Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Atheistic Religiosity in Leon Kass's Reading of the Bible


Does modern science and technology give us greater understanding of and greater power over the world?  Or should we recognize the limits of scientific knowledge?  Do we need to search for a wisdom that is beyond science?  And should we worry that modern science and technology give us no wise moral guidance for their proper uses, and thus we have no way to prevent the dehumanizing effects of scientific technology?  Does philosophy or religion give us the wise moral guidance that we need?  For example, can we develop a philosophic or religious bioethics that can guide us in regulating biotechnology so that it promotes human dignity rather than human degradation? 

Leon Kass has devoted his life to pondering these questions.  “I esteem scientific discovery, and I treasure medical advance,” Kass told the Chicago Tribune.  “But it’s very clear that the powers we are now acquiring to alter the human body and mind also pose a certain threat to the long-term future of the things that make us human" (Manier and Grossman 2001).  He has argued that we need a bioethics rooted in a wise understanding of nature and human nature that teaches us the requirements for a worthy human life, so that we can defend those conditions of human dignity against the threat of dehumanization by modern science and the technological manipulation of nature.   He has shown how we can find that humanizing wisdom by reading the “great books” of philosophy, literature, and religion.  He has done that through his published writings, his work as chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics (2001-2005), and through his influence on other scholars (such as those who write for the journal The New Atlantis).

His argument is weakened, however, by four problems.  First, his argument is ambiguous in that while he recognizes that the appeal to unaided natural reason is opposed to the appeal to any supernatural revelation, which he identifies as the choice between Athens and Jerusalem, he shifts back and forth between these two opposing positions; and he never resolves the contradiction.  

Second, while his philosophical defense of an Aristotelian and Darwinian ethical naturalism is plausible, his religious defense of biblical revelation is self-contradictory and self-deceptive in promoting an atheistic religiosity.  That was suggested in his first biblical book The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (2003), and it has become clear in his new book Founding God's Nation: Reading Exodus (2021).  

The third problem is that while Kass tries to interpret the Bible as providing religious reasons for limiting biotechnology, the Bible cannot resolve our debates over biotechnology, because we cannot agree on the moral authority, the moral clarity, or the moral reliability of the Bible.  

The fourth problem is that his account of the limitations of modern scientific knowledge assumes an implausible caricature of modern science as a crudely reductionistic and mechanistic view of nature.

I have written a book chapter on the third problem--"The Bible and Biotechnology" (2009).  Richard Sherlock (2009) has written a good reply to my paper.  I have written some posts on the fourth problem herehere, and here.

In this post, I will consider the first two problems.


The ambiguity of Kass's position in the reason/revelation debate was evident in how different readers saw conflicting messages in Kass's Genesis book.  Richard Sherlock (a Christian believer) thought the book showed that Kass was "a person of faith" (Sherlock 2005).  Alan Jacobs (also a Christian believer) said that despite Kass's claim that his book was "addressed to believers and nonbelievers alike," this was not really a book for believers like himself, and so nonbelievers would be more comfortable with Kass's "philosophic reading" of the Bible.  Kass summarized his interpretation of Genesis in one sentence: "The book of Genesis is mainly concerned with this question: is it possible to find, institute, and preserve a way of life that accords with man's true standing in the world and that serves to perfect his godlike possibilities?" (Kass 2003: 661).  Jacobs responded: "It seems to me that not a single significant word in this sentence accords with what the book of Genesis is about.  Genesis, and the culture from which it emerges, doesn't seem to me to give a damn about our 'true standing in the world' and our 'godlike possibilities'; rather, as far as I can tell, it is about God and what He has done, and is doing, to repair what His rebellious and arrogant creatures have broken: our relations with ourselves, with one another, with the creation, and with God Himself" (Jacobs 2003). 

While Sherlock puts Kass on the side of Jerusalem, and Jacobs puts him on the side of Athens, Hayyim Angel (an Orthodox rabbi) places him somewhere in between the two poles.  He says that Kass shows "an unorthodox step toward revelation" or "a step toward a faith commitment" (Angel 2012: 61, 70).

So why did readers find mixed messages in Kass's Genesis book?  For Sherlock's identification of Kass as "a man of faith," the crucial passage was this:

"The reader may well wonder how these studies have affected my own outlook on life, morals, and religion.  I wish I could give a definitive answer; but I am still in the middle of my journey.  There are truths that I think I have discovered only with the Bible's help, and I know that my sympathies have shifted toward the biblical pole of the age-old tension between Athens and Jerusalem.  I am no longer confident of the sufficiency of unaided human reason.  I find congenial the moral sensibilities and demands of the Torah, though I must confess that my practice is still wanting.  And I am frankly filled with wonder at the fact that I have been led to this spiritual point, God knows how" (2003: xiv).

This is what Sherlock saw as Kass's profession of faith.  But notice that Kass speaks only of his "sympathies" and "moral sensibilities" as shifting towards the biblical pole.  He does not say that he believes in the existence of God or in the Bible as His revelation.  Notice also that Kass says "my practice is still wanting"--he is not a practicing believer.  A few pages earlier, he says that he is not "religiously observant" (xii).  He also makes it clear that he does not believe any of the theological doctrines of orthodox biblical religion.  He says that he has deliberately avoided "any specific doctrine" (2017:35).  For example, he denies the doctrines of the immortality of the soul in an afterlife with rewards for the saved in Heaven and punishments for the lost in Hell (2017:21).

Why then did Kass's "sympathies" shift towards the Hebrew Bible?  In his new Exodus book, Kass says that after the birth of his first child, he and his wife joined a Conservative synagogue in 1967.  He says they were "preparing ourselves to offer our children an experience of Jewish tradition that they could later embrace or reject as they wished.  Better, we thought, to be something rather than nothing, and our something was nothing to be ashamed of" (x-xi).  But notice that he does not say that this "experience of Jewish tradition" led him to become a pious Jewish believer.  He can be a member of a Conservative synagogue without being "religiously observant."

For Conservative Judaism, the authority of Jewish law and tradition derives more from an evolving popular agreement than from any divine revelation of theological doctrines.  Moreover, most Conservative Jews are not religiously observant.

