Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin

On February 12, 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born in Hardin County, Kentucky; and Charles Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, England.

The coincidence of their being born on the same day might lead us to think about other points of similarity in their lives.

William Herndon was Lincoln's friend and law partner, and he wrote one of the best biographies of Lincoln. He says that he gave Lincoln a copy of Robert Chambers' book Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which was first published in 1844. Chambers set forth a theory of evolution that Darwin later acknowledged as a forerunner of his theory. Chambers' book created a great controversy, because many people saw it as denying the role of God as Creator of the universe. According to Herndon, Lincoln was persuaded to adopt this new theory of evolution, because it confirmed his belief that everything in the universe must occur by natural causes. So it seems that Lincoln and Darwin were in agreement in their scientific naturalism and evolutionary views.

Because of their reliance on scientific explanation, both Lincoln and Darwin were accused by some people of promoting atheism by denying the doctrine of Creation. According to Herndon, Lincoln as a young man wrote a book against Christianity arguing that the Bible was not divinely inspired and that Jesus was not the son of God. He was warned by his friends that it was dangerous to make such arguments in public.

In 1846, Lincoln was running for election to Congress, and he had to answer the charge that he was an "infidel." In his written response, he acknowledged that he had never been a member of any Christian church. But he insisted that he had never openly promoted disrespect for Christianity. He conceded that he had defended--in private with a few friends--the "doctrine of necessity" that the human mind is determined by causal necessity beyond its control. But he thought some Christian denominations defended the same doctrine. Moreover, he wrote: "I do not think I could myself be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live."

Lincoln often spoke as if God as Creator must be the First Cause of the universe, and he also commonly invoked the Bible as a source of moral teaching. And yet he also appealed to a natural "moral sense" inherent in human nature, which suggested a natural morality that did not depend on biblical doctrine.

One manifest expression of the "moral sense," according to Lincoln, was the moral feeling against slavery. To reinforce this moral feeling that slavery was unjust, Lincoln would quote the scriptural doctrine of human beings as created in God's image and the scriptural teaching of the golden rule. He did this despite the fact that the pro-slavery Christians in the American South quoted the specific passages on slavery in the Bible as supporting slavery.

On all of these points, Darwin took similar positions. Although he began life as an orthodox Christian, he eventually reached a point of being a skeptic or agnostic. He was particularly disturbed by the unmerited suffering of human beings--such as his child Annie, who died when she was 10 years old--as casting doubt on the existence of an all-good God. And yet he acknowledged that the First Cause of the universe was a mystery pointing to the existence of God. In his published writings, he regularly acknowledged that evolution might depend ultimately on the laws that the Creator had impressed on matter.

Darwin also agreed with Lincoln in seeing morality as rooted in a natural "moral sense." Although this natural morality could stand on its own, it could also be reinforced by biblical morality. Like Lincoln, Darwin saw the Bible's teaching of the golden rule as confirming the ultimate principle of natural morality.

Darwin was also a fervent critic of slavery as contrary to the natural moral sense. Against the scientific racists who argued that the human races were actually separate species, Darwin laid out the evidence for the universal traits shared by all human races as members of the same species.

On all of these points, Lincoln and Darwin support what I have defended in Darwinian Conservatism. We can explain the natural order of the universe as a product of natural evolutionary causes. But if we ask about the First Causes of Nature itself, we face a mystery that points to God as Creator. There is a natural moral sense that allows us to make moral judgments independently of any religious beliefs. And yet Biblical religion can reinforce natural morality by appeal to God as the moral lawgiver. Moreover, religion generally can have beneficial social effects because it helps people to cooperate more effectively by promoting social trust among the believers.

On all of these points, conservatives should see Darwinian science as confirming their principles of ordered liberty as rooted in traditional morality and religious belief. Many religious conservatives object to what they assume is the atheistic teaching of Darwinism, and that's why many of them support "scientific creationism" or "intelligent design theory" as alternatives to Darwinian science. But this ignores the possible compatibility of evolution and religion. In fact, as I argue in my book, there are many theistic evolutionists. And there is no clear evidence that Darwinism has converted people to atheism. (A good survey of the effects of evolution on religious belief can be found in a lecture by Ronald Numbers.)

