Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Darwinian Storytelling and the Declaration of Independence: A Response to Marlene Sokolon

Marlene Sokolon (Concordia University, Montreal) has written a fascinating paper on the evolution of storytelling about origins for our panel on "Darwin and the Declaration of Independence" at the IPSA convention in Australia.

She makes three major claims.

First, Charles Darwin's science is an origin story that uses the literary devices and narrative patterns of storytelling.

Second, Darwin's scientific origin story includes a story about the evolution of storytelling as a human universal.

Third, Darwin's scientific origin story also includes a story about the evolution of political origin stories like that of the Declaration of Independence and the Canadian Constitution Act of 1867.

Storytelling seems to be a uniquely human activity that is universal to all human societies.  But it is hard to explain why human beings tell stories or why they tell the kind of stories they do.  The Literary Darwinists--like Joseph Carroll, Brian Boyd, and Jonathan Gottschall--have tried to explain storytelling as an evolved human trait favored by natural and sexual selection because it somehow enhanced human survival and reproduction in ancestral environments.

As Sokolon indicates, there are at least three explanations of the evolutionary functions of storytelling.  Storytelling could be an evolved capacity for cognitive play, which allows us to learn how to solve social problems in our imagination in a way that makes us more competent in solving real world problems.  Or storytelling could be a way to communicate complex social information in a way that makes it memorable by putting it in the form of a story with emotional weight.  Or storytelling could be a form of "social glue" that binds people into a shared group identity.  Or it could have evolved to serve all three functions.

But if we accept this Darwinian explanation of storytelling, she suggests, then we need to apply it to Darwin's own storytelling in his scientific writing.  After all, Darwin's scientific theory of evolution is an origin story that explains why we are here using the poetic techniques of storytelling such as dramatic plots, metaphor, and analogy.

Darwin's most prominent metaphor is the very idea of "natural selection," which personifies Nature as a conscious agent that "selects" some organic traits as better than others.  Darwin was criticized for this, and he responded by admitting that in the literal sense "natural selection is a false term," but still it is useful as a metaphorical expression that clearly and vividly conveys the idea of the evolutionary process.  I have written about this in a previous post on the meaning of the phrase "survival of the fittest."

Sokolon observes that while it has become common to separate science from storytelling, "the scientific writing of Darwin's account of the origin of species employs and merges the function of storytelling with his empirical description."  She is certainly right about this.  This evolutionary storytelling that began with Darwin has become even clearer in recent years in the "evolutionary epic" told by people like Edward O. Wilson and the "scientific origin story" told by proponents of Big History like David Christian.

But I do wonder what Sokolon means by the "merging" of storytelling and science.  Does this mean that science becomes indistinguishable from mythic fiction, so that science can no longer be grounded in empirical truth?  As I have indicated in another post, Ian Hesketh makes this claim.  He quotes approvingly from Hayden White: "No one and nothing lives a story."  In other words, every story that we tell is a human fictional creation that has no factual truth, because our lived experience of reality is never a story.  We tell ourselves stories to escape from the messy reality of our lives.  Does Sokolon agree with this?  Or does she believe that some scientific stories--like the story of evolution--can be supported with factual evidence?

Sokolon's Darwinian account of political origin stories raises similar questions about whether such stories are always so purely fictional that they cannot be judged as factually true or false.

Sokolon shows how Darwin's evolutionary explanation of the "moral sense" in The Descent of Man (2nd ed., chapter 4, pp. 120-151 in the Penguin Classics edition) can explain the evolution of political origin stories like the Declaration of Independence.

