Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Darwinian Liberalism of Monet's Water Lilies: The Evolutionary Invention of Water Lilies and Their Markets


                                    Video of Monet's Water Lily Garden and Japanese Footbridge

                                 Two of Monet's Water Lily Paintings, 1900 and 1906

One of my favorite locations in the world is Gallery 243 in the Art Institute of Chicago, where some of Claude Monet's series paintings--pictures of water lilies, wheat stacks, and foggy London--are displayed.  Every time I go there, I am reminded of the day when I first became fascinated with Monet's paintings, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago.  It was March 13, 1975, and it was the first day of an exhibition at the Art Institute--"Paintings by Monet"--that had 122 of Monet's paintings from around the world.  I was particularly moved by the huge water lily paintings.  Ever since then, I have been trying to understand the attraction of these paintings.

A few days ago, I arrived early at the museum so that my wife and I could be the first people in the gallery.  I had recently read an article by Gloria Bloom--"The Real Water Lilies of Giverny"--that started me thinking about the Darwinian liberalism of Monet's water lily paintings.  

The paintings are Darwinian in many respects. The water lilies in Monet's water garden were products of evolutionary artificial selection by horticultural domestication, which is a process of plant-animal coevolution.  Monet's landscaping of his gardens and his gardening of the plants can be understood as evolutionary niche construction.  The paintings and the plants were also products of a liberal order of global trade and free markets, which allows for the evolutionary economics of entrepreneurship in the markets for plants and art.  This also illustrates how Darwinian liberalism satisfies the natural desire of evolved human nature for the aesthetic pleasures of nature represented in visual art.  The universality of these aesthetic pleasures is indicated by the fact that these paintings by Monet have become some of the most popular images in the history of art.  They have also been commercially successful.  In recent years, some of the paintings have sold for over $50 million.  Amazon sells canvas print reproductions for about $37.


There are over 300 paintings of water lilies or Nymphaea (the subgenus of hardy water lilies) that Monet made over the last 27 years of his life (1899-1926) at his home in Giverny, a village 50 miles northwest of Paris.  Wikipedia has a good list of these paintings.

As Bloom indicates, art consumers and art historians have taken for granted the colorful water lilies planted in Monet's water garden, assuming that Monet must have found these plants easily available in the landscape of France.  But that is not true.  At the end of the 19th century, the only water lily that grew naturally in France was the hardy white species Nymphaea alba, which had been first identified by Carl Linnaeus.

                                                                         Nymphaea alba

In the 19th century, European botanist-explorers were importing colorful water lilies found in tropical regions of the world.  The gardening public was excited by these new brightly colorful water lilies, but these tropical plants could not tolerate the European winter.

In 1889, at the World's Fair in Paris, the French horticulturalist Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac won a prize for his exhibition of water lilies that he had created by crossbreeding hybridization.  By crossing European species with species found in America and the tropics, he had created colorful lilies that were hardy enough to grow in the European climate (Holmes 2015).  

                                                           Joseph Bory Latour-Marliac

Monet was himself a horticulturalist, and he was impressed by Latour-Marliac's hybrids at the World's Fair.  At Giverny, Monet was diverting a stream through his property and landscaping to create a water garden.  By 1894, he was ready to begin planting, and he placed an order at the Latour-Marliac greenhouses for a wide variety of plants, including three types of water lilies: Nymphaea Mexicana, Nymphaea "Laydekeri Rosea," and Nymphaea "Odorata Sulphurea Grandiflora."

                                                                    Nymphaea Mexicana

                                                           Nymphaea "Laydekeri Rosea"

                                                 Nymphaea "Odorata Sulphurea Grandiflora"

In 1904, Monet placed his second order for plants from the Latour-Marliac nursery, and this time it was only for red water lilies.  Now, he could compose his palette of colors balanced between yellows, pinks, and reds--both in his garden and in his paintings of the garden.  His garden would be in full bloom during the warmest months of the year--from May to September or October.  During the colder months, the tender plants could be overwintered in his large greenhouse.

Latour-Marliac's precise method for making his crosses is unknown.  But the general method for horticultural hybridizing is well understood.  The pollen parent plant provides the male reproductive material.  The seed parent plant provides the female material--the fertile womb.  To make a cross, the hybridizer takes the pollen from a plant that has some desirable characteristics (such as flower color or hardiness) and applies it to the female reproductive part, the pistil, of another plant.  Each seedling produced from this match will be a unique combination of traits from the parent plants.

This domestication and hybridizing of plants are important for Darwinian evolutionary thinking in six ways.  The first is that Darwin developed his idea of evolutionary natural selection from his understanding of the artificial selection exercised by human beings in domesticating plants and animals.  He made this clear in the first two chapters of the Origin of Species, where he compared "variation under domestication" and "variation under nature," and in the Introduction to his book The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication.  He explained that it was through his study of "domestic productions" that he "acquired a just idea of the power of Selection" (1998, 1:10).  He saw that the term "natural selection" was "so far a good one as it brings into connection the production of domestic races by man's power of selection and the natural preservation of varieties and species in a state of nature" (1:6).  Just as the human breeder of plants and animals selects those traits that show "adaptation to his wants and pleasures," nature selects those traits that give an organism some adaptation for survival and reproduction in the struggle for life (1:4).

The second important contribution to Darwinian thinking here is that the human domestication of plants illustrates the ecological coevolution of plants and animals, so that plants and animals evolve to be mutually dependent.  This is true not just for human beings but for other animals as well.  For example, fungal species have been domesticated by bees and beetles, which shows that agriculture evolved millions of years ago among these animals, long before the emergence of human agriculture (Farrell et al. 2001; Nygaard et al. 2016; Purugganan and Fuller 2009; Schultz and Brady 2008).

The third point is that the human domestication of plants is a form of Darwinian niche construction.  In creating his water garden and planting it with Latour-Marliac's hybrid water lilies, Monet was creating a niche in which he could cultivate his artistic imagination.  Other animals and plants also engage in niche construction, so that instead of just adapting to the given natural environment, they construct their environment so that it is more hospitable to them.  I have written previously about this here and here.

The fourth way in which this contributes to Darwinian thinking is that understanding the artificial hybridization of plants helps us to think about the possibility that new species could have evolved by natural hybridization.  There is now a growing recognition that hybridization has been important for the evolution of many species--including the evolution of iguanas and finches in the Galapagos and even human evolution.  I have written previously about this here and here.

The fifth point is that the human breeding of Monet's water lilies illustrates the Darwinian evolution of a sense of beauty that could be crucial for a biological science of art.  In the Origin of Species, Darwin observed that the human domestication of plants and animals showed "adaptation, not indeed to the animal's or plant's own good, but to man's use or fancy."  And a plant might be adapted for man's "fancy" if it was made "beautiful in his eyes" (1859: 30).  The vibrant colors of Latour-Marliac's hybrid water lilies made them beautiful in Monet's eyes and the eyes of those who have contemplated his water lily paintings.  They human visual system has evolved to detect and appreciate colors that are wavelengths of light within the visible range for the human eye.  Similarly, the visual system of some other animals makes certain colors attractive to them.  This is part of what Darwin in The Descent of Man identified as the "sense of beauty" that human beings share with other animals.  One reason for this is what Darwin called "sexual selection":  in some animals, females prefer to mate with males they find colorful, or males select females that seem beautiful to them (2004, 114-16, 430-32, 461-65, 640-52, 664, 686-87).  In a future post, I will say more about this as part of the biology of art.

Finally, Latour-Marliac's breeding of Monet's water lilies can also be understood as evolutionary economics.  After all, Latour-Marliac's nursery was a business enterprise that had to struggle to survive in a competitive market.  This nursery is still operating and still selling water lilies, as you can see at their website.  In 2007, the business was purchased by Robert Sheldon, a professor of entrepreneurship at a business school in France.  He has written about the economic history of the business as an illustration of Joseph Schumpeter's evolutionary theory of economics, in which a capitalist economy is understood as a process of creative destruction: the economy is in a constant state of flux, with firms failing and freeing resources for innovative entrepreneurs who invent new products and services and thus create new markets.  Latour-Marliac showed this because to survive he had to innovate both in creating new plants by hybridization and in creating the markets for these plants.  The popularity of Monet's water lily paintings helped to create the demand for Latour-Marliac's water lilies, and Latour-Marliac had to cultivate a network of customers around the world.  After Sheldon took ownership of the firm, he innovated by creating a restaurant at the nursery and promoting the nursery as a tourist attraction (Sheldon 2017).

