (or, as we often say, creative) manner? If intelligence sets us apart among organisms, then I think it probable that natural selection acted to maximize the flexibility of our behavior. What would be more adaptive for a learning and thinking animal: genes selected for aggression, spite, and xenophobia; or selection for learning rules that can generate aggression in appropriate circumstances and peacefulness in others?

Gould’s model of human evolution is also consistent with the remarkable findings of recent neuroscientific research, which has revealed the amazing plasticity of the human brain. As another recent New York Times article noted, “the human brain is as malleable as a lump of wet clay not only in infancy, as scientists have long known, but well into hoary old age…. [I]t is apparently able to respond to injury with striking functional reorganization, and can at times actually think itself into a new anatomic configuration.” The idea that human beings will be frustrated unless they live in competitive capitalist societies has no scientific basis—indeed, simple observation reveals that just the opposite is true.

The problem for conservatives is that Darwin’s ideas are genuinely revolutionary. Darwin argued in great detail not only that evolution has taken place (a conclusion that was very rapidly embraced by the vast majority of the scientific establishment, because of the mass of evidence that Darwin provided in its support), but also that evolutionary change was largely the result of the random, ultimately purposeless process of natural selection (an idea that took much longer to be vindicated and accepted). The theory of evolution by natural selection suggests a thoroughly materialist picture of the world that banishes vital forces and preordained purposes from nature, and which implies that mental phenomena emerge when matter is arranged in complex ways. Such ideas undermine not only traditional religious views of divine creation but also more sophisticated versions of theism, which claim that God works through evolution.

Darwin was well aware of the materialist consequences of his views, and was both elated and (as a respectable bourgeois gentleman) made extremely nervous by them. In a notebook written in the 1830s, when he was first developing his ideas, he wrote:

Love of the deity effect of organization [of the brain], oh you materialist!… Why is thought being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, our admiration of ourselves.

Later in his notes, he resolved not to state this implication of his views explicitly:

To avoid stating how far I believe in Materialism, say only that emotions, instincts, degrees of talent, which are hereditary are so because brain of child resembles parent stock.

Darwin’s nervousness probably explains why he took so long to publish his ideas, finally doing so only when he became aware that the young Welsh naturalist Alfred Wallace had reached similar conclusions that he was about to make public. But despite his best efforts, they were seen as a direct challenge to the dominant ideology of Victorian England in the mid-nineteenth century. One early reviewer of Darwin’s book, the great geologist Adam Sedgwick, spoke for many: “I cannot conclude without expressing my detestation of the theory, because of its unflinching materialism.”

It was precisely Darwin’s materialism that explains why his contemporaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were so enthusiastic about the new theory. Less than a month after the Origin was published, Engels remarked in a letter to Marx: “Darwin, whom I am just now reading, is splendid.” Marx himself read the Origin the following year and commented to Engels, “Although it is developed in the crude English style, this is the book which contains the basis in natural history for our own view.” Marx’s point was presumably not that evolution by natural selection automatically implies the truth of his own historical materialist approach to society—there is no contradiction in accepting Darwin and rejecting Marx. But Darwin’s views, by supporting a general materialist perspective and by demonstrating the centrality of historical change in the biological world, certainly enhance the general plausibility of a materialist approach to human society as well.

Socialists should embrace the theory of evolution because the evidence in its favor is overwhelming, not because it has radical philosophical implications. But the theory’s implications are ones that socialists, unlike conservatives, can fully embrace.

Phil Gasper teaches philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005).
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