Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Darwinian Conservatism

I have to say I can’t believe that anyone is taking seriously Arnhart’s "Dariwnian conservatism" and "intelligent design" as the two fundamental conservative alternatives. (What are they thinking at AEI and the Philadelphia Society?) I also can’t figure out how any libertarian could be a Darwinian conservative. THE libertarian or at least classical liberal philosopher is John Locke. And didn’t Locke say something like the human being is the animal with the singular liberty to conquer nature? The human individual alone refuses to be species fodder, and so the human individual alone can wage war with great success against the nature indifferent or hostile to his particular existence, the nature out to kill him--that is, to kill ME. Can sociobiology really account for the individual’s insistent demand for personal significance? Can sociobiology really account for either the heights of human greatness or the depths of human misery? As Joe points out below, if nature really is as sociobiology describes it, why shouldn’t we knock ourselves out trying to create or invent something better for ME? The main reason Darwinian conservatism ain’t conservative is that it gives us in the biotechnological age little incentive to conserve the nature we have been given. The effectual truth of the perception of its truth is to heighten the frenzied activity to replace impersonal natural evolution with conscious and volition evolution, techno-evolution with ME in mind. Now I really do think evolution in some sense happened, but evolutionary theory has yet to even take seriously what is distinctive about members of our species alone.

Discussions - 78 Comments

You say it much better and more authoritatively than I could have. Arnhart's sober respect for the power for nature--his "conservatism"--seems more a matter of disposition than principle, especially given our evident power to manipulate the processes that he calls upon us to respect.

And people accuse me of being monomaniacal on certain topics. Human beings are amazing, but only evolution explains such things as our remarkable similarity to apes, our gender relationships, why we in-group and out-group, why sex and violence fascinate us so much...etc. The sad fact is, Peter, your constant return to this topic smacks of desperation. This whole "ghost in the machine" approach is old-fashion and enjoys no evidence whatsoever. On the other hand, brain injuries (e.g., savants) prove that our behaviors are shaped by the meat between our ears, not the spirit within (if it exists at all).

I'm sorry to be harsh...I do not seek to fight with good Christians...I appreciate your existence, and I want you to continue. But I doubt you will win this's better to find an accommodation with science on this one.

Locke is not nearly as libertarian as he appears in, say, Nozick's interpretation as I think becomes more clear in his writings on education and on the family. Nevertheless, there is an interesting paradox (if not contradiction) at the crux of his view of individuality. On the one hand, Locke's hedonistic psychology seems to presuppose a kind of materialistic anthropology---we are pleasure seeking/pain averse organisms. On the other hand, we seek to transcend our natural limitations through the conquest of nature. Our human predicament, as Locke sees it, produces an unabateble "unease". Much of the schizophrenia in Locke's account is seen in his conception of personhood, which by turns is nothing but Cartesian consciousness but also sometimes something approaching the moral soul.

"Can sociobiology really account for the individual’s insistent demand for personal significance?"

Yes. Have you ever read Dawkin's The Selfish Gene? It would explain this for you. We are selfish because our genes are selfish. That is, our genes program us to want to survive, because if we survive they survive.

"Can sociobiology really account for either the heights of human greatness or the depths of human misery?"

Yes. Modern psysiological psychology can explain our emotions very well. Do some research on it.

Lawler: You are right. I heard Arnhart in Philadelphia. Not persuasive.

PWS, sounds like prejudice rather than a reasoned conclusion. Got some reasons why it wasn't persausive?

With all due respect to Larry Arnhart, whom I know well, his own student Carson Holloway has the better of him in his book The Right Darwin? (the question mark is part of the title). And I find that all Darwinian explanations for the distinctively human things--i.e., our behavior, not our bodies--completely unpersuasive after reading David Stove's deadly effective and uproariously funny Darwinian Fairytales. Read Holloway and Stove and you'll be through worrying about this. And by the way, what is it about Darwinian explanations of human behavior that couldn't also be accounted for by the Lamarck/Lysenko school of evolution? It should be called "evolutionary" conservatism, since it appears to owe nothing in particular to Darwin.

Well, Matt, instead of forcing me to read some apologetic, how about giving me a single example from these books that allows us to dismiss Arnhart? I've been on lots of wild-goose chases in my life...I want some assurance that it's worth the trip.

Well, Dain, Arnhart makes a book-length argument--in fact, has made it twice. So does Holloway. So does Stove. Turnabout is fair play, of course, and I could ask you what Arnhart says about our politics and moral principles to make a persuasive case that these things arise as a consequence of random selection acting on genetic mutations. But I won't. And do I detect a sneer in your use of the word "apologetic"? Then it might interest you to know that the late David Stove, an Australian philosophy professor, was aggressively atheist (his only fault that I have discovered). But his book is relentlessly logical in exposing the flummery that is "evolutionary psychology" or "sociobiology." As I said, it's also funny. And who couldn't use a good laugh?

So, I'm taking it that you can't give me a single example? It's not much to ask.

As for Arnhart, anyone who has read his work knows that he doesn't try to prove evolution -- he tries to demonstrate how evolutionary theory and conservative political theory are compatible. An example? Radical egalitarianism is not possible for our species; our status drives promote competition regardless of venue.

So, I have shared. Your turn.

Of course, what Peter is REALLY saying is that we all need to read or re-read our Walker Percy to parse out what evolution can actually tell us about ourselves and what it can't. Start with Lost in the Cosmos. Then move to his non-fiction essays, especially those in The Message in the Bottle.