And yet, Angel is a leader of Orthodox Judaism--a rabbi and biblical scholar--who says that Kass's "greatest moment" in the Genesis book is this passage: "If we allow ourselves to travel its narrative journey, the book may reward our openness and gain our trust.  Who knows, we may even learn who (or Who) is speaking to us, and why" (17).  Angel says this shows how a secularized reading of the Torah can lead to "a step toward a faith commitment" (70).  Perhaps.  But Kass has never explicitly affirmed a "faith commitment," and Angel offers no evidence that he has.

On the contrary, Kass says that he does not read the Bible in the manner of "those fundamentalist Protestants and Orthodox Jews who approach the text piously and who study it reverently" (2003:2).  Instead of that, he will offer a "philosophic reading" of the Bible--reading it in the same way he reads Homer's Iliad, Plato's Republic or Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (2003:1).  

Amazingly, he admits that this contradicts what he says about the opposition of reason and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem.  "The Bible, I freely acknowledge, is not a work of philosophy, ordinarily understood.  Neither its manner nor its manifest purposes are philosophical.  Indeed, there is even good reason for saying that they are antiphilosophical, and deliberately so.  Religion and piety are one thing, philosophy and inquiry another.  The latter seek wisdom looking to nature and relying on unaided human reason; the former offer wisdom based on divine revelation and relying on prophecy.  There is, I readily admit, a reason to be suspicious of a philosophical approach to the Bible" (2003:3).

Therefore, sometimes Kass stresses the tension between reason and revelation, which forces us to choose one side or the other.  But at other times, he suggests overcoming this tension by finding some middle ground between the two.  That middle ground must be nature.  But to say that, Kass must contradict himself because he says repeatedly that the philosopher's appeal to nature contradicts the pious man's appeal to revelation.

By "nature" I mean the idea of the regular order of the observable world as knowable by human reason.  As Kass indicates, the Hebrew Bible has no word for "nature," and this has been noted by some people who believe the very idea of nature is absent from the Bible.  If everything is created by God, then we might think that everything exists not by any regular order but only by the contingent will of God.  If there is no natural order in things, then philosophy or science as the inquiry into the causal regularity of the universe is futile.  The only true wisdom would be unquestioning obedience to the arbitrary contingencies of God's inscrutable will.

Kass admits: "we run the risk of distorting the biblical teaching by referring anachronistically to the Bible's view of 'nature,' or indeed by using the term at all in this volume.  Nevertheless, we shall do so, albeit nervously, in order to bring our study of the biblical text into conversation with other wisdom-seeking activities.  We shall, no doubt, have later occasions to visit this question of nature.  For now, let the reader beware" (2003:44).  Actually, he never does "visit this question of nature" in the Bible later in his book.  Consequently, he never resolves this fundamental contradiction in both affirming and denying the opposition between natural reason and divine revelation.

The only way for Kass to resolve this contradiction would be for him to admit that he was mistaken in turning away from the Aristotelian and Darwinian naturalism of his Towards a More Natural Science (1985) and moving towards biblical revelation.  If he were to do this, he could still read the Bible for whatever philosophical wisdom it might contain; but he would have to correct the Bible to conform to a philosophical conception of natural morality and natural understanding.


In his new book on Exodus, Kass says while he has "no single epiphany to report" from his years of reading the Bible, he can say that reading Exodus has had a profound effect on him, especially in recent years.  "I have lived with the book and allowed it to work on me. . . . And it has changed me" (2021:xiii).  The biggest change has come from his reading of the last third of Exodus, which is devoted to the construction of the portable Tabernacle that the people of Israel will carry with them as they wander for forty years in the Sinai desert.  

Kass has seen that the ritual enactments in the Tabernacle "speak to the human soul's deep longings for transcendence and that--quite mysteriously--can bring a numinous Presence into the daily lives of ordinary human beings" (2021:xv).  "Having witnessed the Tabernacle's raising," Kass says, "I try to imagine it occupied, myself among the assembled," and thus "we bear collective witness to His awesome Presence":

"When performing the prescribed rituals or raising our voices in worship and song, we may on occasion be lifted up to otherworldly states of feeling and awareness, sensing for a moment that attachment to God is the core and peak of existence.  Could this be what is meant by knowing His Spirit and feeling His Presence?" (2021:604)

This does sound like a religious conversion, in which Kass has actually felt the Divine Presence.  Does this suggest that Kass can now affirm the real existence of the biblical God, because by living with the final chapters of Exodus and imagining himself performing the rituals in the Tabernacle, he has felt the Presence of God?

Well, not exactly.  If you study carefully what Kass says about the meaning of the Divine Presence in the Tabernacle, I think you will see he's teaching what I call atheistic religiosity--religious feelings of transcendence, of being in touch with God, but without believing any religious doctrines about the real existence of God.  God "exists" only in the minds and actions of people who feel awe and reverence in their experience of a transcendent Dionysian frenzy elicited by religious ceremony.  (I have also identified atheistic religiosity in the work of Friedrich NietzscheRoger Scruton, and Jordan Peterson.)

God requires daily sacrifices in the Tabernacle.  At the beginning and end of each day, a young lamb is to be burned on the Altar (Exodus 29:38-42).  These sacrifices are imitations of a human meal, but the meal is for God.  Why?  Kass explains:  "Surely He has no ordinary need for nourishment.  Are the offerings then solely for our sake, to remind us daily--when we rise up and when we lie down--of what we owe for our existence, given us not for our merit but as an act of grace?  Are the offerings of gratitude intended to introduce a similar gracious disposition into our souls" (2021:499).  Yes.  But Kass sees more here than that:

"The sacrifices are not only for the human beings; they are important also for Him.  Strange though it is to say, the Lord needs the sacrifices, not to eat, but analogously to our need for food: in order to live in our world.  He 'needs' for human beings to recognize His presence in order to be Himself fully present in His world.  The purpose of the daily sacrifices, He comes close to saying, is to keep the association alive: [if] you bring the daily sacrifices to the door of the Tent of Meeting before the Lord, [then] 'I will meet with you and speak unto you there.'  If there are no sacrifices, there can be no meeting.  The Lord will go into eclipse--not as an act of will or as punishment to us, but as an unavoidable consequence of being ignored.  If God's Presence is unnoticed, unknown, or unacknowledged, He is not Present.  Not to be known is, in a very real sense, to cease to be.  I-Will-Be-What-I-Will-Be depends on His creatures for 'Being-What-He-Is.'"  (2021:500)

 Therefore, God exists only in the religious thoughts and actions of the human beings who know or acknowledge Him.  If He were not recognized by those who believe in Him, He would "go into eclipse"--He would "cease to be."

