Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Does Darwinian evolution support conservative values?

In a recent article, conservative USA blogger and writer Dinesh D'Souza suggests conservatives should recognize that Darwinian evolution "has a lot of evidence going for it [with] the added merit of being politically congenial" (Why Darwin Scares Conservatives, When He Shouldn't.)

In my previous blog article, I suggested that D'Souza's article is a positive step, in so far as it recognizes the validity of conventional evolutionary biology. In this followup, I propose that recognizing the validity of Darwinian evolution does not give the easy support to conservative values that D'Souza proposes.

Dinesh notes that Christian conservatives in the USA sometimes come across as yahoos, because of their rejection of Darwinian evolution. They do indeed! It's a startling comment on the failure of science education that so many people can't tell the difference between straightforward well established discoveries of science, and breathtakingly inane pseudoscience.

The major impediment to education is religious. Far too many people accept on faith certain religious beliefs that have long since been decisively refuted. For such folks, progress in basic science education requires them to revise those beliefs.

Does this require them to drop their religion altogether? Actually, no. That is one way forward, and many have taken it. There are also others who have reconciled their religious beliefs with the findings of conventional science. In the latter case, there will continue to be debate and dispute between believers and unbelievers; addressing the consistency and parsimony of their views; but it's no longer a dispute on the underlying empirical facts about how evolution proceeds.

I'm fine with that. I do debate religion, and will be posting here some positive arguments for unbelief. But I don't think this has the same urgency as basic science education. Many people find it much easier to revise their beliefs rather than to abandon their religion altogether and so Christians who accept science (like Ken Miller, for a prominent example) have an especially important role in the fight for science education.

Just quietly, I also think this is a slippery slope. It seems to me that Christians who switch away from a position of crude fundamentalism and historical inerrancy and into a more "liberal" faith are particularly prone to keep going and in time lose their faith altogether. It's not a universal rule; but once your beliefs start to move even a little bit, there seems to be some momentum involved. But I digress. I truly don't mind when Christians find a stable reconciliation, and am much more concerned to help people break free from pseudoscience than to persuade them away from religion altogether.

Dinesh proposes an interesting point of leverage. It's not merely religion that breeds rejection of science. This is especially true of politically conservative religion. But Dinesh suggests that political conservatives could, if they recognized the validity of evolutionary biology, employ that as a new basis for argument in support of conservative ideals.

If this worked, it would be a powerful tactic. Being "scientific" is impressive. A "yahoo" is less persuasive. So in this article, I'll look briefly at Dinesh's three chosen examples.

Tough Foreign policy

D'Souza considers that Darwinian evolution provides a justification for "tough foreign policy".

First, Darwin gives a dark and selfish view of human nature, which is why we need a tough foreign policy to deal with bad guys who cannot be talked out of their badness--even if U.N. cocktails are served.
This is, of course, a classic example of a superficial misunderstanding of evolutionary biology. This could be cited as a refutation of my previous blog entry, to say that D'Souza really is "redefining" evolution. I think it is better seen as a common limited understanding of evolution.

In fact, evolution can perfectly well select for altruistic and social behaviours, as well as for selfish ones. Humans are "naturally" social beings, and there's good reason to see that as a characteristic that has evolved under natural selection.

We co-operate, but we also act to "punish" those who don't co-operate with us. There has been quite a deal of research on this, and some fascinating papers. Humans are willing to make significant personal sacrifices for the sake of inflicting "punishment" on someone else who breaks norms of social co-operation; and we are also inclined to altruistic behaviours – up to a point. Both of these convey no immediate benefit to the individual; but they can indirectly contribute to the fitness of an individual within the social context of human society.

There are lots of papers on this. One example of many is "Costly punishment across human societies", by Henrich et. al., in Science 2006;312(5781):1767–70. Here's the abstract:


Recent behavioral experiments aimed at understanding the evolutionary foundations of human cooperation have suggested that a willingness to engage in costly punishment, even in one-shot situations, may be part of human psychology and a key element in understanding our sociality. However, because most experiments have been confined to students in industrialized societies, generalizations of these insights to the species have necessarily been tentative. Here, experimental results from 15 diverse populations show that (i) all populations demonstrate some willingness to administer costly punishment as unequal behavior increases, (ii) the magnitude of this punishment varies substantially across populations, and (iii) costly punishment positively covaries with altruistic behavior across populations. These findings are consistent with models of the gene-culture coevolution of human altruism and further sharpen what any theory of human cooperation needs to explain.
The appropriate way to use any theory of human behaviour as a guide to policy is certainly not to decide what is natural and then do that. We need to estimate the probable response of others to our various policy possibilities, and use that to estimate whether or not the policy is likely to have the effects we want.