These are some of the topics we might ponder as we celebrate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

There are only a handful of things more pleasant than reading a well reasoned argument with which you disagree. I've only recently discovered this blog, and I'll continue to read it long enough to become charmed or indifferent. But, I wonder what the—I'm currently unconvinced—implication of Darwinian evolution in the imperfectability of man has in the political philosophy of government towards marriage, or, say, other institutions that promote social order through the promotion of perfectibility (e.g. the illusion of social mobility pacifying the stochastic and arbitrary temperament of the people).

Larry Arnhart said...

I have a chapter on marriage in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM. I agree with Darwin that marriage law properly reinforces the natural desires for sexual mating and parental care that constitute the natural root of social order. Marriage is natural for the human animal. But the natural desires for sexual mating and parental care need to be structured through customary traditions and stipulated laws governing marriage and the family.

Societas said...

I agree that social institutions like the marriage laws are the necessary consequence of "the natural desires for sexual mating and parental care that constitute the natural root of social order". But to what extent does a similar same argument apply to the criminal justice system?

Sir James Stephen’s History of the Criminal Law of England (1883) recounts that the object of the judicial system is simply to give formal expression to the natural sentiment of anger produced by an act of wrongdoing. There would be no law without a natural passion for vengeance, just as there would be no marriage without sexual desire. The relationship of emotion and justice is just like the relationship between sealing wax and the seal.

Modern jurists and criminologists may talk about reform and deterrence, but justice is, at root, institutionalised revenge. This would also imply that the adoption of the Rawlsian language of "social justice" by David Cameron's New Model Conservatives is not conservative in any recognisable sense.

Keith Sutherland
Imprint Academic

Larry Arnhart said...

Keith,

I agree. That's why I speak of the natural desire for justice as reciprocity--returning benefit for benefit and injury for injury.

The moral emotions of vengeance are rooted in this desire, and, as you say, this provides the emotional ground for criminal law.

Adam Smith saw this when he explained the importance of indignation against injuries inflicted on innocent people as an expression of the moral sentiment that supports criminal law.

Societas said...

Perhaps this is moving a little off topic but many of us are puzzled as to why the Conservative Party has abandoned this sort of essentialist language at the very time that academe is beginning to accept that biology might in fact have something to contribute to political and social theory.

Some have argued that this is just a Machiavellian political game – New Labour has spun right (Blair) and governed left (Brown), so New Conservatism will spin left and govern right. As Cameron’s professional background is that of a corporate spin doctor he will have no problem working out some way of reconciling the two. But that will have to wait until the election is won; the task for the moment is just to win it by any means, fair or foul. Columnists like Bruce Anderson are begging disaffected Tory rightists to keep schtum and just wait for the true radicalism that will follow after the election (in 2008).

The trouble with this is Joe Public has wised up to the charade that is modern party politics. Everyone knows that New Labour is smoke and mirrors; the Conservatives may have been unpopular but at least you knew, more or less, what they stood for. Now that Cameron has stolen New Labour’s presentational clothes there is a distinct possibility of a mass exit of voters from the hallowed ‘centre ground’ towards extreme parties at either end of the political spectrum, the last bastions of political honesty. This looks even more likely in the light of the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service to renew the case against the leaders of the British National Party, by sharp contrast to the 'hands off' policy during the 1990s towards the Muslim cleric Abu Hamza and, more recently, the protesters over the Danish cartoons. The language of the latter make Nick Griffin and the other BNP leaders look like moderate liberals.

More ominously, apostates like Michael Portillo have argued that Cameron really *will* do what he says. This is because a) the politician’s job is to get elected; b) the electorate is stubbornly collectivist in its outlook, ergo c) politicians have to go with the public mood, right or wrong. Indeed: ‘The public may well be wrong. Perhaps more grammar schools and more private money in health are good ideas. But there is no future for any British politician who stuffs such radical ideas down such unwilling throats in such placid times.’

Now that may well be true (it used to be called Butskellism, and was the principal cause of national decline), but if so then let the public vote Labour – at least the government will be run by people who actually believe in collectivism, however misguided that might be. Although a salesman may need to change his tune if he transfers from one firm to its biggest rival, tempted by the prospect of promotion to an executive job, one would like to think that there was a bit more to public service than just ‘gissa job’.

Some even have lauded Cameron for returning to the ‘one-nation’ Conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli. But what this ignores is that Disraeli was an unprincipled opportunist who ‘did not seem to care which way he travelled providing he was in the driver’s seat’. Disraeli’s Conservatism was just the modern version of feudalism – noblesse oblige. It took the ‘divisive’ Margaret Thatcher to bring real wealth and opportunity to the proles – in the form of home ownership and small shareholdings – and without needing to resort to the rhetoric of ‘social justice’.