Kass thinks this point is made more explicit when God says that He needs the ritual sacrifices in the Tabernacle "that I might dwell among them" (Exodus 29:43-46).  This states the "ultimate purpose" of God and the purpose of the whole Torah (2021:500-503, 598, 603).  When God dwells in the religious life of Israel, there is a mutual benefit:  it benefits Israel that they come to know God, and it benefits God to exist as part of Israel's life forever.  If Israel were to stop worshiping God, then God would be dead.  As Kass says, "The Lord God of Israel needs the recognition of His children for His living Presence in the world" (689).

Kass draws a similar conclusion from his reading of the first chapter of Genesis, particularly Genesis 1:27:  "And God created the human being in His image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them."  Kass sees this verse as important because it provides the biblical basis for seeing man as the most godlike of the animals, and thus supporting the moral equality of all human beings as equal in their human dignity.  He also sees this equal human dignity as the fundamental principle for religious bioethics, which claims that we ought to prohibit any biotechnological alteration of the human body or mind that would violate that equal human dignity.

How can Kass interpret the creation story in Genesis 1 so that it shows us that this is a truth, even a self-evident truth--that God created human beings in His image?  Kass states his interpretation first in his Genesis book and then repeats it in almost the same words in other writings (2003:36-40; 2017:310-314; 2021:591-593).

I need to quote some of this at length:

"To see how man might be godlike, we look at the text to see what God is like.  In the course of recounting His creation, Genesis 1 introduces us to God's activities and powers: (1) God speaks, commands, names, blesses, and hallows; (2) God makes, and makes freely; (3) God looks at and beholds the world; (4) God is concerned with the goodness and or perfection of things; (5) God addresses solicitously other living creatures and provides for their sustenance."

"In short: God exercises speech and reason, freedom in doing and making, and the powers of contemplation, judgment, and care."

"Doubters may wonder whether this is truly the case about God--after all, it is only on biblical authority that we regard God as possessing these powers and activities.  But it is indubitably clear--even to atheists--that we human beings have them, and that they lift us above the plane of a merely animal existence.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, can articular a future goal and use that articulation to guide them in bringing it into being by their own purposive conduct.  Human beings, alone among the creatures, can think about the whole, marvel at its many-splendored forms and articulated order, wonder about its beginning, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source."

"These self-evident truths do not rest on biblical authority.  Rather, the biblical text enables us to confirm them by an act of self-reflection.  Our reading of this text, addressable and intelligible only to us human beings, and our responses to it, possible only to us human beings, provide all the proof we need to confirm the text's assertion of our special being.  Reading Genesis 1 performatively demonstrates the truth of its claims about the superior ontological standing of the human.  This is no anthropocentric prejudice, but cosmological truth.  And nothing we shall ever learn about how we came to be this way could ever make it false." (2003:37-38).

We thus confirm the truth of Genesis 1 "by an act of self-reflection," because in reading the text we are "holding up a mirror in which we see reflected our special standing in the world."  Another way of putting this, Kass observes, is that "not until there are human beings does the universe become conscious of itself--a remarkable achievement that should surely inspire awe and wonder, even in atheists" (2017:313).

Notice how Kass says that the teaching of Genesis 1 should be clear "even to atheists," and it should "inspire awe and wonder, even in atheists"--atheists like Kass?  Doesn't Kass here suggest that God's mental powers exist only as an anthropomorphic projection or mirror of human mental powers? 

Doesn't Kass express the same idea in his Exodus book in saying that God needs to dwell in the minds of His believers who acknowledge Him, because without that human acknowledgement, God would "in a very real sense . . . cease to be"?

That's what I call atheistic religiosity--the idea that human beings have a natural longing for God that can be satisfied through religious feelings, but without any doctrinal faith in God's existence, because God does not exist outside of those human religious feelings.

The problem with Kass's atheistic religiosity is that it's incoherent self-deception.  It's incoherent in trying to both affirm and deny the existence of God.  It's self-deception because it's a fake religiosity that doesn't work if we know its fake.

The atheistic religiosity of Kass's reading of the Bible also fails to sustain a religious bioethics.  That became evident in Kass's chairing of the President's Council on Bioethics.  Kass never introduced Bible-reading into the Council's meetings (Arnhart 2005; Briggle 2010).  And in Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (2003)--perhaps the best of the Council's reports--there are no references to the Bible and only a few vague references to "souls with longings for the eternal" (200, 206, 288, 299).  

In a section of the report that considers the "appreciation of the giftedness of life," it is said that "although it is in part a religious sensibility, its resonance reaches beyond religion."  There is no attempt to identify God as the giver of life.  Instead, nature and human nature are identified as "the naturally given," which has arisen as "wondrous products of evolutionary selection" (287-290).

The report appeals repeatedly to a purely naturalistic ethics rooted in human nature and the natural human pursuit of happiness as the complete and comprehensive satisfaction of natural human desires--Athens rather than Jerusalem (205, 235, 260, 265, 270).


Angel, Hayyim. 2012. "An Unorthodox Step Toward Revelation: Leon Kass on Genesis Revisited." Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought 45 (4): 61-70.

Arnhart, Larry. 2005. "President's Council on Bioethics." In Encyclopedia of Science, Technology, and Ethics, edited by Carl Mitcham, 1482-86.  New York: Macmillan Reference.

Arnhart, Larry. 2009.  "The Bible and Biotechnology." In Sean D. Sutton, ed., Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, 123-157. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Briggle, Adam. 2010. A Rich Bioethics: Public Policy, Biotechnology, and the Kass Council. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.

Jacobs, Alan. 2003. "Leon Kass and the Genesis of Wisdom." First Things (June).

Kass, Leon. 1985. Toward a More Natural Science: Biology and Human Affairs. New York: The Free Press.

Kass, Leon. 2003. The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. New York: The Free Press.

Kass, Leon. 2017. Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times. New York: Encounter Books.

Kass, Leon. 2021. Founding God's Nation: Reading Genesis. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Manier, Jeremy, and Ron Grossman. 2001. "Bush's Guardian of Bioethics." The Chicago Tribune.

The President's Council on Bioethics. 2003. Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness.  Washington, DC: President's Council on Bioethics.

Sherlock, Richard. 2005. "Jerusalem and Athens." Modern Age 47 (1) (Winter).