Another part of this story of evolutionary economics is the marketing of Monet's art and impressionist art generally, which was largely the work of the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel--the subject of a future post.

You can see that going to Gallery 243 has given me a lot to think about.


Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray.

Darwin, Charles. 1998.  The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication. 2 vols. 2nd ed.  Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd ed. New York: Penguin.

Farrell, Brian D., et al. 2001. "The Evolution of Agriculture in Beetles (Curculionidae: Scolytinae and Platypodinae)."  Evolution 55 (10): 2011-2027.

Holmes, Caroline. 2015. Water Lilies and Bory Latour-Marliac, the Genius Behind Monet's Water Lilies. Woodbridge, UK: Garden Art Press.

Nygaard, Sanne, et al. 2016. "Reciprocal Genomic Evolution in the Ant-Fungus Agricultural Symbiosis."  Nature Communications 7:12233, July 20.

Purugganan, Michael D., and Dorian Q. Fuller. 2009. "The Nature of Selection During Plant Domestication." Nature 457: 843-48.

Schultz, Ted. R., and Sean G. Brady. 2008. "Major Evolutionary Transitions in Ant Agriculture." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 105 (14): 5435-5440.

Sheldon, Robert Charles. 2017. "Inventing Water Lilies: Latour-Marliac and the Social Dynamics of Market Creation." Entreprises et Histoire. Number 88: 147-65.

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Was Edward O. Wilson a Racist? Monica McLemore's Fraudulent Claim

I was shocked to see that Scientific American has published an article by Monica McLemore (a professor at the University of California-San Francisco) identifying Edward O. Wilson as a racist scientist.  I was shocked by this because there is no evidence to back up her claim, and one doesn't expect Scientific American to publish fraudulent research.  I was also shocked to see that Arts and Letters Daily has a prominent link to this article.  Scientific American should issue a public retraction of this article and apologize for publishing it without checking it for accuracy.

Here is how she begins her article:

"With the death of biologist E. O. Wilson on Sunday, I find myself again reflecting on the complicated legacies of scientists whose works are built on racist ideas and how these ideas came to define our understanding of the world."

"After a long clinical career as a registered nurse, I became a laboratory-trained scientist as researchers mapped the first draft of the human genome. It was during this time that I intimately familiarized myself with Wilson’s work and his dangerous ideas on what factors influence human behavior."

"His influential text Sociobiology: The New Synthesis contributed to the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture and spawned an entire field of behavioral psychology grounded in the notion that differences among humans could be explained by genetics, inheritance and other biological mechanisms. Finding out that Wilson thought this way was a huge disappointment, because I had enjoyed his novel Anthill, which was published much later and written for the public."

Notice that she does not cite or quote any passages in his published writing where Wilson endorsed racism.  I have emailed McLemore asking that she give me some citations of Wilson's writing showing racism, but she has not yet responded.

She does cite Wilson's Sociobiology.  But that's strange because Wilson never says anything in that book favoring racism.  In the whole book, the word "race" appears only once; and that's in a quotation from Garrett Hardin identifying racism as a form of tribalism (565).  But since Wilson is warning against the dangers of tribalism, there's no way to see this as his endorsement of racism.

Wilson does have one paragraph on the slave society of Jamaica as an example of "societies that contain obvious inefficiencies and even pathological flaws" (549).  Wilson quotes from Orlando Patterson (a famous black sociologist at Harvard) as describing Jamaican slave society as showing "the astonishing neglect and distortion of almost every one of the basic prerequisites of normal human living."  Where's the racism here?

In On Human Nature, Wilson wrote: "it is a futile exercise to try to define discrete human races.  Such entities do not in fact exist" (48).  He also identified "nationalism and racism" as "the culturally nurtured outgrowths of simple tribalism" (92).  Where's the racism here?

In Consilience, Wilson identified "racialist fascism" as "totalitarian ideology" (34).  He also described Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead as having "led a crusade against what they perceived (correctly) to be the eugenics and racism implicit in Social Darwinism" (184).  Where's the racism here?

Monica McLemore says that Wilson's racism was implicit in his contributing to "the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture."  In fact, however, Wilson was famous for promoting the idea of "gene-culture coevolution" (in Consilience and other writings), which rejects "the false dichotomy of nature versus nurture."  Where's the racism here?

If I have overlooked some passage somewhere in Wilson's writings where he endorses racism, I am sure that McLemore will point me to it.  But if she can't do this, she should be ashamed of herself.

A few hours after I first published this post, I received an email response from McLemore.  She did not cite or quote any evidence of Wilson's racism, which I will take as indicating that she doesn't have any evidence for her claim.

I have written a series of posts on Wilson, the most recent one just two weeks ago.

Leon Kass's Bioethics in Darwinian Liberal Education



Kass’s richer “more natural science” of his early writings supports a richer public bioethics as part of a Darwinian liberal education that unifies all intellectual disciplines—the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities—within the unifying framework of Darwinian evolutionary science.  The aim of liberal education is to probe all the fields of intellectual inquiry to understand how the complex interaction of natural propensities, cultural traditions, and individual choices shapes the course of human experience within the cosmic order of nature.  Darwinian science provides a general conceptual framework for such liberal learning grounded in the scientific study of the evolution of life within the evolution of the universe (Arnhart 2006).

          Kass’s primary contribution to this Darwinian liberal education has been in developing what he has called “a richer bioethics, one that recognizes and tries to do justice to the deep issues of our humanity raised by the age of biotechnology” (Kass 2005:221).  Kass agrees with the argument of John Evans that the public bioethical debate has become too “thin,” and that it needs to become “thicker” (Evans 2002).  Kass’s “richer” bioethics is what Evans would call a “thicker” bioethics.  For bioethics to become richer or thicker, it must become part of a Darwinian liberal education, which became clear in the work of the President’s Council as led by Kass (Briggle 2010).

          Evans uses the metaphor of thick and thin to distinguish the substantive rationality of the bioethical debate from the late 1960s to the early 1970s and the formal rationality that came to dominate bioethics beginning in the late 1970s.  In the earlier period, the substantive rationality of the debates over biotechnology required that people argue about whether some technology such as human genetic engineering was consistent with ultimate values or ends, which required that people argue about those ultimate ends.  So, for example, a scientist promoting human genetic engineering might argue that this was the best means for achieving the ultimate end of human control of nature and human nature, so that human beings could engineer the perfection of their species by eliminating genetic defects and pursuing genetic enhancements.  But then a theologian might argue that this was “playing God,” in that man was trying to become his own self-creator and thus take the place of God the Creator, in violation of God’s ends.  There would then be a debate over which ultimate end should be higher—striving for a human God-like power over nature for human self-perfection or a humble and reverent acceptance of a God-given human nature with all its imperfections.  Since many conflicting ends could be considered in such debates, reaching agreement on which end should predominate was difficult if not impossible, so that the debates could become endless.  In this way, the substantive rationality of these debates was thick.

          By contrast, beginning in the late 1970s, bioethics became dominated by professional bioethicists—typically, academic philosophers and lawyers—who developed bioethics as a specialized field of study promoting an argumentation of formal rationality.  According to this view, any biotechnological means that maximized ends was ethical; and the ends were predetermined by consensus of the experts to be limited in number.  The ends were eventually reduced to four principles: personal autonomy (informed consent), beneficence (benefits greater than costs), nonmaleficence (avoiding harm), and justice (fair distribution of benefits, costs, and risks) (Beauchamp and Childress 2001).  It was assumed that these were universal ends to which all human beings could agree.  All other ends for which there was no universal agreement were excluded from the bioethical debates.  Once they had agreed to their four ends, bioethicists would only debate about calculating the best means to these four ends; and they saw no need to debate about ends other than these four.  In this way, the formal rationality of their debates was thin.

          Kass’s thicker or richer bioethics accepts the four principles adopted by the professional bioethicists—autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice.  But in his writings and in his work with the President’s Council, Kass has shown that a deep deliberation about bioethical issues must consider many important moral ends beyond these four principles; and because these many moral ends often conflict with one another, different people will come to different conclusions about how to weigh these ends.  The moral deliberation about these ends will often not reach consensus.

          For example, consider the debate over whether parents should be free to use stimulant drugs—such as Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (amphetamine)—to modify the behavior of children who are inattentive, impulsive, or hyperactive.  For thin bioethics, there might be only two principles for this debate—autonomy and nonmaleficence.  Are parents exercising their autonomy in giving these drugs to their children?  Are these drugs safe for the children?  If the answer to both questions is yes, then we should allow parents to use these psychotropic drugs in helping them to rear their children.