Keith Sutherland
IMPRINT ACADEMIC

Larry Arnhart said...

Keith,

Despite the apparent differences, American conservatism and British conservatism face similar problems.

In the U.S., it appears that the conservative party is the majority party--for now. But Bush and the neoconservatives have walked away from the conservative traditions of ordered liberty through limited government--as indicated by the hugh growth in federal spending programs and the turn to presidential democracy.

It's not surprising that neocon journals like THE WEEKLY STANDARD have been publishing articles praising Disraeli as the model for American conservatives.

Defending "Darwinian conservatism" is for me one way to try to restore that fusion of Burkean traditionalism and Smithian libertarianism that supported the vigorous conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher.

Anonymous said...

Again concerning marriage, if marriage codifies the natural (read: shared by our closely related taxa) for sexual union and parentage in the service of social order, then how do we decide the which natural desires to promote and which to punish? The natural behavior of Pan paniscus is certainly different from that of Pan troglodytes, but we speak of the natural role of sex in procreation and bond formation between spouses, both of which have obvious implications for the larger society. However, paniscus is as phylogeneticaly related to us humans as troglogytes, so why then can I not make an equally valid argument for the natural role of sex to resolve conflict or to establish bonds within groups rather than dyads? I'm not trying to promote some a view here, rather to ask for a more technical definition of what is natural as claiming the utility or correctness of a social mechanism (e.g. marriage) is correctly rooted in its naturalness seems to be a powerful but volatile argument.

Larry Arnhart said...

Anonymous,

The human species might combine the mating propensities of bonobos and chimps, as Frans de Waal argues. But rather than comparing species, we would need to look directly at human beings.

There is great variation in the mating desires of human beings across individuals and across societies. But there are some regularities.

Human beings have a biological potentiality for a wide range of mating behaviors--including celibacy, promiscuity, monogamy, polygyny, and polyandry. But most human beings find celibacy too difficult because it denies our strong desire for sexual mating. Promiscuity is easier because it caters to our sexual desires. Polyandrous marriage (one wife with several husbands) is rare because the intense sexual jealousy of males inclines them against it. Monogamous mating is universal in all human societies, and polygynous mating has been common, because they satisfy natural desires. And yet polygynous mating is disruptive because of the conflicts among the co-wives.

So, understanding our natural desires can explain why celibacy is difficult, promiscuity is easy, polyandry is rare, monogamy is universal, and polygyny is common (but a source of conflict).

Our nature predisposes us to favor some behavior over others, although the specific expression of our behavior will reflect the variable conditions of physical environment, social circumstances, and individual temperament.

As I say in DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM, marriage law is complicated because it manifests the complex interaction of natural desires, customary traditions, and stipulated rules.

"Darwinian conservatism" sees three sources of social order in a nested hierarchy--nature, custom, and stipulation--so that nature constrains but does not specifically determine custom and stipulation.

Ethan Obie said...

Thanks for clarifying. I'll check out a copy of your book from the library (sorry, I'm a cheap grad student), and more carefully consider your arguments and their rebuttals.

ashok said...

I'm not saying anything this time out.

Anonymous said...

"In his published writings, he regularly acknowledged that evolution might depend ultimately on the laws that the Creator had impressed on matter."

This is one that I would just love to see some kind of citation. Can anyone give an actual citation to a writing of Pres. Lincoln on subject of evolution.

Larry Arnhart said...

Anonymous,

No, Lincoln never spoke in his public writings about evolution. But, as I indicated, Herndon did speak about Lincoln reading VESTIGES and being persuaded to accept the idea of evolution. This fits with Lincoln's general propensity to explain the world as governed by natural causes, which led to the public suspicion that he was an "infidel."

Flint said...

I'm not sure I'm following this marriage argument, although I'm quite interested. Biologically, as I understand it, humans are somewhat monogamous, and somewhat promiscuous, as compared with other species. However, my understanding of the 'conservative' posture is that monogamy is to be both expected and enforced, while the (very real) promiscuous part of human nature is to be frowned on. I think humans have worked out the most practical accommodation to minimize conflict of all kinds: give lip service to monogamy, and keep the occasional promiscuity clandestine. This being the customary practice, it seems that biology and custom are congruent, but the stipulated rules are unrealistic. Yet if conservatives are known for anything, it's for regarding stipulated rules as critical.

