John G. West Political Scientist and Cultural Critic

The Questions Larry Arnhart Won’t — Or Can’t — Answer

Published at First Things

Fresh from our debate at Seattle Pacific University last month, Larry Arnhart resumed his on-again-off-again attack on Darwin Day in Americaa book he alternately praises and condemns. Arnhart originally misrepresented (here and here) Darwin Day by alleging that I tried to tie every example of scientific reductionism in my book back to Darwin. As I pointed out in a previous blog, Arnhart’s claim is untrue, and I showed how he had misread or misrepresented the particular examples he had cited. Rather than correct his erroneous claim, however, Arnhart now asserts that I engaged in “bait and switch” when I pointed out in my book that Darwinism is “only one part of [the] larger story” of “materialistic reductionism” even while also arguing that “the work of Charles Darwin ultimately supplied the empirical basis for a robust materialism finally to take hold.” But if there is any “bait and switch” going on it is by Arnhart, not me.

Of course I believe that Darwinism was a powerful spur to scientific reductionism in the area of public policy and culture. The evidence for that proposition as an historical matter is overwhelming. That still doesn’t mean that I think Darwinism was the only inspiration for the application of scientific materialism to culture, or that I attribute in my book every example of scientific materialism to Darwin. For the reasons outlined in my book, I believe that Darwinism has been a key inspiration for scientific materialism, but also that scientific materialism goes well beyond Darwin. These aren’t mutually exclusive claims, and it seems to me that Arnhart has staked out a preposterous position in trying to make them so. As I said before, he continues to attack a straw man.

As for why I think Darwinism is a key part of the story of cultural scientific materialism, I have explained the case in detail in Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest, as well as in chapter two of Darwin Day in America, which supplies a close reading of Darwin’s Descent of Man. It is telling that Arnhart for the most part has avoided responding to the specific arguments I have made about Darwin himself, as well as the serious questions I and other scholars have raised about Arnhart’s case for “Darwinian conservatism.” Yet these questions aren’t going to go away, no matter how much Larry tries to ignore them. The questions include the following:

  1. If Darwinism provides the standard for determining what is moral or immoral (as Arnhart claims), how can we condemn any activity that persists over time among even a subpopulation of human beings or animals? Almost by definition, any such behavior must have been preserved by natural selection because it somehow promoted survival. According to Darwinism, all such behaviors must be equally “natural,” and therefore all such behaviors must be sanctioned by the Darwinian process. According to Darwinism, the maternal instinct is natural, but so is infanticide. Monogamy is natural, but so are polygamy and rape. Darwinism thus becomes an equal-opportunity justifier. Of course, if one believes there is a standard of morality that exists independent of the Darwinian process, then one can still judge these various behaviors as good or bad—but a standard independent from Darwinism is precisely what Arnhart seeks to deny.
  2. If Darwinism is so friendly toward Biblical theism (as Arnhart insists), why do the vast majority of leading Darwinists identify themselves as atheists or agnostics? Are they all stupid? Arnhart’s main response to this question seems to be the repetition of the mantra that all biologists aren’t Richard Dawkins. Well, maybe they aren’t, but according to a 1998 survey nearly 95% of biologists in the National Academy of Sciences identify themselves as atheists or agnostics—far higher than any other scientific discipline. And according to a 2003 survey of leading scientists in the field of evolution, 87 percent denied outright the existence of God, 88 percent disbelieved in the existence of life after death, and 90 percent rejected the idea that evolution is directed toward an “ultimate purpose.” Again, why? Arnhart’s argument here is not just with me, it’s with the leading proponents of Darwinian evolution themselves.
  3. If Darwinism is so friendly toward limited government (as Arnhart also claims), why did most of the leading Darwinian biologists in the first several decades of the twentieth century champion state-sanctioned eugenics, the effort to breed a better race applying Darwinian principles? Moreover, why did these evolutionary biologists insist that eugenics was a logical corollary to Darwin’s theory? Were they all stupid as well? Why and in what way? Again, Arnhart’s argument here isn’t just with me, it’s with the leading twentieth-century Darwinian biologists like Charles Davenport, who insisted that “eugenics is a branch of biology—social biology—and its study has been cultivated chiefly by the biologists.” Davenport should have known; he is generally regarded as the leading spokesman for the American eugenics movement. Trained at Harvard and a former zoology professor at the University of Chicago, Davenport was also a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the first director of the prestigious biological research lab at Cold Spring Harbor, Long Island.
  4. If Darwin himself only supported what Arnhart describes as “good eugenics” such as preventing incestuous marriages, how does Arnhart explain the remarkable passage in Darwin’s Descent of Man where Darwin warns of the dangers to the human race of helping the poor, caring for the mentally ill, saving the sick, and even inoculating people against smallpox? In Darwin’s own words, “no one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man… excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.” Darwin does goes on to indicate that we can’t follow the dictates of “hard reason” in such cases without undermining our “sympathy… the noblest part of our nature.” But such misgivings represent a lame objection at best. As I wrote in Darwin’s Conservatives: “If Darwin believed that society’s efforts to help the impoverished and sickly ‘must be highly injurious to the race of man’ (note the word ‘must’), then the price of preserving compassion in his view appeared to be the destruction of the human race. Framed in that manner, how many people could be expected to reject the teachings of ‘hard reason’ and sacrifice the human race?” Darwin clearly supplied a logical rationale for eugenics in The Descent of Man, even if his personal scruples made him somewhat ambivalent about pressing his concerns to a logical conclusion.

In one way or another, I have posed each of the above four questions to Arnhart at our encounters this year at the Philadelphia Society, at the American Enterprise Institute, and most recently at our debate at Seattle Pacific University. Arnhart’s response? Mostly silence or efforts to change the subject. In fact, his failure to even try to answer most of these questions was so noticeable at our Seattle Pacific debate, that many audience members were left scratching their heads about whether he had any response at all to offer. Perhaps he doesn’t. And, as I have said before, that may be the most telling point of all.

John G. West

Senior Fellow, Managing Director, and Vice President of Discovery Institute
Dr. John G. West is Vice President of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute and Managing Director of the Institute’s Center for Science and Culture. Formerly the Chair of the Department of Political Science and Geography at Seattle Pacific University, West is an award-winning author and documentary filmmaker who has written or edited 12 books, including Darwin Day in America: How Our Politics and Culture Have Been Dehumanized in the Name of Science, The Magician’s Twin: C. S. Lewis on Science, Scientism, and Society, and Walt Disney and Live Action: The Disney Studio’s Live-Action Features of the 1950s and 60s. His documentary films include Fire-Maker, Revolutionary, The War on Humans, and (most recently) Human Zoos. West holds a PhD in Government from Claremont Graduate University, and he has been interviewed by media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, Reuters, Time magazine, The New York Times, USA Today, and The Washington Post.
Discovery Institute