Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Abigail Adams, Bonobo: Darwinian Feminism & The Declaration of Independence

On March 31, 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband John, who was in Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress.  After passing on many items of news, she petitioned for a redress of female grievances:
"And, by the way, in the New Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. . . . Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could.  If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no Voice, or Representation."
Her husband responded in a joking manner: "We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems, which would completely subject Us to the Despotism of the Petticoat."  They then went back and forth, with Abigail refusing to back down on her insistence that the arguments being deployed against the arbitrary power of Parliament applied just as well to the status of women in the American republic.  "But you must remember," she observed, "that arbitrary Power is like most things that are very hard . . . and notwithstanding all your wise laws and maxims, we have in our Power, not only to free ourselves, but to subject our Masters, and without violence, throw your natural and legal authority at your feet."

By suggesting that women could form a coalition to challenge male dominance and oppression of women, Abigail was anticipating the women's movement of the 19th century.  And without knowing it, she was adopting a behavioral strategy employed by bonobo females, who form strong social bonds with one another so that coalitions of females can check the power of aggressive males.  In contrast to chimpanzees, bonobo females can challenge male dominance and aggression, so that bonobo groups are more peaceful and more egalitarian than chimpanzee groups (Furuichi 2011; Hare et al. 2012).  (I have written about bonobos herehere, and here.)

In the wild, bonobo females serve a policing function, in that they intervene in fights to moderate conflicts through impartial mediation, because they benefit from living in a stable social order that is not disrupted by violence.  In this way they are engaged in "niche construction"--behavior that creates a social environment of prescriptive rules in which stable and peaceful cooperation is adaptive.

Among many animals, evolutionary niche construction includes the transmission of culturally traditions.  And among human beings, it includes the transmission of culturally learned symbolic systems such as art, science, religion, and philosophy.  The history of liberalism is evolutionary niche construction, in which the Declaration of Independence holds a prominent part.  And once the Founders have framed the symbolic system of liberal thought around the principles of equal natural rights and consent of the governed, those principles can be invoked by women like Abigail to argue for the rights of women.  (I have written about this here.)

That became clear in the founding document of the women's rights movement--The Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions of 1848--which uses the language of the Declaration of Independence:
"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitled them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course."
"We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal . . . ."
"The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.  To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world."
"He has never permitted her to exercise her inalienable right to the elective franchise. . . ."
After their factual indictment, they turn to their resolutions, beginning with an appeal to "the great precept of nature" as stated by Blackstone--"that man shall pursue his own true and substantial happiness"--although Blackstone did not recognize that this "law of Nature" denied those English laws that deprived women of their natural rights.

This appeal to human nature as supporting women's rights can be sustained by a Darwinian feminism.  In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, first published in 1871, Darwin offered an evolutionary theory of the natural differences between men and women.  He believed that women had evolved to be nurturant caregivers, while men had evolved to be aggressive hunters, so that men and women would tend to have different desires and capacities conforming to their different roles in the sexual division of labor.  He concluded that as a result of these natural differences, women were on average intellectually inferior but morally superior to men.  "Man is the rival of other men; he delights in competition, and this leads to ambition which passes too easily into selfishness."

A few years later, in 1875, Antoinette Brown Blackwell responded with the first feminist criticism of Darwin in her book, The Sexes Throughout Nature.  She argued that Darwin's evidence did not support his conclusion about the intellectual inferiority of women.  Instead, the correct inference from the biological facts would be that the sexes are "true equivalents--equals but not identicals" in all physical and mental powers.  She charged that Darwin's interpretation of the evidence had been distorted by his "male standpoint," and that "only a women can approach the subject from a feminine standpoint."  The ultimate arbiter between these conflicting standpoints, she insisted, would be the facts of biological nature as known by science.

Following in Blackwell's path, Darwinian scientists like Patricia Gowaty, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, Louann Brizendine, and others have defended a Darwinian feminism.  "Women have a biological imperative for insisting that a new social contract take them and their needs into account," Brizendine declares.  A Darwinian feminist naturalism recognizes the evolved natural differences between men and women, while allowing those differences to express themselves by the free choices of women with equality of opportunity under the rule of law.

Thus does a Darwinian science of sex difference teach us to "Remember the Ladies."

I have written about Darwinian feminism herehere, and here.


Furuichi, Takeski. 2011. "Female Contributions to the Peaceful Nature o0f Bonobo Society." Evolutionary Anthropology 20: 131-42.

Hare, Brian, Victoria Wobber, and Richard Wrangham. 2012. "The Self-Domestication Hypothesis: Evolution of Bonobo Psychology Is Due to Selection Against Aggression." Animal Behaviour 83: 573-85.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Darwinian History and Biography in the Declaration of Independence

Instead of "Darwin and the Declaration of Independence," a better title for our panel in Brisbane might be "Darwin and the Second Sentence of the Declaration of Independence."  Because almost all of our attention in our papers is directed to that second sentence--"We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."

Although this is a long sentence (55 words), it is still a small part of the Declaration, and the factual list of grievances against the King ("let facts be submitted to a candid world") is over two-thirds the length of the entire document.  If you look at the editing of Jefferson's draft by the Continental Congress, you will see that the delegates were predominantly concerned with the list of grievances.  There was almost no discussion of the second sentence at the time, as though it were an afterthought or a rhetorical flourish that did not require any serious thought.

The two most detailed critiques of the Declaration published in 1776 were Thomas Hutchinson's Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia and John Lind's An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress.  Lind said that he had taken "little or no notice" of the first few sentences because "the truth is, little or none does it deserve."  Hutchinson wrote only a few sentences about the opening lines and then moved on to "the facts which are alleged to be the evidence of injuries and usurpation."