The Amazon summary of Stove's book does not sound promising. He argues that Darwin can't be right because human life is not a ruthless struggle to survive. If he had read any Dawkins he would know that neither the individual or the species is the "unit" of evolution: the gene is, and we share genes with other members of our race, so it makes sense that we have altruistic instincts.

Stove's other arguments sound nonsensical as well. He seems to think that vices -- alcohol, contraception, abortion, homosexuality -- disprove the Darwinian view of man. Actually, those vices are merely forces of natural selection. Those who engage in those behaviors are at a reproductive disadvantage and will, with enough time, be completely replaced by those who do not. Natural Selection 101.

Man, as he exists today, is not the apex of evolution.

So instead of Darwinian conservatism--a conservatism rooted in a realistic view of human nature--we should embrace Walker Percy's Heideggerian existentialism?

Shouldn't conservatives be skeptical of an existentialist individualism that places "ME" at the center of the universe, so that the whole purpose of the universe is to sustain the life of "ME"?

Shouldn't the morally repugnant history of Heidegger's existentialist nihilism raise serious questions about whether American conservatives want to follow that path?

The real problem here is a misunderstanding of evolution. We are susceptible to alcoholism, etc. because we didn't evolve in environments that had these things (e.g., booze, abundant fats, thousands of potential mates, etc.). In time evolution will adjust to this new environment -- evolution is always a game of catch-up. In the meantime we have lag.

It is very difficult to discuss these issues with Christians. From the get-go, they feel backed into a corner, and so reasoned discourse is nearly impossible. This is something I regret, having been a fundamentalist myself at one point in my life.

Link to a recap of the debate in the Weekly Standard.

This seems to be some sort of long-running argument I've never heard of before. Never being shy of sticking my oar in, put me down with the anti-Darwinists, and also with Derbyshire, who said ""Conservatism and Darwinism are orthogonal. Neither one implies the other."

While Peter L. can speak for himself, I confess that I don't find this response compelling. Arnhart's merely "anthropological" account of the origin of the natural desire for religious understanding is "satisfying" only to the extent that it is reductionist. If Arnhart in fact leaves open the question of reason or revelation, then his naturalistic explanation ultimately tells us nothing important about the character of our religious understanding.

Lawler's Heideggerian understanding of religion is that religion serves the existential concerns of "ME" as an anxious being "thrown" into the universe who seeks immortality. Like Hans Jonas, I see this as Gnostic nihilism. It's hard for me to see why conservatives should embrace an existential Gnostic nihilism.

Like Heidegger, Lawler scorns "biologism," as a denial of human alienation in the world. And, again, it is hard for me to see how conservatives can accept such Heideggerian Gnostic nihilism.

"Heideggerian gnostic nihilist" isn't the first phrase that comes to mind when I think of Peter Lawler. If that's what he in fact is, he's put on a pretty good act for the 21 years I've known him.

My suspicion is that Professor Arnhart is responding to Peter's effort to meet him on something vaguely resembling his ground, which is a classic move in apologetics. I wonder if the label isn't more an indication of how thoughtful Christian orthodoxy appears to someone of Professor Arnhart's persuasion, which then says something to me about the limits of the categories he's employing.

Well, unless we want to go back to St. Anselm's ontological argument (i.e., our ability to desire a god proves His existence), we have to root the longing for spiritualism in something. It isn't going to go away -- I do think it is hardwired. For me, at least, it follows from the helplessness of our infancy, and the "divinity" of our parents (i.e., existential security). God the Father is an archetype (thank you, Mr. Jung) rooted in categories that started at birth (hell, they may be encoded in the DNA...doesn't really matter). One thing is for sure, however. Nothing about this invalidates biological evolution or proves that we are qualitatively different from other animals. Thinking this is simply self-justifying human arrogance (and a heavy, heavy dose of wishful thinking). I for one think most of the higher mammals are pretty cool, and I have no desire to deny my kinship with them.

Greetings from Seattle, where I actually slept pretty well. All Christians are Gnostics; all Gnostics are nihilists; all nihilists are Heideggerians. Heidegger was a Nazi. I'm a Nazi. Thomas Aquinas was a Nazi. The anticommunist dissidents Solzhenitsyn and Havel were actually Nazi propagandists. Strauss--who thought Heidegger was far completely wrong and Darwin was not really a great thinker--was a Nazi. Well, now I hope the Gnostics and nihilists and other Nazis will be nicer to me. I could go on to observe that there are no chimp Nazis and no chimp dissidents and very few chimp nihilists and Gnostics, but I don't have time. I could also add that Walker Percy was not an existentialist; he just thought that a true science would have to incorporate the human experiences the existentialsts describe into a nonreductionist acount of human nature. He also said bad things about his fellow Nazis.

Nice participation and thought in this thread. I really do wish I could do more here. I will say something about it in ad lib way today at beautiful Seattle Pacific Univ at 7 pm--but be carefu if you come. It's full of evangelical Nazis.

Hmm...well, lots of Nazis represented on this thread. I guess according to the trolls (and a few NLT stalwarts) I'm in good company :)

Seriously, Peter, I don't know if that really is Larry Arnhart, but if it is I wonder why he would say such things. I've read some of his work...he's generally more thoughtful than that.

dain, That "thrown" stuff is vintage Arnhart. He's trying to be polemical etc., the thoughtful thing goes away when you try to mainstream yourself. Larry has even written a commentary that actually finds Ann Coulter's thought lacking in depth.
But I hope readers do notice how radical his criticism of all Christianity that hasn't reduced itself to impersonal natural theology is. That's reason 406 that his is not a viable conservative alternative.

