Jason Jividen (Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pennsylvania) has written an instructive paper for our IPSA panel. It's entitled "Darwin, the Declaration, and American Progressivism."
He makes three claims. Most of his paper is devoted to elaborating his first claim--that the American progressives appealed to Darwin as subverting the thinking of the American Founders and supporting the progressive agenda for establishing an Administrative State that would set aside the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution as originally understood by the Founders.
His second claim is that many of the conservatives who defend the American Founding against the progressives actually agree with the progressives in their assertion that Darwin subverts the principles of the American Founding, although the conservatives think this is bad
, while the progressives think this is good
His third claim is that the Darwinian conservatives--particularly that guy Larry Arnhart--argue that Darwin and Darwinian science rightly support the principles of the American Founding.
In this dispute, Jividen sees two major questions. Does the natural rights thinking of the American Founding depend upon the idea of an eternal human nature that is denied by a Darwinian conception of a changing human nature? And, in particular, does a Darwinian conception of a changing human nature deny the natural right to property?
I generally agree with Jividen's claims. But unlike Jividen, I clearly endorse the position of that guy Arnhart!
Jividen is good in explaining the contrast between the American Founding and American Progressivism. The Founders believed that human beings were endowed with natural rights, that government is established with powers limited to securing those natural rights, and that governments that fail to secure those rights can be rightly overthrown. All of this is affirmed in the Declaration of Independence.
The Founders also believed that human nature was imperfect in that human beings were naturally inclined to advance their selfish interests at the expense of the public good, which is what James Madison identified as the problem of faction. The primary source of factional conflict is the natural diversity in the human faculties that leads to unequal accumulation of property, which creates conflict between the rich and the poor. One solution to this problem would be to transform human nature so that everyone would have the same opinions, passions, and interests. Everyone would be equal in a classless society, and no one would have a selfish interest contrary to the public interest. But such a transformation of human nature is impossible, Madison believed, because one cannot abolish the natural diversity in the human faculties and the natural selfishness that leads to factional conflict over property. Moreover, since private property is one of those natural rights that a just government must secure, government cannot rightly abolish private property.
Although there is no complete solution to the problem of faction, the Founders thought the U.S. Constitution was well-designed to mitigate the problem through a system of limited governmental powers with checks and balances (in the Constitution of 1787) and a statement of rights to be secured by government (in the Amendments to the Constitution), which includes an implied reference to natural rights (in the 9th Amendment) as the unenumerated rights "retained by the people."
As Jividen indicates, the American progressives rejected most of this as an outmoded understanding of human nature and government that was not suited to the needs of a modern industrialized society. The progressive movement of History required a new understanding of human nature and government that would support economic and political reforms that would concentrate power in a Presidential Administrative State where scientific experts could plan the social and economic life of the country for the common welfare of all.
One good way to describe the difference between the American Founders and the American Progressives is suggested by Randy Barnett in his book Our Republican Constitution
(Broadside Books, 2016). In Barnett's terminology, the Founders defended a "Republican Constitution," while the Progressives defended a "Democratic Constitution." The difference here depends on how one interprets "We the People" at the beginning of the Preamble to the Constitution. It depends on whether one adopts an individual or a collective conception of "We the People."
Those who favor the Democratic Constitution see "We the People" as a collective
entity, as a group, so that popular sovereignty means rule by the people as a body. And since unanimous consensus of everyone is impossible, the collective "will of the people," in practice, must mean the "will of the majority." And thus in the Democratic Constitution, the will of majorities either in the electorate or in the legislature will decide which individual rights are legally enforceable. So, for example, the majority will decide whether and how property rights are to be protected by law. Consequently, whenever the majority of the people support laws that deny or restrict individual rights, such as property rights, the Supreme Court must exercise judicial restraint by upholding these laws as constitutional, because denying the will of the majority would be undemocratic.
By contrast, those who favor the Republican Constitution see "We the People" as individuals
, so that popular sovereignty resides in the people as individuals. According to this view, the purpose of government is not to serve the will of the majority but to secure the pre-existing rights of individuals--the rights of each and every one of us.
Barnett explains: "So, under a Democratic Constitution, first comes government and then come rights.
First one needs to establish a polity with a legislature to represent the will of the people. And then this legislature will decide which rights, if any, get legal protection and which do not" (21).
He contrasts this with the alternative view: "A Republican Constitution views the natural and inalienable rights of these joint and equal sovereign individuals as preceding the formation of governments, so first come rights and then comes government.
Indeed, the Declaration of Independence tells us, it is 'to secure these rights' that 'Governments are instituted among Men'" (23).
The Progressives criticized the Republican Constitution favored by the Founders because it was undemocratic in protecting individual rights against legal infringements of those rights by the will of the majority. So, for example, the Progressives denounced the Supreme Court's decision in Lochner v. New York
(1905) as a prime example of this, because the decision struck down as unconstitutional violations of the natural right to property by some state laws regulating working conditions that represented the will of the majority. The Progressives wanted a Democratic Constitution in which the majority of the people would be free to decide how and whether the law would secure property rights.
The fundamental premise of the Founders' Republican Constitution--first come rights and then comes government
--depends on the reality of a pre-governmental state of nature in which human beings have natural rights that exist prior to government, so that government can be understood as established to secure those pre-existing rights. As Jividen indicates, the Progressives dismissed the idea of the state of nature as a purely fictional creation for which there was no historical evidence. On the contrary, I argue in my paper that Darwinian evolutionary anthropology confirms Locke's claim that human beings originally lived in a state of nature, which shaped our evolved human nature in ways that are expressed in our evolutionary psychology today, so that we are naturally disposed to assert our natural rights to life, liberty, and property as rooted in our natural self-ownership.
But against this claim that Darwinian science supports the idea of natural rights rooted in human nature, the Progressives assumed that the Darwinian science of evolutionary change denied any belief in a fixed human nature. And many conservatives say yes, and that's why we need to reject Darwinian science in order to defend the natural rights thinking of the American Founders as grounded in the idea of an eternally fixed human nature that can never be changed by evolution; and only in this way can we refute Progressivism.
Oddly, however, as Jividen notes, most of these progressives and conservatives who assume that Darwin subverts natural rights thinking have never read Darwin, and so they rely on some vague conception of "Darwinism" as teaching evolutionary change without any clear understanding of what Darwin and other evolutionary scientists have said. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Harry Jaffa in his home in Claremont in 1987. I had just given a lecture defending Darwin and Darwinian science as supporting the principles of the American Founding. Jaffa disagreed with me. At one point, I quoted some passages from Darwin's Descent of Man
, and Jaffa responded by saying that he had never read Darwin, but he was sure that Darwin was wrong! (I have written some posts on this here
Perhaps, however, one doesn't need to know much about Darwin to know that Darwinism teaches evolutionary change and thus denies that any species are eternal, which denies the eternal fixity of human nature; and if human nature is not eternally fixed, it cannot provide the eternal standard of right necessary for natural rights thinking.
My response to this claim has been accurately stated by Jividen: "Darwinism can in fact offer a robust and defensible account of a stable and enduring (but not permanent) human nature as the product of a very long process of evolutionary development. It can offer a Darwinian defense of natural standards of morality and justice, not rooted in a cosmic teleology, but in a biological teleology of human ends. Examining the things that contribute to human flourishing and happiness, we can see that these natural standards of right offer guidance about the basis and scope of majority rule and limited constitutional government" (34-35).
Some of my posts on these points can be found here
, and here
The idea of an eternally fixed unchanging human nature is so incomprehensible to me that it's hard for me to see how anyone could believe it. Does anyone really believe that human beings show no individual variation? Does anyone really believe that human beings have always existed and will always exist in exactly the same form? Biblical creationists cannot believe this, because they believe that human beings did not exist until they were created by God, and they will not exist in their present form in the afterlife, because God will transform them for an eternal life in Heaven or Hell.
To illustrate how an enduring but not eternal human nature supports the natural rights thinking of the Founders, consider what I say in my paper about the natural evolution of self-ownership as a natural human propensity that supports the natural right to property, and perhaps all other natural rights as well. Locke affirmed that self-ownership--having natural property in oneself, in one's body and mind--is the original natural right from which all other natural rights are derived. Frederick Douglass asserted this to justify his running away from slavery: "Every man is the original, rightful, and absolute owner of his own body
; or in other words, every man is himself, is his
self, if you please, and belongs to himself, and can only part from his
self-ownership, by the commission of a crime." Douglass wrote to his former master: "Nature does not make your existence depend upon me, or mine depend upon yours. I cannot walk upon your legs, or you upon mine. I cannot breathe for you, or you for me; I must breathe for myself, and you for yourself. We are distinct persons, and are each equally provided with faculties necessary to our individual existence."
