Monday, April 30, 2007

Liberty Begins at Sumer

The Liberty Fund is an educational foundation in Indianapolis that was established through the philanthropy of Pierre Goodrich. Liberty Fund is best known for their publishing program and for their conferences (170-180 a year)on various topics related to the idea of liberty. The logo for Liberty Fund is a cuneiform script that is thought to be the first written symbol for "liberty," which was found in an ancient writing dating from 2,300 B.C. in the Sumerian city-state of Lagash.

I assume that Goodrich picked this up from his reading of Samuel Noah Kramer's book History Begins at Sumer: Thirty-Nine Firsts in Recorded History, first published in 1956 and reissued in a 3rd edition in 1981 by the University of Pennsylvania Press.

The story told in the original Sumerian text illustrates my claim that the conservative commitment to ordered liberty can be supported as rooted in the natural desires of evolved human nature.

The story is in Chapter 7: "Social Reform: The First Case of Tax Reduction." The ruler of the city-state of Lagash--the ishakku--had raised taxes on almost every article of property to the point that the wealth of the palace grew while the people of the city were impoverished as the tax collectors appeared everywhere to collect their assessments. The oppression became so great that the people were willing to recognize a new ruler--Urukagina.

According to the Sumerian text, "He removed the inspector of the boatmen from the boats. He removed the cattle inspector from the cattle, large and small. He removed the fishers inspector from the fisheries. He removed the collector of the silver which had to be paid for the shearing of the white sheep. When a man divorced his wife, neither the ishakku nor his vizier got anything. When a perfumer made an oil preparation, neither the ishakku, nor the vizier, nor the palace steward got anything. When a dead man was brought to the cemetery for burial, the officials received considerably less of the dead man's goods than formerly, in some cases a good deal less than half. Temple property was now highly respected. From one end of the land to the other, . . . there was no tax collector. Urukagina established the freedom of the citizens of Lagash."

Kramer, one of the leading Sumerologists of his day, presents this as evidence that the people of Sumer understood the value of "freedom under law."

In many ways, these ancient Sumerians of 4,500 years ago were like us. They had the same natural desires, including the desires for property and justice as reciprocity. They also showed a desire for political rule, such that a ruling few would desire to dominate, and the subordinate many would desire to be free from exploitative dominance. Although they did not fully achieve it, it seems that the ancient Sumerians were moving towards limited and balanced government in which the power of the ruling few would be checked to secure the liberty of the ruled in their private economic, familial, and religious lives.

It is not too much of an overstatement to see the whole history of the world over the past 5,000 years as a movement towards free societies in which the natural desires of human beings could be satisfied through a delicate balance of governmental authority and individual liberty. Such an account of history has been elaborated in Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of History Destiny (2000). He argues that human history shows a directionality towards ever wider and more intricate cooperation to secure the potential benefits in non-zero sum games. For that to happen, human beings had to emerge through biological evolution to have the natural propensities for social cooperation based on kinship, mutualism, and reciprocity. But then we needed thousands of years of cultural evolution to develop the technology and social institutions that now allow us to cooperate today at a global level. There is nothing in this Darwinian logic of biological and cultural evolution that would dictate that history had to follow the exact path that it did. But given human nature and the opportunities of cultural history, it was highly likely that human history would move towards the sort of ordered liberty that is achieved in modern constitutional republics.

In that sense, human history is the history of the unfolding of human liberty through the coevolution of human nature and human culture.

The logo for the Liberty Fund is appropriate, therefore, because it suggests that the work of the Liberty Fund is to understand the natural and cultural logic of the history of liberty from ancient Sumeria to the present, and thus to understand the conditions for liberty in the world.

It is poignant to observe that Sumer was located in what is now southern Iraq. This reminds us that even if there is a broad historical movement towards liberty, the actual achievement of liberty in particular circumstances is difficult, because it depends on complex cultural conditions that emerge by spontaneous order and not by human design. That's why the American ambition for democratic "nation-building" through military occupation in Iraq is so imprudent, because it is based on a utopian fantasy that constitutional liberty can be created through the rational design of bureacratic planners with little regard for the cultural conditions.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Reason and Emotion in the Stem Cell Research Debate

Extracting stem cells from a human blastocyst destroys the blastocyst. Those who defend this (like Michael Sandel)say this is not murder because a blastocyst is not actually human, and therefore to destroy a blastocyst is not killing a human being. A blastocyst is no more a human being than an acorn is an oak tree. (A statement from Sandel can be found here.) Those who oppose this (like Robert George) say that from the moment a human egg is fertilized, a human life exists, and therefore to destroy it is murder. (George's argument can be found here and here. His response to Sandel can be found here.)

