Monday, February 2, 2009

Darwin for Conservatives


We know the expected pattern: the right objects to the theory of evolution, and a secular/left world stands by science.  But it has not always been thus.  Evolution has been employed to defend some fairly conservative social theories over the past century and a half, while the left’s own use of evolutionary theory has at times been as mystical as the thinking of the creationists.

Almost from the moment Darwin’s On the Origin of Species reached the public (150 years ago this November), though, people have been trying to squeeze more out of the story of evolution, to make it reveal purpose and teleology in the universe.  The results haven’t always fit easily into the contemporary right-left political spectrum.


Take the Victorians: today, they’re sometimes deployed as the very symbols of sexual repression and capitalist callousness, yet they made a receptive audience for evolutionary theory precisely because they believed in Progress.  They had seen incredible advances in their own lifetimes — industry, electricity, steam engines, rising literacy (indeed, for all the praise the twentieth century heaped on itself, it couldn’t compare to the progress seen in the nineteenth century, when Westerners went from living much like medieval peasants to living with the telegraph and trolley car).  But was Progress, in retrospect, a left-wing or right-wing impulse?  For Hegel (to some extent) and for Marx (more obviously) it was a left-wing impulse, and one that was often described in quasi-mystical terms.  Hegel saw social change as God’s dialectical way of making Reason manifest in the development of the world, and George Bernard Shaw later took social change as evidence of an elan vital, or “life force,” pushing humanity toward a glorious, socialist, religion-free destiny.  (That blend of Progressivism and mysticism spawned movements like theosophy and is echoed to this day in New Age and hippie rhetoric.)

So are today’s right-wing critics of Darwin correct?  Was Darwin part of a left-wing triad, a kindred spirit of Marx and Freud, pushing humanity forward toward an illusory self-knowledge and breaking the bonds of traditional morality in the process?  Well, not quite.  For it is increasingly clear that Darwin had some conservative implications — and conservative effects.

The chief exponent of Progress in the nineteenth century, political theorist Herbert Spencer, believed the idea of evolution applied to more than biology.  Spencer also believed in laissez-faire capitalism and “the right to ignore the state,” what would today be called libertarianism (all this was fairly mainstream thinking in the Victorian era — today’s political writers can only dream of achieving the popularity and acceptance that Spencer did with volumes such as Social Statics).

For proposing that biological change over time was analogous to cultural change over time, Spencer is now remembered as the quintessential Social Darwinist.  That label has been enough for some to paint Spencer as a defender of the rapacious and powerful against the weak and impoverished.  But while Spencer believed in capitalism, individualism, and the cultural superiority of the West — hardly a set of a views that would qualify him as a leftist today — he saw those principles as winners precisely because they tended to foster peace, prosperity, freedom, and voluntary interaction, not violence and oppression.  Contrary to the image the public has today of Social Darwinists as exterminators of the weak, Spencer predicted that societies relying on authoritarianism and force would tend to collapse and, as it were, be weeded out of the political genepool.

In a way, the collapse of Soviet Communism 130 years later was more accurately predicted by Spencer than by Hegel, though Hegel’s dialectical thinking got renewed attention when Communism imploded, while Spencer wallows in obscurity.  Conservatives, instead of gloating that Marx is dead and Darwin will be next, should be rushing to embrace Social Darwinism.  But if conservatives fail to see that the Darwinists are in some sense on their side, postmodernist lit-crit types are beginning to see the connection, and on some campuses, left-wing professors have in recent years been expressing doubts about the validity of evolution precisely because it strikes them as too convenient an ideological fit with the prevailing attitudes of the (hated) Victorian era.  If left-wing students begin protesting when assigned Darwin or Spencer, perhaps conservatives will finally, reflexively, give these thinkers a sympathetic re-reading.


Todd Seavey said...

Since I admit the above has little to do with real science and animal populations, here’s a thought about Groundhog Day:

Much as the DC Comics multiverse contains multiple teams of talking animals, Pennsylvania and New York have alternate (and today, disagreeing) weather-predicting groundhogs (Punxsutawney Phil and Staten Island Chuck, respectively), but Canada’s has in recent years been the source of greatest scandal, per its Wiki. entry:

> …Death and ensuing scandal


> The original Wiarton Willie lived to the advanced age of 22, and was found dead only two days before Groundhog Day in 1999. The organizers were unable to find a replacement, and instead marked Groundhog Day by revealing “Willie” in a coffin. He had been dressed in a tuxedo, had coins over his eyes, and a carrot between his paws. A scandal ensued when it transpired that the real Willie had in fact decomposed, and the body in the coffin was that of an older, stuffed groundhog. The Associated Press was obliged to issue a retraction on its wires.


> Wee Willie


> The new Wiarton Willie is also known as “Wee Willie,” and is another albino groundhog. There have actually been two Wee Willies — Wee Willie and Wee Willie 2 [the latter presumably hailing from Earth-2 -- TS]. The former was reported as deceased on July 11, 2006 after fighting an infection for the previous month.

Mitch Golden said...

It doesn’t aid the analysis if you insist on using contemporary categories to understand historical thought. The issue in the 19th century, as in the 1920s, as now, was not about the idea of natural selection as it applies to ideas of government or law, or even sociology. It was and is considered profoundly anti-religious (and, as a non-religious person, I tend to agree).

Nowadays the US Right contains a large component of fundamentalist Christians, and biblical literalists. That these people have migrated to the Right is a relatively recent phenomenon. Their philosophy has little if anything to do with the conservative Libertarian intellectuals you are quoting.

You must at least state the anti-evolutionists’ views correctly. They don’t have to believe that species are inherently immutable (as you said in an earlier post). They believe that the earth is 6000 years old. It takes a great deal of effort to ignore the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, but that is their position. Under such a circumstance, evolution is an impossibility.

But there is something that the contemporary Right overall has learned from its Christian component: an overall distrust of science, scientists, and intellectuals in general. This is one reason, for example, that surveys show that majorities of self-identified Republicans don’t believe that Global Warming is real.

In fact, I would say that the way you end your piece subtly underlines this trend: why should the Right care what some lit-crit professors are allegedly saying (you don’t actually cite any)? Is it really true that if the profs suddenly start disliking Darwin, folks on the Right would change their mind about evolution? It seems like an awfully superficial way to form opinions about a scientific theory, which, at least the way I was taught, was supposed to be supported with actual evidence, independent of who liked it and what it might imply by analogy about human affairs.

Todd Seavey said...

Right, the facts don’t hinge on ideologues’ reactions. Whether or not people are willing to apply facts’ implications far and wide — as evolutionary psychologists (sociobiologists) do — will depend partly on the facts’ political resonances, though, so I’m taking a look at them, very much in hopes that all parties will find they jibe with their intuitions, if their intuitions (not the facts) are only slightly jiggered. Wombat populations will still develop diabetes at the same rate regardless, of course.