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.

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