Although we agree on the morality of protecting human life against unjustified attack, we disagree about exactly when human life begins, or whether different stages of human life deserve different levels of protection.

There are many conflicting scientific views on the question of when human life begins. According to the metabolic view, the development of human life is a continuous process with no definite point at which human life begins. Even fertilization is not a single event, because after the sperm penetrates the egg, it takes about 24 hours before the chomosomes are combined to form a diploid organism.

According to the genetic view, human life begins at fertilization, because at that point, there is a genetically unique individual that is internally driven by genetic programming to develop into a mature human being if the external conditions (such as implantation in a suitable uterus) are right. This is George's view.

According to the embryological view, human life originates at gastrulation, which beings in the third week of pregnancy, when the embryo is implanted in the uterus, and the cells are differentiated into three primary germ layers--ectoderm, mesoderm, and endoderm--from which the human body will develop. What's significant about this point in development is that from this point twining cannot occur. But during the first two weeks of a pregnancy, it is possible for a zygote to divide into genetically identifical twins. This suggests that there is no single individual identity present, if there is the potentiality for twinning, and thus creating two distinct individuals. (In rare cases, it is even possible for two zygotes to fuse into one zygote with two full sets of chromosomes.)

According to the neurological view, what is distinctive to human life is brain activity. We acknowledge this when we use the standard of "brain death" to define death as the lost of a recognizable cerebral entroencephalogram (EEG). This kind of brain activity is not possible in human development prior to 25 weeks of gestation.

According to the viability view, human life requires self-sustaining viability that does not depend on the mother's uterus, and even with the most advanced medical procedures and equipment, a fetus cannot survive outside the uterus until after 25 weeks of gestation at the earliest.

Good scientific arguments can be made for any of these views of when human life begins. Unfortunately, there is no way to resolve this disagreement by pure reason alone. Because here--as is always the case with moral arguments--we need a combination of reason and emotion, so the the dispute is not just logical but psychological as well. Because we are naturally social animals, and because we feel a natural desire to protect and care for children, we feel a moral emotion of concern for helpless children and indignation against those who would harm children. Leon Kass acknowledges this inescapable emotional element of moral experience when he invokes the moral significance of repugnance and what he calls our "prearticulate human moral sense."

When we argue about the beginnings of human life, we enter a fuzzy borderline where it is hard to see when we are dealing with a human child and when not. In trying to draw a borderline, we can use scientific reasoning to gather and assess the facts of early human development, but deciding what point is crucial is a matter of human emotion. When do we see something that looks enough like a human child to elicit our moral emotion of protection for children?

And yet Robert George takes a rationalistic pro-life position in claiming that this is a purely scientific and rational issue, with no moral emotion involved. He argues that it is simply a scientific fact that "fertilization produces a new and complete, though immature, human organism," and therefore "a human embryo is--already and merely potentially--a human being." This is so because "the combining of the chomosomes of the spermatozoon and of the oocyte generates what every authority in human embryology identifies as a new and distinct organism."

Against George, some assert that this view contradicts the facts of embryological science, because the possibility of twining during the first 14 days of development shows that there is no single individual human identity until after that point. George responds to this twining argument with an analogy first offered by philosopher Alan Holland. A flatworm cut into two becomes two individual worms, and yet we presumably would agree that the worm was a single individual before it was cut up. Similarly, we should agree that the possibility of a zygote dividing into twins does not deny the fact that the zygote was an individual before the division.

But this is confusing. George says that one possible explanation of twining is that the individual life in the original zygote dies and is replaced by the two individual lives created by the split into two separate zygotes. But George's preferred explanation is that twining is actually a case of asexual reproduction--the original zygote continues to live but it generates a second zygote by splitting.
By the first explanation, one individual must die to produce two totally new individuals. By the second explanation, one individual produces a second individual through asexual budding. This explanation that is preferred by George is strange because it suggests that one twin is actually the parent of the other.

Yet it seems to me that none of this reasoning is sufficient to settle the moral question of how much respect we should give to human zygotes. Deciding whether a zygote is enough like a child to deserve the protection that we would normally give to a child is as much a matter of emotion as it is of reason. As a result of in vitro fertilization procedures, in which far more embryos are produced than are implanted in a womb, hundreds of thousands of embryos have been discarded. Perhaps as many as 400,000 embryos are now frozen in IVF clinics, and most of them will never be implanted. George says that this is mass murder. But even President Bush doesn't agree with this. And in fact, I suspect that most human beings would not agree, because most don't feel the same moral emotional concern for a fertilized egg frozen in an IVF clinic that they feel for a newborn child.

In a statement that can be found here, James Q. Wilson captures this point well. He writes:

"A fertilized cell has some moral worth, but much less than that of an implanted cell, and that has less than that of a fetus, and that less than that of a viable fetus, and that the same as of a newborn infant. My view is that people endow a thing with humanity when it appears, or even begins to appear, human; that is, when it resembles a human creature. The more an embryo resembles a person, the more claims it exerts on our moral feelings. Now this last argument has no religious or metaphysical meaning, but it accords closely, in my view, with how people view one another. It helps us understand why aborting a fetus in the twentieth week is more frightening than doing so in the first, and why so-called partial birth abortions are so widely opposed. And this view helps us to understand why an elderly, comatose person lacking the ability to speak or act has more support from people than a seven-week-old fetus that also lacks the ability to speak or act."

"Human worth grows as humanity becomes more apparent. In general, we are profoundly grieved by the death of a newborn, deeply distressed by the loss of a nearly born infant or a late-month miscarriage, and (for most but not all people)worried but not grieved by the abortion of a seven-week-old fetus. Our humanity, and thus the moral worth we assign to people, never leaves us even if many elements of it are later stripped away by age or disease."

I have written another post on the related issue of abortion.

The Shameful Glorification of the Va Tech Murderer

The Virginia Tech murderer carefully prepared videos and photographs to glorify his murderous rampage. He sent them to NBC News with the expectation that they would be widely broadcast in the media to appeal to mentally disturbed young men like himself. Of course, he was right, because he knew that journalists in the news media are shameless in their eagerness to broadcast such sensational images.

There are stories now that some of the parents of the victims at Virginia Tech are refusing to give interviews to NBC News as a protest against their complicity in promoting these images. I applaud them. Even if it is impossible in today's world to keep such material from being widely distributed, we should still express our moral outrage when journalists help to glorify a murderer.

As I have indicated, young unmarried men who feel they have no social recognition are tempted to socially disruptive behavior as a way of winning glory for themselves. It's not surprising at all that the Virginia Tech killer referred to the Columbine High School killers as "martyrs" who inspired his behavior. Now we can expect that many more young men who feel isolated and scorned will want to emulate this behavior.

It has been noticed that the Virginia Tech killer's videos seem to have been staged to resemble the videos made by Islamic suicide terrorists to memorialize themselves. After all, most of the suicide terrorists are unmarried young men who are attracted to suicide terrorism as a way of glorifying themselves as religious martyrs.

As a product of evolutionary history, young men are drawn to such murderous behavior. And thus any healthy society must check the turbulent dispositions of young men by channeling them in socially acceptable ways.

Unfortunately, modern state universities like Virginia Tech scorn the traditional idea that schools should act in loco parentis in supervising the behavior of students to form good character. At the very least, students with mental and moral problems should be required to go into counseling with the threat of dismissal from school if they refuse.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Sex Differences and the Massacre at Virginia Tech

When I first heard about the shootings at Virginia Tech this morning, I could easily predict the identity of the shooter--an unmarried man between the ages of 18 and 25. When I heard a FBI psychological profiler interviewed by a reporter speak about what "he or she" might have done, I laughed at the strained PC language of gender-neutrality. We all know that young unmarried men are far more likely to be cold-blooded murderers. We haven't yet heard whether the young man who did this is unmarried, but it is easy to predict that.

Darwinian biology confirms our common-sense perception that young men are more inclined to lethal violence than are young women. And young men who have not been domesticated by marriage are even more likely to such violence. Of course, this doesn't mean that all young men are potential murderers. But it does mean that most murders are committed by young men. There are natural differences between men and women that incline men--and particularly young men--to violent aggression.

