Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Extinction of the Shakers Vindicates Darwinian Natural Law

The only Shaker community still existing is at Sabbathday Lake in New Gloucester, Maine.  The community's website has just announced the death of Sister Frances Carr on Monday, which leaves only two Shakers alive today--Brother Arnold Hadd and Sister June Carpenter.  So if there are no new recruits to the community, the Shakers will soon go completely extinct.  This vindicates Darwinian natural law, because it shows that communist communities that deny the evolved natural desires for mating, marriage, and private property must eventually fail and become extinct.

In Darwinian Natural Right, I appealed to the history of such utopian communist communities--particularly, religious communism in the Oneida Community and secular communism in the Kibbutz--as showing that communism is contrary to Darwinian natural right because it frustrates the natural desires of evolved human nature. (My posts on the kibbutz are here and here.)  I noted that these utopian communities showed the futility of Plato's "second wave" in The Republic--the proposal for abolishing private families and private property among the rulers in the perfectly just city.

The Shakers were founded by Ann Lee in 1747 in England.  In 1774, she fled to the New World with eight of her followers.  Ann Lee had married, but her marriage was unhappy because her fear of her own sexual impulses made the conjugal act disgusting to her, although she gave birth to four children.  She scolded her own mother for her "carnal acts of indulgence." She finally decided that celibacy was necessary for Christian salvation as an expression of virginal purity.

She supported this with a theology based on the Bible.  She saw the original sin of Adam and Eve as the sexual lust of their animal nature.  Jesus Christ came to save us from this animal depravity.  He taught that "in the Resurrection, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in Heaven" (Matt. 22:30).  The Apostle Paul taught that "He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord; but he that is married careth for the things of the world, how he may please his wife" (1 Cor. 7:32-33). 

Ann Lee taught that those who joined the Outer Order of Shakers could continue to have marriage and private property so that "all such as desire to live in nature propagating their own species, keep the law of nature" (A Holy, Sacred, and Divine Roll and Book, p. 30, quoted in Muncy 1974, p. 19).  But those admitted to the Inner Order would have to give up marriage, sexual intercourse, and private property, because they must "keep the law of Grace where the dominion of Christ is established in souls, and where the law of Grace reigns, and the law of nature is superseded" (ibid., 20).  They would become as the angels in Heaven.  So while she recognized that natural law governed most human beings most of the time, she thought the truly redeemed Christians of the Shaker Inner Order could show how "the law of nature is superseded."

The continuation of Shaker communities depended on adding new members in one of two ways.  Either new adults could be recruited to join. Or orphaned children could be adopted by the community, and at maturity the adopted children could decide whether to say or leave.  Sister Frances Carr was adopted when she was 10 years old, and then as an adult she decided to stay for her entire life.

There were once many Shaker communities scattered over the Eastern United States, and there was a total of as many as 6,000 members before the Civil War.  But since then the numbers have dwindled, and now it's down to one community with a total of two members.  The Shakers illustrate Friedrich Hayek's claim that in the evolution of religious traditions, "the only religions that have survived are those which support property and the family" (Fatal Conceit, 137).

But notice that this history of the Shakers does not prove that such socialist communities are completely impossible.  There will always be a few human beings--like Ann Lee and her followers--who can bear the sacrifice of celibate socialism.  They thus show what Thomas Aquinas identified as the variability in the natural temperament of individuals.  After all, Aquinas himself had the natural temperament that allowed him to join the celibate mendicant order of the Dominicans.  This natural variability in personality is manifest even in nonhuman animals, some of whom are celibate, and others of whom are homosexual (as indicated in posts here and here.)  But such a natural temperament will be rare among human beings, and even those with such a temperament are likely to suffer some emotional costs.

The Shakers and hundreds of other utopian communes were free in the United States to form as voluntary associations.  And thus a liberal social order is open to the formation of socialist communities for those who want to live in such communities, as long as membership is voluntary.  In this way, liberalism supports a largely open society in which all ways of life are possible, except those that use violent coercion to enforce membership.

This illustrates how a Darwinian liberalism of natural law allows for both cultural and individual variability within the constraints of evolved human nature.  Human nature constrains but does not determine human culture, and human nature and human culture jointly constrain but do not determine human individuals.

So, hey, those of you with the natural temperament for socialist celibacy can take off to Sabbathday Lake and save the Shakers from extinction!


Muncy, Raymond Lee. 1974. Sex and Marriage in Utopian Communities: Nineteenth-Century America. New York: Penguin Books.

Stein, Stephen J. 1994. The Shaker Experience in America: A History of the United Society of Believers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

1 comment:

Empedocles said...

Here is another take on the Shakers you may find interesting: