Monday, July 16, 2018

Darwinian History and Biography in the Declaration of Independence

Instead of "Darwin and the Declaration of Independence," a better title for our panel in Brisbane might be "Darwin and the Second Sentence of the Declaration of Independence."  Because almost all of our attention in our papers is directed to that second sentence--"We hold these truths to be self-evident . . ."

Although this is a long sentence (55 words), it is still a small part of the Declaration, and the factual list of grievances against the King ("let facts be submitted to a candid world") is over two-thirds the length of the entire document.  If you look at the editing of Jefferson's draft by the Continental Congress, you will see that the delegates were predominantly concerned with the list of grievances.  There was almost no discussion of the second sentence at the time, as though it were an afterthought or a rhetorical flourish that did not require any serious thought.

The two most detailed critiques of the Declaration published in 1776 were Thomas Hutchinson's Strictures upon the Declaration of the Congress at Philadelphia and John Lind's An Answer to the Declaration of the American Congress.  Lind said that he had taken "little or no notice" of the first few sentences because "the truth is, little or none does it deserve."  Hutchinson wrote only a few sentences about the opening lines and then moved on to "the facts which are alleged to be the evidence of injuries and usurpation."

Beginning about 30 years after the Declaration was signed, however, Jeffersonian Republicans began to direct public attention to that second sentence as possibly the seminal statement of the American creed, and now many people see it as a statement of the universal liberal creed for all of humanity and a standard for liberal reform throughout the rest of history right up to the present.

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln eloquently expressed this rhetorical elevation of the second sentence: "All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling block to the very harbingers of the reappearing tyranny and oppression."

If we agree with this, then we have to worry about whether Darwin and Darwinian science subvert or support that "abstract truth" of human liberty in the second sentence.  This explains why our panel papers are so preoccupied with this question.

But if we are also interested in the question of whether Darwin and Darwinian science subvert or support the understanding of the human political life that is expressed in the entire document of the Declaration, which includes not just "abstract truth," but also factual political history and the political judgments of individual political agents, then we have to wonder whether a Darwinian political science can explain the historicity and individuality of political life.

As I indicated in my first post this month, I am trying in my paper to move through three levels of political experience by illustrating how a Darwinian biopolitical framework applies to the study of the Declaration of Independence as an event in the natural history of human politics, in the cultural history of the American political founding, and in the individual history of Thomas Jefferson and the others who signed the Declaration.


As I have said in a previous post, I disagree with those many critics of sociobiology who assume a sharp dichotomy between nature and history in claiming that the biological study of animal nature cannot explain human history.  One of the first critiques of Ed Wilson's Sociobiology was Kenneth Bock's Human Nature and History: A Response to Sociobiology, first published in 1980.  The central argument of this book is "that explication of social and cultural differences is a primary task of the human sciences and that such explication is best sought in comparison of human histories, not in human biology or comparative ethology" (ix).  Human biology or comparative ethology can study the biological nature that human beings share with other animals.  But Bock insisted that "animals other than man do not have histories" (198).  Animal behavior is determined by the biological nature of each species, which can be studied by biologists.  But human history in its contingency and diversity shows a human freedom from nature that transcends human biology, which can be studied by historians, but not by biologists.

Similarly, political scientist John Hibbing, who is a leading proponent of the biological study of political behavior, has said that biopolitics must be limited to studying the "bedrock dilemmas of politics" that are universal to all political communities.  While biology can illuminate "cross-polity commonality," biology has no application to variable traditions of political culture or to the biographical history of  individual political actors.  Like Bock, he assumes that human cultural history and individual history transcend nature.  When I refer to the biographical history of Lincoln's decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation as a necessary part of a biopolitical science, Hibbing says that this is bringing in "non-biological factors" that cannot be studied biologically.  

But if one includes the science of animal behavior within biology, and if one sees that the biological study of animal behavior includes the study of particular events in the political history of animal groups shaped by unique cultural traditions and unique individuals, then any biopolitical science must include political history and political biography.  Political histories of particular chimpanzee groups like Jane Goodall's Chimpanzees of Gombe and Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics and Good Natured illustrate this.

De Waal shows that every chimpanzee group has prescriptive rules of social conduct enforced by the community through reward and punishment that are acquired social conventions derived from a hierarchical organization, in which subordinate individuals pay close attention to dominant individuals (Good Natured, 89-97).  For example, Jimoh, the alpha male of the Yerkes Field Station group once detected a secret mating between Socko, an adolescent male, and one of Jimoh's favorite females.  The normal response would be for the dominant to chase away the subordinate.  But this time, Jimoh chased Socko all around the enclosure without stopping, while Socko screamed and defecated in fear.  

Several females began to "woaow" bark, which is a sound of indignation used to protest aggressors.  De Waal writes: "At first the callers looked around to see how the rest of the group was reacting; but when  others joined in, particularly the top-ranking female, the intensity of their calls quickly increased until literally everyone's voice was part of the deafening chorus.  The scattered beginning almost gave the impression that the group was taking a vote.  Once the protest had swelled to a chorus, Jimoh broke off his attack with a nervous grin on his face: he got the message.  Had he failed to respond, there would no doubt have been concerted female action to end the disturbance" (91-92).

The enforcement of prescriptive rules in chimpanzee groups is organized through a hierarchical structure of three orders.  To explain this, de Waal has learned from his reading of Machiavelli's Prince.  Machiavelli saw politics as competition for power and glory organized around three types of human beings: the "prince," who is number one; the "great ones," who are high-ranking individuals with ambition to rule; and the "people," who are the majority of the individuals in a society with no ambition to rule, but who do not want to be oppressed by the "prince" or the "great ones."  De Waal has seen a similar social structure among the chimpanzees: the alpha male is the "prince"; the high-ranking males are the "great ones"; and all the others in the group are the "common people" (Chimpanzee Politics, 149).

Machiavelli and John Adams thought that a stable regime would have to balance these three orders in a manner that would satisfy the ambitions and appetites of all three without anyone having the power to tyrannize over others.  De Waal has seen something like this among chimpanzees.  There is a "balance of power: the superiority of one party over another depends on the support of a third, so that each party affects the position of the others," which creates something like a "democratic structure."  (I have written about this in Darwinian Conservatism, 73-84.)

Despite these similarities between chimpanzee politics and human politics, human beings are unique in expressing their prescriptive rules through verbal and written language, while chimpanzees must rely on verbal and nonverbal signs without the conceptual complexity of human language to formulate their rules of justice and the common good.  We can see that in the Declaration's written list of grievances against the King, which continues the old tradition in English history of parchment documents, which included "declarations" bringing charges of wrongdoing and appealing for public support.  The best known of these English declarations was the Declaration of Rights of 1689, which justified the overthrow of James II and the installation of William and Mary on the throne.  Many of the charges against James II and even the exact language are echoed in list of grievances in the American Declaration of Independence (see Pauline Maier, American Scripture, 50-59).

So, to understand this part of the American Declaration, we need to see how it follows in the historical tradition of written English declarations to justify overthrowing kings.  But we can also see here a general pattern of primate politics that belongs to evolved human nature.  Most of the grievances are directed against the King.  But the Declaration also speaks of appeals to the British people, who have been warned "from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us."  Here we see the three orders of primate politics: the one (the King), the few (the Parliament), and the many (the people).

We see the same three orders in the American deliberation over declaring independence.  In the four months prior to the drafting and signing of the Declaration of Independence, popular assemblies were held in towns across the colonies to debate the merits of independence and to submit their recommendations to the colonial legislatures, who in turn instructed their delegates to the Continental Congress.  So while the people as a whole are supposed to exercise the ultimate authority, they are represented by a few politically ambitious people in the colonial legislatures and the Congress.  Then, with the overthrow of the King and the establishment of new state governments, the executive power will be vested in one dominant individual.  Eventually, the Constitution of 1787 will establish the office of the presidency and the commander in chief, held first by "His Excellency" George Washington.  One, few, and many.


The striving for political dominance--to be number one--exhibits a distinctive political personality found among political animals generally, the sort of personality characteristic of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence.  At this level of political science, we must study the individual lives of political agents and their personalities.

For a long time, many biologists were not interested in the evolution of animal personalities, because they assumed that evolution would shape a species typical psychology shared by all individuals of the species with little heritable variation.  Evolutionary psychologists (like Leda Cosmides and John Tooby) have concentrated on human universals as evolutionary adaptations shared by all human individuals.