Sherlock, Richard. 2009. "A Transcendent Vision: Theology and Human Transformation." In Sean D. Sutton, ed., Biotechnology: Our Future as Human Beings and Citizens, 159-188.  Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Edward O. Wilson, 1929-2021: Founder of Sociobiology, Consilience, and Darwinian Natural Right

Edward O. Wilson died Sunday at the age of 92 in Burlington, Massachusetts.  Carl Zimmer has written a good obituary for the New York Times.  Over the years, I have written many blog posts on Ed Wilson, some of which can be found herehereherehere, and here.

I doubt that I would have developed the idea of Darwinian natural right without the influence of Ed Wilson.  I remember the first time I saw his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in the early summer of 1975, on the new book table at the Seminary-Coop Bookstore at the University of Chicago, when I was a Ph.D. student at Chicago, working on a dissertation on Aristotle.  I looked it over, reading a few pages, and bought it.  I remember thinking--if Wilson is right that there is a biological explanation of human nature and human ethics, why wouldn't this support a Darwinian scientific conception of Aristotelian natural right?  This thought was deepened three years later when I read a paper by Roger Masters suggesting that sociobiology could sustain a biological basis for Aristotle's conception of natural right.  For the rest of my life, I have been thinking through that idea.

Early on, from my reading of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, when I was teaching at Idaho State University, I thought Wilson was endorsing a Darwinian version of Nietzshean nihilism that I found unpersuasive.  But later, I changed my mind, and decided that he was arguing--even if he didn't fully understand it--for an Aristotelian ethical naturalism.  I sent him some of my writing on this.  And I was pleased to see in his Consilience (1998) that he had been influenced by my writing to see himself as reviving a Darwinian version of Aristotelian ethics.

Wilson's Consilience was crucial in helping me think about what I have called "Darwinian liberal education", which would unify all knowledge through the intellectual framework of evolutionary biology.

I was concerned, however, that Wilson did not see how the Darwinian science of emergent complexity contradicted the strong reductionism that he professed in some parts of Consilience.  I wrote an essay about this; and when he read it, he called me one night.  I still remember my son yelling down into the basement of my house, saying "Hey, Dad, there's some guy from Harvard calling you, Ed Wilson."  We talked for about thirty minutes, going over my criticisms.  We didn't reach agreement, but it was a rich conversation.  And he was generous in encouraging me to continue my work.

When Wilson argued that science needed to take on a mythopoeic function by creating a grand narrative of the origin and evolution of the universe that would give meaning to life--in such a way that the scientific origin story could take the place of religious myth--I was not initially persuaded because this sounded like Nietzschean myth-making.  But later I saw how the Big History of Everything as an evolutionary epic--developed by David Christian, Eric Chaisson, and others--might plausibly fulfill Wilson's vision.  I have written about this herehere, and here.

I have agreed with much of what Wilson has said, while disagreeing on some points.  I agreed with his embrace late in life of group selection and his claim that Hamilton's inclusive fitness was not sufficient.  But I am still a little undecided about this.

As reported by Zimmer, Wilson disagreed with Deborah Gordon's claim that ants have much more behavioral flexibility than Wilson is willing to concede, who insists that their behavior is genetically determined.  I am inclined to agree with Gordon, but I need to think about this more.  There is a good TED talk by Gordon on this.

In an article that Gordon wrote for the Boston Review some years ago, she briefly indicated her disagreement with Wilson by criticizing his 2010 novel Anthill.  Gordon's fundamental insight about ant colonies is that they are biological systems that function without hierarchy or central control.  Ant colonies are decentralized networks that get things done without anyone being in charge.  That's why some free-market economists and anarchist thinkers are interested in her work: ant colonies show how collective action can emerge as a spontaneous order without any central planning or authority.

Wilson knows this about ant colonies, of course.  But in Anthill, his scientific knowledge is sometimes contradicted by his fictional purpose, which is to tell an environmentalist story about how greed and excessive consumption depletes resources and leads to the death of the colony.  To do this, he speaks of the ant queen as the "fountainhead" of the colony who compels the worker ants to sacrifice their lives for her.  In fact, Gordon observes, no ant really cares if the queen lives or dies, because no ant can direct the behavior of another.

Moreover, Gordon argues, it is not true that each ant is assigned a task for life, because ants move from one task to another in response to the rhythm of their tactile and olfactory interactions with one another, without any ant understanding what they are doing or why.

But while I agree with some of Gordon's criticisms of Wilson and some of the criticisms coming from others, I regret that his voice has now been silenced.

I will miss him.


In his comment, Xenophon has pointed out to me that Carl Zimmer has altered his New York Times obituary for Wilson.  Sometime yesterday (December 29), Zimmer erased the section on Deborah Gordon's disagreements with Wilson.

Since I had printed out a copy of the original version of the article (published on December 27), I was able to compare it with the "updated" version.  I can see that the only change between the two is that Zimmer erased the following four paragraphs, which came just after quoting Sara Hrdy--"No one could have been more supportive than Wilson of this stuff":

"But some scientists found just the opposite.  Among them was Deborah Gordon, a leading expert on ants at Stanford University."

"'Wilson's view of how an ant colony works had every ant genetically programmed to do a certain thing,' Dr. Gordon said in a 2019 interview.  'He wanted everybody to do what they were supposed to do without any mess.'"

"In her own research, Dr. Gordon found that ants can switch from one job to another.  And they do not respond to any particular chemical signal like little robots; instead, they will respond differently under different circumstances.  'The process is messy,' Dr. Gordon said."

"Dr. Wilson vigorously attacked Dr. Gordon's work, both in print and in person.  When Dr. Gordon was at Harvard in the mid-1980s on a fellowship, she recalled Dr. Wilson standing up in the middle of one of her talks to shout his objections.  'He really made a lot of effort to keep me from getting a job,' she said."

I have no idea why Zimmer decided to erase this from his article.  Did Gordon ask him to do this?  Or did someone else object to this section of the article? 


At 9:33 a.m. ET, Zimmer added this "Editor's Note" to his article:

"An earlier version of this obituary included a description of the work of Deborah Gordon, a professor at Stanford University, and her comments about Dr. Wilson's criticism of it.  The description and comments lacked appropriate context and have been removed from the obituary."

We are left guessing about what that "appropriate context" might be.  Personal academic rivalry?