          But for the thick bioethics of the Beyond Therapy report, some important moral considerations have been passed over in silence.  For example, one crucial part of parental rearing of children is the moral education of children through shaping their moral character so that they are capable of self-control and behaving appropriately in society.  Will behavior-modifying drugs interfere with this moral education?  Will this teach children that good behavior is caused by chemistry, and that the responsibility for their conduct belongs not to themselves but to their pills?  Will this diminish their sense of moral agency? (President’s Council 2003a:87-92).  The thin bioethics of the professional bioethicists does not ask such questions.

          Furthermore, while thin bioethics requires only a narrowly specialized training—learning the four moral ends and how biotechnological means can maximize those ends—thick bioethics requires a broadly interdisciplinary liberal education that integrates the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities in seeking wisdom about the conditions for a flourishing human life and how biotechnology might impede or promote that human flourishing.  That liberal education is best pursued, Kass believes, through reading and discussing the Great Books of the Western intellectual tradition.  One can see that in the anthology of 92 selected texts published by the President’s Council—Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics.  The authors of the texts include scientists (such as Edward O. Wilson, Richard Feynman, and James Watson), physicians (such as Hippocrates and Richard Selzer), philosophers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Lucretius, and Thomas Hobbes), poets (such as Homer, Shakespeare, and Walt Whitman), and novelists (such as Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Willa Cather) (President’s Council 2003b).

          In its devotion to a bioethics rooted in liberal education, the President’s Council was different from the other five general federal bioethics commissions preceding it.  Those other commissions were concerned mostly with developing specific public policy proposals.  By contrast, the Kass Council made few policy proposals.  Kass has admitted that the Council has had “no demonstrable effect” on “specific policy issues.”  He conducted the Council’s meetings and supervised the Council’s reports to promote seminar-like discussions that allowed open debate about the moral and intellectual questions raised by bioethical disputes without ever reaching consensus.  He said that Beyond Therapy was “a purely educational work, with no policy recommendations.”  He explained that his primary goal was educational: he hoped that the published discussions and reports of the Council would be adopted as readings for college seminar courses on bioethics or for groups of ordinary citizens who wanted to discuss deep questions about the implications of biotechnology for human life (Kass 2005:229, 240-41, 244-47).

          We can see here that Kass’s educational goal is to revive the tradition of liberal education as a unification of all knowledge in the quest for wisdom about the meaning of our humanity, of our human nature within the natural order of the whole.  That unity of knowledge requires a unifying framework of thought.  There is today only one plausible source for such a common ground of knowledge, and that is Darwinian evolutionary science.

          Although Kass does not explicitly affirm this idea of a Darwinian liberal education, he does at least implicitly suggest it in some of his early writings and in some of the reports of the President’s Council.  For example, as we have seen, the Council’s report Beyond Therapy is organized around natural human desires—“desires for longer life, stronger bodies, sharper minds, better performance, happier souls, better children” (Kass 2005:235).  These natural desires are the “essential sources of concern” that set the standards for any moral assessment of biotechnology.  They constitute “what is naturally human,” “what is naturally and dignifiedly human.”  They are “naturally given” to us as inherent in our human nature.  If we seek the source of this gift, we find that our natural desires are “wondrous products of evolutionary selection,” because “the human body and mind” are “highly complex and delicately balanced as a result of eons of gradual and exacting evolution” (President’s Council 2003a:286-87).

          This unification of knowledge founded on evolutionary science suggests something like what Edward O. Wilson called “consilience” (Wilson 1998).  Wilson argued that the natural human desire to understand the world as an orderly whole was a quest for the fundamental unity of all knowledge.  This longing for a comprehensive knowledge of the whole began with ancient philosophers such as Thales and Aristotle.  It was renewed by the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Now, Wilson claimed, the progress in modern science has created the realistic prospect for satisfying this ancient longing by developing a web of causal explanations that would combine all the intellectual disciplines.  Crucial to this unification of knowledge is its foundation in evolutionary biology as explaining the nature of human beings and their place in the natural whole, including the evolution of the universe from the Big Bang to the present, which some historians now call Big History (Christian 2004; Christian, Brown, and Benjamin 2014).  Darwinian liberal education must encompass all of this.



One objection to this pursuit of a Darwinian liberal education that studies an evolved human nature is that this assumes the stability of that human nature, even though we know now that biotechnology is giving us the power to change and even abolish that human nature.  After all, isn’t Kass’s bioethics driven by his fear that biotechnology can lead to what C. S. Lewis called “the abolition of man”?

          The problem with this objection, however, is that it shows how the power of biotechnology for changing human nature has been exaggerated (Arnhart 2003).  The most fervent advocates of biotechnology welcome the prospect of using it to transform our nature to make us superhuman.  The most fervent critics of biotechnology warn us that its power for transforming our nature will seduce us into a Faustian bargain that will dehumanize us.  Both sides agree that biotechnology is leading us to a “posthuman future” (Fukuyama 2002). 

This is a mistake.  It ignores how evolution has shaped the adaptive complexity of our human nature—our bodies, our brains, and our desires—in ways that resist technological manipulation.  A Darwinian view of human nature—one truer to the facts of human biology and human experience—reveals the limits of biotechnology, so that we can reject both the redemptive hopes of its optimistic advocates and the apocalyptic fears of its pessimistic critics.

          Biotechnology will be limited both in its technical means and in its moral ends.  It will be limited in its technical means because complex behavioral traits are rooted in the intricate interplay of many genes, which interact with developmental contingencies and unique life histories to form brains that respond flexibly to changing circumstances.  Consequently, precise technological manipulation of human nature to enhance desirable traits while avoiding undesirable side effects will be very difficult if not impossible.  Biotechnology will also be limited in its moral ends because the motivation for biotechnological manipulations will come from the same natural desires that have always characterized human nature.

          In Beyond Therapy, Kass and his Council recognized both these natural limits on biotechnology.  For example, they noted the technical limits to any attempt to use genetic engineering to design “better children”: “Growing recognition of the complexity of gene interactions, the importance of epigenetic and other environmental influences on gene expression, and the impact of stochastic events is producing a strong challenge to strict genetic determinism.  Straightforward genetic engineering of better children may prove impossible, not only in practice but even in principle.”  Consequently, “genetically engineered ‘designer babies’ are not in the offing” (President’s Council 2003a:38, 276).  They also recognized that biotechnology would be limited in its moral ends as set by the natural desires of evolved human nature, including those desires around which the whole discussion in Beyond Therapy is organized.



I have identified three problems in Leon Kass’s “richer bioethics.”  He contradicts himself when he shifts back and forth between his appeal to natural reason and his appeal to supernatural revelation—Athens and Jerusalem.  His attempt to develop a biblical bioethics fails because he Bible lacks the moral authority, the moral clarity, and the moral reliability required for settling debates over biotechnology.  In claiming that all modern science is blinded by a crudely reductionistic, mechanistic, and antiteleological understanding of nature, he fails to recognize how modern science sees the emergent complexity and teleological structure of life.

          Kass could avoid these problems by renewing his project for a “more natural science” in his early writings.  This expansive conception of modern science would support a Darwinian liberal education that could help us to think deeply and act morally in our modern world as shaped by modern science and technology.

          More broadly, Darwinian liberal education can help us understand our human place in nature.  We are neither mindless machines nor disembodied spirits.  We are animals.  As animals, we display the animate powers of nature for movement, desire, and awareness.  We move to satisfy our desires in the light of our awareness of the world.  We are a unique kind of animal, but our distinctively human traits—such as symbolic speech, practical deliberation, and conceptual thought—are emergent elaborations of powers shared in some form with other animals.  Our powers for habituation and learning allow us to alter our natural environments, but even these powers are emergent extensions of the behavioral flexibility shown by other animals.  So even if the natural world was not made for us, we were made for it, because we are adapted to live in it.  We have not been thrown into nature from some place far away.  We come from nature.  It is our home.



Arnhart, Larry. 2003. “Human Nature Is Here to Stay.” The New Atlantis, Number 2 (Summer): 65-78.

Arnhart, Larry. 2006. “Darwinian Liberal Education.”  Academic Questions 19 (Fall):6-18.

Beauchamp, Tom L., and James F. Childress. 2001. Principles of Bioethics. 5th edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Christian, David. 2004. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of Chicago Press.

Christian, David, Cynthia Stokes Brown, and Craig Benjamin. 2014. Big History: Between Nothing and Everything. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Evans, John H. 2002. Playing God? Human Genetic Engineering and the Rationalization of Public Bioethical Debate.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Briggle, Adam. 2010. A Rich Bioethics: Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.

Fukuyama, Francis. 2002. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Kass, Leon. 2005. “Reflections on Public Bioethics: A View from the Trenches.” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 15:221-50.

President’s Council on Bioethics. 2003a. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness. Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics.

President’s Council on Bioethics. 2003b. Being Human: Readings from the President’s Council on Bioethics. Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics.

Wilson, Edward O. 1998. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf.

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Atheistic Religiosity in Leon Kass's Reading of the Bible


Does modern science and technology give us greater understanding of and greater power over the world?  Or should we recognize the limits of scientific knowledge?  Do we need to search for a wisdom that is beyond science?  And should we worry that modern science and technology give us no wise moral guidance for their proper uses, and thus we have no way to prevent the dehumanizing effects of scientific technology?  Does philosophy or religion give us the wise moral guidance that we need?  For example, can we develop a philosophic or religious bioethics that can guide us in regulating biotechnology so that it promotes human dignity rather than human degradation? 

Leon Kass has devoted his life to pondering these questions.  “I esteem scientific discovery, and I treasure medical advance,” Kass told the Chicago Tribune.  “But it’s very clear that the powers we are now acquiring to alter the human body and mind also pose a certain threat to the long-term future of the things that make us human" (Manier and Grossman 2001).  He has argued that we need a bioethics rooted in a wise understanding of nature and human nature that teaches us the requirements for a worthy human life, so that we can defend those conditions of human dignity against the threat of dehumanization by modern science and the technological manipulation of nature.   He has shown how we can find that humanizing wisdom by reading the “great books” of philosophy, literature, and religion.  He has done that through his published writings, his work as chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2005), and through his influence on other scholars (such as those who write for the journal The New Atlantis).

His argument is weakened, however, by four problems.  First, his argument is ambiguous in that while he recognizes that the appeal to unaided natural reason is opposed to the appeal to any supernatural revelation, which he identifies as the choice between Athens and Jerusalem, he shifts back and forth between these two opposing positions; and he never resolves the contradiction.  

Second, while his philosophical defense of an Aristotelian and Darwinian ethical naturalism is plausible, his religious defense of biblical revelation is self-contradictory and self-deceptive in promoting an atheistic religiosity.  That was suggested in his first biblical book The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003), and it has become clear in his new book Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus (2021).  

The third problem is that while Kass tries to interpret the Bible as providing religious reasons for limiting biotechnology, the Bible cannot resolve our debates over biotechnology, because we cannot agree on the moral authority, the moral clarity, or the moral reliability of the Bible.  

The fourth problem is that his account of the limitations of modern scientific knowledge assumes an implausible caricature of modern science as a crudely reductionistic and mechanistic view of nature.

I have written a book chapter on the third problem--"The Bible and Biotechnology" (2009).  Richard Sherlock (2009) has written a good reply to my paper.  I have written some posts on the fourth problem herehere, and here.

In this post, I will consider the first two problems.


The ambiguity of Kass's position in the reason/revelation debate was evident in how different readers saw conflicting messages in Kass's Genesis book.  Richard Sherlock (a Christian believer) thought the book showed that Kass was "a person of faith" (Sherlock 2005).  Alan Jacobs (also a Christian believer) said that despite Kass's claim that his book was "addressed to believers and nonbelievers alike," this was not really a book for believers like himself, and so nonbelievers would be more comfortable with Kass's "philosophic reading" of the Bible.  Kass summarized his interpretation of Genesis in one sentence: "The book of Genesis is mainly concerned with this question: is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life that accords with man's true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his godlike possibilities?" (Kass 2003: 661).  Jacobs responded: "It seems to me that not a single significant word in this sentence accords with what the book of Genesis is about.  Genesis, and the culture from which it emerges, doesn't seem to me to give a damn about our 'true standing in the world' and our 'godlike possibilities'; rather, as far as I can tell, it is about God and what He has done, and is doing, to repair what His rebellious and arrogant creatures have broken: our relations with ourselves, with one another, with the creation, and with God Himself" (Jacobs 2003). 

While Sherlock puts Kass on the side of Jerusalem, and Jacobs puts him on the side of Athens, Hayyim Angel (an Orthodox rabbi) places him somewhere in between the two poles.  He says that Kass shows "an unorthodox step toward revelation" or "a step toward a faith commitment" (Angel 2012: 61, 70).

So why did readers find mixed messages in Kass's Genesis book?  For Sherlock's identification of Kass as "a man of faith," the crucial passage was this:

"The reader may well wonder how these studies have affected my own outlook on life, morals, and religion.  I wish I could give a definitive answer; but I am still in the middle of my journey.  There are truths that I think I have discovered only with the Bible's help, and I know that my sympathies have shifted toward the biblical pole of the age-old tension between Athens and Jerusalem.  I am no longer confident of the sufficiency of unaided human reason.  I find congenial the moral sensibilities and demands of the Torah, though I must confess that my practice is still wanting.  And I am frankly filled with wonder at the fact that I have been led to this spiritual point, God knows how" (2003: xiv).

This is what Sherlock saw as Kass's profession of faith.  But notice that Kass speaks only of his "sympathies" and "moral sensibilities" as shifting towards the biblical pole.  He does not say that he believes in the existence of God or in the Bible as His revelation.  Notice also that Kass says "my practice is still wanting"--he is not a practicing believer.  A few pages earlier, he says that he is not "religiously observant" (xii).  He also makes it clear that he does not believe any of the theological doctrines of orthodox biblical religion.  He says that he has deliberately avoided "any specific doctrine" (2017:35).  For example, he denies the doctrines of the immortality of the soul in an afterlife with rewards for the saved in Heaven and punishments for the lost in Hell (2017:21).

Why then did Kass's "sympathies" shift towards the Hebrew Bible?  In his new Exodus book, Kass says that after the birth of his first child, he and his wife joined a Conservative synagogue in 1967.  He says they were "preparing ourselves to offer our children an experience of Jewish tradition that they could later embrace or reject as they wished.  Better, we thought, to be something rather than nothing, and our something was nothing to be ashamed of" (x-xi).  But notice that he does not say that this "experience of Jewish tradition" led him to become a pious Jewish believer.  He can be a member of a Conservative synagogue without being "religiously observant."

For Conservative Judaism, the authority of Jewish law and tradition derives more from an evolving popular agreement than from any divine revelation of theological doctrines.  Moreover, most Conservative Jews are not religiously observant.

And yet, Angel is a leader of Orthodox Judaism--a rabbi and biblical scholar--who says that Kass's "greatest moment" in the Genesis book is this passage: "If we allow ourselves to travel its narrative journey, the book may reward our openness and gain our trust.  Who knows, we may even learn who (or Who) is speaking to us, and why" (17).  Angel says this shows how a secularized reading of the Torah can lead to "a step toward a faith commitment" (70).  Perhaps.  But Kass has never explicitly affirmed a "faith commitment," and Angel offers no evidence that he has.

On the contrary, Kass says that he does not read the Bible in the manner of "those fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews who approach the text piously and who study it reverently" (2003:2).  Instead of that, he will offer a "philosophic reading" of the Bible--reading it in the same way he reads Homer's Iliad, Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (2003:1).  

Amazingly, he admits that this contradicts what he says about the opposition of reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.  "The Bible, I freely acknowledge, is not a work of philosophy, ordinarily understood.  Neither its manner nor its manifest purposes are philosophical.  Indeed, there is even good reason for saying that they are antiphilosophical, and deliberately so.  Religion and piety are one thing, philosophy and inquiry another.  The latter seek wisdom looking to nature and relying on unaided human reason; the former offer wisdom based on divine revelation and relying on prophecy.  There is, I readily admit, a reason to be suspicious of a philosophical approach to the Bible" (2003:3).

Therefore, sometimes Kass stresses the tension between reason and revelation, which forces us to choose one side or the other.  But at other times, he suggests overcoming this tension by finding some middle ground between the two.  That middle ground must be nature.  But to say that, Kass must contradict himself because he says repeatedly that the philosopher's appeal to nature contradicts the pious man's appeal to revelation.