Beginning about 30 years after the Declaration was signed, however, Jeffersonian Republicans began to direct public attention to that second sentence as possibly the seminal statement of the American creed, and now many people see it as a statement of the universal liberal creed for all of humanity and a standard for liberal reform throughout the rest of history right up to the present.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln eloquently expressed this rhetorical elevation of the second sentence: "All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of the reappearing tyranny and oppression."

If we agree with this, then we have to worry about whether Darwin and Darwinian science subvert or support that "abstract truth" of human liberty in the second sentence.  This explains why our panel papers are so preoccupied with this question.

But if we are also interested in the question of whether Darwin and Darwinian science subvert or support the understanding of the human political life that is expressed in the entire document of the Declaration, which includes not just "abstract truth," but also factual political history and the political judgments of individual political agents, then we have to wonder whether a Darwinian political science can explain the historicity and individuality of political life.

As I indicated in my first post this month, I am trying in my paper to move through three levels of political experience by illustrating how a Darwinian biopolitical framework applies to the study of the Declaration of Independence as an event in the natural history of human politics, in the cultural history of the American political founding, and in the individual history of Thomas Jefferson and the others who signed the Declaration.


As I have said in a previous post, I disagree with those many critics of sociobiology who assume a sharp dichotomy between nature and history in claiming that the biological study of animal nature cannot explain human history.  One of the first critiques of Ed Wilson's Sociobiology was Kenneth Bock's Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology, first published in 1980.  The central argument of this book is "that explication of social and cultural differences is a primary task of the human sciences and that such explication is best sought in comparison of human histories, not in human biology or comparative ethology" (ix).  Human biology or comparative ethology can study the biological nature that human beings share with other animals.  But Bock insisted that "animals other than man do not have histories" (198).  Animal behavior is determined by the biological nature of each species, which can be studied by biologists.  But human history in its contingency and diversity shows a human freedom from nature that transcends human biology, which can be studied by historians, but not by biologists.

Similarly, political scientist John Hibbing, who is a leading proponent of the biological study of political behavior, has said that biopolitics must be limited to studying the "bedrock dilemmas of politics" that are universal to all political communities.  While biology can illuminate "cross-polity commonality," biology has no application to variable traditions of political culture or to the biographical history of  individual political actors.  Like Bock, he assumes that human cultural history and individual history transcend nature.  When I refer to the biographical history of Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a necessary part of a biopolitical science, Hibbing says that this is bringing in "non-biological factors" that cannot be studied biologically.  

But if one includes the science of animal behavior within biology, and if one sees that the biological study of animal behavior includes the study of particular events in the political history of animal groups shaped by unique cultural traditions and unique individuals, then any biopolitical science must include political history and political biography.  Political histories of particular chimpanzee groups like Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe and Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics and Good Natured illustrate this.

De Waal shows that every chimpanzee group has prescriptive rules of social conduct enforced by the community through reward and punishment that are acquired social conventions derived from a hierarchical organization, in which subordinate individuals pay close attention to dominant individuals (Good Natured, 89-97).  For example, Jimoh, the alpha male of the Yerkes Field Station group once detected a secret mating between Socko, an adolescent male, and one of Jimoh's favorite females.  The normal response would be for the dominant to chase away the subordinate.  But this time, Jimoh chased Socko all around the enclosure without stopping, while Socko screamed and defecated in fear.  

Several females began to "woaow" bark, which is a sound of indignation used to protest aggressors.  De Waal writes: "At first the callers looked around to see how the rest of the group was reacting; but when  others joined in, particularly the top-ranking female, the intensity of their calls quickly increased until literally everyone's voice was part of the deafening chorus.  The scattered beginning almost gave the impression that the group was taking a vote.  Once the protest had swelled to a chorus, Jimoh broke off his attack with a nervous grin on his face: he got the message.  Had he failed to respond, there would no doubt have been concerted female action to end the disturbance" (91-92).

The enforcement of prescriptive rules in chimpanzee groups is organized through a hierarchical structure of three orders.  To explain this, de Waal has learned from his reading of Machiavelli's Prince.  Machiavelli saw politics as competition for power and glory organized around three types of human beings: the "prince," who is number one; the "great ones," who are high-ranking individuals with ambition to rule; and the "people," who are the majority of the individuals in a society with no ambition to rule, but who do not want to be oppressed by the "prince" or the "great ones."  De Waal has seen a similar social structure among the chimpanzees: the alpha male is the "prince"; the high-ranking males are the "great ones"; and all the others in the group are the "common people" (Chimpanzee Politics, 149).

Machiavelli and John Adams thought that a stable regime would have to balance these three orders in a manner that would satisfy the ambitions and appetites of all three without anyone having the power to tyrannize over others.  De Waal has seen something like this among chimpanzees.  There is a "balance of power: the superiority of one party over another depends on the support of a third, so that each party affects the position of the others," which creates something like a "democratic structure."  (I have written about this in Darwinian Conservatism, 73-84.)

Despite these similarities between chimpanzee politics and human politics, human beings are unique in expressing their prescriptive rules through verbal and written language, while chimpanzees must rely on verbal and nonverbal signs without the conceptual complexity of human language to formulate their rules of justice and the common good.  We can see that in the Declaration's written list of grievances against the King, which continues the old tradition in English history of parchment documents, which included "declarations" bringing charges of wrongdoing and appealing for public support.  The best known of these English declarations was the Declaration of Rights of 1689, which justified the overthrow of James II and the installation of William and Mary on the throne.  Many of the charges against James II and even the exact language are echoed in list of grievances in the American Declaration of Independence (see Pauline Maier, American Scripture, 50-59).