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The Lockean State of Nature in Shipwreck Societies: The "Grafton" and the "Invercauld"

Aukland Island is located 285 miles south of New Zealand, in the sub-Antarctic region.  Battered by year-round freezing rain and storms with gales over fifty miles per hour, with few sources of food, it is one of the most inhospitable places on earth.

                                                                 Auckland Island

At midnight on January 3, 1864, the Grafton, a two-masted schooner, was caught in a raging sea, with howling wind and rain, and her hull smashed onto the reefs along the southeastern coast of Auckland Island.  The five men on the ship survived, but they were marooned on the island.  All five were finally rescued in August of 1865.  Their little shipwreck society of five men had endured for 19 months.

On May 11, 1864, the Invercauld, an 888-ton Scottish square-rigger, was wrecked in a rough cove on the northwestern coast of Auckland Island.  Of the 25 crew members, 19 made it ashore.  When they were finally rescued, one year later, only three had survived.

This looks like an almost perfect natural experiment in the formation of unintentional communities.  Two wrecks at the same time and place threw the castaways into a state of nature with no system of government or laws over them, forcing them to organize themselves into two different groups for over a year.  As measured by the rate of survival, the Grafton society was successful, because all five of the original members survived; but the Invercauld society was a failure, because only three of the original nineteen members survived.  What explains the differential survival of these two groups?

Although many factors come into play, the most evident difference was that the Grafton society was cooperative and harmonious, while the Invercauld society was divided by competition and hostility.

According to John Locke, this shows us the two sides of human nature that are expressed in the state of nature.  Human beings are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another in groups that are mutually beneficial for all.  But they are also naturally inclined to turn against one another in ways that create disorder, in which human life becomes "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes.

What were the conditions that allowed the Grafton society to manifest the good side of human nature, while the Invercauld society manifested the bad side?

For answering that question, the best book that interweaves the stories of the two groups is Joan Druett's Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World.  Druett was a novelist as well as a maritime historian, and her book is written in her engaging novelistic style.  

In his book Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis relies heavily on Druett's book. But like a good social scientist, Christakis integrates her story into a systematic survey of twenty-four shipwreck societies from 1500 to 1900, which he studies as natural experiments for testing his biological theory of human social nature as based on a social suite of eight innate capacities at the core of all societies. Christakis' theory is similar to my theory of the twenty natural desires of human biological nature (Christakis 2019: 19-58).

The Grafton crew of five men came from five different countries and speaking four different languages.  The captain was Thomas Musgrave (American, age thirty).  Francois Raynal (French, age thirty-three) was the mate.  The three seamen were Alexander McLaren (Norwegian, age twenty-eight), George Harris (English, age twenty), and Henry Forges (Portuguese, age twenty-eight).  Both Musgrave and Raynal kept journals that were later published, which provided most of the information we have about their experience.

The nineteen men who survived the wreck of the Invercauld consisted of the captain, the two officers, ten seamen, the cook, the steward, the boatswain, the carpenter, and the two ship's boys.  By August of 1864, three months from the time the Invercauld was wrecked, only four men were alive: the captain, George Dalgarno, the first mate, Andrew Smith, the second mate, James Mahoney, and a twenty-three-year-old seaman, Robert Holding.  On August 12, 1864, Mahoney died, leaving only three men, who would be rescued on May 22, 1865, twelve months and ten days after the wrecking of the ship.  Dalgarno and Smith wrote some short accounts of their experience.  But the most detailed narrative was written by Holding, many years later when he was eighty-six.

Of the many factors that shaped the social life of these two shipwreck societies, ten stand out: leadership, individual character, cooperation in a division of labor, friendship, social learning and teaching, religion, the absence of women and children, food, technology and material resources, and weather.

1. Leadership.  On the Grafton, Musgrave as the captain and Raynal as the mate were the leaders of the crew.  On the island, they continued to act as leaders.  When the group first made it to land, they were unable to find either shelter or food, and so they foresaw that they were likely to die there from starvation and exposure to the bad weather.  They sat around a fire, lamenting their fate and falling into deep depression.  Raynal tried to boost their spirits by pointing out that the wrecked ship had planks, rope, and canvas that could be used to build a hut, and he told them that getting to work was the only sensible response to their difficult situation.  They all agreed to this.  Musgrave then began assigning different jobs to the men, so that they could work together in building a house and finding food.  In his journal, Raynal wrote that the constant working on various projects "left us little leisure to think of our misfortunes."

By contrast, after the wreck of the Invercauld, Captain Dalgarno was too paralyzed with fear and depression to show any leadership.  When the 19 survivors reached land, they gathered a few planks from the wreckage to throw together a teepee-like lean-to on the beach where they had landed.  They stayed there for five days and nights without making any plans.  During the day, the men wandered aimlessly, eating whatever fish or plants they could find.  Robert Holding decided that if he was to survive, he would have to rely on his own resourcefulness, without any help from the others.

When the boatswain first suggested that they should draw lots to see who should die, so that the others could eat him, Holding said he would never become a cannibal.  But thinking that others might be considering murdering him, he ran away.  In fact, some of the men did eat from the corpses of those who died.

Later, after Musgrave had read Dalgarno's description of how his men had lived on the island, Musgrave wrote in a letter that Dalgarno's story "proves that there has been no unity amongst them, neither has the Captain attempted (or he has not been able) to hold any authority or influence over them; to which cause I attribute the great number of their deaths."

We should notice that of the three people of the Invercauld crew who survived to be rescued, two were officers (Captain Delgardo and first mate Smith).  Holding was the only ordinary seaman to survive.  High rank has its benefits. 

Showing the leadership that Delgardo lacked, Musgrave organized his men in salvaging useful material and tools from the wreck of the Grafton.  With this, they built a tent as shelter.  Musgrave knew, however, that winter in the Southern Hemisphere would be coming in a few months, and that they would need to build a house if they were going to survive all through the winter.  They began to build a hut.  From Raynal's experience in the goldfields of Australia, he had learned how to build huts out of tree branches and to construct adobe chimneys.  By February 2, one month after their arrival on the island, the men had built a large cabin with a chimney.  But it needed to be weatherproofed with straw thatching.  By March 27, the thatching of the house was completed.  The house even had glass windows.

In the house there was a long dining table in the center and a smaller table that Musgrave could use as a desk.  Musgrave and Raynal occupied the north end of the house, the three seamen occupied the opposite end, with a cook's table and other furniture.