While I would strongly disagree with Arnhart's depiction of either Peter or Percy as Heideggerain Existentialists, he does in fact describe both in the same terms on his website Darwinian Conservatism. Also, while I think he's using the classification in a remarkably imprecise manner, Arnhart seems only to mean that Peter dianoses the human condition as one distinctively characterized by an aliention or lost-ness in the world.

In his comment, Lawler says, "Walker Percy was not an existentialist." But in his book STUCK WITH VIRTUE, he speaks of "the great existentialists--from St. Augustine to Walker Percy and beyond" (p. 167).

The influence of Heidegger on Percy's conception of human beings as "aliens" in the universe is clear. On some occasions, he was quite open about it. See, for example, the interview at

The Gnostic character of Heideggerian existentialism is shown by Hans Jonas in the Epilogue to THE GNOSTIC RELIGION and in the 9th & 10th essays in THE PHENOMENON OF LIFE.

This thread has moved well beyond my last contribution (number 9 above), but I'll respond briefly to Dain by saying that in his last (number 10) he fails to supply the kind of example I said I would not demand of him. (How's that for circumlocutory?) Dain says: "Radical egalitarianism is not possible for our species; our status drives promote competition regardless of venue." Very well. Suppose that is true--it very likely is. But I wondered about a "persuasive case that [our politics and moral principles]arise as a consequence of random selection acting on genetic mutations." And this isn't remotely that case. At best Dain has a persuasive account about what human nature makes possible, makes likely, or rules out as impracticable. But this is not even the beginning of an argument that human nature (its behavioral, not its bodily nature) is what it is thanks to causes that can be explained by Darwinian evolutionary theory. And this is the burden of Stove's book, which is a work of debunking, not of theory-building. Give any explanation you like of why humans do what they do that is based on Darwinian categories. So far as I can tell, Stove has already debunked it.

If that is you, Larry, you aren't playing to your strength here. Instead of attacking "divine revelation" as a foundation of conservativism (which it undoubtedly is), you should argue forcefully for the compatibility of evolutionary logic and the "fallen" nature of man. Both point to the built-in anti-social appetites of human beings, and both suggest the resultant inescapability of such using human institutions. As both the Bible and sociobiology suggest, the best we can do is moderate (or socially control) the anti-social (or evil) in Man.

Heidegger is a Gnostic. Heidegger and St. Augustine in some loose sense agree that people are aliens or pilgrims, that they are to some extent alienated by being human. So St. Augustine was a Gnostic, all orthodox Christians are Gnostics, all orthodox Christians are Heideggerian existentialists. That makes it hard to explain, for one thing, why the evangelicals and orthodox Christians want to deny "canonical" status to the Gnostic gospel of Thomas. And why the neo-gnostic Christians think of themselves as opponents of all traditional Christianity. Today's New Agey Gnostics are, in fact, opposed to genuinely creationist spirituality and affirm the radically anti-alienation agenda. When Darwinians wax spiritual (and they sometimes just can't help it), they do so in a superstitiously Gnostic key. That leads us back to the issue: Can our conservatism be based on such a dogmatic denial of the truth of authentically Christian psychology?

Matt, given that you called natural selection "random selection" I doubt you really know what you're talking about. Nevertheless, I would be happy to read Stove's book if I could find one hint that he actually understands Darwinism. Would you mind giving me an example of one of his arguments? If you can offer even one decent example of Stove really understanding Darwin you will increase my estimation of Stove a hundredfold.

Incidentally, human nature is easily explained by Darwin once one accepts that there is no immaterial soul. Man is a brain, not a soul, and therefore we can tell a thorough and persuasive story about the evolution of the brain to account for human nature as it currently is.

Prof. Arnhart,

First, let me say that I agree with Peter that Percy was not, in fact, an existentialist in any normal sense of the word. He certainly drew from various existentialist writers -- we might say he appreciated their questions while providing different answers.

But this leads me to my second point, namely that Peter tends to use words in fairly idiosyncratic ways. Consider his use of "postmodernism" or even "Thomism" in his various works. The quotation you cite proves my point: the fact that Peter also called St. Augustine an existentialist tells you far more about how he is using the word in a particular context and what he is trying to evoke by it than anything else. Let me rephrase: Percy is not an existentialist, but maybe we can call him an existentialist properly understood? (Just as he is not simply a postmodernist, but a postmodernist rightly understood.)

Peter can defend himself. I just thought it would be helpful to call attention to the way he occasionally uses word. Again, the quote you cite beautifully makes my point -- if St. Augustine is also an existentialist, what is Peter trying to tell us by the use of that term? And, following your logic, if St. Augustine, then, is also a Heideggerian, does that term have any real meaning?

Why does NLT get so lost in the autobiography of philosophy...who was this, who was that. Who cares? As one of my philosophy professors said at the beginning of his class: "Modern philosophers are historians because science superseded philosophy some time ago." While I think philosophy still plays a role at the margins, science really is answering questions philosophers only debated. So, who cares about Heidegger?

Our morality really DOES follow from our evolution. Look at the institution of marriage, which can be summed up as "men invented marriage, women invented monogamy." Why would that be? Well, men want to feel assured that their children are their children. On the other hand, women have no doubts about that...but what they do want is a monopoly on male resources and male protection. So, we have serial monogamy, the best (or worst, perhaps) of both worlds. We also have monogamy but lots of male cheating, again a compromise (and most law codes have looked the other way on this).