So, to understand this part of the American Declaration, we need to see how it follows in the historical tradition of written English declarations to justify overthrowing kings.  But we can also see here a general pattern of primate politics that belongs to evolved human nature.  Most of the grievances are directed against the King.  But the Declaration also speaks of appeals to the British people, who have been warned "from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us."  Here we see the three orders of primate politics: the one (the King), the few (the Parliament), and the many (the people).

We see the same three orders in the American deliberation over declaring independence.  In the four months prior to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, popular assemblies were held in towns across the colonies to debate the merits of independence and to submit their recommendations to the colonial legislatures, who in turn instructed their delegates to the Continental Congress.  So while the people as a whole are supposed to exercise the ultimate authority, they are represented by a few politically ambitious people in the colonial legislatures and the Congress.  Then, with the overthrow of the King and the establishment of new state governments, the executive power will be vested in one dominant individual.  Eventually, the Constitution of 1787 will establish the office of the presidency and the commander in chief, held first by "His Excellency" George Washington.  One, few, and many.


The striving for political dominance--to be number one--exhibits a distinctive political personality found among political animals generally, the sort of personality characteristic of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.  At this level of political science, we must study the individual lives of political agents and their personalities.

For a long time, many biologists were not interested in the evolution of animal personalities, because they assumed that evolution would shape a species typical psychology shared by all individuals of the species with little heritable variation.  Evolutionary psychologists (like Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) have concentrated on human universals as evolutionary adaptations shared by all human individuals.

But  in recent decades, the biological study of animal personalities has become one of the hottest topics in biology.  Actually, this is a rediscovery of what Aristotle explained in his biological works.  He recognized that "in a number of animals, we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirit or low cunning, and, with regard to intelligence, something equivalent to shrewdness" (History of Animals, 8.1).  In his Generation of Animals, Aristotle distinguished between three levels of inherited traits among animals.  An animal species, including the human species, shows generic traits shared with some other animals, specific traits shared with members of the same species, and temperamental traits that differ among individuals of the species.  Thomas Aquinas adopted this biological idea from Aristotle as showing three levels of natural law corresponding to generic nature, specific nature, and temperamental nature.

In the recent biological studies of animal personality, personality designates behavioral and physiological differences among individuals of the same species, which are stable across time and across different situations.  An individual personality is a consistent pattern in how an individual feels, thinks, and acts.  Some researchers have used different terms for this--such as temperaments, behavioral syndromes, and predispositions.

One of the most extensively studied models of human personality among psychologists is the Five Factor Model that describes human personality differences across five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  Each domain corresponds to an axis running from high to low.  So, for example, those individuals high in Agreeableness tend to be helpful, trusting, and cooperative with everyone.  Individuals lower in Agreeableness tend to be less helpful, more suspicious of others, and more competitive than cooperative.

This same Five Factor Model can be applied to the study of nonhuman animal personalities, using the same methods as are used in studying human beings.  Four of the factors appear in many animal species.  But Conscientiousness seems to appear only among chimpanzees and human beings.  One possible explanation for this is that Conscientiousness requires a high cognitive ability for making plans and controlling impulses in executing those plans, which requires the large frontal lobes found only in chimps and humans.

As I have noted some previous posts (here and here), the same techniques used by historians and psychologists to identify the personalities of American presidents (such as Donald Trump's "grandiose narcissism") can be used to identify similar personalities among chimpanzees.  Also, like human beings, other mammalian animals (including chimpanzees) show individual variability in heritable intelligence (IQ).

In putting their unique signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the 56 signers pledge to one another their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.  In fact, under British law, the punishment for treason was death and forfeiture of one's estate, and certainly dishonor.  But as Douglass Adair has shown, these men were motivated to take this risk for the same of the glory, the fame, the honor that would come to them if the Revolution was successful.

But such glory cannot be equally shared by all 56 individuals.  There can be only one alpha male.  Consider, for example, the competitive striving between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  On May 10, 1776, the Congress adopted a resolution recommending that every colony draft a new constitution to replace the colonial charters.  On May 15, Adams presented a resolution he had drafted to serve as a preface to this recommendation, and this preface was worded as a de facto declaration of independence.  Adams described these words to a friend as "the most important resolution that ever was taken in America,"  Two days later, on May 17, he wrote to Abigail, to tell her that he had just become America's Moses:
"Is it not a saying of Moses, 'Who am I, that I should go in and out before this great People?'  When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental in touching some Springs, and turning some small Wheels, which have had and will have such Effects, I feel an Awe upon my Mind, which is not easily described."
Up to the end of his life, fifty years later, Adams was still insisting that he had drafted the real declaration of independence.  He complained that the prominence given to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's drafting of it was unfair.  "Was there ever a Coup de Theatre, that had so great an effect as Jefferson's Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?" Adams asked.  He insisted that the Declaration was merely "a theatrical side show . . . Jefferson ran away with the stage effect--and all the glory of it."

"All honor to Jefferson."

On Jefferson's grave monument, he identified himself as "The Author of the Declaration of American Independence."

Jefferson's prominence among the drafters and signers of the Declaration is suggested in John Trumbull's painting displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda since 1826.  42 of the 56 signors are in the painting.  Trumbull was unable to find likenesses of 14 of the signers.  But he does allow each of the 42 to have a clear individually painted face.  The painting depicts the five-man drafting committee presenting their draft to the Congress on June 26.  The five men of the drafting committee stand out, but Jefferson stands in front, and he holds the center of the painting.  It also helps--as it always does--that he is the tallest man (at 6' 2"), while Adams is shorter (5' 7").  The Wikipedia article on Trumbull's painting allows you to click on each face for a biography.