This division of the house--one half for the captain and his officer, the other half for the three ordinary seamen--replicated the organization of accommodations on board the ship.  By tradition, the captain and his mate lived in a cabin in the stern of the ship, while the rest of the crew lived in the crowed forecastle.

On the island, however, the seamen did not necessarily agree that the shipboard ranking should be preserved.  Druett observed: "Since they had been cast ashore, a mood of democracy had prevailed in the party, each man being considered as important as the rest" (2007: 72).  Musgrave noticed this, and it bothered him.  Writing on February 7, 1864, only a month after the wreck, he complained:

"Up to the present time, the men have worked well, and conducted themselves in a very obedient and respectful manner towards me; but I find there is somewhat of a spirit of obstinacy and independence creeping in amongst them.  It is true I no longer hold any command over them, but I share everything that has been saved from the wreck in common with them, and I have worked as hard as any of them in trying to make them comfortable, and think gratitude ought to prompt them to still continue willing and obedient. . . . They have not as yet objected to do anything that I have told them to do, but they did it in that manner which says plainly, Why don't you do it yourself?" (Musgrave 1866: 11-12).

After they had built the house, designed to replicate the shipboard ranking of officers above seamen, Raynal sensed the resentment of the seamen against being ruled by the officers, and he feared that this would break up the harmonious unity of their little society. He decided that they needed to replace their informal governmental structure with a written constitution for a government to which all could explicitly consent.  It's worth quoting at length his account of his plan:

"It was not enough to provide for the material needs of life; its moral wants also claimed our attention.  Assuredly we had lived together since our shipwreck in peace and harmony--I may even say in true and honest brotherhood; yet it had sometimes happened that one or the other had yielded to a fit of temper, and let drop an unkind word, which naturally provoked a not less disagreeable repartee.  But if habits of bitterness and animosity were once established amongst us, the consequences could not but be most disastrous: we stood so much in need of one another!  Was not this demonstrated in the erection of our hut, to which each of us, according to his capacity, had contributed his best?  It was evident that we had no strength except in union, that discord and division must be our ruin.  Yet man is so feeble that reason, and self-respect, and even the considerations of self-interest, do not always suffice to keep him in the path of duty.  An external regimen is necessary, a strict and formal discipline, to protect him against his own weakness."

"I revolved these thoughts in my mind during a part of the night.  On the following morning, I communicated them to my companions, as well as the plan I had conceived for ensuring the preservation of order and peace in our little community.  My idea was that we should choose among us, not a master or a superior, but a 'head' or 'chief of the family,' tempering the legal and indisputable authority of the magistrate by the affectionate condescension of a father, or, rather, of an elder brother."

"His duties would be:

"1.  To maintain with gentleness, but also with firmness, order and harmony among us:

"2.  By his prudent advice to put aside every subject of discussion which might lead to controversy:

"3.  In case any serious dispute arose in his absence, the parties to it were immediately to bring it before him; then, assisted by the counsel of those who had held aloof, he was to adjudicate upon the matter, stating who was in the right, and reprimanding him who was in error.  If the latter, disregarding the sentence pronounced, persisted in his wrong, he would be excluded from the community, and condemned to live alone in another part of the island, for a longer or shorter period, according to the gravity of his fault:

"4.  The chief of the family would direct the hunting expeditions, as well as all other labors; he would set to each man his appointed task, without himself excused from giving a good example by the strict discharge of his own duty:

"5.  In urgent circumstances, he would not be allowed to give a decision without the assent of all, or, at least, a majority of his comrades.

"This project was much approved by my companions, who felt, as I did, that necessity of organizing our little society, and, after adding the following clause, they adopted it unanimously:

"6.  The community reserves to itself the right of deposing the chief of the family, and electing another, if at any time he shall abuse his authority, or employ it for personal and manifestly selfish purposes.

"This last clause was a prudent precaution against the despotic tendencies which develop themselves in almost every person whom the confidence of his equals has invested with authority.  It was of easy application, and, consequently, of assured efficacy, since the president of our little republic possessed no 'standing army' to support his ambition.  I must add, however, that throughout the time we lived together we had no occasion to act upon it.

"Without delay, our ideal scheme of government was written out on one of the blank leaves in Musgrave's Bible--we read it formally every Sunday before prayers--and then all of us, placing our hands on the sacred volume, swore to obey and respect it.  We performed this action seriously, and in good faith.  It was no empty ceremony.  Each of us felt there was a certain solemnity in this voluntary engagement of our conscience, which we had called God to witness.

"It now remained for us to elect our chief.  I proposed Musgrave, who was our senior, and a unanimous assent was given to the proposition.

"Thenceforth he sat at the head of the table, and was released from all share in the work of cooking, which was undertaken by Alick, George, Harry, and myself; each discharging the important duties of cook for a week at a time" (Raynal 1874: 151-54).

Here we see how people with equal liberty in a Lockean state of nature establish government by a social contract to which all must consent, but with the proviso that they may withdraw their consent if the ruler becomes despotic, and they can select a new ruler that they trust.

Considering the obvious importance of this "ideal scheme of government" for the Grafton society, it is strange that while Raynal devotes a long section of his book to explaining it, Musgrave says nothing about it in his book.  I wonder whether Musgrave's silence implies that he didn't like the idea that his authority depended on the consent of the group, and that it could be withdrawn if he lost that consent.

This is what Christakis identifies as "mild hierarchy" in his social suite.  In every society, human beings are naturally inclined to recognize some people as having high rank, with the right to rule over them.  But this is a "mild" hierarchy insofar as all individual adults are equal in their right to consent to this and in their right to withdraw their consent when the ruler becomes oppressive.

This is what I identify as the natural desire for political rule.  Human beings are by nature political animals, because they naturally live in social systems that require (at least occasionally) central coordination by leaders to which all or most people have consented (either implicitly or explicitly).

One of the primary reasons that the Grafton society was more successful than the Invercauld society is that the men of the Grafton established a clear social order of central coordination by rulers.

2.  Individual character.  Each person in these two societies had his own individual personality with a unique set of moral and intellectual traits.  The social success or failure of these groups depended on the interaction of these individuals.  As it happened, the Grafton society had in general men of better character than those in the Invercauld society.  The social importance of individuality is what Christakis calls "the capacity to have and recognize individual identity."