That is, any model of human behaviour is a description, not a prescription. We have the capacity to reflect and decide actions, on whatever basis we choose. The role of a behaviour model is an aid to estimating the probable effects of actions, so that we can use that to help make a wise choice.

D'Souza suggests that people are bad, and cannot be talked out of bad behaviours; and so force is a better option. But in fact, evolution does not mean simply that people are bad.

I suggest that a genuine scientific investigation of human behaviour reveals a bad downside to "tough" foreign policy. If we take actions that others perceive as "unfair", then they are likely to make considerable personal sacrifices in order to punish us. But if our actions are perceived as fair, then we have a better hope of tapping into the natural human capacity for social co-operation. It's not a simple question; because there are also costs associated with actions that others might perceive as fair, and that needs to be weighed in the balance. But it's just not a valid inference of evolutionary theory to infer that "tough" policy is likely to be the most effective.


D'Souza says:
… the selfishness in human nature warrants a system called capitalism which channels this self-orientation toward the material betterment of society.
This is a massive begged question. It may be that Darwinism gives an explanation for human selfishness; but as noted above it is also consistent with altruistic behaviours. The fact is, evolution does not give a simple prediction for either selfishness or for altruism. It rather predicts that behaviour will tend to increase reproductive fitness; but what behaviour has that effect depends on the environment and interactions of the organism.

More seriously, what really needs to be argued here is that capitalism does actually channel self-orientation toward the material betterment of society, as claimed. That's what is really required for a support of the conservative position. Sorting out the causes of behaviour is not all that important; since we have the behaviours in any case, regardless of causes. Evolution does nothing to support the notion that capitalism is actually effective at channeling self-interest into material betterment of society. It's pretty clear that unrestrained unregulated capitalism has some major negative effects on society as individuals accumulate sufficient power to manipulate circumstance to their personal benefit.

Family values

D'Souza says:
Darwinian theory supplies the reason [that children are safest with their natural parents]: the real parent shares the same genes as the child and this forms a bond that dispels sexual attraction and discourages abuse. "Family values" are supported by modern evolutionary biology.
I agree that children tend to be safest in the care of their own parents; but that is a general tendency rather than a universal rule. Evolutionary theory means that there is variation in behaviour; and we see that in any case. Good parents have better evolutionary fitness; but some children nevertheless end up with the rare examples of abusive natural parents.

But more seriously, this has little to do with the wide ranging set of policies that come under the umbrella of "family values" for political conservatives.

For example, supporters "family values" typically oppose homosexual marriage. That has nothing to do with children. They oppose adoption of children by homosexuals. But the argument as given is actually against adoption altogether – except that adoption is invariably in a case where natural parents are simply not an available option. The advocate adoption as an alternative to abortion. If anything, the argument presented should suggest that adoption is NOT a good alternative; except of course that someone who insists on a right to life for the unborn will see adoption as better than death. But D'Souza's argument sheds no light there.

One feature of evolutionary theory is that there is always potential for far more children to be born than can possibly survive. So in "saving" one unborn child from abortion, one is in fact contributing to population pressure that will contribute to subsequent potential lives never being realized. This applies also on the small scale. A girl or young single woman who opts for abortion in response to an unwanted pregnancy is often likely to mature and form a stable relationship in the future where children are safer and wanted. That potential may be lost if the first pregnancy proceeds to birth. Of course, this is unpersuasive to those who only recognize potential in the context of an actual physical conception; but the Darwinian argument does not work for that position.

In brief; I'm glad to see a religious conservative speak up on the validity of conventional Darwinian evolution. I don't agree that this gives the easy support to conservative values as D'Souza understands them. But at least one level of irrationality has been (hopefully!) removed from consideration as we engage such issues.


  1. A friend of mine made an insightful comment, so I'm adding it here myself. Neil says:

    One of the things that has always seemed odd to me is that some anti-evolution conservatives use social Darwinism as a example of the ills of evolution, but then use virtually the same social Darwinist arguments in favor of unrestricted capitalism (without, of course using the words "social Darwinism" in the latter case).

    If the price of their accepting evolution is that they begin using evolution to openly advocate a new species of social Darwinism, and using science to justify the same, I fear the price may be too high.

    Change of scientific ideals worries more than comforts me when the rationale for that change seems to be the support of a pre-determined agenda. This way of thinking about science concerns me whether the thinker is D'Souza or Dawkins. One's agenda should change because one is convinced by the evidence, not the other way around.

  2. Folk from the religious right twisting and cherry-picking texts to reinforce their pre-conceived notions of morality? Get the hell out!