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New York Times Highlights Debate on Darwinism and Conservatism on Front Page

"If conservatives want to address root causes rather than just symptoms they need to join the debate over Darwinism, not scorn it or ignore it," said CSC's John West at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) debate earlier this week about whether Darwinism can be aligned with conservatism. He's exactly right, and conservatives are starting to agree--at least that the discussion needs to take place. Case and point, the AEI event itself. The New York Times took the event seriously enough to send Patricia Cohen to cover the event and pen this report on it, which appears on the front page of today's paper.

In light of the Times' past coverage of the debate over evolution, Cohen's article is not all that surprising. The Times genuflects to Saint Darwin on its science pages, but (sometimes) does a better job of addressing academic freedom and policy issues in the Darwin debate in its other sections.

Cohen's article highlights the debate among conservatives, and gives a pretty evenhanded report on the views of each side. On the one side you have John West, author of Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest, and tech icon George Gilder, author of the supply-side bible Wealth and Poverty. They clearly do not buy either Darwinism's scientific case, or the attempts to apply it to political philosophy.

Siding with Darwin and using his ideas to defend their political views were John Derbyshire of National Review and noted political scientist Larry Arnhart, author of Darwinian Conservatism.

Mr. Derbyshire, who has described himself as the "designated point man" against creationists and intelligent-design proponents at National Review, later said that many conservatives were disturbed by positions taken by the religious right.

"There are plenty of people glad to call themselves conservatives," he said, "who don't see any reason not to support stem cell research."

By all reports it was Arnhart who carried the weight for the Darwinists at the AEI discussion:
Mr. Arnhart, in his 2005 book, "Darwinian Conservatism," tackled the issue of conservatism's compatibility with evolutionary theory head on, saying Darwinists and conservatives share a similar view of human beings: they are imperfect; they have organized in male-dominated hierarchies; they have a natural instinct for accumulation and power; and their moral thought has evolved over time.
West laid out the case for why Darwinism neither supports nor explains conservatism, and also why the debate over Darwinism is culturally important.
"The current debate is not primarily about religious fundamentalism," Mr. West, the author of "Darwin's Conservatives: The Misguided Quest" (2006), said at Thursday's conference. "Nor is it simply an irrelevant rehashing of certain esoteric points of biology and philosophy. Darwinian reductionism has become culturally pervasive and inextricably intertwined with contemporary conflicts over traditional morality, personal responsibility, sex and family, and bioethics."
George Gilder, meanwhile, argued for the central importance of information to both biology and economics, and pointed out that Darwinism and other materialistic theories cannot adequately account for this information, because it transcends mere matter and energy. In reality, information requires intelligence--i.e., mind. Gilder has explained this view at length in National Review--no doubt to Derbyshire's chagrin.

Of course, it is in the area of economics that many seem to think Darwinism and conservatism are in complete alignment because they think "survival of the fittest" somehow justifies free enterprise.

West, like Gilder, disagrees:

Ironically, Darwin's theory in the nineteenth century was primarily used to attack capitalism as nothing but survival of the fittest, so it was leftists who were anti-conservative who really liked that analogy because they thought it could stigmatize capitalism. That's also one reason why most capitalists -- not all, but most in the nineteenth century and beyond -- didn't like the claim that Darwinism was analogous to capitalism. They thought it was too negative. Nineteenth century free marketeers and capitalists thought, just like George Gilder today, that capitalism benefits everyone. The Darwinian view really grew out of Thomas Malthus's idea that we need to be concerned about human overpopulation and that you should apply survival of the fittest in nature to human society. Nineteenth century capitalists thought that was way too negative because it suggests the only way one person can get ahead is by walking over another person's dead body. They pointed out that, in fact, free economic exchange benefits both sides. It benefits the poor as well as people who are not poor.

Fundamentally, Darwinism and free enterprise aren't a good fit because the things you see that make competition go are really intelligently designed. When someone designs a product, it is because they've worked on it, they've had an idea. It's not a random mutation; it's not a random variation. So the thing that makes competition work is all the intelligent designers who are making things they think will add to our wealth and add to our creativity and benefit human society. These products and innovations are not blind, random variations of the sort called for in Darwinism.

For more be sure to read West's book, Darwin's Conservatives.