The most recent issue of Intercollegiate Review (Fall 2010) features a debate between a self-described “Darwinian conservative” Larry Arnhart and a critic of “dehumanizing” modern science, and particularly Darwinism, John G. West. The debaters are supposedly discussing whether or not Darwinian biology and its social implications produce “conservative” results. Although the two take dramatically different positions on the social utility of evolutionary theory and its English progenitor, it is not clear that either is taking a “conservative” position. Indeed the key term is never defined. What the discussants are disputing is whether or not evolutionary theory as currently understood should be acceptable to most Americans, given what they seem to believe about values. Not surprisingly, the debate focuses on whether or not the acceptance of Darwinian biology leads to moral relativism and even more importantly for the participants, whether Darwinism or its putative antithesis, what Arnhart styles “metaphysical conservatism,” is compatible with democratic equality.

West expresses the view that Darwinism leads ineluctably to social Darwinism, which in the past gave rise to eugenics. Darwinians, starting with Darwin himself, were eager to advance “the process of elimination” by which unfit human beings were sterilized or kept from reproducing. West also notes that random selection and an undirected life process are incompatible with the conception of a Deity “who actively supervise and directs the development of life.” West raises inter alia arguments about how the randomness of Darwinian evolution cannot explain, according to certain respected biochemists, the complexity of life forms or the “astonishing rarity of certain protein sequences” that allow organisms to function. West knows well the scientific arguments that can be marshaled on the side of intelligent design, and he is on target when he shows the bullying and ostracism to which those who try to reconcile evolution and conscious design are exposed among conventional scientists and journalists.

Arnhart may make a weaker argument than West because he is too busy fighting straw men. He sets out to prove that the Darwinists are nicer and more moral people than those yahoos who quote the Bible to their opponents. Bible-thumpers are blamed for that “form of social parasitism” known as slavery, since the Good Book does not condemn and in fact permits human bondage. Christians are naturally at fault for the evil of the antebellum South, and West goes after the explicitly non-rightist cultural historian Mark Malvasi for daring to suggest that Southern slavery was somehow Christianized. Are we to believe the Christian component made Southern slavery somehow worse than pagan slavery, an arrangement in which war captives were worked to death in galleys or in Athenian silver mines?

Arnhart cites David Hume and Charles Darwin as forward-thinking giants of the mind. But West is correct on one point here. There is nothing to suggest that Darwin believed in any doctrine of natural human equality. Moreover, Hume, whom Arnhart refers to correctly as an opponent of slavery, devoted considerable space in his essay “Of National character” (1753) to racial inequalities. The Scottish philosopher believed that not only blacks but other members of the “the four or five races” into which the human species could be divided were cognitively inferior to “the Whites.” Note this is not a condemnation of Hume but an attempt to demonstrate that he was far from the kind of universalism presented in Arnhart’s argument for nice Darwinism against bad Christianity.

There are so many misstatements in Arnhart that one hardly knows where to begin ones critique. His attempt to interpret Darwinian “altruism” as a universal sense of obligation or to equate it with Adam Smith’s notion of “moral sentiment” is downright silly. “Altruism” in the Dawinian sense is the instinctive willingness to sacrifice for those to whom an organism is genetically connected. It is not the disguised notion of the Golden Rule that Arnhart tries to bootleg into the conversation.

Arnhart also goes into high gear over the evils of “the Puritan revolutionaries of the seventeenth century” who out of their “metaphysical fanaticism” tried to overturn the world. This “metaphysical ideology,” we are made to believe, pervades Judeo-Christian culture and drives its members into applying “cosmic standards to revolutionize society.” There are two misstatements here. One, Arnhart confuses the Puritans, who were mostly Calvinist burghers, during the English Civil War with the Protestant fringe, which consisted of Ranters and Fifth Monarchy Men. The Puritans purged their government of this fringe, including the Levelers, who believed in human rights and democracy.

Two, it is foolish to generalize about Christian societies in general from the revolutionary fanaticism of the fringe groups in the English Civil War. Likewise it is dishonest to equate the institution of slavery with Christian morals. For the most part there was a truce between the two, and even in the case of what for Arnhart is the hated South, Malvasi is correct. Slavery there was far less savage than it had been in pagan societies, and Presbyterian theologians spilled rivulets of ink doing what Cicero and Pliny never felt obliged to do, showing how in their society slavery was being elevated to solicitous education for a backward people. The fact that such arguments had to be provided, Eugene and Betsey Genovese demonstrate in their studies of the theology of Southern slaveholders, underscores the perceived need to humanize a “peculiar institution.” It also suggests the growing tension between Christian teachings about the spiritual dignity of all human beings and the continuation of human bondage.

But what is bothersome about this debate in general, albeit more so with Arnhart’s than West’s presentation, is that there is no sense of what is meant by “conservative.” As best I can figure, “conservatism” connotes for West approved family values and for Arnhart some kind of human-rights ideology under a different name. The fact that Arnhart has been invited to present his views in First Things and in other neoconservative publications indicates for me that there is nothing upsetting for the advocates of human-rights politics about what he says. Arnhart is reconciling with the dominant egalitarian ideology what he understands as Darwinian thinking. He certainly does not use his social Darwinism to defend such no-noes as socially significant gender differences and inborn kin loyalties. If he did, he would probably not be invited into the forums in which he is asked to participate. Arnhart minds his PC manners, even while bashing such allowable targets as Bible-believing Southerners and 17th-century Puritans.

Finally it might be a kindness for us intellectual historians to be informed how long-standing terms with once fixed definitions are being applied in a particular context. Until recently “conservatism” had to do with defending inherited authority structures and especially social hierarchy. If West and Arnhart wish to impose an alternative definition, they should have the courtesy to tell us what they’re doing. What may be clear to Intercollegiate Review and First Things is mud to me.