Darwinian Evolution & Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension

Dr. Stephen Dilley, PhD

Book Précis

Charles Darwin and John Locke continue to exercise extraordinary influence from the grave. The former birthed a revolution in biology which has persisted to the present day, the latter fomented a revolution in political philosophy which reasserts itself in every contemporary iteration of “individual rights.” Darwin’s theory is widely taken to be the unifying theory in modern biology; apparently nothing in biology makes sense except in light of his view. And Locke’s classical liberalism, developed in diverse ways, has had a profound influence on an array of thinkers, from the Founding Fathers of the United States to the members of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Collectively, Darwin and Locke tell human beings where they have come from, what they are, and how they ought to live with each other. The combined legacies of these men could hardly be more powerful.

Nonetheless, too little attention has been directed to the interplay of their ideas. The Darwinian vision, it seems, has direct implications about human nature, mental capacities, and moral obligations, a point Darwin made with striking clarity in The Descent of Man (1871). The classical liberal vision, developed by Locke and others, also has direct implications for these same areas—it portrays human beings with very specific dispositions, moral duties, and intellectual abilities. While some people unreflectively assume that evolutionary science and classical liberalism fit seamlessly, their relationship is both complex and contentious. Moreover, because Western culture has been so significantly influenced by evolutionary science and classical liberalism, the relationship of these visions—whether complementary or conflicting—is of profound importance to the coherence and vitality of prominent strains of the Western tradition.

Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism takes up the task of examining the relationship between this duo, analyzing political, philosophical, ethical, economic, anthropological, and scientific areas of ferment. Early chapters focus on classical thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith, while later chapters provide analyses of present-day classical liberals, focusing especially on F.A. Hayek, Thomas Sowell, and Larry Arnhart, the most prominent advocates of ‘contemporary’ classical liberalism.

Thematically, the volume falls into three parts. Part I examines foundational matters, arguing that Darwinism and classical liberalism hold incompatible visions of morality, human nature, and individual autonomy. This section also contends that the free market’s spontaneous order is fully compatible with a teleological (or non-Darwinian) view of the universe. Part II turns to contemporary applications, contending that Darwinism and classical liberalism are at odds in their views of (or implications about) limited government, vital religion, economic freedom, and the traditional family. This section also argues that, since its inception, Darwinism has attenuated core tenets and values of classical liberalism and Western civilization.

Part III of the volume contains alternative views to those in the first two parts, adding critical diversity to the book. Respectively, these chapters hold that Darwinian evolution simply has little to say about classical liberalism; an evolutionary account of human volition is fully compatible with the individual choice presupposed in classical liberalism; and evolutionary naturalism, unlike religious alternatives, provides a strong foundation for freedom, morality, and the traditional family.

Chapter Samples

  1. Stephen Dilley, “Pax vel Bellum? Evolutionary Biology and Classical Liberalism.” (PDF)
  2. Angus Menuge, “Darwinian Conservatism and Free Will.”
  3. John G. West, “Darwinism, Economic Liberty, and Limited Government.”
  4. Jay W. Richards, “On Invisible Hands and Intelligent Design: Must Classical Liberals also Embrace Darwinian Theory?
  5. Logan Paul Gage, “Darwin Knows Best: Can Evolution Support the Classical Liberal Vision of the Family.”
  6. Richard Weikart, “A History of the Impact of Darwinism on Natural Rights and Bioethics.”
  7. Michael J. White, “An Historical Afterword.”

Benefits of the Book

  1. The volume is interdisciplinary, drawing on a wide array of areas, including political philosophy, evolutionary biology, economics, philosophy of mind, ethics, metaethics, philosophical anthropology, sociobiology, social & political conservatism, American history, and the like.
  2. Parts of the volume examine the relationship between Christian theism and the crucial tenets of the classical liberal tradition, including individual rights, limited government, the free market, private property, and the separation of powers.
  3. Much of the book addresses evolutionary naturalism’s prospects of grounding classical liberal ideals such as individual rights, limited government, the free market, private property, free will, and the role and value of the traditional family.
  4. The volume explores in detail the moral, social, political, economic, anthropological, mental, and familial implications of (neo) Darwinian theory.
  5. The book contains competing perspectives, including those who reject the compatibility of Darwinian evolution with classical liberalism, as well as those who think otherwise.

Future Directions for Study: a Brief Meditation 

In my view, there is a great need for Christian philosophers—especially those who are readers of Philosophia Christi—to ‘expand their tents,’ so to speak, by branching out into areas underemphasized by the recent renaissance in Christian philosophy. In particular, Christian philosophers adept at metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, and the like ought to consider the concrete implications of their broader Christocentric philosophy for ‘applied’ areas like social, political, economic, and legal philosophy. Unfortunately, the project of ‘Christian philosophy’ often seems to be (perceived as) limited to the ‘usual suspects’ perennially analyzed in philosophy of religion, such as the problem of evil. Yes, the problem of evil ought to be examined with care, but so should the problems created by the application of harmful ideas upon citizens in the United States and elsewhere.
I realize that my suggestion may sound like an unwelcome invitation for Christian philosophers to enter the culture wars. I also recognize that writing and publishing on applied areas does not typically carry the prestige of breaking new ground in metaphysics or epistemology. I realize, too, that some Christian philosophers may find they have greater credibility with their secular colleagues insofar as they remain (professionally) aloof from anything that smacks of theologically-illuminated economics, politics, and the like. These are all worthy concerns. I certainly agree that we are to be as shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves. But abandonment of the public square by some of the Church’s best and brightest minds is also undesirable—as is leaving the public square to thinkers whose intellectual life is riddled with secular ideologies. Expanding into applied areas ought to be considered thoughtfully and prayerfully by Christian philosophers, especially readers of Philosophia Christi, so many of whom have deep Christian minds.
In my estimation, the Church is quite scattered in its understanding and appraisal of ideas critical to our society, including ideas like the proper scope of religious liberty, outcomes of the free market, role of government, content of individual rights, and the like. Christian philosophers can play a vital role in helping laypeople in the Church think systematically about the way distinctly Christian theology and anthropology illuminate, expand, or reconceive these key elements. In my anecdotal experience, I’ve found that otherwise intelligent and thoughtful lay Christians often lack a systemic way of linking their knowledge of Scripture and theology to their positions on social, political, and economic issues. The result is that their positions are ideologically fragmented and only dimly reflect a Christ-centered foundation.
So what is my recommendation for future lines of research? In a nutshell: Christian philosophers who are doing great work in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind, and the like ought to consider engaging social, political, economic, and legal philosophy. Doing so with their trademark rigor would serve the academy, Church, and common good. It turns out that Christ died to redeem more than just analytic philosophy.
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).