Darwin sees the evolution of the moral sense as moving through five steps (121-22, 130, 155-58).  First, the social instincts of animals lead them to feel some sympathy with other individuals of their species, so that they will want to help one another, although this sympathy and mutual aid will extend not to all individuals of the species but only to those of the same group.  Second, as the mental faculties became highly developed, images of all past actions and motives would be passing through the brain of each individual, so the individual might feel regret at  having yielded to some momentarily strong desire, such as hunger, while leaving some enduring social instinct unsatisfied.  Third, once humans had acquired the power of language, "the wishes of the community could be expressed," so that "the common opinion how each member ought to act for the public good, would naturally become in a paramount degree the guide to action," and consequently sympathy would support a high regard for public opinion--for the approbation or disapprobation of our fellow group members--as expressed in language.  Fourth, this sympathetic concern for the opinions of the community would be greatly strengthened in each individual by habit.  Finally, evolution by group selection in war will favor a high standard of tribal morality.  Darwin explains:
"It must not be forgotten  that although a high standard of morality gives but a slight or no advantage to each individual man and his children over the other men of the same tribe, yet that an increase in the number of well-endowed men and an advancement in the standard of morality will certainly give an immense advantage to one tribe over another.  A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection.  At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase" (157-58).
This tribal morality will cultivate a "sense of glory"--a love of praise and a dread of blame--that will motivate individuals to sacrifice and even risk their lives for the good of the tribe, when there is glory to be attained from this.

Group selection has been controversial among evolutionary theorists today (Okasha 2014).  But some believe that there are good reasons--both empirical and theoretical--for thinking that Darwin was right about group selection in war promoting a tribal morality (Bowles 2009; Bowles & Gintis 2011; Sober and Wilson 1998).

But then, as Sokolon indicates, the problem here is how to explain the expansion of our group identity beyond the small bands and tribes of our ancient evolutionary ancestors to encompass a large modern nation with a great multitude of individuals who cannot be bound together by ties of familial kinship or personal acquaintance.  Darwin suggests:
"As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the member of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being once reached, there4 is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.  If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is, before we look at them as our fellow-creatures.  sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is, humanity to the lower animals seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions.  It is apparently unfelt by savages, except toward their pets.  How little the old Romans knew of it is shewn by their abhorrent gladiatorial exhibitions.  The very idea of humanity, as far as I could observe, was new to most of the Gauchos of the Pampas.  This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings.  As soon as this virtue is honoured and practiced by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually becomes incorporated in public opinion" (147).
The public opinion that binds the members of the same community into a nation and then later expands to include potentially all of humanity and even all sentient beings is "expressed at first orally, but later by writing" (146).  The written document of the Declaration of Independence can be seen as an expression of American public opinion--or as Jefferson said, "an expression of the American mind" (letter to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825, p. 1501)--that also appeals to "the opinions of mankind."

Sokolon notes that Darwin's reference to how "reason" is needed to teach individuals that they ought to extend their social attachments to the people of their nation suggests that this is more an artificial contrivance of the human mind and less instinctively natural than tribal membership.  Moreover, she argues, the reasoning in the Declaration of Independence is not just a statement of rational principles ("We hold these truths to be self-evident") but also the telling of a political origin story.  It's a dramatic story of heroic patriots pledging their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in a revolutionary struggle against tyranny to vindicate the natural right of the American people to live in freedom.

It's not clear, however, Sokolon suggests, that this is a true story.  They say they are fighting for the natural equality of rights for all men, and yet they are silent about American slavery (except for a passage written by Jefferson condemning the British slave trade that was cut out of the final document).  They also refer to the "merciless Indian savages," as if to imply that these aboriginal Americans are not really part of the American community.  They invoke the right of "one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another," and yet they are silent about the huge number of American Loyalists who did not consent to dissolving the bands with Great Britain.  They also refer to "the thirteen United States of America" as "free and independent states," without explaining how these independent sovereign states can be united into "one people."

One might also question whether the "self-evident" truths of the second sentence really are truths.  Michael Zuckert speaks for many readers of the second sentence of the Declaration when he says that the implied history of politics in this sentence is not a "literal history of human politics," but is rather a moral history."  "It is in important senses a self-conscious fiction that presents moral and rational truths about politics but not the literal truth about history" (Zuckert 2002, 230).  Would Sokolon say, yes, of course, it's a fictional work of story-telling?  My argument, however, is that this history of the state of nature, the formation of government by consent, and the overthrow of tyrannical government can be confirmed as a literally true account of the evolutionary history of politics.  Would she say that I am wrong about this?