By "nature" I mean the idea of the regular order of the observable world as knowable by human reason.  As Kass indicates, the Hebrew Bible has no word for "nature," and this has been noted by some people who believe the very idea of nature is absent from the Bible.  If everything is created by God, then we might think that everything exists not by any regular order but only by the contingent will of God.  If there is no natural order in things, then philosophy or science as the inquiry into the causal regularity of the universe is futile.  The only true wisdom would be unquestioning obedience to the arbitrary contingencies of God's inscrutable will.

Kass admits: "we run the risk of distorting the biblical teaching by referring anachronistically to the Bible's view of 'nature,' or indeed by using the term at all in this volume.  Nevertheless, we shall do so, albeit nervously, in order to bring our study of the biblical text into conversation with other wisdom-seeking activities.  We shall, no doubt, have later occasions to visit this question of nature.  For now, let the reader beware" (2003:44).  Actually, he never does "visit this question of nature" in the Bible later in his book.  Consequently, he never resolves this fundamental contradiction in both affirming and denying the opposition between natural reason and divine revelation.

The only way for Kass to resolve this contradiction would be for him to admit that he was mistaken in turning away from the Aristotelian and Darwinian naturalism of his Towards a More Natural Science (1985) and moving towards biblical revelation.  If he were to do this, he could still read the Bible for whatever philosophical wisdom it might contain; but he would have to correct the Bible to conform to a philosophical conception of natural morality and natural understanding.


In his new book on Exodus, Kass says while he has "no single epiphany to report" from his years of reading the Bible, he can say that reading Exodus has had a profound effect on him, especially in recent years.  "I have lived with the book and allowed it to work on me. . . . And it has changed me" (2021:xiii).  The biggest change has come from his reading of the last third of Exodus, which is devoted to the construction of the portable Tabernacle that the people of Israel will carry with them as they wander for forty years in the Sinai desert.  

Kass has seen that the ritual enactments in the Tabernacle "speak to the human soul's deep longings for transcendence and that--quite mysteriously--can bring a numinous Presence into the daily lives of ordinary human beings" (2021:xv).  "Having witnessed the Tabernacle's raising," Kass says, "I try to imagine it occupied, myself among the assembled," and thus "we bear collective witness to His awesome Presence":

"When performing the prescribed rituals or raising our voices in worship and song, we may on occasion be lifted up to otherworldly states of feeling and awareness, sensing for a moment that attachment to God is the core and peak of existence.  Could this be what is meant by knowing His Spirit and feeling His Presence?" (2021:604)

This does sound like a religious conversion, in which Kass has actually felt the Divine Presence.  Does this suggest that Kass can now affirm the real existence of the biblical God, because by living with the final chapters of Exodus and imagining himself performing the rituals in the Tabernacle, he has felt the Presence of God?

Well, not exactly.  If you study carefully what Kass says about the meaning of the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle, I think you will see he's teaching what I call atheistic religiosity--religious feelings of transcendence, of being in touch with God, but without believing any religious doctrines about the real existence of God.  God "exists" only in the minds and actions of people who feel awe and reverence in their experience of a transcendent Dionysian frenzy elicited by religious ceremony.  (I have also identified atheistic religiosity in the work of Friedrich NietzscheRoger Scruton, and Jordan Peterson.)

God requires daily sacrifices in the Tabernacle.  At the beginning and end of each day, a young lamb is to be burned on the Altar (Exodus 29:38-42).  These sacrifices are imitations of a human meal, but the meal is for God.  Why?  Kass explains:  "Surely He has no ordinary need for nourishment.  Are the offerings then solely for our sake, to remind us daily--when we rise up and when we lie down--of what we owe for our existence, given us not for our merit but as an act of grace?  Are the offerings of gratitude intended to introduce a similar gracious disposition into our souls" (2021:499).  Yes.  But Kass sees more here than that:

"The sacrifices are not only for the human beings; they are important also for Him.  Strange though it is to say, the Lord needs the sacrifices, not to eat, but analogously to our need for food: in order to live in our world.  He 'needs' for human beings to recognize His presence in order to be Himself fully present in His world.  The purpose of the daily sacrifices, He comes close to saying, is to keep the association alive: [if] you bring the daily sacrifices to the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord, [then] 'I will meet with you and speak unto you there.'  If there are no sacrifices, there can be no meeting.  The Lord will go into eclipse--not as an act of will or as punishment to us, but as an unavoidable consequence of being ignored.  If God's Presence is unnoticed, unknown, or unacknowledged, He is not Present.  Not to be known is, in a very real sense, to cease to be.  I-Will-Be-What-I-Will-Be depends on His creatures for 'Being-What-He-Is.'"  (2021:500)

 Therefore, God exists only in the religious thoughts and actions of the human beings who know or acknowledge Him.  If He were not recognized by those who believe in Him, He would "go into eclipse"--He would "cease to be."

Kass thinks this point is made more explicit when God says that He needs the ritual sacrifices in the Tabernacle "that I might dwell among them" (Exodus 29:43-46).  This states the "ultimate purpose" of God and the purpose of the whole Torah (2021:500-503, 598, 603).  When God dwells in the religious life of Israel, there is a mutual benefit:  it benefits Israel that they come to know God, and it benefits God to exist as part of Israel's life forever.  If Israel were to stop worshiping God, then God would be dead.  As Kass says, "The Lord God of Israel needs the recognition of His children for His living Presence in the world" (689).

Kass draws a similar conclusion from his reading of the first chapter of Genesis, particularly Genesis 1:27:  "And God created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them."  Kass sees this verse as important because it provides the biblical basis for seeing man as the most godlike of the animals, and thus supporting the moral equality of all human beings as equal in their human dignity.  He also sees this equal human dignity as the fundamental principle for religious bioethics, which claims that we ought to prohibit any biotechnological alteration of the human body or mind that would violate that equal human dignity.

How can Kass interpret the creation story in Genesis 1 so that it shows us that this is a truth, even a self-evident truth--that God created human beings in His image?  Kass states his interpretation first in his Genesis book and then repeats it in almost the same words in other writings (2003:36-40; 2017:310-314; 2021:591-593).

I need to quote some of this at length:

"To see how man might be godlike, we look at the text to see what God is like.  In the course of recounting His creation, Genesis 1 introduces us to God's activities and powers: (1) God speaks, commands, names, blesses, and hallows; (2) God makes, and makes freely; (3) God looks at and beholds the world; (4) God is concerned with the goodness and or perfection of things; (5) God addresses solicitously other living creatures and provides for their sustenance."

"In short: God exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the powers of contemplation, judgment, and care."

"Doubters may wonder whether this is truly the case about God--after all, it is only on biblical authority that we regard God as possessing these powers and activities.  But it is indubitably clear--even to atheists--that we human beings have them, and that they lift us above the plane of a merely animal existence.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, can articular a future goal and use that articulation to guide them in bringing it into being by their own purposive conduct.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, can think about the whole, marvel at its many-splendored forms and articulated order, wonder about its beginning, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source."

"These self-evident truths do not rest on biblical authority.  Rather, the biblical text enables us to confirm them by an act of self-reflection.  Our reading of this text, addressable and intelligible only to us human beings, and our responses to it, possible only to us human beings, provide all the proof we need to confirm the text's assertion of our special being.  Reading Genesis 1 performatively demonstrates the truth of its claims about the superior ontological standing of the human.  This is no anthropocentric prejudice, but cosmological truth.  And nothing we shall ever learn about how we came to be this way could ever make it false." (2003:37-38).

We thus confirm the truth of Genesis 1 "by an act of self-reflection," because in reading the text we are "holding up a mirror in which we see reflected our special standing in the world."  Another way of putting this, Kass observes, is that "not until there are human beings does the universe become conscious of itself--a remarkable achievement that should surely inspire awe and wonder, even in atheists" (2017:313).

Notice how Kass says that the teaching of Genesis 1 should be clear "even to atheists," and it should "inspire awe and wonder, even in atheists"--atheists like Kass?  Doesn't Kass here suggest that God's mental powers exist only as an anthropomorphic projection or mirror of human mental powers? 

Doesn't Kass express the same idea in his Exodus book in saying that God needs to dwell in the minds of His believers who acknowledge Him, because without that human acknowledgement, God would "in a very real sense . . . cease to be"?

That's what I call atheistic religiosity--the idea that human beings have a natural longing for God that can be satisfied through religious feelings, but without any doctrinal faith in God's existence, because God does not exist outside of those human religious feelings.

The problem with Kass's atheistic religiosity is that it's incoherent self-deception.  It's incoherent in trying to both affirm and deny the existence of God.  It's self-deception because it's a fake religiosity that doesn't work if we know its fake.

