A review of The Right Darwin?: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy. By Carson Holloway.

Spence Publishing, 2006. (Available from Connor Court Publishing in Melbourne – connorcourt.com.au)

In this book Holloway tackles several related questions: Can secular Darwinism account for human morality? Can political and social conservatives embrace Darwinism in general, and socio-biology or evolutionary psychology in particular? How successful is the attempt to argue conservative principles through Darwinian theory?

As such it features an intriguing blend of various disciplines and themes: philosophy, political theory, evolution, morality, sociology and public policy.

The background to the book is this: Recently a number of more-or-less conservative social thinkers have tried to argue that Darwinism is not necessarily inimical to conservatism. Because Darwinism is usually seen as totally non-religious, or even anti-religious, and conservatives often tend to be mostly religious, the two have seemed to be irreconcilable.

But some of these new thinkers argue that conservative morality can in fact be deduced from, or explained in terms of, our biology, and not from some transcendent source. And the key conservative themes such as family, private property and limited government are compatible with our understanding of evolutionary determinism.

Thus Holloway here presents the main thinkers seeking to make these arguments: names well known to most conservatives, such as James Q. Wilson and Francis Fukuyama, and names not as well known: Larry Arnhart, and Roger Masters.

The bulk of this book consists of a careful analysis of, and interaction with, these thinkers. Holloway concedes that on most issues a conservative – and Darwinian – case can be made to some extent. For example, the argument of Hobbes and Locke that morality and sociability are basically artificial, social constructs is countered by the new Darwinists who contend that our ability to act socially and morally is basic to who we are. Indeed, it is built into us by nature.

Thus nature itself is the source of our gender differences, of the importance of family, of our preference for private property, and other conservative goods. Holloway is happy to see a natural footing to these goods, as opposed to the idea that these are merely human constructs. But is nature a sufficient explanation and justification of these goods? Can Darwin succeed without any cosmic teleology, such as transcendent religion?

Holloway thinks not. In the end, an appeal to our evolved nature, to our natural desires and propensities, is not sufficient as a basis of morality. Why prefer good desires over bad ones? How do we account for psychopaths? Indeed, how do we account for Mother Teresa under a purely Darwinian framework?

Not only can Darwinism not explain a Mother Teresa, it cannot explain our admiration of her either, argues Holloway. Something more is needed than mere nature to account for the difference of man and the difference he makes.

Although Holloway appreciates some of the insights gained from sociobiology, and believes that those he interacts with have made a good start to their case, in the end he feels the overall argument cannot succeed. Darwinism is incapable of fully explaining either morality or human nature.

Without some objective, transcendent source of morality, mere human desires are not enough to make man moral nor explain his uniqueness. And some of these new Darwinians acknowledge this. For example, Fukuyama argues a strong case against the biotech revolution in his Our Postmodern Future. However, in order to argue against the runaway biotechnologies, he has to resort to religion to buttress his case. But in doing this he undermines his Darwinian understanding which he advanced in his earlier book, The Great Disruption.

Fukuyama wants desperately to argue for the uniqueness of mankind and the need to resist the abolition of man by the new technologies, but his Darwinian framework just does not allow him to successfully do so. Says Holloway, while both Fukuyama and John Paul II championed man and his uniqueness, only the latter had the proper basis on which to argue for the preservation of human nature.

So morality without some transcendent source is simply not up to the task. As to what that transcendent source of morality is Holloway does not explore. But he is satisfied in arguing that a Darwinian morality and social order cannot succeed, and more is needed than mere nature or biology.

Although a potentially complex and difficult subject, Holloway has done a good job of making clear his arguments, as well as those of his opponents. As such this is an important book dealing with a host of important issues. Undoubtedly the discussion raised here will continue, but we owe the author thanks for helpfully introducing us to the debate.

[748 words]

4 Replies to “A review of The Right Darwin?: Evolution, Religion and the Future of Democracy. By Carson Holloway.”

  1. Hi Bill

    I’m studying Psychology at Uni. I’m in my second year and it can be quite difficult, especially in aspects of indigenous/cultural psychology and also in Freudian psychology. We are always told about evolutionary concepts and how Darwin influenced cultural understandings. Would you recommend this book for me to read, and also what else can you recommend that would help me to negotiate psychology from a Christian perspective?

    Also, in cultural psychology we were told about social constructionism and how someone is not ill (pathology) unless they believe they are ill. What is your opinion on social constructionism in general?

    Andrew Dinham, Hope Valley SA

  2. Thanks Andrew

    You raise a lot of issues – perhaps too much for me to properly answer in this comment! Yes this book is not a bad volume, although it is not primarily about psychology. And I am no authoraty on that issue, but some titles I have found helpful include:

    Blazer, Dan, Freud vs God. IVP, 1998.
    Farber, Seth, Unholy Madness. IVP, 1999.
    Johnson, Eric and Stanton Jones, eds., Psychology and Christianity: Four Views. IVP, 2000.
    Kirkpatrick, William Kirk, The Emperor’s New Clothes. Crossway Books, 1985.
    Kirkpatrick, William Kirk, Psychological Seduction. Nelson, 1983.
    Vitz, Paul, Psychology as Religion. Eerdmans, 1977, 1994.
    Vitz, Paul and Susan Feich, eds., The Self: Beyond the Postmodern Crisis. Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006.

    I will seek to address some of your other issues in direct corrspondence with you.
    Thanks again
    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. Have you read David Tillman’s book Resource Competition and Community Structure? The way modern ecology shows species will co-operate – even help each other – in order to survive in unfavourable environments has always made me rather sceptical of arguments against evolution that suggest it cannot produce altruism.

    Knowledge of how species behave in extremely nutrient-poor environments like the kwongan of southwestern WA, the fynbos of the Cape region of South Africa and coral reefs throughout the tropics make me believe ecology actually has evidence for altruism. Ecologists studying these ecosystems believe that in fact only the extraordinarily nutrient-rich nature of European, Asian and North American environments creates a belief competition is inherent in evolution.

    Julien Peter Benney

  4. Even if JPB’s claims were true, they would not be examples of genuine altruism, but only giving for the sake of getting something in return. We have long been aware of evolutionary arguments like kin selection, but they fail to explain altruism towards those not genetically related.
    Jonathan Sarfati, Brisbane

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