Culture Darwinism

Is Darwinism the enemy of liberalism?

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The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution

In City Journal, (Spring 2011), New Republic editor Adam Kirsch offers an interesting reflection on Darwinism and liberalism, in his review of political thinker Francis Fukuyama’s latest, The Origins of Political Order :

Yet since ideas have consequences, the ideological victory of liberalism would be nothing to scorn—if it were really assured. Ironically, however, The Origins of Political Order itself gives reason for doubting this.

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In The Origins of Political Order, Fukuyama makes a considerably weaker claim for liberalism:

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The explanation for Fukuyama’s evolution must be sought, rather, in the realm of ideas—in particular, in the idea of evolution itself. Briefly put, Darwin has replaced Hegel as Fukuyama’s guide to politics.

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It is a sign of how powerful the Darwinian worldview has become that Fukuyama could find this analysis plausible, despite the fundamental difficulty of applying concepts like reproduction and fitness to states. To take just one example, the ability to exert “military and economic power” does not have any clear correlation with a polity’s survival in the long term—just look at the way the Mongols destroyed more sophisticated states, from Persia to Muscovy to China, and then disappeared in a few generations.

But there are two even deeper problems with Darwinism as a guide to political history. The first is that, like almost every thinker who has tried to apply the evolutionary model to human affairs, Fukuyama cannot avoid thinking of evolution as a matter of the emergence of higher forms out of lower forms. “Strict cultural relativism is at odds with the implications of evolutionary theory,” he writes, “since the latter necessitates identifying different levels of social organization and the reason one level gets superseded by another.” Yet at the very heart of Darwinism is the principle that there is no such thing as “levels” or “supersession”; as Darwin adjured himself in one of his marginalia, “Never use the word higher or lower.” Human beings are in no biological sense higher than cockroaches; we have simply evolved a different adaptive strategy.

In the same way, regarded simply as a strategy for survival, no human polity is higher or lower than another, only (momentarily) more or less successful. That is why Fukuyama’s new Darwinian theory of politics cannot yield the same confidence about liberal democracy that his earlier Hegelian theory did. If history is evolutionary, it can’t have a direction or a destination; liberal democracy is no more the end of history than Homo sapiens is the end of biology.

And much more of interest.

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One Reply to “Is Darwinism the enemy of liberalism?

  1. 1
    ciphertext says:

    “… like almost every thinker who has tried to apply the evolutionary model to human affairs, Fukuyama cannot avoid thinking of evolution as a matter of the emergence of higher forms out of lower forms.

    I find this notion quite “telling”. Indeed, as stated, you would need to assume apriori that all of the existing forms of polities are “higher” forms. What constitutes “higher”? More equitable to those within purview of the particular polity? A simpler more responsive system of governing? Perhaps a better definition would be one of Intelligent Design. We know the authors/creators/designers of the various polities were and continue to be intelligent “agents”. It is through their interaction with and analysis of the various “systems” that modifications are applied. In some instances, entirely new systems are put into place (i.e. the uniquely American form of governance).

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