Larry Arnhart said...

Flint,

Wouldn't conservatives generally insist that stipulated rules need to be constrained by nature and custom? Surely, conservatives oppose the utopian attempts to set aside nature and custom in constructing social order based on purely stipulated design. The many socialist projects for abolishing marriage and the family to achieve a fully communal society would illustrate the utopian disregard for human nature and human customs that conservatives reject.

Conservatives recognize positive law, but only within the limits set by natural law and customary law.

Flint said...

Larry,

I find your position somewhat circular. Stipulations are constrained by custom, but customs are established largely through stipulation. Maybe the distinction between these (written as opposed to unwritten?) isn't all that meaningful.

If you read (I'm sure you have, of course) such as Locke, Mill, Hobbes, Rousseau, and others, they all start out by saying "Because human nature is THIS, proper organization of society should be THAT." In other words, there's a long tradition of recognizing that to the degree that stipulations require unnatural behavior, they will be violated. Problem is, these various social philosophers disagree, sometimes significantly, about the shape of human nature.

So I don't regard non-conservatives as "attempting to set aside nature and custom" in favor of "purely stipulated design." First, let's leave custom out of this. ANY attempt to establish a new organization, however well or ill advised, must set aside custom. Second, I see these people as attempting to FIT human nature, rather than disregard it. The utopians are saying that humans, by their nature, are not monogamous. And they're right. The conservatives are saying that humans ARE monogamous. They are also right. Humans are *partially* monogamous, except when they aren't.

Compounding the problem here is that if we regard 'custom' as social organization (and ramifications of it) that just sort of evolved along least-resistance paths to minimize conflict, you don't need to be Margaret Mead to notice the impressively wide range of 'natural' customs within which people can live peacefully and happily. People surely have a biological nature, but part of our nature is to be malleable and adaptable.

My thesis, then, is that what conservatives oppose isn't "unnatural" arrangements (after all, ALL points on the political spectrum reject that), but change itself. I see this, for example, behind conservative opposition to same-sex marriage. This is NOT an opposition to anything unnatural; it's nothing more than an attempt for civil authority to legally recognize a living arrangement that in many cases has been perfectly natural, stable, and comfortable. Some of the applicants have been committed partners for many decades.

So while I think we agree that any practice that violates our biological natures won't work, where conservatives disagree with non-conservatives concerns the width of scope within which we be permitted by stipulation to experiment. "Customary law" need not be narrowly stipulated to fall well within normal (i.e. wide) human variability, but it DOES need to be narrowly stipulated to escape the inherent conservative discomfort with "different."

Flint said...

Larry,

I find your position somewhat circular. Stipulations are constrained by custom, but customs are established largely through stipulation. Maybe the distinction between these (written as opposed to unwritten?) isn't all that meaningful.

If you read (I'm sure you have, of course) such as Locke, Mill, Hobbes, Rousseau, and others, they all start out by saying "Because human nature is THIS, proper organization of society should be THAT." In other words, there's a long tradition of recognizing that to the degree that stipulations require unnatural behavior, they will be violated. Problem is, these various social philosophers disagree, sometimes significantly, about the shape of human nature.

So I don't regard non-conservatives as "attempting to set aside nature and custom" in favor of "purely stipulated design." First, let's leave custom out of this. ANY attempt to establish a new organization, however well or ill advised, must set aside custom. Second, I see these people as attempting to FIT human nature, rather than disregard it. The utopians are saying that humans, by their nature, are not monogamous. And they're right. The conservatives are saying that humans ARE monogamous. They are also right. Humans are *partially* monogamous, except when they aren't.

Compounding the problem here is that if we regard 'custom' as social organization (and ramifications of it) that just sort of evolved along least-resistance paths to minimize conflict, you don't need to be Margaret Mead to notice the impressively wide range of 'natural' customs within which people can live peacefully and happily. People surely have a biological nature, but part of our nature is to be malleable and adaptable.

My thesis, then, is that what conservatives oppose isn't "unnatural" arrangements (after all, ALL points on the political spectrum reject that), but change itself. I see this, for example, behind conservative opposition to same-sex marriage. This is NOT an opposition to anything unnatural; it's nothing more than an attempt for civil authority to legally recognize a living arrangement that in many cases has been perfectly natural, stable, and comfortable. Some of the applicants have been committed partners for many decades.