Such examples are legion. Stop with the philosophical obfuscation.

I'd say Lawler has to get out of Seattle.

dain, some questions are left over! Now, you could say they are not "answerable" questions, but does that reply really settle the matter of whether philosophy has been superseded? Do you take the position that philosophy is what science hasn't got to yet, and/or where science is smart enough not to go?

Sure, talk all you want to about "unanswerable" questions...develop a social program based on guesses...slaughter people who disagree with you. It's all good.

Of course, no it isn't. Wherever possible we should use empirical science to decide what we should and shouldn't do. When that's not possible, we should use our best guesses based on what is likely the case (e.g., should we abandon Iraq as a lost cause? -- probably not, given the symbolic nature of the struggle and the proclivity of humans to punish perceived weakness).

As for philosophy, I would say it is suspect. People are not completely rational, and we have a tendency to accept what sounds or feels right (and to become downright dogmatic about it). We engage in magical thinking, we overestimate risk based on "unknown" factors, and we make up crap to explain what makes us uncomfortable. Knowing all this, good conservatives realize that all philosophies must be tested over time, and that we should learn from the survivals (gee, sounds a little like evolution, doesn't it?). That's the essence of conservativism...trusting the tried-and-true, and being skeptical of new-fangled approaches or "book-learned" philosophies.

Philosophy is thousands of years old, far older than the social science methods which dain holds dear. Surely it is the claim that it is best ignored that is the "new-fangled approach."

Please forgive the repetition of my too-lengthy statement. I'm technologically-challenged, at least from time to time.

I'd also add that if the social sciences really represent the conservative road to truth, then why are virtually all social scientists left-wingers?

Well, OS, most left-wingers disavow naturalism...actually allergic to it. You and they have that in common. "Nurture" is the big deal in most of "social science." And, by the way, most of what I've said so far is has far more in common with physical science than social science.

Paul, that's a long post, but long on wind rather than light. If Peter doesn't buy into the "ghost in the machine" notion, what does he believe in? Seems to me that you either believe that human behavior is a product of consciousness (which in turn is an emergent property of the brain), or you think we are simply meat puppets run by the inner spirit. Of course, I guess you could say that yes, consciousness is an emergent product of the brain, but God
made it so, but such a belief begs the question of why then all the fear and loathing about evolutionary psychology and sociobiology.

I think there's an enormous amount of evidence suggesting that our behavior and abilities are a direct product of the brain (rather than some incorporeal essence). Disease states of the brain clearly demonstrate the correspondency between "being human" and our physiology. If the "ghost in the machine" doesn't tell us much about behavior in the here and now, why shouldn't we simply ignore it and instead study what does seem to matter?

Dain, you mischaracterized Peter's views; you systematially mischaracterize his views; you regularly assert your naturalism; you bristle at people who claim that they have (philosophical) reasons for not going the whole 10 yards with you. You cast things in binary terms - consciousness and brain or meat - that I do not agree with; you indicate no awareness of the philosophical issues and discussions to which I allude. What's a fellow to do? What would Socrates say?

If I "bristle," (and I don't think I do), it's out of frustration. If I have "mischaracterized" his views (and you seem to know that I have, meaning that you know what he really believes), then what are his views. Don't make me read some winding essay...just out with it, please!

I might also add that, despite your best efforts to make me an "aggressor" here, I didn't start this thread, which "lashes out" at the attempt to meld conservativism and Darwinianism. You folks did that. So, what's a fella to do????

"I think - as does Peter - that materialistic and evolutionary accounts have a partial validity. We disagree with its total adequacy, its adequacy in principle...I also deny that a genetic account of life and its powers, especially but not solely human life, is equivalent to, adequate for, an eidetic or "what it is?" account. That by the by."

You are trying to find a middle ground, but I don't see how there can be any here. You disavow the ghost in the machine, but say that materialism is insufficient. What is neither ghost nor material? You seem to characterize Dain as being too black and white, but speaking in absolutes only makes sense here. Once again, there is either a ghost or there isn't. If there is then naturalism is wrong, and if there isn't then one must be a naturalist.

All claims to a human "soul" may not be grounded in religion, but they are all grounded in ignorance. Invoking ignorant philosophers does not help you. Aristotle may have been brilliant in his day, but no old writer is helpful when we confront modern issues. Newton, Einstein, even Darwin himself -- all are ignorant men, very ignorant, by today's standards. Using old writers to prove anything is silly in this day and age.

As for the Socratic stuff, it seems pointless to me. Everyone knows what science is. It's a way of gaining knowledge that employs strong skeptical premises and relies on empirical data. Reason is a word that refers to man's ability to use logic and think in the abstract. Plato could write a whole dialogue toying with those definitions, but that would be as pointless as his other works.


Our morality really DOES follow from our evolution. Look at the institution of marriage, which can be summed up as "men invented marriage, women invented monogamy." Why would that be? Well, men want to feel assured that their children are their children. On the other hand, women have no doubts about that...but what they do want is a monopoly on male resources and male protection. So, we have serial monogamy, the best (or worst, perhaps) of both worlds. We also have monogamy but lots of male cheating, again a compromise (and most law codes have looked the other way on this).

Our morality has precious little to do with evolution. That is hardly surprising, since our evolution took place over millions of years while our morality is essentially brand new.

Monogamy is a very recent social construct, and one localized to certain parts of the world. It is a cultural adaptation, not a manifestation of a genetic impulse.

