Scalia, Naive Essentialism, and Evolution

I’ve lain relatively low on Facebook this past year, becoming more circumspect. Before posting, I weigh the importance of any controversial statement I have to make, and increasingly I let it go. This seems to have improved my relationships with good people, at least on the conservative end of the spectrum.

But I saw something deplorable today that I wanted to address. Apparently Justice Scalia gave a commencement where he said that creationism is on firmer scientific footing than the theory of evolution. This is nonsensical — it is not even wrong. These things are not even in competition with each other. How do people come to think this way?

Wait, let me say that again in a more circumspect tone. How do people come to think this way? It is not a rhetorical question. I think we should ask this question with openness and curiosity.

We are set at each other’s throats by a false division between essentialism and existentialism that is widely promulgated by both vocational and armchair politicians on both sides of the conservative and liberal divide.

I discussed evolution with a very good friend this past weekend who admitted that the concept of Biblical Kinds was important to his faith. Basically he said that if one “kind” could become another, then ultimately all attempts to grasp reality break down into meaningless relativism. “How could he think this way?” I asked myself, but with real curiosity, because he’s not only a moral person but an intelligent one. He’s hit on a deep philosophical point, presumably without much formal education in philosophy.

The left has pushed existentialism too hard. It makes me cringe when leftists claim that essentialism is a bad thing. Essentialism is not a bad thing. It includes the philosophy of Plato and Lao Tzu, among other great thinkers. Only naïve, literalistic essentialism holds that people can’t change, that they can’t resist their evolved tendency to behaviors that are callous. Both left and right are complicit in the distortion: the left in trying to discount the importance of moral practice that acknowledges a higher or deeper universal morality than man can achieve by pure reason, and the right in pretending that the universe serves up fine-grained laws for behavior without reference to meaningful context.

It’s the shame of the far right that they advance a literalistic moralism. It’s immoral in that it squelches any hope for moral progress.

The world is messy. But it is not hopelessly messy. There are moral truths, but they are paradoxical and cannot be perfectly codified.

There are useful categories of taxonomy, but they are neither objective nor immutable.

Evolution has been a particular concern of mine since I was a young kid and got scolded for discussing dinosaurs with a friend. I realized anything so provocative to adults, that could cause adults to flinch with kneejerk irrationality, had to be on to something. And it is. It undermines the narrow, intuitive Ptolemaic universe of conservatives who insist on an unchanging Creation, and it undermines liberal social architects who would like to believe that human beings are infinitely programmable and amenable to any conditioning scheme that suits their fancy. It’s both too hard and too soft.

What Biblical literalists fail to get is that evolution does not threaten spirituality. The spiritual is the same as that “arc of the moral universe,” often invoked by liberals, that “bends toward justice.” It’s not a physical thing, but it is a practical concept, just as numbers are practical and do not have a physical existence. You do not need an immutable universe to have a spiritual one. The spiritual realm is a realm of abstractions and ideals, and ideals are only approached, never reached, in our material world. That makes them inconvenient for those who want to point out examples of them. For their part, the far left tends to dismiss ideals as a purely human invention, or even a folly, when they are really the foundation of logic and reason itself.

So we have this battleground in which the worst actors are the ones who lead, who take sides for spirituality or materialism. On the right, they see the left as champions of moral relativism who will destroy civilization by denying foundational morality; on the left, they see the literal-minded fascists who have constructed an arbitrary divine reality — one they pretend is foundational — that suits their convenience and is often at odds with objective reality as revealed by science. And they’re both right, insofar as they’re pointing at their radical counterparts across the party line.

Both left and right hardliners, if they are consistent, hate the application of evolution to psychology. On the left, positing any basic human nature threatens the idea that we are completely free to reinvent ourselves. Because they’ve both affirmed and set themselves against “essentialism” as they see it, because they deny spirituality, they cannot acknowledge that there are objective moral truths, even if paradoxical, like those reflected in the concept of the self-sacrificing deity or the Tao that precedes all things.

On the right, evolution is hideous to hardliners because if there are no immutable taxonomic categories, especially one called Man, then how are we to make laws, order the instincts, and pin down God?

Well, to both, I say that God will not be pinned. Our reality is like the shadows on Plato’s cave wall. Hardline conservatives pretend that the shadows and the things that project them are the same. Liberals insist that nothing is projecting the shadows, which is a more circuitous, counterintuitive way of saying basically the same thing.

It’s all a silly muddle. The Greeks had this worked out millennia ago, more or less. I leave you with a few simple points:

1. All politics is provisional, self-serving, and ultimately wrong.
2. The theory of evolution is the best explanation we have, by far, for the phenomena observed. Belief does not enter into it.
3. There is a moral foundation to the universe that transcends what we evolved. We know this because we have axioms that work, at least in theory, both moral and mathematical.
4. The world is messy, and justice is a constant fight, unavoidably and quite properly so.
5. Alas for spirituality shoehorned into material reality, there are no “kinds.” I will explain this presently if anyone cares.

About robertpkruger

Writer, editor, and software developer. Former president of
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