The atheistic religiosity of Kass's reading of the Bible also fails to sustain a religious bioethics.  That became evident in Kass's chairing of the President's Council on Bioethics.  Kass never introduced Bible-reading into the Council's meetings (Arnhart 2005; Briggle 2010).  And in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (2003)--perhaps the best of the Council's reports--there are no references to the Bible and only a few vague references to "souls with longings for the eternal" (200, 206, 288, 299).  

In a section of the report that considers the "appreciation of the giftedness of life," it is said that "although it is in part a religious sensibility, its resonance reaches beyond religion."  There is no attempt to identify God as the giver of life.  Instead, nature and human nature are identified as "the naturally given," which has arisen as "wondrous products of evolutionary selection" (287-290).

The report appeals repeatedly to a purely naturalistic ethics rooted in human nature and the natural human pursuit of happiness as the complete and comprehensive satisfaction of natural human desires--Athens rather than Jerusalem (205, 235, 260, 265, 270).


Angel, Hayyim. 2012. "An Unorthodox Step Toward Revelation: Leon Kass on Genesis Revisited." Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 45 (4): 61-70.

Arnhart, Larry. 2005. "President's Council on Bioethics." In Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, edited by Carl Mitcham, 1482-86.  New York: Macmillan Reference.

Arnhart, Larry. 2009.  "The Bible and Biotechnology." In Sean D. Sutton, ed., Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, 123-157. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Briggle, Adam. 2010. A Rich Bioethics: Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Jacobs, Alan. 2003. "Leon Kass and the Genesis of Wisdom." First Things (June).

Kass, Leon. 1985. Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: The Free Press.

Kass, Leon. 2003. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. New York: The Free Press.

Kass, Leon. 2017. Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. New York: Encounter Books.

Kass, Leon. 2021. Founding God's Nation: Reading Genesis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Manier, Jeremy, and Ron Grossman. 2001. "Bush's Guardian of Bioethics." The Chicago Tribune.

The President's Council on Bioethics. 2003. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Washington, DC: President's Council on Bioethics.

Sherlock, Richard. 2005. "Jerusalem and Athens." Modern Age 47 (1) (Winter).

Sherlock, Richard. 2009. "A Transcendent Vision: Theology and Human Transformation." In Sean D. Sutton, ed., Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, 159-188.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Edward O. Wilson, 1929-2021: Founder of Sociobiology, Consilience, and Darwinian Natural Right

Edward O. Wilson died Sunday at the age of 92 in Burlington, Massachusetts.  Carl Zimmer has written a good obituary for the New York Times.  Over the years, I have written many blog posts on Ed Wilson, some of which can be found herehereherehere, and here.

I doubt that I would have developed the idea of Darwinian natural right without the influence of Ed Wilson.  I remember the first time I saw his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in the early summer of 1975, on the new book table at the Seminary-Coop Bookstore at the University of Chicago, when I was a Ph.D. student at Chicago, working on a dissertation on Aristotle.  I looked it over, reading a few pages, and bought it.  I remember thinking--if Wilson is right that there is a biological explanation of human nature and human ethics, why wouldn't this support a Darwinian scientific conception of Aristotelian natural right?  This thought was deepened three years later when I read a paper by Roger Masters suggesting that sociobiology could sustain a biological basis for Aristotle's conception of natural right.  For the rest of my life, I have been thinking through that idea.

Early on, from my reading of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, when I was teaching at Idaho State University, I thought Wilson was endorsing a Darwinian version of Nietzshean nihilism that I found unpersuasive.  But later, I changed my mind, and decided that he was arguing--even if he didn't fully understand it--for an Aristotelian ethical naturalism.  I sent him some of my writing on this.  And I was pleased to see in his Consilience (1998) that he had been influenced by my writing to see himself as reviving a Darwinian version of Aristotelian ethics.

Wilson's Consilience was crucial in helping me think about what I have called "Darwinian liberal education", which would unify all knowledge through the intellectual framework of evolutionary biology.

I was concerned, however, that Wilson did not see how the Darwinian science of emergent complexity contradicted the strong reductionism that he professed in some parts of Consilience.  I wrote an essay about this; and when he read it, he called me one night.  I still remember my son yelling down into the basement of my house, saying "Hey, Dad, there's some guy from Harvard calling you, Ed Wilson."  We talked for about thirty minutes, going over my criticisms.  We didn't reach agreement, but it was a rich conversation.  And he was generous in encouraging me to continue my work.

When Wilson argued that science needed to take on a mythopoeic function by creating a grand narrative of the origin and evolution of the universe that would give meaning to life--in such a way that the scientific origin story could take the place of religious myth--I was not initially persuaded because this sounded like Nietzschean myth-making.  But later I saw how the Big History of Everything as an evolutionary epic--developed by David Christian, Eric Chaisson, and others--might plausibly fulfill Wilson's vision.  I have written about this herehere, and here.

I have agreed with much of what Wilson has said, while disagreeing on some points.  I agreed with his embrace late in life of group selection and his claim that Hamilton's inclusive fitness was not sufficient.  But I am still a little undecided about this.

As reported by Zimmer, Wilson disagreed with Deborah Gordon's claim that ants have much more behavioral flexibility than Wilson is willing to concede, who insists that their behavior is genetically determined.  I am inclined to agree with Gordon, but I need to think about this more.  There is a good TED talk by Gordon on this.

In an article that Gordon wrote for the Boston Review some years ago, she briefly indicated her disagreement with Wilson by criticizing his 2010 novel Anthill.  Gordon's fundamental insight about ant colonies is that they are biological systems that function without hierarchy or central control.  Ant colonies are decentralized networks that get things done without anyone being in charge.  That's why some free-market economists and anarchist thinkers are interested in her work: ant colonies show how collective action can emerge as a spontaneous order without any central planning or authority.

Wilson knows this about ant colonies, of course.  But in Anthill, his scientific knowledge is sometimes contradicted by his fictional purpose, which is to tell an environmentalist story about how greed and excessive consumption depletes resources and leads to the death of the colony.  To do this, he speaks of the ant queen as the "fountainhead" of the colony who compels the worker ants to sacrifice their lives for her.  In fact, Gordon observes, no ant really cares if the queen lives or dies, because no ant can direct the behavior of another.

Moreover, Gordon argues, it is not true that each ant is assigned a task for life, because ants move from one task to another in response to the rhythm of their tactile and olfactory interactions with one another, without any ant understanding what they are doing or why.

But while I agree with some of Gordon's criticisms of Wilson and some of the criticisms coming from others, I regret that his voice has now been silenced.

I will miss him.


In his comment, Xenophon has pointed out to me that Carl Zimmer has altered his New York Times obituary for Wilson.  Sometime yesterday (December 29), Zimmer erased the section on Deborah Gordon's disagreements with Wilson.

Since I had printed out a copy of the original version of the article (published on December 27), I was able to compare it with the "updated" version.  I can see that the only change between the two is that Zimmer erased the following four paragraphs, which came just after quoting Sara Hrdy--"No one could have been more supportive than Wilson of this stuff":

"But some scientists found just the opposite.  Among them was Deborah Gordon, a leading expert on ants at Stanford University."

"'Wilson's view of how an ant colony works had every ant genetically programmed to do a certain thing,' Dr. Gordon said in a 2019 interview.  'He wanted everybody to do what they were supposed to do without any mess.'"

"In her own research, Dr. Gordon found that ants can switch from one job to another.  And they do not respond to any particular chemical signal like little robots; instead, they will respond differently under different circumstances.  'The process is messy,' Dr. Gordon said."

"Dr. Wilson vigorously attacked Dr. Gordon's work, both in print and in person.  When Dr. Gordon was at Harvard in the mid-1980s on a fellowship, she recalled Dr. Wilson standing up in the middle of one of her talks to shout his objections.  'He really made a lot of effort to keep me from getting a job,' she said."

I have no idea why Zimmer decided to erase this from his article.  Did Gordon ask him to do this?  Or did someone else object to this section of the article? 


At 9:33 a.m. ET, Zimmer added this "Editor's Note" to his article:

"An earlier version of this obituary included a description of the work of Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford University, and her comments about Dr. Wilson's criticism of it.  The description and comments lacked appropriate context and have been removed from the obituary."

We are left guessing about what that "appropriate context" might be.  Personal academic rivalry?