But  in recent decades, the biological study of animal personalities has become one of the hottest topics in biology.  Actually, this is a rediscovery of what Aristotle explained in his biological works.  He recognized that "in a number of animals, we observe gentleness or fierceness, mildness or cross temper, courage or timidity, fear or confidence, high spirit or low cunning, and, with regard to intelligence, something equivalent to shrewdness" (History of Animals, 8.1).  In his Generation of Animals, Aristotle distinguished between three levels of inherited traits among animals.  An animal species, including the human species, shows generic traits shared with some other animals, specific traits shared with members of the same species, and temperamental traits that differ among individuals of the species.  Thomas Aquinas adopted this biological idea from Aristotle as showing three levels of natural law corresponding to generic nature, specific nature, and temperamental nature.

In the recent biological studies of animal personality, personality designates behavioral and physiological differences among individuals of the same species, which are stable across time and across different situations.  An individual personality is a consistent pattern in how an individual feels, thinks, and acts.  Some researchers have used different terms for this--such as temperaments, behavioral syndromes, and predispositions.

One of the most extensively studied models of human personality among psychologists is the Five Factor Model that describes human personality differences across five domains--Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN).  Each domain corresponds to an axis running from high to low.  So, for example, those individuals high in Agreeableness tend to be helpful, trusting, and cooperative with everyone.  Individuals lower in Agreeableness tend to be less helpful, more suspicious of others, and more competitive than cooperative.

This same Five Factor Model can be applied to the study of nonhuman animal personalities, using the same methods as are used in studying human beings.  Four of the factors appear in many animal species.  But Conscientiousness seems to appear only among chimpanzees and human beings.  One possible explanation for this is that Conscientiousness requires a high cognitive ability for making plans and controlling impulses in executing those plans, which requires the large frontal lobes found only in chimps and humans.

As I have noted some previous posts (here and here), the same techniques used by historians and psychologists to identify the personalities of American presidents (such as Donald Trump's "grandiose narcissism") can be used to identify similar personalities among chimpanzees.  Also, like human beings, other mammalian animals (including chimpanzees) show individual variability in heritable intelligence (IQ).

In putting their unique signatures to the Declaration of Independence, the 56 signers pledge to one another their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.  In fact, under British law, the punishment for treason was death and forfeiture of one's estate, and certainly dishonor.  But as Douglass Adair has shown, these men were motivated to take this risk for the same of the glory, the fame, the honor that would come to them if the Revolution was successful.

But such glory cannot be equally shared by all 56 individuals.  There can be only one alpha male.  Consider, for example, the competitive striving between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  On May 10, 1776, the Congress adopted a resolution recommending that every colony draft a new constitution to replace the colonial charters.  On May 15, Adams presented a resolution he had drafted to serve as a preface to this recommendation, and this preface was worded as a de facto declaration of independence.  Adams described these words to a friend as "the most important resolution that ever was taken in America,"  Two days later, on May 17, he wrote to Abigail, to tell her that he had just become America's Moses:
"Is it not a saying of Moses, 'Who am I, that I should go in and out before this great People?'  When I consider the great events which are passed, and those greater which are rapidly advancing, and that I may have been instrumental in touching some Springs, and turning some small Wheels, which have had and will have such Effects, I feel an Awe upon my Mind, which is not easily described."
Up to the end of his life, fifty years later, Adams was still insisting that he had drafted the real declaration of independence.  He complained that the prominence given to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's drafting of it was unfair.  "Was there ever a Coup de Theatre, that had so great an effect as Jefferson's Penmanship of the Declaration of Independence?" Adams asked.  He insisted that the Declaration was merely "a theatrical side show . . . Jefferson ran away with the stage effect--and all the glory of it."

"All honor to Jefferson."

On Jefferson's grave monument, he identified himself as "The Author of the Declaration of American Independence."

Jefferson's prominence among the drafters and signers of the Declaration is suggested in John Trumbull's painting displayed in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda since 1826.  42 of the 56 signors are in the painting.  Trumbull was unable to find likenesses of 14 of the signers.  But he does allow each of the 42 to have a clear individually painted face.  The painting depicts the five-man drafting committee presenting their draft to the Congress on June 26.  The five men of the drafting committee stand out, but Jefferson stands in front, and he holds the center of the painting.  It also helps--as it always does--that he is the tallest man (at 6' 2"), while Adams is shorter (5' 7").  The Wikipedia article on Trumbull's painting allows you to click on each face for a biography.

A Darwinian science of politics must include a political psychology of such political ambition that for the most ambitious men means striving for the glory of being number one.  This requires a study of the political biographies of people like Jefferson and Adams, with personalities shaped by the genetic evolution of political animals, the cultural evolution of political history, and their own life histories.

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