I'm sorry, John...I disagree with you. Our morality is an emergent property to manage our drives within social groups. That morality, in a very direct way, reflects those drives. We have moral directives to be kind to strangers because we have a tendency to hate them. We have directives to give to the poor, because our inclination is to keep all we earn (cf. social insects). Think about all the rules that pertain to living in groups, or raising children, or dietary habits, or social relations based on rank -- they give you a very nice portrait of homo sapiens sapiens. All his tendencies have elaborate rules attached to make social life in very large groups possible.

As for monogamy being a recent invention, that's simple untrue. Monogamous unions always predominant, even in polygamous societies - simple demography dictates that. The birth ratio is about 50/50, and so nearly ever society is dominated by monogamous unions, regardless of cultural norms.

Boo (#43): organic form is neither materialism nor ghost-ism. Read chapter 1 of Leon Kass's book, The Hungry Soul; it's entitled "The Primacy of Form."

If you're not inclined to read that, or if you're intrigued after reading it, read Martin Heidegger's "Mathematics, Modern Science, and Metaphysics" in Basic Writings; it may alert you to certain puzzles contained in your claim that "everyone knows what science is."

And if you really want to know what genuinely philosophical people do when they think about modern science, please read any chapter from Richard Kennington's book, "On Modern Origins: Essays in Early Modern Philosophy".
Finally: in a little bit of Lawler-like shorthand, I take "Socrates" for one's relentless intellectual conscience, which is always probing one's own thoughts, presuppositions, and commitments. My basic point is that both people of religious faith and people committed to modern scientific tenets should stand scrutiny and be willing "to give an account" of their views. BTW: the Greek phrase, logon didonai - give an account - is found both in Plato's dialogues (e.g., the Apology) and in St. Peter's 1st Epistle; Western civ's roots enjoin such a disposition in their adherents.

Dain (comment #42): very witty ending, and true last paragraph. And you're right that I don't write good lengthy comments. I'll studiously avoid such in the future. On paragraph 1: Peter has an enormous (and growing) corpus; he is a stellar member of the President's Council on Bioethics (he isn't a Luddite!): pick up some of his books. Perhaps Postmodernism Rightly Understood (especially his chapter(s) on Kojeve and Walker Percy) would most directly address your issues and concerns about the human difference, or human "alienation" in Peter's vocabulary. The chapter on Percy will also talk about "pop Cartesianism" which is relevant to your concerns.

Good night to all.

And I just have to laugh. I was watching "Globe Trekker" on PBS. This episode is about Cambodia. The host of the show is eating in a Buddhist temple, sitting with the nuns. They politely wait for the elderly monks to begin, and ONLY then do they begin. Right there it is -- even in a religion which teaches how stupid human strivings really are, you get gender/rank distinctions.

I think Darwin would be quite pleased to see confirmation of our animal natures in such a place.

...and I still don't know what Peter really thinks. Sigh...

Thanks for a great thread, but I'm too tired tonight to figure out what I really think. I have to fly out of Seattle at 615 am. For the record, Paul is right that neither I nor Walker Percy are ghost in the machine guys. Percy, in fact, spends a lot of time criticizes the unrealistic abstractions that produce that view.

Christians are always such a nuisance, presuming God to exist, probably for their own nefarious purposes. Maybe worst of all is when they say something is "mysterious" and that there may be no exact observable answer - as when they insist on man having a soul, and yet have no precise definition for how spirit and flesh interact, beyond the use of that imprecise term.

I am sorry not to have time for this quarrel. Yet I'm sure something like it will come up again.

Yet I should surely come back to see what Peter Lawler really thinks. If he can sum it all up in a blog box, I won't have to read all of his books.

OK, got it, Peter is definitely not someone who subscribes to the idea that our essence is spiritual, and that our bodies are simply vessels to contain it (as Jesus apparently did). After he de-lags and fully recovers, we crass materialists out here sure would like a concise statement of what he does believe.

You know, I never thought this was gonna be like pulling teeth. You folks seem so anxious to slam sociobiology, I figured you had a paragraph-long bit of boilerplate lying about to finish us off.

You know, Kate, I am not hostile to Christianity...not at all. Given all the other "causes" and "social movements" ought there, I'd definitely prefer Christianity to any of them. As always, I am reacting to the initial hostility of this thread...hostility towards evolutionary science. I can see how science threatens Christianity, but so far I don't see Peter's strategy (whatever it is) as being very effective in eliminating the threat.

As for a concise statement, Peter can have four, five, even six blog-boxes if he wants 'em. Just so long as he's clear about what he thinks.

Did Jesus ever mention souls? My high school religion classes are far enough in the past that I don't remember, but I do recall hearing a talk here at Ashland a few years ago by a theologian who argued that Christ--who was, after all, very much a Jew--never even used the word. According to this theologian, the entire "soul" business was smuggled into Christianity by Paul, who was trying to win over gentile Greeks by borrowing the concept from Plato. Again, I don't know enough to assess the validity of the theory, but it's certainly interesting.

Luke 23:44-47 -- "And it was about the sixth hour, and there was a darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. And the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was rent in the midst. And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, He said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, He gave up the ghost. Now when the centurion saw what was done, he glorified God, saying, Certainly this was a righteous man."

Good enough? Of course, I think Luke was supposedly a Greek physician, so perhaps this is a Greek corruption. On the other hand, if we begin to second-guess the Gospels, on what is Christianity based?

I'm fairly sure the theologian (Nancey Murphy, from Fuller Theological Seminary) knew enough to have a rebuttal to something as obvious as that. Anyway, here's a link to her coauthored book.

dain, I cannot see how science threatens Christianity. If science is observation of the natural, and God created the natural, then science can be no threat. Of course, scientists can be a threat to belief by going beyond observation into conclusions with theories accepted as fact. Those "facts" can be used to beat Christians over their faithful heads until they resign themselves to whatever scientists currently have decided is true.

John Moser, according to my Concise Oxford's Dictionary, soul is a word of Germanic origin, while spirit is from the Latin. Jesus spoke Aramaic and would have used some other word altogether. Psyche is translated as "soul" and is the breath of life, which might not be the same thing, but is certainly connected to the spiritedness of life. I have read some Protestant theologians who define the soul as the intersection between the spirit and the body.

Kate, if I'm remembering correctly the conception of "spirit" that you're putting forward is essentially the Aristotelian understanding, which describes the soul (or whatever you wish to call it) as some sort of animating life force, but one that had no independent existence from the body. This is in contrast to Plato's idea of a fully independent entity that is temporarily imprisoned in flesh.

Anyway, it seems appropriate at this point to mention that I'm appearing in Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit, which is opening this weekend at the Mansfield Playhouse.

Yep, leave it to a theologian to twist something so "obvious." And all that stuff about joining him in Paradise...nah, doesn't really mean what the plain text says.

I have two related questions for the physicalists:

1) How do you account on physicalist grounds for reason? That is, how do you account for the capacity of reason to know causal relationships between two external objects (say "lions eat sloths")? Or do you deny this capacity?

2) How does you ground moral judgments on physicalist grounds? How can one ever derive a moral duty (an "ought") from a purely physical reality (an"is")?

Well, Nathan, even your dog does both of those things. We know animals make cause and effect judgments (animal training requires that capacity). Moreover, the next time you catch your dog in violation of some rule, see how he/she behaves. The animal knows it did wrong.

So, if such reasoning is open to animals, why does such ability in humans pose such a paradox? The purpose of brains is to help the organism navigate life, and if that life is intensely social, then you will have norms (and, in humans, values...shorthand for what should be desired). I don't think either ability depends on some invisible entity that interfaces heaven and earth (although I'm not saying that such an interface doesn't exist...I don't have any empirical evidence on that one way or another).

Dogs make cause and effect judgments? Pee on the floor and let your dog into the room and see how it reacts. The animal "knows" it did a wrong it didn't commit. That doesn't strike me as expressing a meaningful understanding of cause and effect.

First a point on logic. I think your response fails to distinguish between two kinds of causal inferences: Cause/effect (or stimulus/response) and ground/consequent. The first might explain dog knowledge, but it can’t account for non-dog knowledge. Consider two propositions (a) "Spot scratches himself because he has an itch,” and (b) “Spot must have fleas because he never scratches himself so much.” The first proposition reflects a cause and effect relationship: The itch causes the scratch. The second reflects a logical, ground and consequent relationship: The claim that spot must have fleas is not caused by the scratching, but is a rational inference derived from observing the scratching. Now cause/effect relationships do not always equal truth relationships. A pathological paranoid has cause to believe that everyone around him is a disguised extraterrestrial parasite sapping the life energy of Spot, but that cause doesn’t make the belief true. And so it seems the physicalist position itself is grounded in a kind of judgment that cannot be explained on physicalist grounds. If so, it’s a wonder why physicalists even bother making rational arguments at all.
Second, your response to my question on morality strikes me as wholly inadequate. Behavioral conditioning is surely effective to some extent, but it doesn’t tell us what should guide the conditioner.
So I guess I’m still waiting for satisfactory answers on these points.

Nathan, I'm not sure I follow you. Surely this is simply a matter of quantitative intelligence. In the Middle Ages, people died of the plague, which they attributed to a lot of (untrue) causes. Do dogs KNOW they have fleas? I suspect they do...Chimps for SURE know they have bugs, which is why the constantly groom one another (and darn, aren't those bugs tasty!). The seas are full of fish..yes, fish...who come to the reef to have their parasites eaten by specific symbiotic species. This is cause and effect...anything humans do is simply a version of this.

I'm sorry, I don't follow your second point at all.

The examples you are using reflect stimulus-response behaviors. You seem to be asserting as a scientific proposition that all human knowledge can be explained by this pattern of stimulus-response behavior. If you think on this a little you will see that such an assertion, if it is in any way true as a scientific proposition, cannot itself be the result of the stimulus-response behavior. The very proposition is self-contradictory.

The basic point is this: (1) scientific truth relies upon valid logical inference; (2) valid logical inference depends upon the validity of human reasoning; (3) the validity of human reasoning depends upon the capacity of the mind to see a logical (not merely stimulus/response causal) relationship between two variables (if a then b); (4) in other words, rational inference (the very stuff of which science is made) is wholly different from stimulus-response reasoning (“if I go to the reef I’ll get some yummy treats”). In other words, what causally determines a logical inference is not a physical stimulus but a rational insight into a relationship between two or more variables.

Finally you suggested that human moral judgments have the same ground as the moral judgments of dogs. The import of my response was that a dog’s judgment of “right” and “wrong” is largely a factor of stimulus-response conditioning. Right behavior gets rewarded and wrong behavior gets punishment. But if this is true, what guides the “human trainer”? We are back at the same problem as above. How can physicalism provide a ground for normative (rather than merely descriptive) moral principles?