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Lockean State of Nature in Shipwreck Societies: The "Grafton" and the "Invercauld"

Aukland Island is located 285 miles south of New Zealand, in the sub-Antarctic region.  Battered by year-round freezing rain and storms with gales over fifty miles per hour, with few sources of food, it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

                                                                 Auckland Island

At midnight on January 3, 1864, the Grafton, a two-masted schooner, was caught in a raging sea, with howling wind and rain, and her hull smashed onto the reefs along the southeastern coast of Auckland Island.  The five men on the ship survived, but they were marooned on the island.  All five were finally rescued in August of 1865.  Their little shipwreck society of five men had endured for 19 months.

On May 11, 1864, the Invercauld, an 888-ton Scottish square-rigger, was wrecked in a rough cove on the northwestern coast of Auckland Island.  Of the 25 crew members, 19 made it ashore.  When they were finally rescued, one year later, only three had survived.

This looks like an almost perfect natural experiment in the formation of unintentional communities.  Two wrecks at the same time and place threw the castaways into a state of nature with no system of government or laws over them, forcing them to organize themselves into two different groups for over a year.  As measured by the rate of survival, the Grafton society was successful, because all five of the original members survived; but the Invercauld society was a failure, because only three of the original nineteen members survived.  What explains the differential survival of these two groups?

Although many factors come into play, the most evident difference was that the Grafton society was cooperative and harmonious, while the Invercauld society was divided by competition and hostility.

According to John Locke, this shows us the two sides of human nature that are expressed in the state of nature.  Human beings are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another in groups that are mutually beneficial for all.  But they are also naturally inclined to turn against one another in ways that create disorder, in which human life becomes "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes.

What were the conditions that allowed the Grafton society to manifest the good side of human nature, while the Invercauld society manifested the bad side?

For answering that question, the best book that interweaves the stories of the two groups is Joan Druett's Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World.  Druett was a novelist as well as a maritime historian, and her book is written in her engaging novelistic style.  

In his book Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis relies heavily on Druett's book. But like a good social scientist, Christakis integrates her story into a systematic survey of twenty-four shipwreck societies from 1500 to 1900, which he studies as natural experiments for testing his biological theory of human social nature as based on a social suite of eight innate capacities at the core of all societies. Christakis' theory is similar to my theory of the twenty natural desires of human biological nature (Christakis 2019: 19-58).

The Grafton crew of five men came from five different countries and speaking four different languages.  The captain was Thomas Musgrave (American, age thirty).  Francois Raynal (French, age thirty-three) was the mate.  The three seamen were Alexander McLaren (Norwegian, age twenty-eight), George Harris (English, age twenty), and Henry Forges (Portuguese, age twenty-eight).  Both Musgrave and Raynal kept journals that were later published, which provided most of the information we have about their experience.

The nineteen men who survived the wreck of the Invercauld consisted of the captain, the two officers, ten seamen, the cook, the steward, the boatswain, the carpenter, and the two ship's boys.  By August of 1864, three months from the time the Invercauld was wrecked, only four men were alive: the captain, George Dalgarno, the first mate, Andrew Smith, the second mate, James Mahoney, and a twenty-three-year-old seaman, Robert Holding.  On August 12, 1864, Mahoney died, leaving only three men, who would be rescued on May 22, 1865, twelve months and ten days after the wrecking of the ship.  Dalgarno and Smith wrote some short accounts of their experience.  But the most detailed narrative was written by Holding, many years later when he was eighty-six.

Of the many factors that shaped the social life of these two shipwreck societies, ten stand out: leadership, individual character, cooperation in a division of labor, friendship, social learning and teaching, religion, the absence of women and children, food, technology and material resources, and weather.

1. Leadership.  On the Grafton, Musgrave as the captain and Raynal as the mate were the leaders of the crew.  On the island, they continued to act as leaders.  When the group first made it to land, they were unable to find either shelter or food, and so they foresaw that they were likely to die there from starvation and exposure to the bad weather.  They sat around a fire, lamenting their fate and falling into deep depression.  Raynal tried to boost their spirits by pointing out that the wrecked ship had planks, rope, and canvas that could be used to build a hut, and he told them that getting to work was the only sensible response to their difficult situation.  They all agreed to this.  Musgrave then began assigning different jobs to the men, so that they could work together in building a house and finding food.  In his journal, Raynal wrote that the constant working on various projects "left us little leisure to think of our misfortunes."

By contrast, after the wreck of the Invercauld, Captain Dalgarno was too paralyzed with fear and depression to show any leadership.  When the 19 survivors reached land, they gathered a few planks from the wreckage to throw together a teepee-like lean-to on the beach where they had landed.  They stayed there for five days and nights without making any plans.  During the day, the men wandered aimlessly, eating whatever fish or plants they could find.  Robert Holding decided that if he was to survive, he would have to rely on his own resourcefulness, without any help from the others.

When the boatswain first suggested that they should draw lots to see who should die, so that the others could eat him, Holding said he would never become a cannibal.  But thinking that others might be considering murdering him, he ran away.  In fact, some of the men did eat from the corpses of those who died.

Later, after Musgrave had read Dalgarno's description of how his men had lived on the island, Musgrave wrote in a letter that Dalgarno's story "proves that there has been no unity amongst them, neither has the Captain attempted (or he has not been able) to hold any authority or influence over them; to which cause I attribute the great number of their deaths."

We should notice that of the three people of the Invercauld crew who survived to be rescued, two were officers (Captain Delgardo and first mate Smith).  Holding was the only ordinary seaman to survive.  High rank has its benefits. 

Showing the leadership that Delgardo lacked, Musgrave organized his men in salvaging useful material and tools from the wreck of the Grafton.  With this, they built a tent as shelter.  Musgrave knew, however, that winter in the Southern Hemisphere would be coming in a few months, and that they would need to build a house if they were going to survive all through the winter.  They began to build a hut.  From Raynal's experience in the goldfields of Australia, he had learned how to build huts out of tree branches and to construct adobe chimneys.  By February 2, one month after their arrival on the island, the men had built a large cabin with a chimney.  But it needed to be weatherproofed with straw thatching.  By March 27, the thatching of the house was completed.  The house even had glass windows.

In the house there was a long dining table in the center and a smaller table that Musgrave could use as a desk.  Musgrave and Raynal occupied the north end of the house, the three seamen occupied the opposite end, with a cook's table and other furniture.

This division of the house--one half for the captain and his officer, the other half for the three ordinary seamen--replicated the organization of accommodations on board the ship.  By tradition, the captain and his mate lived in a cabin in the stern of the ship, while the rest of the crew lived in the crowed forecastle.

On the island, however, the seamen did not necessarily agree that the shipboard ranking should be preserved.  Druett observed: "Since they had been cast ashore, a mood of democracy had prevailed in the party, each man being considered as important as the rest" (2007: 72).  Musgrave noticed this, and it bothered him.  Writing on February 7, 1864, only a month after the wreck, he complained:

"Up to the present time, the men have worked well, and conducted themselves in a very obedient and respectful manner towards me; but I find there is somewhat of a spirit of obstinacy and independence creeping in amongst them.  It is true I no longer hold any command over them, but I share everything that has been saved from the wreck in common with them, and I have worked as hard as any of them in trying to make them comfortable, and think gratitude ought to prompt them to still continue willing and obedient. . . . They have not as yet objected to do anything that I have told them to do, but they did it in that manner which says plainly, Why don't you do it yourself?" (Musgrave 1866: 11-12).

After they had built the house, designed to replicate the shipboard ranking of officers above seamen, Raynal sensed the resentment of the seamen against being ruled by the officers, and he feared that this would break up the harmonious unity of their little society. He decided that they needed to replace their informal governmental structure with a written constitution for a government to which all could explicitly consent.  It's worth quoting at length his account of his plan:

"It was not enough to provide for the material needs of life; its moral wants also claimed our attention.  Assuredly we had lived together since our shipwreck in peace and harmony--I may even say in true and honest brotherhood; yet it had sometimes happened that one or the other had yielded to a fit of temper, and let drop an unkind word, which naturally provoked a not less disagreeable repartee.  But if habits of bitterness and animosity were once established amongst us, the consequences could not but be most disastrous: we stood so much in need of one another!  Was not this demonstrated in the erection of our hut, to which each of us, according to his capacity, had contributed his best?  It was evident that we had no strength except in union, that discord and division must be our ruin.  Yet man is so feeble that reason, and self-respect, and even the considerations of self-interest, do not always suffice to keep him in the path of duty.  An external regimen is necessary, a strict and formal discipline, to protect him against his own weakness."