A Darwinian science of politics must include a political psychology of such political ambition that for the most ambitious men means striving for the glory of being number one.  This requires a study of the political biographies of people like Jefferson and Adams, with personalities shaped by the genetic evolution of political animals, the cultural evolution of political history, and their own life histories.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The End of the End of History?

In recent weeks, my thoughts have moved back and forth from the Declaration of Independence as the beginning of the end of history to Trump's right-wing nationalism as the end of the end of history.

Ever since it was published in 1989, Francis Fukuyama's article "The End of History?" has provoked a continuing debate over the question he posed in his title.  History as a continuing series of unpredictable events will never come to an end, Fukuyama conceded.  But history as the human search for the fully satisfying social order might have come to an end, he suggested, because with the defeat of fascism and Nazism in World War Two and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, liberal democracy remains with no serious challenger; and most of the people in the world today agree in principle that liberal democracy is the only fully satisfying social order.  In practice, of course, the ideals of liberal democracy--equal liberty for all--have not been completely attained.  Nevertheless, even if we disagree about how best to achieve these ideals, most of us agree on the ideals themselves.  Never before has this happened, because in all previous history there were fundamental disagreements about what the ideal society would be like.  To be sure, there seems to be some resistance to liberal ideals in certain parts of the world today--Islamic fundamentalism, for example.  But Fukuyama argued that although such resistance can create a lot of international conflict, this will only delay the inevitable victory of liberal democracy around the world.

According to Fukuyama, there are two reasons for the triumph of liberal ideals.  First, liberalism satisfies the human desire for material security and comfort through economic productivity, free markets, and the scientific conquest of nature.  Second, liberalism satisfies the human desire for recognition through an egalitarian cultural and political order in which all human beings are recognized as equal in their moral dignity.  Thus, the history of human striving for satisfaction comes to an end when human beings discover that liberal democracy is the only social order that satisfies their deepest longings--the longing for material prosperity and the longing for moral recognition.

One can argue that the move towards this end of history began with the Declaration of Independence, because the Declaration began the American founding of a set of ideas and institutions that would constitute the liberal democratic national-state in the modern world.  These ideas and institutions would include a large nation-sized republic based on the principle of popular consent, a free market economy, a secular state without any official religion, and the rule of law that treated all citizens as equal.  The fundamental principle was that all human beings are by nature self-governing individuals who can organize their political, economic, religious, and legal orders through voluntary association.

In recent years, however, the rise of populist right-wing nationalism around the world has provoked a lot of public commentary about the decline or death of liberal democracy and the trends toward demagogic authoritarianism and nationalism.  Trump's meeting with Putin in Finland might confirm this fear with the image of the two most powerful strongmen in the world working together to break up the international liberal order.

But if one pulls back from these recent events and looks at the larger context of history over the past 250 years, one can see that the human progressive movement towards the liberal open society initiated in the Eighteenth century Enlightenment continues.  For example, Marian Tupy at the "HumanProgress" website of the Cato Institute has written an article showing some of the evidence that the progress of democracy around the world remains strong today.  In 1800, there were almost no liberal democracies anywhere in the world.  By 2016, there were 121 democracies.  There have been periods of deviation from this trend.  The rise of fascism, Nazism, and communism between the two world wars was one.  In the early 1970s, there were more autocratic regimes than democratic regimes.  But from 1989, the trend has been steadily rising in the spread of democracies around the world.  Moreover, as Tupy notes, the combined scores for autocracies, as measured by the Center for Systemic Peace, has dropped dramatically since 1989, while the combined scores for democracies has risen dramatically.  The quality of democracy has never been higher in human history.

Of course, these trends towards liberal democratic progress are not absolutely inevitable.  There could always be some deviation towards illiberal regimes as occurred between the two world wars.  But still the empirical historical evidence for liberal progress over the past 250 years is stunning.  (I have written a series of posts on human progress in November-December of 2016 and January of this year.)

To suggest that Donald Trump is going to reverse all of this is a ridiculous exaggeration of the power of that "most stable genius."

If this is true, how do we explain it?  What is it about the principles of the Declaration of Independence--the principles of modern liberalism--that made them so powerful that they have swept across the world over the past two centuries?

One possible explanation is offered by Spinoza in The Theological-Political Treatise, perhaps the first full defense of modern liberal democracy.  He declared that the democratic state is "the most natural state," because it approaches most nearly the equal liberty of human beings in the state of nature.

Darwinian evolutionary anthropology might confirm this by showing that the social life of our hunting-gathering ancestors manifests the individual liberty and equality that liberal theorists have attributed to the state of nature.  And therefore the liberal conception of government as instituted among men to secure the individual rights that first arose in the state of nature might indeed be "the most natural state."

Foragers assert their individual autonomy and liberty in resisting the attempts of anyone to establish dominance over others.  So the liberal ideas of equal liberty and dignity for all individuals and resistance to the sort of dominance hierarchies established in agrarian states can be understood as appealing to the original liberalism of the state of nature.
This kind of Darwinian liberal thinking is suggested--even if not fully elaborated--in the writings of people like Alexandra Maryanski, Jonathan Turner, Paul Rubin, and Christopher Boehm.