Physicalists could resolve these problems (and the consistent ones do) by simply denying that scientific truth claims and moral judgments are possible, but how this could possibly be an adequate ground for conservatism is beyond me.

I'm sorry, Nathan, but you are simply speculating. How do you know that higher-order thinking isn't rooted in more basic patterns like stimulus-response? Perhaps humans are able to engage in higher-order thinking because we have more grey matter, not because of some qualitative difference between us and other animals.

Moreover, your ideas about norms are interesting. Are you suggesting that norms do not require social control? Norms are simply an attempt to get people to be their own policeman. They often fail in this role, requiring both formal and informal sanctions (stimulus-response).

In short, I reject your premises...they have not been demonstrated.


Our morality is an emergent property to manage our drives within social groups. That morality, in a very direct way, reflects those drives. We have moral directives to be kind to strangers because we have a tendency to hate them.

You are saying that we have moral directives which attempt to override out genetic programming? I believe this to be the case, yes.

Think about all the rules that pertain to living in groups, or raising children, or dietary habits, or social relations based on rank -- they give you a very nice portrait of homo sapiens sapiens. All his tendencies have elaborate rules attached to make social life in very large groups possible.

Sure enough. Although its worth nothing that those rules vary quite a bit in different societies. And those rules are not based on genetics. In fact they exist to counter genetics.

As for monogamy being a recent invention, that's simple untrue.

Actually, its not, and considering your commitment to Darwinian theory I'm surprised to see you say that. The other members of the ape family don't have the concept of monogamy, so ours cannot go back further than they do. In reality monogamy almost certainly arose about the time that people started living in permanent settlements, maybe twelve thousand years ago.

Monogamous unions always predominant, even in polygamous societies - simple demography dictates that. The birth ratio is about 50/50, and so nearly ever society is dominated by monogamous unions, regardless of cultural norms.

I don't follow you. The birth ratio is 50/50 what? Almost all societies adapted monogamy, for good societal reasons. Genetically speaking monogamy is absurd. It makes maximum genetic sense for "the best" males to mate with the maximum number of females, as happens in most other species.

Unlike all other animals I can think of, humans have the capacity to elevate other things ahead of their genetic impulses. That capacity is not itself genetic, by definition.

John, you are wrong about monogamy. Our populations are roughly 50% male and 50% female. Small hunting-and-gathering societies where the "alpha" has a monopoly on the females would create enormous resentments. The Kung! for instance employ serial monogamy (the best of both worlds, as I said). Being smarter, young male humans are probably better at alliance-building (and murder), and so small face-to-face societies aren't really conducive to polygamy. Just too much jealously and resentment. I've heard of some very limited polgamy among Australian aboriginal groups, but there too we find monogamy predominating. What is or is not optimal in evolutionary terms depends on the environment, and small social groups aren't particularly friendly to mate-hoarding.

Murdoch's data also shows that monogamy as a practice rather than a preference is normal in preliterate societies. Humans are not strictly gorillas or chimps. If you look at all the ground-dwelling primates, there is quite a range of variability in mating. No strict monogamy, but seasonality (orangutuans), limited polygamy (chimps), and orgy (bonobos). So, I don't think your logic holds...we can't infer actually human practices strictly from animal data.

As for emergent properties like morality being unconnected to our biology, nonsense. That's like saying that bait-fish and the the "balls" they form aren't biological. Animal populations routinely do things that would seem to extend past their individual genome.


monogamy as a practice rather than a preference is normal in preliterate societies.

I'm not sure what you mean by this distinction. Perhaps that it is practiced against their will? In any case polygamy was and still is a common practice in Africa.

Animal populations routinely do things that would seem to extend past their individual genome.

Can you suggest some examples of animal populations doing things which run counter to their genetic programming? For example - an animal population in which a significant percentage of individuals chose not to reproduce.

As for emergent properties like morality being unconnected to our biology, nonsense

In that case you will have problem pointing to other animal species which engage in consciously moral behavior. And no problem in demonstrating the connection between genetics and human behavior.

I'm not sure any animal routinely does things against its own biological drives, and that includes humans. about lemmings? And what exactly do you see humans doing that you think is anti-biological? Altruism to complete strangers is pretty rare, and obeying most of our moral codes has some pretty nice payoffs for the individual.

"Monogamy as a practice" means that demographic constraints don't allow much beyond one man/one women. Isn't that obvious enough?

Consciously moral behavior...hmm, how would we know one way or another? How would whales, for instance, know that we engage in such behavior (and vice-versa)? Dolphins have been known to save people...completely strange people. Why? Dogs often save people's lives...moral behavior, or just DNA coding? I don't know, John, and neither do you.

We need to ratchet down the human arrogance on this thread. We are not nearly so "moral" as we imagine, and our ignorance of the minds of other species renders our judgments of them questionable and presumptuous.

"Can you suggest some examples of animal populations doing things which run counter to their genetic programming? For example - an animal population in which a significant percentage of individuals chose not to reproduce."

You don't seem to have solid grasp of genetics, John. It is entirely possible for a being's genetic code to tell it not to reproduce. There is nothing illogical or even counterintuitive (to the erudite) about it. It has probably even happened, but natural selection prevents such cases from becoming dominant.

And Nathan, the three most important words to learn are "I don't know." We must accept our limitations and seek to overcome them with rational evidence, not by being frightened of them and making up stories to comfort ourselves.

Sorry I mised this thread. Room for much logos. I've been too busy. Hello, Kate! More later.

