Conservative Movement’s Darwin Problem

Charles Darwin introduced the world to a biological perspective it had never before considered. His theory of evolving species and their imperative to not only survive but thrive by adapting and competing in a harsh and ever-changing environment has stood the test of time. For sure , there have been debunkers, like the intellectual assaults on Einstein and his Theory of Relativity, Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection has withstood its own detractors. Unlike Einstein, however, Darwin has been placed under a different type of microscope, While Einstein’s critics were mostly colleagues advancing competing theories about the nature of the universe. Their criticisms tested Einstein’s thought experiments with mathematical and scientific proofs which in many cases provided additional support for relativity. Darwin, on the other hand, has attracted competition of a different stripe, the latest being Intelligent Design, or ID which is thinly masked creationist theory. Rather than science, ID has a formidable “genesis” — the Bible. It is faith-based and therefore, to its adherents, unassailable. Its proof resides in their faith.

The nexus connecting the conservative movement and Darwin’s work lies in the nature of Darwin’s theory and why it represents such a threat to the conservatism. Darwin posits with considerable proof through observation and meticulous recordkeeping that change is inevitable and the mode of change resides in adaptation and variation. As species evolve, their inexorable imperative is to survive — survival of the fittest. In this case, “fittest” defines the ability of the species to adapt to environmental changes caused by natural forces over eons. The end result of this process was that those organisms that could adapt were rewarded and those who couldn’t died off. The Oxford-English Dictionary defines the biological definition is more precise and includes another component which Darwin recognized: “ An organism’s ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment.” The ability to reproduce itself is an essential aspect to an organism’s fitness. To be sure, many species had died off over time because of their inability to persist in an environment that had changed, and therefore, had made them expendable. Dinosaurs, for example, were bigger, stronger, and perhaps, more imposing than many of the organisms that persevered during their reign and after their demise.

Conservatism, on the other hand, eschews change and in its place espouses retaining traditional values. Of course, comparing a political philosophy to species may seem a bit of a reach, but bear with me. Words matter and their meanings have consequence. Philosophyasics.com defines the underpinnings of those who adhere to conservatism as “ …the holding of political views that favor free enterprise, private ownership, and socially conservative ideas.” As a movement conservatism has a problem with even small variations in the culture. Generally, a political conservative is a protector of the status quo — and that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact they provide counterpoint to unbridled social change. The problem with the current conservative movement is that it has grown reactionary. Change is not even on the table, their goal is to “return” to a previous time. Therein lies the problem. As a cause, conservatism is doomed to fail because it has a Darwin problem — dinosaurs will never return.

Let us take one issue. the judicial argument for constitutional “originalism.” The late Justice Antonin Scalia was its most prominent advocate and his rulings enlightened a generation of lesser lights to adopt this theory as political gospel. Originalism, of course, is a premise that insists that any reading of the constitution must begin and end with the words written by the founders., in effect creating a godlike, unassailable, standard for all times and all situations. The remedy, a Scalia follower would insist, resides in the constitution itself in the form of amendments. Amendments, then, are the only way to reinterpret the founders’ intent, if their intent is not explicit in their written words. Originalism loses its credibility in its lack of recognition that its founders were human. Their work was monumentally forward thinking and was the very definition of governmental change and adaptability. The opening words to their Declaration of Independence spoke of the governed as an aggregate who chose their own leaders and whose leaders served at their will. — “We, the people.” The concept was the antipathy of the then current models of government which were either monarchical or tribal. Written into the Constitution and its predecessor document, the Articles of Confederation, was their version of an original sin — slavery. All men in 18th century America were not created equal, nor were all women. While Constitutional originalists would offer the 13th and 14th amendments as the “cure” which the founders had provided, the true freedom promised to all men has had to be re litigated many times. Issues surrounding sexual orientation and use of bathrooms in some areas of America are still affected by the concept of originalism.

The Bill of Rights were added as the first amendments by James Madison in response to complaints by anti Federalists that the Constitution as written lacked protections to safeguard individual liberties. In effect, the Bill of Rights was an admission by legislators of the time that individual rights — the rights of a minority voice — might need protection from the majority. In the case of slavery and the 13th amendment, the constitutional issue of segregation could not be litigated because of the lack of legislative support in the individual states to correct or cure the assault on the individual rights of Black Americans. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) was the only constitutional remedy available. If left to the processes of legislation, as originalists would prefer, this would be a nation of segregated schools in many states. The Federalists lost this power to discriminate when they lost the battle that culminated in the passage of individual liberties under the Bill of Rights. While it took almost two hundred years, the nation finally had found its cure for the founders original sin of slavery — and it was led by the judicial branch. The rights of the individual, the weak, poverty stricken, and disabled are rarely popular issues in a society that is based upon conservative capitalism. That is not an indictment, but a recognition of the philosophy that embraces personal wealth, private ownership and self reliance. True conservatism acts as a counterweight to ensure that changes to the system are made organically. In a system gone awry, reactionaries on both sides harden the processes of change to create gridlock. In terms of Darwin, the evolutionary process is a measured one which would require both conservative values and liberal values to coexist. When these come in conflict, thoughtful men on both sides compromise.

To sum up the argument, today’s conservative movement views the Darwinian imperatives for change as a gauntlet. The fittest will survive due to their ability to endure a physical marathon of sorts. Society is thus weaned of the weak and those unable to withstand the trials of competition. This is much like the political movement in Germany that led to two world wars and the Holocaust. In the end Gypsies, Jews, and the disabled were deemed unfit for society and that their removal from the body politic would enhance the fittest and more deserving citizens. But Darwin actually suggests something much different. An organism succeeds and prospers through its abilities to differentiate and adapt to conditions which become hostile. The losers in Darwin’s world are those species who require others to change or who try to manipulate the ineffable environment causing their demise (see climate change.) Whether it is a George Wallace proclaiming “segregation, now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever…”, or an attempt to enrich the wealthiest American at the expense of universal health care for the majority, history and evolutionary biology do not favor the opponents to change.

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Vince Rizzo

Former president of the International Association of Laboratory Schools (IALS) and a founder of a charter school based on MI theory.