Darwin Knows Best: Can Evolution Support the Classical Liberal Vision of the Family?

Dr. Logan Paul Gage, PhD

In recent years some conservative political theorists have argued that naturalistic evolution can provide a solid theoretical foundation for conservative claims about man and society. Consideration of naturalistic evolution, they argue, reveals that the view of human nature advocated in the classical liberal tradition (from which modern conservatives descend) is well grounded in human biology. Conservatives need not, they claim, ground social conservatism in the tired conception of a telos-infused nature but need only appeal to plain biological facts understood from a Darwinian point of view. As they see it, socially conservative positions on the family can be maintained, and in fact best supported, by showing that they are grounded in a Darwinian conception of human biological nature alone; no need for religious or teleological conceptions of nature and human nature.

In my chapter in Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism, I respond to two such Darwinian Conservatives, Larry Arnhart and the late James Q. Wilson. Both have argued that a naturalistic, Darwinian view of human beings bolsters conservative claims about the family—e.g., conservatives’ claims about sexual ethics and sex differences. The appeal of Darwinian Conservatism for many conservative intellectuals is obvious. At first glance it appears to both (i) support the conservative claim that there is a stable human nature grounded in human biology and (ii) counteract conservatives’ public relations nightmare over their alleged ‘war on science.’ But as I argue, a naturalistic Darwinian theory not only fails to support conservative positions on the family but positively undermines them.

Three main points emerge. First, what Darwinian Conservatives often tout as the findings of naturalistic evolution are often only the findings of biology—and theists have as much right to use biology’s findings as support for their positions as their naturalistic peers. Second, a naturalistic biological approach, far from supporting a traditional view of human nature leaves doubt as to whether there is a stable human nature at all. This leaves it unable to use traditional, natural law ethics in support of the family. Third, even if some sort of reasonably stable ‘human nature’ emerges from a naturalistic biological analysis, there is little reason to think that with future technological advances we will not be able to change biological facts we do not like and thus (under this conception of human nature) alter human nature itself. Darwinian Conservatives can surely appeal to current biological facts to justify their political positions. But what conservatives need to support their positions given the increasing prospects of human biological ‘enhancement’ is a normative conception of human nature. And this, I argue, is just what Darwinian Conservatism cannot deliver. Their naturalistic, non-teleological view of nature makes it impossible for conservatives to ground their moral claims in nature.

In short, naturalistic evolution cannot serve as a coherent conceptual foundation for the traditional family, for it cannot support a traditional, robust conception of human nature and its attendant normative claims. Thus, if there is a theoretical foundation to support social conservatives’ advocacy of the traditional family, it must lie outside this naturalistic vision. But this is not the end of the conversation. Much research remains to be done. In particular, it remains to be seen whether natural law ethics can be reconciled with a naturalistic understanding of evolution. To make natural law ethics work, we appear to need a teleological view of nature—or at least a view on which there are stable kinds or essences. Those ethicists who have revived a secular version of natural law ethics owe us a serious account of how their ethical framework—which, I have argued, must make appeal to natures, kinds, or essences—fits with Darwin’s nominalistic framework and a non-teleological evolutionary mechanism. Initial attempts have already been made, but to my mind they remain unsatisfactory. Still, much more surely remains to be said.

To learn more about the contributions of Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension (Lexington Books, 2013), click here for a fuller discussion at the EPS website. Readers are also encouraged to take advantage of a 30% discount when purchased through Rowman and Littlefield’s website (Lex30Auth14 – this discount expires 12/31/2014).