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Evolution is Far Freer than Classical Liberalism

Response Essays
July 14, 2010

I am intensely distrustful of attempts to marshal the dead to support a particular political philosophy, and I am even more suspicious of efforts to use science to justify a political view. It suggests a deficiency of living contemporary critical thought, not exactly a hallmark of a vital movement, and of the sciences, evolutionary biology has to explain diversity as well as adaptedness, and so is a poor discipline to use to promote a single view.

Larry Arnhart begins by telling us that libertarians need Charles Darwin, and that is because Darwinian science supports classical liberalism. The first is unsurprising and the second too vague to be meaningful.

Everyone needs Charles Darwin. His ideas are the foundation of modern biology, so that’s about as great a truism as saying that everyone needs Isaac Newton. Most political movements at least aspire to be congruent with reality, and denying the biological realities revealed in the light of evolutionary theory (or denying the physical realities revealed by Newton) would constitute a very poor framework for rational policymaking. Throwing out a major chunk of modern science is a strategy to put one in the political ghetto of crackpots like David Icke, Lyndon LaRouche, or Sarah Palin — which, at least in the last case, is not an insurmountable barrier to some kind of political success, but it’s got to be a blow against one’s self-respect.

But to suggest that the science of evolution supports a specific view of the narrowly human domain of politics is meaningless. Evolutionary theory supports the existence of ants and eagles, lichens and redwood trees, and finding an evolutionary basis for any human activity is trivial.

The Revolutionary Communist Party has claimed evolution for its own. They’ve even published a very good book explaining the basics of the theory, The Science of Evolution and the Myth of Creationism, by Ardea Skybreak. I find their arguments that the science of biology supports a communist worldview just as convincing as Arnhart’s that it supports classical liberalism…which means not very.

It has become a well-funded industry within certain branches of Christianity to push the compatibility of evolutionary biology with their religion, which beggars my imagination, at least. I can concede that Arnhart is on stronger footing than BioLogos or the Templeton Foundation; at least he isn’t postulating anything directly contrary to Darwinian ideas, such as the existence of intent shaping the history of life, but he comes close when he suggests that concern for virtue has some kind of scientific justification.

The Green Party could make an even better argument for compatibility with Darwinian thought. At least there, there is some acknowledgment of organisms other than humans, our dependency on interactions with the environment, and the importance of species and habitat diversity. If there is one arresting image to emerge from Darwin’s work, it is the metaphor of the tangled bank, where diverse forms struggle for survival in a complex environment. Any rationale that focuses on the habits of a single species, and addresses only a narrow range of interests in a single culture in a small slice of time, cannot lay claim to Darwin’s mantle.

Among the flaws of Arnhart’s argument, as well as those of other ideologies, is that there is little comparison of which side has the relatively best fit to the scientific observations — instead, there is a roster of points of correspondence of one favored theory to the science, followed by the conclusion that therefore science supports the theory. At best, this is grounds for claiming compatibility, but given the multitudes of different ideas that flourish in the tangled bank of human politics, I am unconvinced that classical liberalism has any kind of privileged place.

Now where I do agree is the description of Darwin the man. Charles Darwin was an upper middle-class businessman, cautious and prosperous in his investments, involved in the welfare of his community. He was also, for his time, a social liberal who promoted great causes, like abolitionism. He was the perfect figure of a classical liberal.

However, that says nothing about his science! Peter Kropotkin was an anarchist, Theodosius Dobzhansky was devoutly Eastern Orthodox, Richard Lewontin was a Marxist, Francis Crick was an atheist — these are factors in their personal journeys through science, but they are not the lens through which we should look at their actual work…and if their work only makes sense as libertarian science or Marxist science, then there is a deep flaw in it. We are always looking for the answers that transcend the circumstances of personality and politics, and are suspicious of those dependent on prior bias.

Most tellingly, though, if Darwin was a good classical liberal, and if his theory was so compatible with classical liberalism, why was he made so uneasy by his own ideas? He sat on it for two decades, uncomfortable with its implications for society and worried about its effect on those close to him. This was not the action of a man who felt that his theory was entirely consonant with his philosophy. In part this was because he felt that weakening the belief in a creator god would “dissolve the moral bonds of human society,” but again, atheism is not a necessary prerequisite of classical liberalism, since there have been and are theistic libertarians, and it does not distinguish other political philosophies from classical liberalism.

Evolution gives us only very general rules for our species. Adapt to the environment, or die. Change is inevitable. No matter what our species does, it will eventually change or die. It’s not necessarily the most uplifting of messages, but there are encouraging lessons within it. Diversity is unavoidable, providing many different avenues our species could follow, and also, that our happiness does not have to descend from our biological limitations; we often work against our predispositions, because the elements of our inheritance that may have worked for a savannah ape must often be expanded upon and redirected to make a modern urban ape thrive. Evolution does not incline us to classical liberalism; it is just one of many options that evolution allows.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Darwinian Liberalism by Larry Arnhart

    In this month’s lead essay, political scientist Larry Arnhart observes that there are indeed some universal values shared among all human societies, and that these appear to spring from a common evolutionary heritage. Such values, he argues, are the basis of a classical liberal politics that, while recognizing and even affirming individual differences, still offers us a common set of especially human values. Today’s evolutionary psychology, he argues, points the way to a new take on classical liberalism.

Response Essays

  • Much Work Left to Be Done in Connecting Politics and Evolution by Lionel Tiger

    Lionel Tiger criticizes Arnhart’s account of evolutionary politics for its incompleteness on several fronts. First, if we are really going to describe politics in terms of evolutionary psychology, we need to engage with a long conversation already underway, on just this subject, going back to the early twentieth century and even before. Second, what about the gap between the rational economic actors of classical theory – and the distinctly irrational results of the business cycle? Third, what can the move from evolutionary psychology to politics learn from the parallel developments in our understanding of religion? And fourth, what about gender, which is a constant source of research material for biologists, but a relatively rare topic in libertarian thought?

  • Reflections on Arnhart’s Darwinian Liberalism by Herbert Gintis

    Herbert Gintis agrees that evolutionary biology is an important influence that shapes human societies, but he rejects the idea that it leads to classical liberalism. At best, the evidence for the claim has not been adequately presented. And further, substantial evidence exists supporting the opposite – far from implying a classical liberal civil society, human biology has been shaped, and has arguably conformed on a genetic level, to communal governance. Gintis argues that we should take cognizance of our evolutionary history, then, and perhaps enact more rather than less communal regulation of moral norms.

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