3.  Cooperation in the division of labor.  The Grafton society made use of this individuality by having the men cooperate in a division of labor, so that different jobs were assigned to different individuals according to their talents and temperaments.  For example, the Norwegian McLaren was recognized as an unusually strong and skillful swimmer; and so when they needed a good swimmer, he was chosen.  Raynal was skillful in using and making tools, and so he specialized in that.  Each man did whatever he was best at doing.  This belongs to "cooperation" in Christakis' social suite.

4.  Friendship.  It was easy for the Grafton men to cooperate with one another because they became friends.  They enjoyed one another's companionship, and they felt a deep sense of comradery. Friendship belongs to Christakis' social suite, and it's one of my 20 natural desires.

5.  Social learning and teaching.  The social suite also includes the capacity for social learning and teaching.  This was seen in the Grafton group.  Raynal foresaw that after their daily work was finished, they would often have free time, especially in the evenings.  He proposed that they establish "evening school, for mutual instruction" (Raynal 1874: 159).  Harry and Alick could neither read nor write.  The other three men could teach them.  Harry and Alick could in return teach their native languages, of which the other three were ignorant.  George wanted to be taught mathematics.  Raynal could teach French.  They began doing this every evening.  Raynal said that "we were alternately the masters and pupils of one another."  This teaching and learning "still further united us; by alternately raising and lowering us one above the other, they really kept us on a level, and created a perfect equality amongst us" (159-60).  This could also be seen as manifesting what I have called the natural desire for intellectual understanding.

6.  Religion.  Every Sunday, they had someone read aloud from the Bible; and they would pray.  As indicated, they also swore their allegiance to their constitution after it was read from the text in Musgrave's Bible.  Raynal reports:

"We belonged to different communions; but who bethought themselves of such divisions?  How utterly were they all effaced!  How every barrier was broken down!  The five of us were now of the same belief, the same faith--that of the man who finds himself alone, face to face with the Creator, with the Being infinite and all-powerful, and who humbly confides to Him his troubles, his wants, and his hopes" (105).

At one point, Musgrave read some passages from the Gospels.  "At these words, 'Come to Me, all ye who suffer, and I will comfort you,' and at this command, 'Love one another,' we burst into tears."

Christakis does not include religion in his social suite.  But I include the natural desire for religious understanding.

7.  Absence of women and children.  There were no women or children in either of these two groups, unlike any normal human society.  The men did often speak about the suffering of being separated from their families.  Musgrave, in particular, constantly worried about what had happened to his wife and children in Australia.  Their natural desire for familial bonding--or for what Christakis calls "love for partners and offspring"--was frustrated during their time on the island.

From another point of view, however, it might have been good for them that there were no women in their groups.  If there had been an imbalance in the sex ratio--perhaps more men than women--this could have provoked the men into fighting over sexual mates.  (This is what happened in the famous case of those mutineers on the Bounty, who settled on the Pitcairn Island with women they had taken from Tahiti.)

8.  Food.  The greatest threat to their health came from starvation and poor nutrition.  The men of the Grafton were lucky in that they landed on the island during one of the two periods in the year when seals and seal lions were plentiful, which were a primary source of food.  The men of the Invercauld were unlucky in landing when these animals could not be found, and they became desperate in their search for food.

9.  Tools and materials.  The men of the Grafton were also lucky in that their wrecked ship remained stuck on rocks along the shoreline, which allowed them to salvage from the ship many tools and valuable materials (such as wood and copper).  This toolkit and the collection of materials made them successful in fishing, hunting, building structures, and making clothing and shoes.  By contrast, the men of the Invercauld were remarkably unlucky when their ship was totally destroyed, and so they retrieved very little from the ship.

10.  Weather.  Another stroke of good luck for the Grafton group is that they arrived on the island in the Southern Hemisphere's summer, with four months to prepare for what they knew would be a harsh winter.  The Invercauld group had the misfortune of arriving at the beginning of winter with no time to prepare for the severe winter weather.

These ten factors constitute the conditions for any naturally good society--on Auckland Island or anywhere else. 


Christakis, Nicholas. 2019. Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society. New York: Little, Brown Spark.

Druett, Joan. 2007. Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the Edge of the World. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonguin Books.

Musgrave, Thomas. 1866. Castaway on the Auckland Isles: A Narrative of the Wreck of the 'Grafton' and of the Escape of the Crew After Twenty Months' Suffering. London: Lockwood and Company.

Raynal, F. E. 1874. Wrecked on a Reef: Or, Twenty Months Among the Auckland Isles. London: T. Nelson and Sons.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Lockean State of Nature in Shipwreck Societies, Part One


Auckland Island

In 1864, two ships--the Invercauld and the Grafton--were wrecked on opposite ends of Auckland Island.  This island is 290 miles south of New Zealand.  It's one of the uninhabited Subantarctic Islands, and it's one of the most isolated places on Earth.  The island is 26 miles long and 16 miles wide.

Although the crews of the Invercauld and the Grafton were on the island at the same time, 26 miles apart, neither group was aware of the other.  On January 3, all five people on board the Grafton reached land on the southern end of the island; and all five survived until they were rescued two years later.  On May 11, nineteen of twenty-five crew members on the Invercauld made it ashore, on the northwestern end of the island; and only three survived for over a year until they were rescued.  How do we explain this difference in survival rates--the entire crew of the Grafton survived for two years, while most of the crew of the Invercauld were dead one year after they landed?

In his book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Nicholas Christakis has explained this by saying that the crew of the Grafton organized themselves into a naturally good society that reproduced the social capacities of our evolved human nature that favor human survival and flourishing, while the crew of the Invercauld failed to exercise those evolved social capacities.  In my previous writing on Christakis (herehere, and here), I have said that his reasoning suggests that Friedrich Hayek was right about there being a convergent evolution towards the free society as the naturally best society.  I see this confirmed in Christakis' account of how some shipwreck societies are more successful than others.

Christakis claims that the evolved social nature of human beings manifests a "social suite" of eight natural desires expressed in some form in every human society:

1. The capacity to have and recognize individual identity

2. Love for partners and offspring

3. Friendship

4. Social networks

5. Cooperation

6. Preference for one's own group (that is, "in-group bias")

7. Mild hierarchy (that is, relative egalitarianism)

8. Social learning and teaching

To test the reality of this social suite, Christakis generates ten kinds of falsifiable predictions.  One prediction is that when people are accidently thrown together into communities, we should see the social suite emerge in those communities that are successful.  To test this prediction, Christakis surveys the history of people stranded in isolated spots after shipwrecks.  Survivor camps established after shipwrecks are natural experiments in living, and by comparing them, we can see whether some ways of organizing social life are more successful than others because they conform better to our evolved human nature.

