Posted by: Chris | July 16, 2010

Darwinian Liberalism

Cato has delivered on the “evolutionary biology implies libertarianism” bit that CF foresaw months ago, though unfortunately not quite in the manner that was portended.  The final product is not all that especially interesting, and I still think Jared Diamond would have made for amore fitting rebuttal than yanking science bloggers into the fray.  However, we do get PZ Meyers to declare one aspect of humanity immune to evolutionary thinking, so that’s something, I guess.



  1. CF foresaw a different neo-Spencerian carnival, which also occurred, and would have been better had Jared Diamond performed. (

    Also, what was wrong with PZ Myers’s reply, other than that it came from a science blogger?

    I thought it pointed to the major flaws in Arnhart’s brain-dump. Its presentation of our biologically given desires and dispositions is selective (and probably too-robust). Even on that selective presentation, many different political systems are equally good at ensuring that those dispositions and desires are (more or less) satisfied. Others – some brands of environmentalism, for example – “fit” evolutionary theory in different ways, by being partially predicated (in one way or another) on other facts that evolutionary theory entails.

    Arnhart would no doubt dismiss environmentalism because he thinks that we only have reason to satisfy our own (biologically given) desires and dispositions, and environmentalism entails we also have reason to do other things (like save whales, regardless of whether we’re biologically disposed to do so). But – and PZ Myers failed to make this point in his pre-emptive defense – even if environmentalism does not tell us to do only things that fulfill our biologically given desires and dispositions that doesn’t mean it is in conflict with evolutionary theory; it means it is in conflict with Arnhart’s controversial, quasi-Humean, politico-moral view. That, not evolutionary theory, is what supports classical liberalism (at least for people like Arnhart, whose desires, biologically given and no, the system helps satisfy).

    Of course, it could be that environmentalism (and other moralities of its sort) does only tell us to do things that fulfill our biologically given desires and dispositions. We seem biologically disposed to regard certain (culturally transmitted) norms as categorically demanding, and to act on them regardless of whether they promote our flourishing. If environmentalism is a set of such norms, then adhering to environmentalism is doing something that fulfills one of our biologically given desires.

    Thus we come to a problem internal to Arnhart’s muddle. He thinks we only have reason to satisfy our biologically given desires and dispositions. He also thinks that we only have reason to promote our own flourishing. But there is evidence that one of our dispositions is to do things even when they don’t promote our own flourishing. Contradiction!

    It is not all that surprising that Arnhart’s essay is a muddle. In general, if you are urging a revision of some group’s practices (e.g. its politics) because they are not natural to the group, but those practices emerged naturally within the group, then there is an incoherence somewhere in your project.

    • I did not find Myers’ reply flawed at all. In fact, I agreed with it wholeheartedly. I was simply making the very pedantic point that Myers argument is uncharacteristic of his general ouevre, in which evolutionary thinking explains everything from religion to society.

      • Oh. I assumed your complaint that Myers – a science blogger (after a fashion) – makes a less fitting opponent than Jared Diamond was based on some perceived deficiency in his critique. Maybe you just think Diamond’s critique would have been better, or perhaps your envy of bona fide scientists (see: here) has metamorphosed into bitterness and rejection.

  2. […] biology in particular, as code for one’s sophistication far more clearly and succinctly than I could: I encounter people who very definitely believe in evolution, who sneer at the folly of […]

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