Friday, July 24, 2009

A Reply to Richard Hassing on Natural Law

In some previous posts, I have commented on the Straussian responses to my conception of Darwinian natural right. On the one hand, the Straussians agree with Strauss about the need for a comprehensive science of nature that would include human nature, which would overcome the typically modern separation between the natural world and the human mind. On the other hand, many of the Straussians (like Leon Kass and Allan Bloom) seem to embrace the radical dualism of nature and humanity that comes out of the modern tradition of Hobbes, Rousseau, and Kant.

This ambiguity in the Straussian response to my argument for a fully naturalistic account of human life was clear in Richard Hassing's critique of Darwinian natural right published in Interpretation. In my reply to Hassing, I showed how my conception of Darwinian naturalism moved toward the "comprehensive science" sought by Strauss--a science of nature that would include the ethical striving of human nature as part of the natural universe. This would be a science of emergent naturalism that would escape the dilemma of choosing between a reductionist monism and a transcendentalist dualism. Instead of the artificial separation between the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, we need a new science of nature that integrates all the intellectual disciplines as we try to understand human nature within the natural order of the whole. Nothing less is required if we want to solve what Strauss identified as the fundamental problem of natural right.

In the book Contemporary Perspectives on Natural Law, edited by Ana Marta Gonzalez (Ashgate Publishing, 2008), Hassing has a chapter on "Difficulties for Natural Law Based on Modern Conceptions of Nature." Here again, against my Darwinian natural right, he argues, as he did in his earlier article, that Darwinian science assumes a "species-neutrality" that denies the ground of natural law by denying the importance of the natural differences between species. According to Hassing, the Darwinian theory that all living forms are adapted by evolution for survival and reproduction means that the differences between species are unimportant. In particular, he claims, the Darwinian scientist sees no important differences between the human species and other species of animals.

In my earlier reply to Hassing's article, I pointed out that this interpretation of Darwinian science as "species-neutral" is false. Although all species are subject to evolutionary pressures for survival and reproduction, each species is adapted to its own adaptive niche, and each species has its own species-specific set of traits. Biologists must recognize the uniqueness of each species.

This is as true for Aristotle's biology as it is for Darwin's.  Aristotle sees that self-nutrition and reproduction are capacities that generally distinguish the living beings (plants and animals) from the lifeless bodies (De Anima, 412a14-15, 415a24ff., 434a30ff.).  And yet he also recognizes and studies the unique traits of each species as adapted to its distinctive way of life (as he does in The Parts of Animals and The History of Animals.)

Darwin's account of human nature in The Descent of Man includes elaborate explanations for the uniqueness of human beings in their capacities for conceptual thought, symbolic language, and moral judgment. What we see here--I argue--is an emergent difference in kind that allows for qualitative novelty but without any break in the underlying continuity of nature.

In his book chapter, Hassing does not respond to my argument. Instead, he merely restates his assertion that Darwinian biologists must believe in "species-neutrality," and therefore they must deny that there are any natural differences between species. His reasoning for this conclusion is strange. For example, he says that since biologists believe there is a universal genetic code, this means that there is no genetic difference between species. But, of course, this doesn't follow at all. Although the genetic code is universal, each species has its own genetic propensities.

Although I find Hassing's reasoning confusing, perhaps I should be reassured that in this book chapter, he does, at least, concede that "Darwin was right about the mutability of living species," and that "living species came into being from common ancestors over a long period of time."

No comments: