Evolution and Conservatism

Stentor’s post about the Ashley controversy inadvertently provides an interesting counterpoint to Bora‘s arguments about evolution and politics. Stentor analyzes the situation as,

This case provides the most clear-cut example of one of the basic differences between conservative and radical worldviews. Both see problems arising from a mismatch between a person and their environment. The conservative says “the environment is normative, or at least impossible to change. Therefore the person has the duty to adapt themselves to its demands.” The radical says “the person is normative, or at least impossible to change. Therefore the environment must be changed to create a spot that the person fits comfortably into.”

First, a digression: this perversely works as a fairly good distinction between conservatives and right-wing radicals. Right-wing radicals believe in the supremacy of the person as created by a deity (or in a Randian übermensch). Conservatives tend to instead think in terms of environments like the status quo, current social structures, or the capitalist invisible hand – or even the natural world, in certain cases.

More to the point, Darwinian evolution is here depicted as decidedly conservative. Lamarckism held that the individual specimen could improve itself and transmit its improvements to its progeny. Darwinism held that no such thing was possible, and the group could only improve when its weakest members died without leaving children.

Although Darwin and Wallace were both inspired by Malthus, the scientific establishment they convinced wasn’t. Instead, it was naturally biased toward the progressive views of continuous improvement that underlay Lamarckism. The acceptance of Darwinism was entirely scientific. However, some of the language used to describe it, namely “survival of the fittest,” was decidedly ideologically conservative.

Bora’s claim that evolution is inherently progressive is only part of the story then. The discovery of the basic mechanism of evolution was the earliest major blow to the positivist dream. Not coincidentally, serious intellectuals at the time accepted evolution even when they were conservative, and were likely to disbelieve in it if they were into the budding radicalism that was Marxism.

Obviously, this isn’t the whole story. Simple generalizations about the political consequences of scientific theories are about as insightful as the lunacy that Einstein’s relativity created moral relativism. There is some truth to Bora’s contention that,

The idea that the order of a system depends not on who is controlling it but on the rules of interactions between all the millions of players of the game comes straight out of Darwin’s theory. The need for a Controller was abolished by Darwin. He eliminated a need for a hierarchy.

The trick is to realize that this invisible hand shown by Darwin is no different from this posited by many secular conservatives, who think in terms of environmental constraints and invisible forces and want to preserve the status quo.

As an entirely different digression, “the environment” here rarely means the natural environment. A few conservatives are attached to certain environmentalist ideas, but most aren’t. Radicals are usually no better, but deep ecologists more than make up for the anti-environmentalism of their radical feminist or Marxist or fundamentalist kin.

5 Responses to Evolution and Conservatism

  1. I would disagree with Bora’s contention that Darwinian evolution eliminated the need for a hierarchy. I think Dennett, et al. put it better when they say that evolution replaces a top-down, teleological hierarchy with a bottom-up, autocatalytic hierarchy. This may seem like semantics, but it isn’t. It is not that there is no control over the system, it simply means that natural processes, not a conscious entity, is what is in control.

    And there certainly is the possibility that natural processes can evolve top-down hierarchies if such is necessary. Some theorists posit an evolutionary reason for why top-down conceptions are so natural and intuitive to us, even if they are (like dualism, flat-earthism, etc.) almost certainly wrong.

  2. Axel says:

    Such discussions and argumentations are as American as apple pie…

    Bora’s claim that it was Darwin or his theory of evolution who “eliminated a need for a hierarchy” seems exaggerated to me. Individualistic theories of society — the society and its institutions as results of intented and mostly unintented actions of men in sharp contrast to “organic” or holistic social theories — arised decades before Darwin. Such ideas can be found in the work of philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, especially David Hume, Adam Ferguson and naturally Adam Smith. Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” was particularly inspired by David Hume’s investigations into political economy.

  3. Alon Levy says:

    Tyler, actually Coturnix’s argument is that evolution is normally a progressive idea, but the gene-centric view of Dawkins and Dennett is a relapse to conservatism.

    And Axel, exactly: political individualism predates Darwin by decades. What Darwin did do was show that similar mechanisms underlay not just economics but also biology.

  4. Tyler, actually Coturnix’s argument is that evolution is normally a progressive idea, but the gene-centric view of Dawkins and Dennett is a relapse to conservatism.

    I didn’t intend to invoke gene-selectionism though, Stuart Kaufmann and other self-organization theorists would also probably agree in general with my general description.

    I think in general Bora goes too far to shoe-horn ideas into the progressive mindset (or at least it’s highly contingent Anglo-American version). How one views evolution is one of those things heavily influenced by ones politics. William Jennings Bryan was certainly no conservative, the link between conservatism and anti-evolutionism is weak in Western Europe, and Lysenkoists in Soviet Russia found Lamarckism appealing.

  5. From above:

    I didn’t intend to invoke gene-selectionism though, Stuart Kaufmann and other self-organization theorists would also probably agree with my general description.

    Fixed, I simply can’t leave egregious redundancies unchecked, even on a blog.

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