What she says in comparing the Declaration with political storytelling in Athens and Canada suggests that political origin stories can never be literally true.  Once human beings moved beyond the small bands and tribes of hunter-gatherers and entered large communities, she says, they needed origin stories to unite a multitude of individuals into these huge communities.  This is what Plato meant in The Republic in teaching the need for a "noble lie" about the origin of a large community: "the myth of the metals . . . creates artificial unity in the city by teaching citizens that they are all brothers born of the earth."  Sokolon thinks that fifth century Athens shows that Plato was right about this, because the Athenians consciously reworked their own origin myths through tragedy--such as in the reworking of the story of Theseus so that he became a founder of Athenian democracy uniting an extended Attic territory.

In Canada, Sokolon sees a political origin story very different from both the Athenian story and the Declaration of Independence.  The Canadian story of achieving independence from British rule in 1867 "is one of negotiation, conventions, and political campaigns, which relies on the nobility of political persuasion, rather than violence in its founding.  However, in comparison to a story with a plot of characters struggling to overcome an oppressive tyrant, it has less effective panache as an origin story."

The Canadian Constitution Act of 1867 declares that the three original provinces--New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Province of Canada (later to become Ontario and Quebec)--"desire to be federally united under one Dominion under the Crown of the United Kingdom."  But this is not described as a union of "one people."  Rather than "one people," the Dominion was recognized as formed by "two founding nations"--British and French.--as confirmed by the use of two languages--English and French.  This has created a tension between two nations in one united Canada.

Sokolon sees this "two founding nations" origin story being challenged by a revised origin story of "multiculturalism" after the opening of immigration in the 1960s.  More recently, both stories have been challenged by the claim that the Canadian origin story is a "living lie" insofar as it does not recognize the unique contribution of the aboriginal communities.

Sokolon recognizes that another problem for all of these political origin stories about the founding of diverse nations is indicated by Darwin's claim that national identity is only an "artificial barrier" to extending human sympathy "to all men of all races," and perhaps even to "all sentient creatures."  Is Darwin arguing for a human origin story to sustain a global morality of humanitarianism and human rights?  Won't the national origin stories always be in some tension with the humanitarian or cosmopolitan origin stories?  This is what some evolutionary theorists have called "parochial altruism": our altruistic devotion to our in-group puts us into xenophobic competition with out-groups (Choi & Bowles 2007).  This is manifest in the nativist nationalism of populist leaders like Donald Trump who scorn the liberal globalism of free trade, open borders, and international human rights as a threat to national interests.

As Sokolon suggests, the Darwinian view of evolved sociality and sympathy might confirm the Aristotelian view of philanthropia--while our friendly feeling is naturally strongest for kin and for those close to us, it can be extended, although in less intense form, to all of humanity.  If so, then the Darwinian origin story could promote a tense combination of parochial attachment and humanitarian concern.  This combination of parochialism and humanitarianism is manifest in the Declaration's affirmation of the American people's separate identity combined with a "decent respect to the opinions of mankind" and regarding all of mankind as "enemies in war, in peace friends."

This means that pure altruism--selfless, disinterested, and universal love--is impossible, because love of others is always an extension of self-love.  I have written a post on this.


Bowles, Samuel. 2009. "Did Warfare among Ancestral Hunter-Gatherer Groups Affect the Evolution of Human Social Behavior?"  Science 324: 1293-1298.

Bowles, Samuel, & Herbert Gintis. 2011. A Cooperative Species: Human Reciprocity and Its Evolution. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Choi, Jung-Kyoo, & Samuel Bowles. 2007. "The Coevolution of Parochial Altruism and War." Science 318:636-640.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man, 2nd ed., eds. James Moore & Adrian Desmond. London: Penguin Books.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1984. Writings, ed. Merrill Peterson. New York: Library of America.

Okasha, Samir. 2014. "Units and Levels of Selection." In The Princeton Guide to Evolution, ed. Jonathan B. Losos, 200-205. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sober, Elliott, & David Sloan Wilson. 1998.  Unto Others: The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfish Behavior.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Zuckert, Michael. 2002. Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,

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