"I revolved these thoughts in my mind during a part of the night.  On the following morning, I communicated them to my companions, as well as the plan I had conceived for ensuring the preservation of order and peace in our little community.  My idea was that we should choose among us, not a master or a superior, but a 'head' or 'chief of the family,' tempering the legal and indisputable authority of the magistrate by the affectionate condescension of a father, or, rather, of an elder brother."

"His duties would be:

"1.  To maintain with gentleness, but also with firmness, order and harmony among us:

"2.  By his prudent advice to put aside every subject of discussion which might lead to controversy:

"3.  In case any serious dispute arose in his absence, the parties to it were immediately to bring it before him; then, assisted by the counsel of those who had held aloof, he was to adjudicate upon the matter, stating who was in the right, and reprimanding him who was in error.  If the latter, disregarding the sentence pronounced, persisted in his wrong, he would be excluded from the community, and condemned to live alone in another part of the island, for a longer or shorter period, according to the gravity of his fault:

"4.  The chief of the family would direct the hunting expeditions, as well as all other labors; he would set to each man his appointed task, without himself excused from giving a good example by the strict discharge of his own duty:

"5.  In urgent circumstances, he would not be allowed to give a decision without the assent of all, or, at least, a majority of his comrades.

"This project was much approved by my companions, who felt, as I did, that necessity of organizing our little society, and, after adding the following clause, they adopted it unanimously:

"6.  The community reserves to itself the right of deposing the chief of the family, and electing another, if at any time he shall abuse his authority, or employ it for personal and manifestly selfish purposes.

"This last clause was a prudent precaution against the despotic tendencies which develop themselves in almost every person whom the confidence of his equals has invested with authority.  It was of easy application, and, consequently, of assured efficacy, since the president of our little republic possessed no 'standing army' to support his ambition.  I must add, however, that throughout the time we lived together we had no occasion to act upon it.

"Without delay, our ideal scheme of government was written out on one of the blank leaves in Musgrave's Bible--we read it formally every Sunday before prayers--and then all of us, placing our hands on the sacred volume, swore to obey and respect it.  We performed this action seriously, and in good faith.  It was no empty ceremony.  Each of us felt there was a certain solemnity in this voluntary engagement of our conscience, which we had called God to witness.

"It now remained for us to elect our chief.  I proposed Musgrave, who was our senior, and a unanimous assent was given to the proposition.

"Thenceforth he sat at the head of the table, and was released from all share in the work of cooking, which was undertaken by Alick, George, Harry, and myself; each discharging the important duties of cook for a week at a time" (Raynal 1874: 151-54).

Here we see how people with equal liberty in a Lockean state of nature establish government by a social contract to which all must consent, but with the proviso that they may withdraw their consent if the ruler becomes despotic, and they can select a new ruler that they trust.

Considering the obvious importance of this "ideal scheme of government" for the Grafton society, it is strange that while Raynal devotes a long section of his book to explaining it, Musgrave says nothing about it in his book.  I wonder whether Musgrave's silence implies that he didn't like the idea that his authority depended on the consent of the group, and that it could be withdrawn if he lost that consent.

This is what Christakis identifies as "mild hierarchy" in his social suite.  In every society, human beings are naturally inclined to recognize some people as having high rank, with the right to rule over them.  But this is a "mild" hierarchy insofar as all individual adults are equal in their right to consent to this and in their right to withdraw their consent when the ruler becomes oppressive.

This is what I identify as the natural desire for political rule.  Human beings are by nature political animals, because they naturally live in social systems that require (at least occasionally) central coordination by leaders to which all or most people have consented (either implicitly or explicitly).

One of the primary reasons that the Grafton society was more successful than the Invercauld society is that the men of the Grafton established a clear social order of central coordination by rulers.

2.  Individual character.  Each person in these two societies had his own individual personality with a unique set of moral and intellectual traits.  The social success or failure of these groups depended on the interaction of these individuals.  As it happened, the Grafton society had in general men of better character than those in the Invercauld society.  The social importance of individuality is what Christakis calls "the capacity to have and recognize individual identity."

3.  Cooperation in the division of labor.  The Grafton society made use of this individuality by having the men cooperate in a division of labor, so that different jobs were assigned to different individuals according to their talents and temperaments.  For example, the Norwegian McLaren was recognized as an unusually strong and skillful swimmer; and so when they needed a good swimmer, he was chosen.  Raynal was skillful in using and making tools, and so he specialized in that.  Each man did whatever he was best at doing.  This belongs to "cooperation" in Christakis' social suite.

4.  Friendship.  It was easy for the Grafton men to cooperate with one another because they became friends.  They enjoyed one another's companionship, and they felt a deep sense of comradery. Friendship belongs to Christakis' social suite, and it's one of my 20 natural desires.

5.  Social learning and teaching.  The social suite also includes the capacity for social learning and teaching.  This was seen in the Grafton group.  Raynal foresaw that after their daily work was finished, they would often have free time, especially in the evenings.  He proposed that they establish "evening school, for mutual instruction" (Raynal 1874: 159).  Harry and Alick could neither read nor write.  The other three men could teach them.  Harry and Alick could in return teach their native languages, of which the other three were ignorant.  George wanted to be taught mathematics.  Raynal could teach French.  They began doing this every evening.  Raynal said that "we were alternately the masters and pupils of one another."  This teaching and learning "still further united us; by alternately raising and lowering us one above the other, they really kept us on a level, and created a perfect equality amongst us" (159-60).  This could also be seen as manifesting what I have called the natural desire for intellectual understanding.

6.  Religion.  Every Sunday, they had someone read aloud from the Bible; and they would pray.  As indicated, they also swore their allegiance to their constitution after it was read from the text in Musgrave's Bible.  Raynal reports:

"We belonged to different communions; but who bethought themselves of such divisions?  How utterly were they all effaced!  How every barrier was broken down!  The five of us were now of the same belief, the same faith--that of the man who finds himself alone, face to face with the Creator, with the Being infinite and all-powerful, and who humbly confides to Him his troubles, his wants, and his hopes" (105).

At one point, Musgrave read some passages from the Gospels.  "At these words, 'Come to Me, all ye who suffer, and I will comfort you,' and at this command, 'Love one another,' we burst into tears."

Christakis does not include religion in his social suite.  But I include the natural desire for religious understanding.

7.  Absence of women and children.  There were no women or children in either of these two groups, unlike any normal human society.  The men did often speak about the suffering of being separated from their families.  Musgrave, in particular, constantly worried about what had happened to his wife and children in Australia.  Their natural desire for familial bonding--or for what Christakis calls "love for partners and offspring"--was frustrated during their time on the island.

From another point of view, however, it might have been good for them that there were no women in their groups.  If there had been an imbalance in the sex ratio--perhaps more men than women--this could have provoked the men into fighting over sexual mates.  (This is what happened in the famous case of those mutineers on the Bounty, who settled on the Pitcairn Island with women they had taken from Tahiti.)

8.  Food.  The greatest threat to their health came from starvation and poor nutrition.  The men of the Grafton were lucky in that they landed on the island during one of the two periods in the year when seals and seal lions were plentiful, which were a primary source of food.  The men of the Invercauld were unlucky in landing when these animals could not be found, and they became desperate in their search for food.

9.  Tools and materials.  The men of the Grafton were also lucky in that their wrecked ship remained stuck on rocks along the shoreline, which allowed them to salvage from the ship many tools and valuable materials (such as wood and copper).  This toolkit and the collection of materials made them successful in fishing, hunting, building structures, and making clothing and shoes.  By contrast, the men of the Invercauld were remarkably unlucky when their ship was totally destroyed, and so they retrieved very little from the ship.

10.  Weather.  Another stroke of good luck for the Grafton group is that they arrived on the island in the Southern Hemisphere's summer, with four months to prepare for what they knew would be a harsh winter.  The Invercauld group had the misfortune of arriving at the beginning of winter with no time to prepare for the severe winter weather.

These ten factors constitute the conditions for any naturally good society--on Auckland Island or anywhere else. 


Christakis, Nicholas. 2019. Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. New York: Little, Brown Spark.

Druett, Joan. 2007. Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonguin Books.

Musgrave, Thomas. 1866. Castaway on the Auckland Isles: A Narrative of the Wreck of the 'Grafton' and of the Escape of the Crew After Twenty Months' Suffering. London: Lockwood and Company.

Raynal, F. E. 1874. Wrecked on a Reef: Or, Twenty Months Among the Auckland Isles. London: T. Nelson and Sons.