February 14, 2009

Darwinian Traditionalism

Regarding Richard’s insightful post on the fact that Darwinism is hardly friendly to Leftist ideology, I too am often disappointed that pundits on the pseudo-Right seek to undermine an insight that could strengthen their alleged worldview.  It’s no surprise that lurking below Intelligent Design there is an appeal to a form of universalism (and all its attendant condemnations), not unlike pro-life activists invoking civil-rights rhetoric and modern Christians championing universal human rights. 

In “Darwisnism and the Right,” John O. McGinnis makes a few interesting observations regarding the Darwinian picture of man:

1. Self-Interest and Politics. Like all other animals, our species has been shaped by millions of years of natural selection. Natural selection works through genetic inheritance and variation. Genes for many physical and behavioral traits are inheritable; such genes may also be variable within the population of animals of the same species. Because of recombination and mutation, animals within the same species differ in their genetic makeup. Some inherited traits will enable some individual animals to leave more offspring than others. Genes for such traits then increase in the population of the species.

2. Kin Selection. We have evolved an emotional life in which we have a tendency to take an abiding interest in the welfare of our kin, because they share a substantial proportion of our genes. Because children represent a parent’s genetic future, the parent – child bond has the potential to be particularly close. Thus, as conservatives have argued for centuries, the family is a natural unit of society, and family affections are not mere social constructs but are deeply rooted in our behavior and psyche. Policies that strengthen the family provide a reliable and lasting form of social insurance. 

3. Sexual Differences. A government that is careful to preserve rather than dissolve family ties is important for other biological reasons. Evolutionary biology predicts that men and women will have different degrees of attachment to their family. Because women are limited in the potential number of their offspring, they are naturally more child-centered in their affections. Men by contrast can have a huge number of children, and thus their relations with any particular child tend to be inherently less secure. Men do provide more care for their progeny than males in most other mammalian species because human infants face a lengthy period of helplessness and fare much better with substantial paternal investment of time and effort in their upbringing. Yet fathers are more likely than mothers to resent and avoid obligations that may deprive them of other mating opportunities. Men are innately more aggressive and obsessed with status than women for similar reasons: because of their low-cost role in sexual reproduction they have far more scope for converting resources and status into the creation of children.

6. Natural Inequality. Darwinism confirms the view that individuals have inherently unequal abilities and that these inequalities are likely to be greatest in the personality traits, such as intelligence and ambition, that are related to acquiring property. In On the Origin of Species Darwin himself formulated this law about natural variation: “A part developed in any extraordinary degree or manner, in comparison with the same part in allied species, tends to be highly variable.’’ When a species breaks into a part of the design space of the world previously unexploited, enormous selective pressure develops in the genes of that species to make ever more effective use of this virgin territory. For instance, the beaks of Darwin’s species of finches are highly variable since these finches were able to exploit a large variety of previously inaccessible seeds on the Galapagos Islands. Likewise, since human beings have brains whose cognitive aspects are developed to an extraordinary degree compared to those of other animals, one would expect the human brain’s inheritable capacity to be highly variable. This theory is confirmed by recent studies suggesting that measurable personality traits are to a large degree inherited rather than shaped by the environment—and that intelligence is the trait most conserved through generations.

Natural inequality has implications for both the ideological and the structural content of politics. On the level of political philosophy, it undermines the basic premise of liberal egalitarianism: that it is possible to equalize outcomes by eliminating inequality in social circumstances. The engine of inequality is buried so deep in human nature that it is impossible to eradicate. Indeed, as Richard Herrnstein showed, equalizing social circumstances will mean that the inequality in outcomes will become dictated in greater measure by genetic inheritance.

One might add that kin selection can be extended to demonstrate that people will generally favor those with whom they share more genetic information (i.e. those of the same ethnic group), water which Richard Dawkins fears to tread; and regarding evolutionary theory providing insight into the family and gender roles, Thomas Fleming’s Politics of Human Nature proves invaluable.

Update: Another interesting aspect of evolutionary thought is how it compliments the classical notion of the ancestral.  In a very general sense, both emphasize the importance of one’s forebearers and the significance of past lives regarding those of the present.  For example, as I have written elsewhere, classical natural law is not based in any abstract set of ideas but, although equated with the mind of God, is manifest in the mos maiorum, in one’s ancestral traditions, customs that have been passed on through blood and progeny.  These time-tested customs, which have assured one’s survival hitherto, act as survival signposts to assist in the continuity of an individual and those sharing his extended pool of ancestors.

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