Some elaboration of this theme can be found in an earlier post here.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Darwin and the Declaration of Independence: A Response to Kenneth Blanchard

For our panel on "Darwin and the Declaration of Independence," Kenneth Blanchard (Northern State University, Aberdeen, South Dakota) has written a good paper arguing that the Darwinian science of human nature supports the principles of the Declaration.  I find his arguments persuasive.  But I do disagree on what might seem to be a minor issue.  Blanchard says that while modern Darwinian biology supports the Declaration, the thinking of Charles Darwin himself does not.  It seems to me, however, from my reading of Darwin's writings, that on every point where Blanchard sees modern biology confirming the Declaration's reasoning, Darwin agrees.

Blanchard claims "that Darwinian biology allows an understanding of the human species that is plenty robust enough to support the natural rights principles of the Declaration; that Darwinian biology is neither metaphysically nor morally reductionist; and that Darwinian biological science in fact provides powerful support for precisely the view of human nature upon which the Declaration rests" (2).

Blanchard sees two general reasons why Darwinian biology might be understood as denying the Declaration of Independence.  The first is that in affirming that all human beings are morally equal in being created equal as endowed by their Creator with rights, the Declaration seems to require a sharp metaphysical and moral distinction between the human species and all other species that makes human beings unique; but Darwinian biology seems to deny such sharp distinctions between species and to claim that human beings differ only in degree and not in kind from closely related species.

The second problem is that in appealing to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God," "the Supreme Judge of the world," "divine Providence," and "sacred honor," the Declaration points to the moral beauty of human life in looking to the noble and the divine; but Darwinian biology seems to deny such moral beauty in its reductionist view of all human motivations as ultimately directed only to survival and reproduction in serving their "selfish genes."

To recognize all human beings as morally equal and morally elevated, we must be able to recognize all human beings as human, as belonging to the same human species, as distinct from other species; and we must be able to recognize a moral capacity as one of the unique traits of the human species. Blanchard argues--correctly, I think--that modern Darwinian biology allows us to do that.  But I disagree with his suggestion that Darwin would not support this.

Early in his paper, Blanchard refers to Darwin's Origin of Species and then indicates that he will separate Darwinian biology from Darwin: "I will use the Darwinian terms to indicate the present state of the theory and not its state when Darwin sent the manuscript to his London publishers" (9).  Then, later in his paper, he observes: "If defenders of the Declaration had spent a little less time reading the admittedly seminal works of a Victorian Englishman and a lot more time reading works of contemporary evolutionary anthropology and psychology, they might have realized that . . . Darwinian biology confirms the account of human nature presented in the Declaration" (36).

Of course, Blanchard is right that contemporary evolutionary science has advanced far beyond Darwin and has corrected some of Darwin's mistakes.  Nevertheless, I am impressed by the extent to which modern evolutionary science confirms and deepens the ideas first developed by Darwin; and this is true for all of the points where Blanchard sees modern biology sustaining the reasoning of the Declaration of Independence.  Even if this seems like a minor issue, it should be important for a panel on "Darwin and the Declaration of Independence."

Consider the concept of species.  The Declaration of Independence seems to assume that we can recognize the equal humanity of human beings as belonging to the same species.  But there is an old debate among biologists and philosophers as to whether the classification of living beings into species conforms to a natural reality or is rather a purely arbitrary convention of names.  The essentialists have claimed that the classification of species manifests an eternally fixed order of nature, so that each species has an essence defined by some necessary and sufficient traits that belong to all members of that species, and thus there are clear boundaries in nature separating each species from all others.  By contrast, the nominalists have claimed that species have no real existence except as names invented by the human mind to organize the chaotic flux of sense experience.  If the nominalists are right, then the Declaration of Independence is wrong to assume that human beings can be truly identified as equal in their membership in the human species.

If the Declaration must assume an essentialist conception of species, that surely creates a conflict with evolutionary biology, which must deny the essentialism of eternally fixed species, because then the evolutionary transformation of species would be impossible.  And as Blanchard indicates, Darwin rejected the essentialist view of species.  But, then, by embracing nominalism, Blanchard argues, Darwin subverted the thinking of the Declaration of Independence.

Darwin seems to show his nominalism in this passage from The Origin of Species quoted by Blanchard:
"I look at the term species as one arbitrarily given, for the sake of convenience, to a set of individuals closely resembling each other, and that it does not essentially differ from the term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms.  The term variety, which is given to less distinct and more fluctuating forms.  The term variety, again, in comparison with mere individual differences, is also applied arbitrarily, for convenience sake" (1859, 52; 1936, 46).
And yet despite the impression conveyed by this passage, Darwin did not deny the natural reality of species.  In fact, he thought he provided the best biological explanation of the natural basis for classifying species, which is neither strictly essentialist nor strictly nominalist.  He insisted that "the characters which naturalists consider as showing true affinity between any two or more species, are those which have been inherited from a common parent."  Therefore, "community of descent is the hidden bond which naturalists have been unconsciously seeking, and no some unknown plan of creation, or the enunciation of general propositions, and the mere putting together and separating objects more or less alike."  All true classification, he insisted, "must be strictly genealogical in order to be natural." A "natural system" of classification must be based on natural affinities of organisms as they are related by phylogenetic descent (1859, 420; 1936, 323).

Harvard biologist Louis Agassiz was one of the leading critics of Darwin's theory of evolution when Darwin proposed it in 1859. As a Christian Platonist, Agassiz regarded species as thoughts in the mind of God and therefore fixed essences that could not have evolved through any historical process. For Agassiz, Darwin's denial of the eternal fixity of species was a denial of the very reality of species.

