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Larry Arnhart Tackles a Straw Man (Again) [Update]

"John West's book is a deep and comprehensive study of scientific materialism's morally corrupting effects on American public policy. Although some readers (like me) will not find his attack on Darwinian science persuasive, anyone who wants to think about the moral and political implications of modern science will have to ponder his arguments."-- Larry Arnhart, Professor of Political Science at Northern Illinois University and author of Darwinian Conservatism

Larry Arnhart is the most articulate defender of the idea that Darwinism supports conservatism, and I have enjoyed interacting with him over the past couple of years (we debated again tonight at Seattle Pacific University). Unfortunately, Arnhart has a habit of mischaracterizing my actual positions, and so he often ends up attacking a straw man. (He's done the same thing to historian Richard Weikart.) Arnhart is at it again, criticizing my book Darwin Day in America on his blog for a position it doesn't even uphold. This is the same book Arnhart earlier praised (see above). Since we disagree about Darwin's theory, I fully anticipated that Arnhart would criticize parts of my book. But I had hoped that he would critique something that was actually in the book, which would allow for a much more interesting discussion. Alas, that was not to be.

Arnhart's basic complaint (found here and here) is that Darwin Day "blame(s) Darwinian science for all of the bad thinking and bad policies attributed to scientific materialism." Indeed, according to Arnhart, my book makes "ridiculously contrived efforts at connecting all of this ["the deleterious effects of scientific materialism on American public policy"] to Darwin."

Except that it doesn't. My book isn't just about Darwin. It's about scientific reductionism in general. That's why in my book's introduction I clearly state:

While Darwin's theory is featured prominently in several chapters (and the book's title), the scope of this study is broader than just Darwin. The overall aim is to examine the impact of materialistic reductionism on public policy and culture, and Darwinism is only one part of that larger story. (emphasis added)

So of course not everything in the book is directly tied back to Darwin. As I explain in my book (chapter 1 especially) materialist reductionism goes back to the ancient Greeks and is a much larger problem than Darwinism. Darwinism, to be sure, is a critical part of the overall story, but it is far from the only kind of scientific materialism.

This fact makes most of Arnhart's specific criticisms of Darwin Day inapt. At one point, he contends that my book "concludes... Darwin must have been responsible for modern architecture," to which he responds that he doesn't "see that there is any kind of inevitable connection to Darwinian science." But my book doesn't claim that there is an "inevitable connection" between Darwinism and modern architecture. This is another straw man.

From reading some of Arnhart's other comments, I have come to the conclusion that he needs to re-read my book more carefully. For example, he faults a brief summary statement in chapter three where I state that Darwin struggled with the ideas of free will and personal responsibility. According to Arnhart, West "never even explains exactly why and how Darwin 'struggled' with 'free will and responsibility.'" Except that I do. In chapter two (see page 31).

As I said earlier, this isn't the first time Arnhart has misrepresented my positions in order to attack a straw man. He previously claimed that I reject "evolutionary science as totally false" and even that I "insist that Biblical morality is the only reliable source of moral norms." Wrong on both counts (see here).

It's nice of Arnhart to make it so easy for me to rebut his claims. But it would be far more intellectually stimulating to be able to engage him on something I actually wrote or said.

I'm beginning to wonder whether Arnhart attacks a straw man version of my arguments because he really has no serious critique to offer to them. Or perhaps his Darwinist friends have abused him for initially praising my book, and so he feels compelled to do penance.

Whatever the case, in Arnhart's last blog post on my book he unfortunately descends into the muck and tries to smear my book as part of a nefarious "secret plan" by Discovery Institute to defeat scientific materialism through a master "public relations strategy." (For the truth about this supposed "secret plan," see here.) Such garden-variety Darwinist rhetoric is beneath Arnhart. Fortunately, in our debate at Seattle Pacific University tonight, he was back to his usual model of civility and reasonableness, which is something I have always appreciated about him. At that debate, I think we both were able to present our respective positions clearly and without rancor. Unlike many Darwinists, Arnhart is to be commended for a genuine commitment to rational debate and discussion.