Evolutionary neurobiology can explain how this human sense of each person's self-ownership arose in the evolved neuroanatomy of the brain to serve the survival and well-being of the human animal. Neurobiologist Bud Craig's studies of the neuroanatomy of interoception explain how the feeling of self-awareness--the feeling of being alive--arises from the integration in the neural cortex of the feelings from one's own body. This gives one a sense of owning one's body. And this is an example of an enduring but not eternal human nature: if Craig is right, then we should see the structural and functional neuroanatomy of interoception in all normal human brains across the history of the human species, although there will be great variation across individuals.
The brain's evolved capacity for a feeling of self-ownership includes feeling whether other people are likely to be helpful or harmful to oneself, as in the brain's ability to discriminate trustworthy faces and untrustworthy faces, or to punish people who make unfair offers in an Ultimatum Game. Our brains have evolved to protect ourselves from threats and to seek out cooperative relationships in ways that secure our survival and well-being. In running away from his slave master, and then in arguing for the abolition of slavery, Douglass expressed the evolved natural propensity of the human brain for self-ownership and for moral resentment against those who would threaten that natural human right to self-ownership.
This evolved natural propensity for moral resentment and retaliation against those who threaten us explains a comment by Carl Becker quoted by Jividen, which is also quoted in my paper. Becker is one of Jividen's examples of progressives criticizing the Declaration of Independence as refuted by Darwinian science. If one accepts Darwin's science of evolution, Becker insisted, then the Declaration's appeal to a "higher law" or natural law of moral right is denied, because the evolutionary history of humanity shows only a "struggle for existence and survival," in which the stronger prevail over the weaker. And in such a Darwinian universe, Becker said, "the rights which nature gave to man were easily thought of as measured by the power he could exert."
But, then, when Becker wrote a new introduction to his book in 1941, he observed that the brutality of the Nazi threat to human liberty had forced people to "re-appraise the validity of half-forgotten ideas" such as the "unalienable rights of men," which might then be seen as "fundamental realities that men will always fight for rather than surrender."
Here we see how, from a Darwinian perspective, it really is true that might makes right
, or, as Becker says, one's natural rights are measured by the power one exerts for them. Actually, Becker here is echoing Spinoza's idea that "nature's right is co-extensive with her power" (TTP
, 16.2; TP
The reality of natural rights was confirmed in World War II by the willingness of human beings to fight for them against Hitler rather than surrender. This defeat of Hitler in war was followed by the Nuremberg Trials and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that expressed the natural human resentment against injustice and the affirmation of human rights as the standard for judging government.
And let's remember that the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of war against the most powerful nation in the world. This was what Locke called an "appeal to Heaven"--a appeal to battle to vindicate natural rights, which was a return to the state of nature in which individuals exercised their natural executive power for enforcing the laws of nature by punishing those who violated those natural laws.
Evolutionary science can explain this as cultural group selection in war, in which the evolved natural human propensity to attack and punish those who threaten our lives and property manifests the reality of natural rights. This refutes the claim of the Progressives that Darwinian science must deny the natural rights thinking of the Declaration of Independence.
Furthermore, the claim of the Progressives that they were on the right side of History, which required the restriction or even abolition of the right to private property, has been refuted by the evolutionary history of the past one hundred years. Those socialist regimes that have attempted to completely abolish private property have failed. And while the welfare-state capitalist regimes--particularly those in the Nordic countries--have succeeded, their success has depended upon enforcing private property rights. One can see that in the Human Freedom Index, which measures both personal freedom and economic freedom, and which shows that the Nordic social democracies tend to score high in freedom, including legal protection of property rights. (I have written some posts about this here, here
., and here
That any attempt to abolish private property leads to disastrous consequences shows that this is a natural right rooted in an enduring human nature with an evolved propensity to self-ownership.