Agassiz wrote: "If species do not exist at all, as the supporters of the transmutation theory maintain, how can they vary? And if individuals alone exist, how can differences which may be observed among them prove the variability of species?" In a letter to Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin responded: "How absurd that logical quibble 'if species do not exist, how can they vary?' As if anyone doubted their temporary existence?"

So Darwin did not doubt the "temporary existence" of species. But for a Platonic essentialist like Agassiz, "temporary existence" is not real existence at all.

Moreover, the enduring but not eternal reality of a species does not require that it be defined as a necessary and sufficient set of invariant traits possessed by all members of the species; all that is required is that there be a distinctive range of traits that characterize the species, although there can be individual variation.  So, for example, if we look a text of human anatomy, like Gray's Anatomy, we can see the general patterns of human anatomy distinctive to the human species, but still every human individual will be anatomically unique.

This conception of species as natural kinds is supported by Darwin, and it sustains the Declaration's implicit appeal to the species-specific reality of human nature.  (I have written a series of posts on the concept of species herehere, and here.)

We might wonder, however, whether Darwin's claim that human beings differ only in degree, and not in kind, from other animals might subvert the implicit claim of the Declaration that human beings have a uniquely human moral capacity.  

Blanchard argues that the principles of the Declaration require nothing more than a difference in degree between human beings and other animals, as long as the difference is sufficiently large to give human beings a unique capacity for moral emotions, moral reasoning, and the expression of moral judgment in language.  He then surveys some of the evolutionary theorizing--particularly from Christopher Boehm and Michael Tomasello--explaining how human moral capacity could have evolved in ways that set human beings apart from their primate ancestors (22-36).  Although the elaboration of these theories by Boehm and Tomasello is new, most of the basic ideas can be found in Darwin's Descent of Man (2nd ed., Penguin Classics, 2004).

Even as Darwin claims that "the mental faculties of man and the lower animals do not differ in kind, although immensely in degree" (173), he also recognizes human uniqueness.  "No animal is self-conscious, if by this term it is implied, that he reflects on such points, as whence he comes or wither he will go, or what is life and death, and so forth" (105).  "The habitual use of articulate language is . . . peculiar to man" (107).  "A moral being is one who is capable of comparing his past and future actions or motives, and of approving or disapproving of them.  We have no reason to suppose that any of the lower aniamsl have this capacity" (135).  So, self-conscious abstract thought, language, and morality are all uniquely human.  

These certainly look like differences in kind, and not just in degree.  One way to resolve this confusion is to say that what Darwin saw were emergent differences in kind, where differences in degree have passed over a critical threshold so that novel capacities arise in the human brain that cannot be found in their primate ancestors.

When Blanchard speaks of how human beings achieved cultural "self-domestication" through "the invention of moral communities,"  he is repeating an idea found in Descent, in Darwin's account of how the advance of morality has come more from cultural evolution than from natural selection (120-22, 163, 169, 681-82, 688-89).  Thus, Darwin recognized what evolutionary theorists today call gene-culture coevolution or symbolic niche construction.  As I indicated in my post on Marlene Sokolon's paper, the Declaration of Independence can be understood as a contribution to Lockean liberal symbolic niche construction.

Crucial for this moral evolution, as Blanchard says, is cultural group selection (Blanchard, 25).  Darwin agrees with this, because he sees moral group selection in which tribes with many members who show patriotism, fidelity, courage, sympathy, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good would tend to prevail over tribes lacking these moral traits (130, 183, 155-58).  This moral group identity is what Tomasello calls a sense of "we-ness" (Blanchard, 34) and what Sokolon calls "imagined communities."

Emerging from this cultural group selection is what Darwin calls the "sense of glory," "noble feeling," or "ennobling belief in God" that spirited, ambitious, and patriotic men display in their service to honorable causes (151, 157).  Darwin roots this in the evolution of manly ambition, assertiveness, and spiritedness (124, 127, 130, 133, 142, 158, 683).  This denies the assertion of Harvey Mansfield that Darwin's evolutionary science has no place for manliness.  (I have written about this here, and here.)

This is Darwin's evolutionary explanation of what Blanchard sees as the noble elevation or moral beauty in the Declaration, and it shows how Darwin avoids any crudely reductionist view of human motivations.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Darwin, the Declaration, and American Progressivism: A Response to Jason Jividen

Jason Jividen (Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania) has written an instructive paper for our IPSA panel.  It's entitled "Darwin, the Declaration, and American Progressivism."

He makes three claims.  Most of his paper is devoted to elaborating his first claim--that the American progressives appealed to Darwin as subverting the thinking of the American Founders and supporting the progressive agenda for establishing an Administrative State that would set aside the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as originally understood by the Founders.

His second claim is that many of the conservatives who defend the American Founding against the progressives actually agree with the progressives in their assertion that Darwin subverts the principles of the American Founding, although the conservatives think this is bad, while the progressives think this is good.

His third claim is that the Darwinian conservatives--particularly that guy Larry Arnhart--argue that Darwin and Darwinian science rightly support the principles of the American Founding.

In this dispute, Jividen sees two major questions.  Does the natural rights thinking of the American Founding depend upon the idea of an eternal human nature that is denied by a Darwinian conception of a changing human nature?  And, in particular, does a Darwinian conception of a changing human nature deny the natural right to property?

I generally agree with Jividen's claims.  But unlike Jividen, I clearly endorse the position of that guy Arnhart!

Jividen is good in explaining the contrast between the American Founding and American Progressivism.  The Founders believed that human beings were endowed with natural rights, that government is established with powers limited to securing those natural rights, and that governments that fail to secure those rights can be rightly overthrown.  All of this is affirmed in the Declaration of Independence.

