Richard M. Weaver, Conservative Intellectual Icon and Darwin-Doubter - Evolution News & Views

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Richard M. Weaver, Conservative Intellectual Icon and Darwin-Doubter

What has conservatism come to? John Derbyshire, an inveterate Darwin booster and atheist, has an online diary entry up at National Review Online trying to explain to himself why, since life develops so readily and spontaneously from non-life, the universe nevertheless seems so strangely silent. SETI detects no hint of communication floating to us through the vacuum of space from elsewhere. Derbyshire tries to set things right between reality and himself through a series of ad hoc solutions -- the details of which don't matter. What's interesting is to observe that when conservative intellectuals talk about the Darwin problem, and that is rare, this is pretty much all you are likely to get.

It didn't use to be this way. The great institution-builders of the generation that's now almost entirely passed were frank Darwin-doubters or warmly supportive of such doubts. One thinks of William F. Buckley Jr., Irving Kristol, Richard John Neuhaus -- pretty much covering the spectrum of conservatism in its several flavors. The last of these, Father Neuhaus, provided one of the blurbs on the back of Phil Johnson's Darwin on Trial, no less. Other elders open to doubts about Darwin -- like Kristol's wife Gertrude Himmelfarb and essayist Joseph Epstein -- are thankfully and very much still with us but seem different in spirit from those of us who come after.

Given all this, it may come as a confirmation or as a shock, depending on your perspective, that the series of books that set down the foundation of modern conservatism are not only shot through with evolutionary heresy, but make a case for intelligent design and show clearly the central place of the evolution issue in the broader conservative vision. I'm referring to Richard Weaver's work, which I am going to make the subject of a series of six posts.

Though Weaver (1910-1963) would have had his hundredth birth on March 3, I wasn't aware of any centenary celebrations for him. His name, however, came up recently in a New York Times article covering an intramural spat among conservatives. A few conservative intellectuals have expressed public outrage at the way paranoid populists have lately taken over the leadership of what was once a highly philosophical and cerebral movement. This is the same movement that educated Ronald Reagan, so the continuing intellectual and spiritual health of conservatism is a question of urgent concern. The Times report noted rightly:

Ever since Richard M. Weaver wrote his bracing conservative manifesto in 1948, Ideas Have Consequences, the title phrase has been a guiding maxim for the movement. But conservatives like [David] Frum worry that the type of ideas Weaver was referring to are in short supply these days.
I don't know if it was the reporter or former Bush speechwriter David Frum who brought Weaver in, but the reference caught my attention. Ideas Have Consequences appeared three years before William Buckley's first book, God and Man at Yale, and seven years before the launch of National Review. Frank Meyer, a founding senior editor of NR, called the book "the fons et origo [source and origin] of the contemporary American conservative movement," a judgment echoed in George H. Nash's standard history, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. Iconic conservative publisher Henry Regnery identified it as one of three books providing "the intellectual basis for the modern conservative movement." (The others were Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind.)

The New York Times is right that Weaver's famous title phrase has provided a kind of mantra for philosophical conservatives. But what "ideas," exactly, are we talking about and what "consequences"? I will take up that question in my next post.


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