That's why every society must devote great resources to the taming of young male propensities to violence and socially disruptive behavior. Here is a pattern in human nature that has been shaped by human evolutionary history. Of course, culture can either exacerbate or mitigate this inclination. So, for instance, Canada is generally more peaceful than the United States. But, still, most of the perpetrators of violence in Canada are young men. The pattern of sex differences is universal, even though culture can influence the absolute level of violence.

To assume that all sex differences in behavior are culturally constructed, and therefore that we could eliminate such differences through gender-neutral social conditioning, is a utopian conception contrary to the realistic view of human nature supported by Darwinian science.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Scruton on Religion

Roger Scruton has posted a statement on religion at the "Right Reason" blog. He prepared this for a debate with Richard Dawkins on the question of whether "we would be better off without religion." Since Scruton is the leading conservative philosopher in Great Britain, I am pleased to see that he largely agrees with what I have written on this blog and in Darwinian Conservatism about religion and evolution.

He agrees with me in accepting the truth of evolutionary science and in seeing that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and religion, because religion answers questions about ultimate meaning and purpose that go beyond the realm of scientific reasoning. Moreover, he also agrees that religion provides support for morality and communal identity that can sustain a healthy community.

He also recognizes, of course, that religion can be harmful, even disastrous, when it promotes fanatical violence and brutality. But this only shows that we need to look to the proper development of the religious urge. Like many human goods, religion can be bad when it is practiced in the wrong way.

That Darwinian evolution and religious belief can be compatible has been the general position of the Catholic Church. But recently some Catholic leaders--such as Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn--have professed allegiance to "intelligent design theory." Now we have a news story about a new book that includes comments by Pope Benedict on this issue. Apparently, Benedict is defending a form of "theistic evolution" that would accept evolutionary history, but see it as guided by God's will. This news story does not provide a clear, detailed statement of the Pope's position. But it does seem that he rejects "intelligent design theory."

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Darwinian Political Science

In Darwinian Conservatism, I offer an explanation of social order as the product of three kinds of order: natural order, customary (or habitual) order, and rational (or deliberate) order. This analysis of order as natural, customary, and rational was first stated by Aristotle and later adopted by philosophers such as Cicero and Thomas Aquinas. It is also implicit in Darwin's account of the human moral sense. Hayek employs the same analysis, but his stress on customary order obscures the relationship between these three kinds of order as a nested hierarchy. Hayek also fails to see how a Darwinian account of morality and social order includes these three sources of order.

As originally suggested by Aristotle, we can explain both the social order of a community and the moral order of an individual life as the product of nature (physis), custom or habit (ethos), and reason or deliberation (logos). Instead of seeing an antithetical dichotomy of nature versus convention, we should see a three-level nested hierarchy in which custom presupposes nature, and reason presupposes both nature and custom. The fully developed order in a community or an individual arises as the joint product of natural propensities, the development of those propensities through habit or custom, and the rational deliberation about those propensities, habits, and customs.

Using this analysis of the three sources of order, we could develop a Darwinian theoretical framework for political science that would move through three levels: the natural history of politics, the cultural history of politics, and the biographical history of politics. For the natural history of politics, we would study the genetic evolution of human beings as political animals. For the cultural history of politics, we would study the cultural evolution of political institutions as constrained by genetic evolution. For the biographical history of politics, we would study the history of individual decision-makers in politics as constrained by both genetic nature and cultural institutions.

I can illustrate this through the topic of war. Darwin believed that warfare was crucial for the evolution of human social and moral capacities. The evolution of moral and political cooperation could have depended on lethal combat, so that groups with high levels of cooperation would have been more likely to prevail in war against their opponents. Considering the importance of war for politics, we might then explore how Darwinian science would explain the origins of war in general and of wars in particular circumstances--such as, for example, the American invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003.

To explain why George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, we would have to consider not just the naturally evolved dispositions to warfare, but also the cultural institution of the American presidency that gave him the power to make war in the circumstances he faced. It might be a natural propensity of human beings to live in societies with dominance hierarchies and to defer to dominant leaders, particularly in war. The willingness of citizens to risk their lives in war is a heroic manifestation of the human disposition to other-regarding behavior. But that natural propensity in the United States is channeled through the constitutional and scoial history of the American president as commander-in-chief.

