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Survival of the moralist

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Can Darwinian evolution provide a better basis for human rights than the Bible? Many conservatives now are arguing for an evolutionary understanding of politics, an argument that Carson Holloway examines in his book "The Right Darwin: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy."

Mr. Holloway, who teaches political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, is a research fellow in the James Madison Program at Princeton University and contends that religion is the best basis for morality. The following are excerpts from a phone interview with Mr. Holloway:

Question: Why are conservatism and Darwinism traditionally at odds?

Answer: I think the traditional view of conservatives is that Darwinism, at least in the popular perspective, appeared to undermine the credibility of religious belief. The typical conservative religious view is that religion is essential to the maintenance of a decent and free society.

So, traditional conservatives tended to be suspicious of Darwinism. The claim has been made by some Darwinists that Darwin makes it possible for us to understand all of the apparent order of nature without reference to an intelligent cause, such as God, as it is traditionally understood. ... [In religion] you have to have reference to a creator to explain order. Darwinism says on the surface that we can explain creation without any religious cause.

Q: Your book details a shift in thinking regarding the relationship of Darwinism and conservatism. What is it?

A: Over the last 20 years or so, there's been a movement in political science, among political theorists, to advance the argument that Darwinian evolution, properly understood, can support the morality that is needed for a decent and free society. Now that argument, I think, has been picked up by some conservative thinkers and you've seen some articles over the last few years in National Review, for example, that say what we learn in Darwinian evolution tends to confirm conservative and moral prescriptions. And, to the extent that they advance that argument, there is at least an implication that, if that's true, science can explain moral principals.

Q: How can it do that?

A: The general approach is that evolution gave rise to human nature, [which] consists of certain moral passions that are shared universally by all human beings. For example, mothers care for their children. Every mother cares for her children.

Throughout this evolutionary process ... certain moral passions are inherently stronger and outlast through natural selection. In their view, morality is not a product of arbitrary choice. It's kind of wired into our human nature. All of this is caused, they say, because human nature evolved ... through interaction with other human beings. There would've been a lot of evolutionary pressure in them to develop a lot of human characteristics, such as taking care of your kin.

That's kind of the argument. There's a basis in our feelings for moral life, and these feelings are part of our biological nature.

Q: If they are saying that morality is absolute and a part of human nature, how do they explain moral disagreements?

A: There's a variety of ways in which they try to explain that. One would be to point out that at the extremes there's people who don't have the normal moral feelings. There are accidents of nature. Sometimes it may be the case that people are born without the normal moral feelings, or they are stunted through bad environment.

But how about ... among "normal" people? A lot of it would have to do, I think, with the fact that they have the same moral passions, but they have different interests and different objects for those moral passions. Because they have different biological interests, they have similar passions but often disagree.

Q: Why can't Darwinism and conservatism complement each other?

A: I think there is a certain complementary nature. I think that Darwinism does reveal some interesting and useful things that conservatism would do well to take into account. But the argument is that Darwinism is not itself an adequate basis for ... any moral theory at all. Because the weakness of it, I would say, is its effort to derive moral and political principles simply from the naturally involved human passions.

The reason I think that doesn't work is because, even by their own admission, there's a great diversity of human natural passions, some of which are not that moral but are more or less part of our nature.

They want their moral theory to be totally naturalistic. They will only admit principals that can be drawn from the passions, but the passions alone aren't simply moral. They point in a lot of directions. So if you're only going to take the passions as your guide you are only going to get confusion. You need some principle that transcends our human nature.

Q: Is religion necessary to make democracy work?

A: In the book, I try to explain [Alexis de] Tocqueville's view of this, which is that, yes, religion is necessary.

There's a couple of key things to Tocqueville. He thinks that democracy is the wave of the future for the whole world. He says that Americans derive a great benefit from religion ... because it teaches that every human being has certain moral obligations to every human being, and no matter how much your interests may conflict with someone else's, you still have to respect their basic rights. I would add on that score, I think he's just further developing an understanding that we present among many of America's Founding Fathers.