So last night our own Peter Lawler debated leading Darwinian Conservative Larry Arnhart here at RIT over the explanatory power of Darwinian evolution to capture to the totality of human experience in general and American political experience in particular. There was an impressive turnout of students who seemed genuinely taken by the two stellar performances. Both agreed something like evolution as Darwin described it is an empirical fact, that dolphins are pretty smart, cute, and lucky not to taste as good or be as stupid or ugly as tuna. Both also agreed that human beings are in some sense special or unique parts of creation or nature but had deep and fecund disagreements over the character or ground of that privileged status.  I’ve had some time to reflect on the debate in between naps and offer a few loosely connected observations here:


  1. My students had a hard time understanding that, while Peter likes to say our nation breaks into Darwin deniers and Darwin affirmers, the debate really wasn’t over the fact of Darwinian evolution per se. Peter (like Lincoln and the Pope, among others) concedes that something like Darwin’s understanding of evolution is rightfully accepted as empirically likely, if not simply settled. As Larry pointed out, Peter is no Creationist though one might argue the suspicions Creationists have about the dogmatic claims of Darwinists to explain the whole of human life comprehensively are more empirical than those claims of Darwinists. The real issue is whether or not the fact of evolution itself generates the categories sufficient to exhaustively account for the full panoply of human behavior. Scientists are in general agreement over the fact of evolution but not so much the moral comprehensiveness of Darwinian theory AND one might also point out this is not in itself a specifically scientific question. The inferences Larry and his followers draw from the science of evolution go far beyond what science on its own can confirm, are often remarkably speculative and abstract, and often simply contradict the experience we have of ourselves and of others. One fundamental and Aristotelian point Peter was making is that it is the job of theory to “save the phenomena”—philosophy is an extraordinary enterprise but rightfully begins with and takes it bearings by our ordinary experience and intuitions. Larry’s privileging of science over religion is often really a privileging of theory over experience.

  2. Some of the debate revolved around the extent to which American principles could be properly understood as Christian. Larry’s tendency is to consider the deistic founders as microcosmic of the whole—they weren’t so Christian, they made us by intentional design, so we must not be all that Christian at the level of political foundations. Peter offered his now famous view that the Declaration is a compromise between hyper-modern Lockeanism and Calvinism which produces something like an “accidental Thomism”. What further complicates Peter’s view, and he often points out something like this with respect to Jefferson, is that Locke’s anti-Christian project is still deeply parasitic itself on Christian categories, specifically Christian individual freedom. My own tendency is to think that the unstated premise of Strauss’ famous critique of Locke in Natural Right and History is that behind the excessively abstract individualism that reduces human life to the “joyless quest for joy” is a radical and inexorable unfolding of the Christian interpretation of freedom in contradistinction to the absorption of the individual into nature. Strauss’ criticism of Locke is comparable to one he makes of Nietzsche: despite his hostility towards Christianity, he never completely liberates himself from its undergirding premises. Moreover, there is something about Christianity itself that prepares for its own appropriation and subsequent perversion—Strauss’ arguments versus modernity are essentially arguments also proffered against Christianity as well. So America is a complicated amalgam of Christian and modern principle which is to say between overtly Christian and ambiguously Christian sentiments. One might say the goodness of America is a function of the fact that it tempers its anti-Christian Lockeanism with genuinely Christian principles in a way that actually further elucidates the Christian view of freedom. Strauss had lots of criticisms of America but also clearly appreciated it as a force for good, especially in comparison to Communist totalitarianism, which Strauss saw as an irredeemable perversion of Christianity. Strauss is still basically anti-Christian but maybe appreciates the goodness of American Christianity more than either Darwin or Larrry.

  3. Darwinism, as both Peter and Larry point out, is a helpful correction to History insofar it opposes the stability of nature to willful Historical creativity. Of course, Darwinian nature is subject to evolution but of the painfully slow variety that provides powerful evidence against a radical transformation of nature or ourselves by ourselves. However, Darwinian evolution only inspires a respect for nature until we discover, as Locke did, that we can expedite and even commandeer the process of evolution, and intentionally direct it by human labor for our own aggrandizement and comfort. Locke is a kind of secular creationist: instead of the creation of the world by the supernatural freedom of God we get the re-creation of the world by the supernatural freedom of man. So there is a line that runs from Darwinian evolution through Locke’s techno-rebellion to the discovery of History as its own ontological category. One big point of Darwinian natural pantheism is to resolve the tension between nature and freedom by making freedom somehow perfectly natural; however, it ends up intensifying that dichotomy by failing to adequately account for human freedom on exclusively natural grounds. Darwinian natural history seems to give way to human History.

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