Within the constraints set by natural propensities and cultural circumstances, the judgments of unique individuals in positions of responsibility can decisively determine the course of political history. This makes human political science more complex and unpredictable than anything studied by the physicist or chemist.

To explain fully why President Bush launched the American invasion of Iraq, the political scientist would have to consider not only the natural history of war in human evolution and the cultural history of presidential war in the United States, but also the biographical history of President Bush and those who influenced his decision.

This sketch of what a Darwinian political science would look like is briefly elaborated in my recent commentary in Behavioral and Brain Sciences in response to an article by Herbert Gintis. The article and my commentary can be found here.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Darwin's Vicar

As we enter the Easter season, we should notice the continuing debate over the relationship between Darwinian science and Biblical religion. For example, last November, Time magazine published a debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins, with Dawkins claiming that Darwinism refutes religious belief and Collins claiming that Darwinism and religion are compatible.

The fundamental difficulty manifest in this debate is one that I have taken up in my books and this blog. It's the problem of ultimate explanation. In the search for ultimate causes, we must appeal to some final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained. Either we look to Nature as the final ground. Or we look to God as the supernatural ground of Nature. I cannot see any way around this problem, which shows the limits of human reason.

As I have argued on this blog, Darwin himself saw no necessary conflict between evolutionary science and Biblical religion. He appealed to the traditional conception of "two books": God speaks both through the Book of Nature as studied by human reason and the Book of Scripture as revealed to the faithful.

In his personal religious views, Darwin moved from being an orthodox Christian in the earlier parts of his life to being a skeptic or agnostic at the end of his life. Unlike Dawkins, Darwin never attacked religion or denied that there were fundamental mysteries that left an opening for religious belief.

Darwin's stance on the relationship between science and religion is illustrated in his personal life by his friendship with the Reverend J. Brodie Innes. When Darwin moved to the village of Downe in 1842, Innes was curate of the adjoining parish of Farnborough, and Innes became the vicar of Downe in 1846. Innes moved to Scotland in 1862. For over 30 years, they were close friends.

The correspondence between Darwin and Innes was published in the Annals of Science (December, 1961), as edited by Robert Stecher. This correspondence shows a remarkable friendship between two men who respected one another despite their disagreeing about almost everything. Innes was a Tory. Darwin was a Whig who supported the Liberal Party. Innes was a devout theologian of the Church of England. Darwin was not a church-goer, although he supported the Church in its parish activities. Innes read Darwin's books with great interest, and he shared Darwin's interest in natural history, but Innes was never persuaded by Darwin's evolutionary theory.

When religious leaders attacked Darwin, Innes defended him by saying, "I never saw a word of his writings which was an attack on religion. He followed his own course as a naturalist, and he leaves Moses to take care of himself." Like Darwin, Innes used the "two books" idea to separate the Book of Revelation from the Book of Nature, so that nature could be studied scientifically without necessarily denying the claims of revelation.

One particularly interesting disagreement between them was on slavery. After Innes had read the Descent of Man, he wrote to Darwin: "I have today finished reading your charming book, . . . full of the most interesting facts of natural history. I am not a convert to the theory you found on them. I hold to the old belief that a man was made a man though developed into niggers who must be made to work and better men able to make them, if those radicals did not interfere with the salutary chastisement needful, neglecting the lesson taught by the black ants slaves to the white." Darwin wrote back: "my views do not lead me to such conclusions about negroes & slavery as yours do; I consider myself a good way ahead of you, as far as this goes."

This exchange shows that Innes recognized that attacking slavery and refuting racist science was one of the main purposes of Darwin's writing in the Descent. It also shows the possible conflict between Biblical morality and Darwin's natural moral sense. As I have indicated in some of my posts, the Bible seems to endorse slavery, and that's why many of the proslavery thinkers could defend slavery as biblically grounded. But Darwin regarded slavery as contrary to natural moral principles of justice as reciprocity (see my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right).

While some Biblical believers claim that morality without Biblcial religion is impossible, this dispute over slavery shows that sometimes we must appeal to our natural moral sense to correct the teachings of the Bible.