The Founders also believed that human nature was imperfect in that human beings were naturally inclined to advance their selfish interests at the expense of the public good, which is what James Madison identified as the problem of faction.  The primary source of factional conflict is the natural diversity in the human faculties that leads to unequal accumulation of property, which creates conflict between the rich and the poor.  One solution to this problem would be to transform human nature so that everyone would have the same opinions, passions, and interests.  Everyone would be equal in a classless society, and no one would have a selfish interest contrary to the public interest.  But such a transformation of human nature is impossible, Madison believed, because one cannot abolish the natural diversity in the human faculties and the natural selfishness that leads to factional conflict over property.  Moreover, since private property is one of those natural rights that a just government must secure, government cannot rightly abolish private property.

Although there is no complete solution to the problem of faction, the Founders thought the U.S. Constitution was well-designed to mitigate the problem through a system of limited governmental powers with checks and balances (in the Constitution of 1787) and a statement of rights to be secured by government (in the Amendments to the Constitution), which includes an implied reference to natural rights (in the 9th Amendment) as the unenumerated rights "retained by the people."

As Jividen indicates, the American progressives rejected most of this as an outmoded understanding of human nature and government that was not suited to the needs of a modern industrialized society.  The progressive movement of History required a new understanding of human nature and government that would support economic and political reforms that would concentrate power in a Presidential Administrative State where scientific experts could plan the social and economic life of the country for the common welfare of all.

One good way to describe the difference between the American Founders and the American Progressives is suggested by Randy Barnett in his book Our Republican Constitution (Broadside Books, 2016).  In Barnett's terminology, the Founders defended a "Republican Constitution," while the Progressives defended a "Democratic Constitution."  The difference here depends on how one interprets "We the People" at the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution.  It depends on whether one adopts an individual or a collective conception of "We the People."

Those who favor the Democratic Constitution see "We the People" as a collective entity, as a group, so that popular sovereignty means rule by the people as a body.  And since unanimous consensus of everyone is impossible, the collective "will of the people," in practice, must mean the "will of the majority."  And thus in the Democratic Constitution, the will of majorities either in the electorate or in the legislature will decide which individual rights are legally enforceable. So, for example, the majority will decide whether and how property rights are to be protected by law.  Consequently, whenever the majority of the people support laws that deny or restrict individual rights, such as property rights, the Supreme Court must exercise judicial restraint by upholding these laws as constitutional, because denying the will of the majority would be undemocratic.

By contrast, those who favor the Republican Constitution see "We the People" as individuals, so that popular sovereignty resides in the people as individuals.  According to this view, the purpose of government is not to serve the will of the majority but to secure the pre-existing rights of individuals--the rights of each and every one of us.

Barnett explains: "So, under a Democratic Constitution, first comes government and then come rights.  First one needs to establish a polity with a legislature to represent the will of the people.  And then this legislature will decide which rights, if any, get legal protection and which do not" (21).

He contrasts this with the alternative view:  "A Republican Constitution views the natural and inalienable rights of these joint and equal sovereign individuals as preceding the formation of governments, so first come rights and then comes government.  Indeed, the Declaration of Independence tells us, it is 'to secure these rights' that 'Governments are instituted among Men'" (23).

The Progressives criticized the Republican Constitution favored by the Founders because it was undemocratic in protecting individual rights against legal infringements of those rights by the will of the majority.  So, for example, the Progressives denounced the Supreme Court's decision in Lochner v. New York (1905) as a prime example of this, because the decision struck down as unconstitutional violations of the natural right to property by some state laws regulating working conditions that represented the will of the majority.  The Progressives wanted a Democratic Constitution in which the majority of the people would be free to decide how and whether the law would secure property rights.

The fundamental premise of the Founders' Republican Constitution--first come rights and then comes government--depends on the reality of a pre-governmental state of nature in which human beings have natural rights that exist prior to government, so that government can be understood as established to secure those pre-existing rights.  As Jividen indicates, the Progressives dismissed the idea of the state of nature as a purely fictional creation for which there was no historical evidence.  On the contrary, I argue in my paper that Darwinian evolutionary anthropology confirms Locke's claim that human beings originally lived in a state of nature, which shaped our evolved human nature in ways that are expressed in our evolutionary psychology today, so that we are naturally disposed to assert our natural rights to life, liberty, and property as rooted in our natural self-ownership.

But against this claim that Darwinian science supports the idea of natural rights rooted in human nature, the Progressives assumed that the Darwinian science of evolutionary change denied any belief in a fixed human nature.  And many conservatives say yes, and that's why we need to reject Darwinian science in order to defend the natural rights thinking of the American Founders as grounded in the idea of an eternally fixed human nature that can never be changed by evolution; and only in this way can we refute Progressivism.

Oddly, however, as Jividen notes, most of these progressives and conservatives who assume that Darwin subverts natural rights thinking have never read Darwin, and so they rely on some vague conception of "Darwinism" as teaching evolutionary change without any clear understanding of what Darwin and other evolutionary scientists have said.  I am reminded of a conversation I had with Harry Jaffa in his home in Claremont in 1987.  I had just given a lecture defending Darwin and Darwinian science as supporting the principles of the American Founding.  Jaffa disagreed with me.  At one point, I quoted some passages from Darwin's Descent of Man, and Jaffa responded by saying that he had never read Darwin, but he was sure that Darwin was wrong!  (I have written some posts on this here and here.)