Well, I do have time to make two comments on this thread. First, back to Larry Arnhart's silly objection to Peter's on ME, the particular human being, the one with a name--it is true that all human good and all great human thoughts come from a person with a name, a ME, and not a nameless "individual" nor a species representative. Second, Paul Seaton is right, seconded by Peter Lawler himslef, that neither Lawler nor Percy postulate the idiotic "ghost in the machine," a notion made necessary only if you take Descartes seriously that the cogito can be separated from body and that body be replaced by mathematical physics (with body's pleasures and pains snuck in surreptitiously). As Harvey Mansfield says in his NEH Lecture, greeing with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the human beast is a composite of both body and soul. Or, as Tom Wolfe says in his NEH Lecture, and as Percy says in Lost in the Cosmos, the word or speech is inseparable from the human beast, which is why Wolfe says evolution ceased to be a factor 11,000 years ago, when the beast with speech first appeared, apparently.

"greeing with Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, the human beast is a composite of both body and soul"

What does "soul" mean? If it is something non-material then we still have a ghost problem. If it is something material then it becomes merely another word for mind/conscious or even life. It's easy to see why Aristotle and Aquinas would use such a term to mean "animating principle," but they were (however reasonable) very ignorant by today's standards. Aristotle's form / matter distinction is not a reasonable solution to this problem, for we now know that form is -- for all practical purposes -- the only thing that distinguishes one thing from another. Everything has the same substance, but the form of these atoms differs.

In short, I don't see how the outdated chemistry of Aristotle or Aquinas sheds any light on this issue. To say that humans have both a body and a soul -- that is a statement wide open to interpretation. Any attempt to define the soul as an animating principle ignores the question of whether this force is a mystical one (thus reintroducing the ghost) or merely a chemical (thus bringing us back to "soulless" materialism).

Basically, here's the question that any non-materialist who denies believing in a "ghost in a machine" must answer:

Can the human soul be put under a microscope and examined in a science lab?

If the answer is yes, then you are a materialist and must simply be using "soul" to mean some other human experience that we already have another word for, like "emotion" or "love."

If the answer is no, then you have a ghost, and denying it just makes you look silly. To claim the existence of something that cannot be witnessed is inherently to make a nonscientific, spiritual claim. What looks like a duck, walks like a duck, sounds like a duck...

I agree with Boo -- all I have seen on this thread is the begging of questions. Supposedly the "spirit" isn't material, but then it's not quite "spiritual" either. Oh, such nonsense. Either you believe there is something incorporeal that survives death or you don't.

As a kid I attended this revival (I think Seventh Day Adventist -- some kind of heretical nonsense), where they claimed that people simply DIE. That's it. But God remembers that person on Judgment Day and that person is RECREATED, but in a new "spiritual" body. So, I guess you could claim something like that, but then the counterclaim would be that, for all intents and purposes, being human is being physical...there is no spiritual dimension (yet).

Is there more to man than meat? Are we fundamentally different from the animals? I don't know, and since there isn't likely to be any empirical information to enlighten me, I'm not going to know....ever. At least not in this life.

My recommendation to Peter and his "side," as well as to Dawkins and his "side," is to stop pretending you have a monopoly on the truth. No one does...a bit of intellectual humility would go a long way here, for both sides.

See Comment 72: Rob is right, and here's my homework for you all: Read Mansfield's and Wolfe's Jefferson lectures together, and then bring in Walker Percy's from the late 80s.

Dear Professor Lawler, 2 questions.

1) Where do I find these materials, and

2) will there be extra-credit for reading them?

(Great?) Dain and Boo (Radley?):
I believe you’ve both missed my point. Let me try one more time. Logical inference, which is the basis of all scientific reasoning, must be grounded in something more than physical causation. What CAUSES one to know, for example, the air velocity of an African swallow? EITHER the equation v=s/t shows a REAL relationship between two variables which CAUSE one to know this velocity, OR such a calculation is merely an epiphenomenal illusion caused by a chain of chemical firings ending in the brain. IT CAN’T BE BOTH. EITHER the ground of the judgment and the law upon which it rests is a real insight into a real “law” or pattern, or it is one idiosyncratic cause within the order of nature itself. Now you MAY be right that all of what we call science fits within the order of physical causation, BUT if you are correct then science does not exist and it is pointless to argue about it, because an argument implies the ability to see LOGICAL (and not mere physical) causal relationships. But if you want science to be a real thing you must concede there is at least ONE thing outside the order of physical causality. A much more cogent articulation of this argument can be found in the third chapter of C.S. Lewis’s book Miracles. He quotes there a professor Huldane to the following: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true…and hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” As Lewis puts it, “The relation between response and stimulus is utterly different from that between knowledge and truth known.” This leads of course directly to this “ghost in the machine” problem. IF science does exist, then we are challenged to explain HOW it exists, HOW something outside the order of physical causality CAN exist. This is indeed a PROBLEM (especially if you are committed to physicalism), but it is not a problem the physicalist doctrine (and physicalism is indeed a theory that must be proved rather than assumed) can even begin to answer on its own terms. The physicalist answer to the problem is a Pyrrhic victory, for in its explanation it has undermined all explanation.

Nathan, this will be my last post on this thread. All (or nearly all) animals operate on cause-effect observation on a daily basis. This is why you don't feed stray dogs. Our ability to stylize cause-effect relationships (positivist science) is simply a function of better brains. There isn't necessarily anything metaphysical about it.

Following my analysis, thousands of people all over the world get the mortgage loans from good creditors. So, there's a good possibility to receive a car loan in every country.

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