In one of the more infamous (and, in all likelihood, forgotten) moments of the Republican primary campaign, three of the eight candidates in a May debate in 2007 raised their hands to assert that they did not believe in evolution. Critics derided the question as poorly formulated and defined, but the moment was widely pounced upon as vindication of the know-nothingism of the GOP, a belief further compounded by a Gallup poll finding that 68 percent of Republicans did not believe in evolution. For conservatives who aim for an intellectual high ground, this was not a promising scene.
Yet it was not always this way. After all, the public debate over the landmark “Scopes Monkey Trial” in 1925 pitted the furious rhetoric of creationist William Jennings Bryan (a populist Democrat, a la John Edwards) against evolution’s defender H.L. Mencken (a democracy-mocking member of the Old Right). In the modern day, some conservative defenders of evolution have become more bold — they argue that not only is evolution compatible with conservatism, but the principles of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species underlie many of the basic assumptions governing conservative thought.
This position has been asserted most vocally by Larry Anhart, who wrote a book entitled Darwinian Conservatism in 2005. “Conservatives need Charles Darwin,” he boldly asserts in the introduction. Citing the works of such luminaries as Hayek, Burke, and Russell Kirk, he backs his thesis that conservatives need Darwin “because a Darwinian science of human nature support conservatives in their realist view of human imperfectibility and their commitment to ordered liberty as rooted in nature, custom, and prudence.”
The similarities between Darwin’s biological thought and conservatism’s political thought are uncanny. Changes in the system arise slowly, and through an unregulated process of trial and error. Creatures and humans adapt to fit niches. Tried and true methods — be they genetic adaptations or institutions — are generally to be trusted until they no longer fit the environment — at which point they slow erode, rather than being systematically removed from the top-down. Just as conservatism defies utopianism and any sort of teleological End, so biological evolution denies any sort of End to which man evolves. For biologists, evolution is simply a means of survival– not a bad way to describe a conservative’s defense of the state.
Here, it is important to distinguish between Arnhart’s conception of Darwin’s thought and the widely, if unfairly, loathed “Social Darwinism” of Herbert Spencer. Where Spencer emphasizes the “survival of the fittest” aspect as it applies to individuals, Arnhart and other Darwinian conservatives emphasize “spontaneous order,” a Hayekian terms that could aptly be used to describe the niching process amongst species. Arnhart points out that is not just humans, but human institutions and creations, that are subject to evolutionary processes. In contrast, “intelligent design” sounds less like an insidious euphemism for backwards pseudoscience, and more like a catch phrase for President-elect Obama’s plan for new regulation of the financial markets.
Arnhart cites and responds to five objections in his work, but these readily boil down to two fundamental concerns. The first is the religious critique, holding that Darwin is merely the St. Paul for atheists and that one cannot adhere to his word and His word at the same time. However, none but the strictest readings of Genesis rule out evolution entirely. Accepting that the “days” of Creation are not to be read as 24 hour periods, there is no reason that evolution and religion cannot exist together. God created the fish and birds, indeed — but the Bible fails to specify the means. Is there any reason that God would not have chosen evolution as his method, rather than a Sunday school finger-pointing festival?
The other concern is that of consequences: now that ‘spontaneous order’ and ‘survival of the fittest’ reign supreme, what is to prevent us from implementing eugenics? From eschewing our traditional principles for crass materialism? Yet in such fears, these critics ignore the second part of Darwinian conservatism. Conservatism, after all, is a bit of a misnomer, as conservatives oppose ideologies — “isms” — of all stripes. Rather, conservative thought represents a temperament, a temperament that stands for prudence against radicalism, for bottom-up development against top-down diktats. Such a temperament cannot allow for eugenic policies, as they must be opposed on the sole basis of the destabilizing effect they will have on society.
Granted, the ideas of a conservatism based in evolutionary thought still lurks as an academic issue on the conservative fringe. Yet even those conservatives concerned with the day-to-day affairs of opposing the new Obama order would be wise to reconsider their antimony towards Darwin and his thoughts. Ironically, to save the religious roots of American society that conservatives have bravely defended, they must embrace an approach to governance and society that draws many of its formulations from Darwin’s theories.