Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On Darwin’s Conservative Revolution

In the final chapter of her book Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution (Chapter 20, “The Conservative Revolution”), Gertrude Himmelfarb notes that Charles Darwin led to an intellectual revolution, but this intellectual revolution had an unexpected outcome—it eventually led to the strengthening of the conservative worldview. Drawing a parallel between Darwin’s revolution and the French Revolution, Himmelfarb writes:
As the French Revolution extended, stabilized, and legalized the basic tendencies of the ancien régime; as Napoleon, bringing the Revolution to a halt, at the same time brought it to its fruition; so Darwin, dramatizing and bringing to a climax the ideas, sentiments, and conjectures of his age, may be thought of as the hero of a conservative revolution.
Even in the area of science, the Darwinism led to conservative outcomes:
The Darwinian revolution was conservative, first, as a purely scientific affair. The observations on which it was based were largely familiar, the terms of the problem had been stated, even the crucial idea had been in circulation for half a century. And it influenced the practical work of the sciences less than might be supposed, each discipline assuming that its great import was in some other field. The job of the systematists was affected hardly at all, the “natural system” sought before Darwin’s time being the same as that posited by the theory of evolution. 
Darwinism didn’t prove to be an implacable enemy of religion. According to Himmelfarb, Darwinism’s impact on religion has been meagre.
For Darwinism shared with religion the belief in an objective knowledge of nature. If religion’s belief was based on revelation and Darwinism on science, with good will the two could be—as indeed they were—shown to coincide. The true challenge to orthodox religion came with the denial of the possibility of all objective knowledge, with the skepticism of a Kierkegaard who refused to religion and science alike the claims of knowledge, and forswore the reason of religion equally with the reasons of science. Compared with this radical assertion of an arbitrary, willful faith inaccessible to all reason, the dispute between Darwin and his religious critics was little more than the friendly bickering of old friends. Post-Kant and post-Kierkegaard, Darwinism appears as the citadel of tradition. 
Darwin’s theory is not without problems, his conclusions are still being contested. His theory is not original—this kind of a theory of evolution was being discussed long before he did his work. But Darwinism has been revolutionary in effect. It has played a double role—it’s at once conservative and revolutionary.

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