Perhaps, however, one doesn't need to know much about Darwin to know that Darwinism teaches evolutionary change and thus denies that any species are eternal, which denies the eternal fixity of human nature; and if human nature is not eternally fixed, it cannot provide the eternal standard of right necessary for natural rights thinking.

My response to this claim has been accurately stated by Jividen: "Darwinism can in fact offer a robust and defensible account of a stable and enduring (but not permanent) human nature as the product of a very long process of evolutionary development.  It can offer a Darwinian defense of natural standards of morality and justice, not rooted in a cosmic teleology, but in a biological teleology of human ends.  Examining the things that contribute to human flourishing and happiness, we can see that these natural standards of right offer guidance about the basis and scope of majority rule and limited constitutional government" (34-35).

Some of my posts on these points can be found herehere, and here.

The idea of an eternally fixed unchanging human nature is so incomprehensible to me that it's hard for me to see how anyone could believe it.  Does anyone really believe that human beings show no individual variation?  Does anyone really believe that human beings have always existed and will always exist in exactly the same form?  Biblical creationists cannot believe this, because they believe that human beings did not exist until they were created by God, and they will not exist in their present form in the afterlife, because God will transform them for an eternal life in Heaven or Hell.

To illustrate how an enduring but not eternal human nature supports the natural rights thinking of the Founders, consider what I say in my paper about the natural evolution of self-ownership as a natural human propensity that supports the natural right to property, and perhaps all other natural rights as well.  Locke affirmed that self-ownership--having natural property in oneself, in one's body and mind--is the original natural right from which all other natural rights are derived.  Frederick Douglass asserted this to justify his running away from slavery: "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body; or in other words, every man is himself, is his self, if you please, and belongs to himself, and can only part from his self-ownership, by the commission of a crime."  Douglass wrote to his former master: "Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours.  I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine.  I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself.  We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence."

Evolutionary neurobiology can explain how this human sense of each person's self-ownership arose in the evolved neuroanatomy of the brain to serve the survival and well-being of the human animal.  Neurobiologist Bud Craig's studies of the neuroanatomy of interoception explain how the feeling of self-awareness--the feeling of being alive--arises from the integration in the neural cortex of the feelings from one's own body.  This gives one a sense of owning one's body.  And this is an example of an enduring but not eternal human nature: if Craig is right, then we should see the structural and functional neuroanatomy of interoception in all normal human brains across the history of the human species, although there will be great variation across individuals.

The brain's evolved capacity for a feeling of self-ownership includes feeling whether other people are likely to be helpful or harmful to oneself, as in the brain's ability to discriminate trustworthy faces and untrustworthy faces, or to punish people who make unfair offers in an Ultimatum Game.  Our brains have evolved to protect ourselves from threats and to seek out cooperative relationships in ways that secure our survival and well-being.  In running away from his slave master, and then in arguing for the abolition of slavery, Douglass expressed the evolved natural propensity of the human brain for self-ownership and for moral resentment against those who would threaten that natural human right to self-ownership.

This evolved natural propensity for moral resentment and retaliation against those who threaten us explains a comment by Carl Becker quoted by Jividen, which is also quoted in my paper.  Becker is one of Jividen's examples of progressives criticizing the Declaration of Independence as refuted by Darwinian science.  If one accepts Darwin's science of evolution, Becker insisted, then the Declaration's appeal to a "higher law" or natural law of moral right is denied, because the evolutionary history of humanity shows only a "struggle for existence and survival," in which the stronger prevail over the weaker.  And in such a Darwinian universe, Becker said, "the rights which nature gave to man were easily thought of as measured by the power he could exert."

But, then, when Becker wrote a new introduction to his book in 1941, he observed that the brutality of the Nazi threat to human liberty had forced people to "re-appraise the validity of half-forgotten ideas" such as the "unalienable rights of men," which might then be seen as "fundamental realities that men will always fight for rather than surrender."

Here we see how, from a Darwinian perspective, it really is true that might makes right, or, as Becker says, one's natural rights are measured by the power one exerts for them.  Actually, Becker here is echoing Spinoza's idea that "nature's right is co-extensive with her power" (TTP, 16.2; TP, 2.4).

The reality of natural rights was confirmed in World War II by the willingness of human beings to fight for them against Hitler rather than surrender.  This defeat of Hitler in war was followed by the Nuremberg Trials and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that expressed the natural human resentment against injustice and the affirmation of human rights as the standard for judging government.

And let's remember that the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war against the most powerful nation in the world.  This was what Locke called an "appeal to Heaven"--a appeal to battle to vindicate natural rights, which was a return to the state of nature in which individuals exercised their natural executive power for enforcing the laws of nature by punishing those who violated those natural laws.

Evolutionary science can explain this as cultural group selection in war, in which the evolved natural human propensity to attack and punish those who threaten our lives and property manifests the reality of natural rights.  This refutes the claim of the Progressives that Darwinian science must deny the natural rights thinking of the Declaration of Independence.

Furthermore, the claim of the Progressives that they were on the right side of History, which required the restriction or even abolition of the right to private property, has been refuted by the evolutionary history of the past one hundred years.  Those socialist regimes that have attempted to completely abolish private property have failed.  And while the welfare-state capitalist regimes--particularly those in the Nordic countries--have succeeded, their success has depended upon enforcing private property rights.  One can see that in the Human Freedom Index, which measures both personal freedom and economic freedom, and which shows that the Nordic social democracies tend to score high in freedom, including legal protection of property rights.  (I have written some posts about this here here., and here.)

That any attempt to abolish private property leads to disastrous consequences shows that this is a natural right rooted in an enduring human nature with an evolved propensity to self-ownership.