So while I think we agree that any practice that violates our biological natures won't work, where conservatives disagree with non-conservatives concerns the width of scope within which we be permitted by stipulation to experiment. "Customary law" need not be narrowly stipulated to fall well within normal (i.e. wide) human variability, but it DOES need to be narrowly stipulated to escape the inherent conservative discomfort with "different."

Flint said...

Larry,

I find your position somewhat circular. Stipulations are constrained by custom, but customs are established largely through stipulation. Maybe the distinction between these (written as opposed to unwritten?) isn't all that meaningful.

If you read (I'm sure you have, of course) such as Locke, Mill, Hobbes, Rousseau, and others, they all start out by saying "Because human nature is THIS, proper organization of society should be THAT." In other words, there's a long tradition of recognizing that to the degree that stipulations require unnatural behavior, they will be violated. Problem is, these various social philosophers disagree, sometimes significantly, about the shape of human nature.

So I don't regard non-conservatives as "attempting to set aside nature and custom" in favor of "purely stipulated design." First, let's leave custom out of this. ANY attempt to establish a new organization, however well or ill advised, must set aside custom. Second, I see these people as attempting to FIT human nature, rather than disregard it. The utopians are saying that humans, by their nature, are not monogamous. And they're right. The conservatives are saying that humans ARE monogamous. They are also right. Humans are *partially* monogamous, except when they aren't.

Compounding the problem here is that if we regard 'custom' as social organization (and ramifications of it) that just sort of evolved along least-resistance paths to minimize conflict, you don't need to be Margaret Mead to notice the impressively wide range of 'natural' customs within which people can live peacefully and happily. People surely have a biological nature, but part of our nature is to be malleable and adaptable.

My thesis, then, is that what conservatives oppose isn't "unnatural" arrangements (after all, ALL points on the political spectrum reject that), but change itself. I see this, for example, behind conservative opposition to same-sex marriage. This is NOT an opposition to anything unnatural; it's nothing more than an attempt for civil authority to legally recognize a living arrangement that in many cases has been perfectly natural, stable, and comfortable. Many applicants had been in committed relationships for decades.

So while I think we agree that any practice that violates our biological natures won't work, where conservatives disagree with non-conservatives concerns the width of scope within which we be permitted by stipulation to experiment. "Customary law" need not be narrowly stipulated to fall well within normal (i.e. wide) human variability, but it DOES need to be narrowly stipulated to escape the inherent conservative discomfort with "different."

Flint said...

Oops, sorry. That's what happens when the feedback is "you got an error" rather than "post successful".

Bil said...

Would it be possible to site your sources? I don't say that as a slant I just think your information is fascinating and I would like to research it more to form my own opinions.
Thanks

Luke said...

Lincoln became more, not less, religious over time. With Darwin it was the reverse.

The Hebraic conception of "God" that Lincoln distilled from a life time of reading the Bible, and his genius in invoking that concept in the language of the Bible, was central to his achievement as a statesman.

Of course this usage is perfectly compatible with the idea of natural morality and does not necessarily imply religious belief.

It's just that the language of God and the Bible is so damned handy!

In other words, anthropomorphic metaphors that have cultural and historical resonance trump abstractions in popular discourse. It's a lot easier to say that man is created in the image of God, who is a just judge of the earth and no respector of persons, than it is to get the same ideas across in naturalistic language -- as witness the success of the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence.


So I suggest that we study the natural origins of human morality as a way to better appreciate and illucidate this Hebraic way of talking, rather than as a substitute for it.

Larry Arnhart said...

Luke,

I agree. We can understand the powerful moral appeal of the Bible by understanding how it appeals to our natural moral sense. So, for example, the statement of the golden rule by Jesus is seen by Darwin as expressing "the foundation of morality."

inchirieri apartamente cluj said...

Both of these great personalities have inspired the world. Lincon is a symbol of The American Civil War and of the fight against slavery, and Darwin the naturalist that promoted the idea that all species of life decend from common ancestors.

Accepting his idea, one simply rejects the existence of God. If we decend from monkeys, Adam did not exist and God is not above human nature.

I personally disagree. I believe that God created man, and He is the almighty lawgiver. I believe that Lincon believed in God, because he fought against slavery, believing that people are equal to God. We are all made in God's image!