The Conservative Monkey Wars Revisited

“The Conservative Monkey Wars Revisited” by Ron Unz
Unpublished, March 2001

In late December, the cover of the conservative American Spectator featured the caricature of a confused-looking monkey.  Perhaps to the surprise of many subscribers, the focus of the entire issue was a fierce denunciation of the Darwinian theory of evolution.  The fundamental kinship of hamsters and Hammurabi—a settled part of the high school science curriculum since the celebrated Scopes trial of the 1920s—was denounced as false, fraudulent, and even perhaps communistic.

With the battles inside the Kansas Board of Education and the ongoing decipherment of the human genome, evolution is beginning to rear its head as a political issue, and doubting Darwin has leapt from the traditional hillbillies of rural Tennessee to glossy conservative magazines of the Washington Beltway.  The “Monkey Wars” have reappeared to divide conservatives.

Although the American Spectator articles provoked a flood of critical mail—including a long published letter of my own in the next issue—and the anti-Darwinist editor was immediately replaced, the controversy persists.  For while opponents of Darwin are nominally opposed to any common ancestry for squirrels and chipmunks, the actual driving force behind their hostility is the suggestion that man is an animal among animals, and in particular that many human social or psychological traits have more than a superficial similarity to those of other primates.  The intellectual battles are being waged over men and monkeys, not slime-molds.

Thus the importance of the March 19th cover story in the conservative Weekly Standard, critiquing the controversial subject of evolutionary psychology than evolution proper, and featuring an enraged rather than a puzzled monkey.  Senior Editor Andrew Ferguson devotes over 6,000 words to criticizing the growing pro-evolutionary drift of some of some of conservativism brightest intellectual stars such as James Q. Wilson, Francis Fukuyama, and Charles Murray, all of whom have found in evolutionary theory a powerful organizing principle for understanding the roots of human behavior.

Since Ferguson himself has no scientific background, he is forced to rely upon critiques of evolutionary psychology by explicit Marxists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Steve Rose, men whose strict economic determinism leaves them hostile to different paradigms of human behavior, genetic or otherwise.  That a Christian conservative would cite atheistic Marxists to buttress his case against evolutionary conservatives is one of the many ironies regularly found in Darwinist debates.

The entire position of the Left on Darwinism and its human extensions is rather involved and conflicted.  Today, Marxists may sniff at Darwinist analysis, but the founder of their movement himself regarded the Honorable Charles Darwin—bourgeois waistcoat and all—as one of the titanic figures of human intellectual history, and hoped to dedicate his Das Kapital to the man.  The writings of close collaborator Friedrich Engels were often even more explicitly Darwinian, with his analysis of the evolution of the family reading like an archaic strain of sociobiology.  Although today, Social Darwinism and eugenics are routinely vilified as pseudo-scientific doctrines on the racialist fringe, during their heyday a century ago, many of their leading advocates in Europe and America were activists of the Left, and their leading opponents Christian conservatives.

Probably much of today’s perceived Left/Right intellectual split on human Darwinism stretches back to the contrasting positions of Hitler and Stalin.  The former made an extreme application of Darwinism to human society the basis of his Nazi regime, and slaughtered millions in its name.  The latter completely rejected Darwinism, sent its scientific advocates to their deaths in the Gulag, and slaughtered even more millions.  But while the body count seems to produce a rough balance in guilt by association, human Darwinism was central to the ideas of Hitler, whereas anti-Darwinism was merely peripheral to Stalin, thus leaving a far greater stain on Darwin’s intellectual heirs and extenders.  It is perhaps not purely coincidental that a disproportionate fraction of the leading intellectual opponents of human Darwinism—from anthropologist Franz Boas in the 1930s to biologist Stephen Jay Gould in the 1970s and 1980s—are of Jewish ancestry.

But Hitler’s bones have now rested for over half a century, and elements of what is generally considered as the Left seem to be reassessing their position on the applicability of genes and evolution to humanity.  Today, gay activists uniformly claim that homosexuality is innate and thus genetically determined, while it is their conservative opponents who argue for an environmentalist or socially-constructed cause.  Peter Singer, a prominent Princeton philosopher, whose controversial writing on abortion, euthanasia, and animal rights have subjected him to almost unprecedented vilification by social conservatives, explicitly seeks to reclaim Darwin for his side in his recent book A Darwinian Left.  And in any event, Darwinism seems rarely to surface as an internal flash point of dissention for liberal or leftist organizations.

By contrast, conservatives appear sharply and publicly divided.  Academic conservatives—like the vast majority of the college-educated, let alone those with advanced degrees—regard Darwinism as completely settled scientific fact, and the hostility of their religious political allies is a source of enormous intellectual embarrassment, comparable to being linked to Flat-Earthers or UFO worshippers.  Furthermore, many conservative intellectuals believe with some justification that the evolutionary paradigm provides a powerful scientific weapon in the ongoing Culture Wars, casting as it does severe doubt on the plausibility of many dogmas of the multiculturalist Left, most obviously in the area of gender issues.  Christian conservatives dislike and doubt Darwinism for much the same reasons that their predessors have since the 1880s.

Polling numbers confirm this general analysis, along with most expected stereotypes.  In early March, Zogby International polled 1,049 likely voters on the following neutrally-phrased question:

“Currently, science classes in our public schools teach that mankind and other creatures evolved from lower forms of life through the process of Natural Selection, which scientists call the Darwinian Theory of Evolution.  Some religious groups oppose teaching evolutionary theory in schools.  Do you support or oppose teaching Darwinian Evolution to all students in our public schools?”

Likely voters supported Darwinism in the schools by a strong margin of 59-33%, with landslide 70% support among college graduates and over 68% support among those with family incomes of $75,000 or more; by contrast, those earning $25,000 or less were almost evenly divided, and high school dropouts were strongly opposed to teaching evolution.  Furthermore, Born Again Christians, a powerful conservative block, opposed evolution by almost 2-to-1.  As a consequence, while Democrats supported evolution by better than 2-to-1, and Independents were in favor by an even wider margin, Republicans were sharply split 49-44, with somewhat higher intensity on the No side.

Conservative leaders and elected officials, caring little about the issue and seeing their intellentsia and establishment donors on one side and so many of their activists on the other, simply hope that the problem will go away or can be papered over.

But as we saw in the Kansas School Board battles, these divisions provide a field day for the media, which is seldom friendly to conservatives under the best of circumstances, and are hardly likely to disappear.  Furthermore, conservatives are often faced with a no-win dilemma: those who too strongly embrace Darwinism risk being identified with elements of the racialist Right and eugenicists, while those who reject Darwinism open themselves to charges of religious fanaticism and anti-scientific ignorance.

Almost eighty years after a rural Tennessee school teacher becameAmerica’s most famous Darwinist advocate, new Monkey Wars may be approaching.

This entry was posted in Science/Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.