History, Evolution, and The Darwin Debate

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From the archives: ‘Toward a postdarwinian liberalism’

October 25th, 2010 · No Comments

In discussing the essay by Chris Hedges at Truthdig the phrase ‘toward a postdarwinian liberalism’ came up: this was actually an essay/webpage from several years ago, still on the server at the history & evolution site:

It would seem that the kneejerk embrace of Darwinism by liberals will backfire itself in the end, because, whatever the flaws in intelligent design theory, the movement promoting it based its starting point on some legitimate criticisms of evolutionary theory that won’t go away. Anyone who finds problems with Darwin’s theory must be mindful of the misleading way in which conservatives have coopted challenges to Darwin, and the way they are testing the waters with intelligent design, with the quite obvious result that liberals will close ranks around the flawed version of Darwinism that has been so dominant for so long that noone can challenge it except powerful conservatives. Is this any way to do science?

The real truth is that Darwinism was always a crypto-conservative ideology. What is needed is a genuine post-Darwinian liberalism as a broad social philosophy that is not forced into the kind of narrow reductionist scientism that can’t support either a true progressive politics or a sound cultural worldview. Is it really the position of liberals that the universe is without purpose, that man has no soul, that survival of the fittest is the key to social evolution, that the mind-brain problem has been solved by computer geeks, that Darwin was the man who founded the science of evolution, noone else need apply? Loudmouths at talk.origins and the NCSE are not the arbiters of evolutionary theory. Come on, guys. Wake up, and do the homework Philip Johnson did in Darwin on Trial, to realize in some glee that Darwinism was a billboard ad, there for the taking. Intelligent may not be science, but Darwinism is also a pseudo-science. This projected marriage of Darwinism and liberalism will hurt social progressives in the end, because the time of reckoning for Darwinism has arrived, whatever conservatives do to try and exploit this moment.

In fact the politics of evolution goes back a long way, way before Darwin. And that shows the conservative cast of Darwinism, notwithstanding the seeming embrace of Darwin by the rising left of the late nineteenth century. Figures such as Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin show the early progressive character of evolutionary thought. As with Adam Smith, and Thomas Paine, their moment was brief, although Adam Smith survived quite well once house-trained by conservatives. The conservative reaction to the French Revolution then made the idea of evolution suspect for a whole generation, until Darwin, by giving it a sort of Whiggish cast, consolidated the triumph of the idea, but in a fashion that rendered the notion forever ambiguous, in its association with natural selection as a theory. Adrian Desmond’s Darwin biography goes over this unclear history of the Social Darwinism of Darwin. The association of the theory with the whole gamut of class, inequality, and imperialism is so obvious it is a miracle it gets such a free ride.

It is ironic that the left was consistently confused by Darwin’s theory. We have forgotten that Marx’s early reactions to Darwin’s theory were negative, a suspicion of the connection between the theory and classical liberalism. And yet the later left, due to the influence of Engels, was unable to properly expose this ideological connection. We have seen the leftist challenge to sociobiology, but this has never been able to close the case with a challenge to Darwin’s theory of natural selection. /Marx and Darwin

But as S. J. Gould in his The Structure of Evolutionary Theory notes, the connection is direct, “I would advance the even stronger claim that the theory of natural selection is, in essence, Adam Smith ’s economics transferred to nature”. The point should be obvious from the connection with Herbert Spencer, who is often blamed for the Social Darwinism latent in Darwin’s theory. Spencer and Darwin both produced an evolutionary logic that made the confusion of biological and cultural evolution endemic. Critique of Evolutionary Economy

It should be the job of liberals (what does the word mean!!), in the twentieth century post-New Deal sense, to expose the ideological character of Darwinian theory and not get confused by this fancy footwork over intelligent design, with the cynical exploitation of this. Even a cursory glance at the politics of the American electorate shows the way conservatives must appeal simultaneously to religious conservatives and market fundamentalists, the neo-liberals. This double play is clever, and apparently beyond the understanding of those on the left still stuck on the confusion so evident in Engels, but not present in Marx who saw the whole game at a glance.

And a critique of Darwinism is overdue by liberals. What do they think the conservatives are up to? Religious reform via intelligent design? Globalization and market ideology are greatly benefited by a theory such as Darwin’s with its spurious claims that survival of the fittest drives evolution. So what is their interest in intelligent design? Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? gives the obvious answer. They have to do a double play on the aggregate electorate consisting of conservative classical liberals and religious traditionalists. Apparently this juggling act is beyond the current left that is unable to dissociate itself from the built in conservative ideology of basic Darwinism.

Time for liberals to stop being brain dead about Darwin


Tags: Evolution · liberalism

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