The castaway story about people stranded on an uninhabited island has been a popular fictional narrative for a long time--as in Shakespeare's Tempest, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, or television's Gilligan's Island.  There has also been a popular literature of real-life stories about people who survive disasters that force them to live together as a community.  In the nineteenth century, there was a lot of this adventurous storytelling about shipwreck societies.

Such stories fascinate us because they show us what human beings are like in the state of nature--where there is no established system of government and laws to regulate their conduct, and so they are free to express their natural tendencies to fight or cooperate with one another.  Christakis observes that these stories can highlight either Jean-Jacques Rousseau's idyllic state of nature displaying peaceful harmony or Thomas Hobbes's state of nature displaying violent conflict (Blueprint, 26-27).  The struggle for survival in the state of nature can drive people to fighting, murder, and even cannibalism.  Or it can move people to cooperate for mutual benefit.

In setting up this contrast between Hobbes and Rousseau, Christakis ignores the possibility that John Locke's state of nature might be the complete picture that combines the partial truths of Hobbes and Rousseau, because Locke sees that the state of nature is a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war, which shows the tense two-sided complexity of human nature as inclined to either cooperation or conflict, depending upon the physical environment, the social circumstances, and the individual personalities in a group.  (I have written about this herehere, and here.)  The stories of shipwreck societies collected by Christakis conform to this Lockean depiction of the ambivalence of human nature as both good and evil.

Christakis has identified thousands of shipwrecks from 1500 to 1900.  In most of these, everyone drowned.  In some cases, survivors continued at sea in small vessels.  In only a few cases did survivors make landfall and set up camp in uninhabited areas.  For his purpose of studying natural experiments in social living, Christakis found twenty shipwrecks where at least nineteen castaways were stranded on some isolated land for at least two months.

For example, on July 22, 1821, the Blenden Hall--sailing from England on its way to India--wrecked on Inaccessible Island, an extinct volcano rising out of the South Atlantic Ocean.

                                                                    Inaccessible Island

Of the 84 people on board, all but two made it to shore.  One party of six left on a boat, on October 19, attempting to reach Tristan da Cunha, an inhabited island twenty miles away; but they were never heard from and presumed dead.  On November 8, another party in a boat reached Tristan da Cunha; and they arranged for those remaining on Inaccessible Island to be rescued, almost four months after the wreck.  Therefore, of the 84 people who sailed on the Blenden Hall, 76 were saved.  (Christakis mistakenly says that seventy of the eighty-two people on board were saved.)

This high rate of survival indicates the success of this shipwreck society.  But that success was marred by violent fighting and factional divisions.

There were at least four reasons for their success.  First, the survivors were able to salvage a lot of resources from the ship--such as wood and canvas for building shelters and boats.  Second, they had access to fresh water and food (such as penguin meat and wild celery).  Third, they were able to cooperate in sharing food.  And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, the captain of the ship--Alexander Greig--showed shrewd leadership in organizing work parties and keeping the peace when conflicts arose.

This community might have fared even better, however, if it had not been weakened by group divisions.  At one point, when food supplies were dropping, the crew threatened to attack the passengers and steal their food.  Greig told the male passengers to arm themselves with clubs, and he led them in suppressing the crew's mutiny.  Greig ordered the flogging of the crew, but he relented after one of the women begged him to show mercy.

Group divisions also emerged when Greig tried to organize the cooperative building of boats to leave for Tristan da Cunha.  Three separate groups competed with one another in building boats.

While the people in this community were often cooperative, they were also divided into competitive groups that showed the universal human tendency to in-group bias, one of the traits in Christakis' social suite.

A more cooperative and more successful shipwreck society arose after the wreck of the Julia Ann.  This ship left Sydney, Australia, on September 7, 1855, with 56 people on board sailing for San Francisco. On October 4, the ship smashed into a coral reef in the Scilly Isles in the South Pacific, about 200 miles west of Bora Bora, which is in the Society Islands archipelago.  Four people drowned, but the 51 survivors were rescued after being stranded on an island for two months.

                                                                      Society Islands

The ship crashed into a coral reef during a dark night at about 8:30 pm.  With high winds and pounding waves, the ship began breaking up on the rocks.  There was no land in sight.  Captain Pond took command of the situation.  He asked a crew member who was a good swimmer to swim to the reef and fasten a rope to a rock.  Pond then began sending the women and children to the reef holding onto the rope.  He told the other passenger to remain in the ship's cabin until their names were called.

Pond gave his navigational equipment (including his quadrant, nautical almanac, and epitome) to the first man to go to the reef, telling him that everyone's survival would depend upon preserving this equipment.  This did indeed prove crucial to their being saved.

At first daylight, the survivors on the reef could see no land.  They knew that if they could not reach land with fresh water, they would all die within days.  Later in the day, some crew members sighted land about eight miles away.  The quarterboat had been saved by the crew, and they quickly repaired it with copper and canvas, although it could hardly float.  Captain Pond and a few crew members rowed the boat for eight miles, and then searched some tiny islands until they found an island with drinking water.

Once everyone had arrived on the island, Captain Pond called them all together and said: "As they were cast upon a desolate island, a common brotherhood should be maintained, and every man should hunt birds and fish for our common substance."  All consented to this.  One passenger later reported: "We divided ourselves into families, built huts, and thatched them with the leaves of the pandanus tree.  All the provisions found were thrown into one common stock, anad equally divided among each mess every morning, and we gradually became reconciled to our sad fate."  In effect, they had consented to a social contract for organizing their shipwreck society under Pond's leadership.

With his quadrant taking observations from the sun, Pond determined that they were three hundred to five hundred miles from the nearest inhabited island of the Society Islands.  Their only hope of rescue was to repair the quarterboat and then to row it to a populated island.  To repair the boat, they had to make nails and ironwork with a forge and a smith's bellows constructed from materials salvaged from the ship.

But then when the boat was ready, they saw that the trade winds were blowing from the east, the direction of the Society Islands, so that rowing the boat eastward against the winds seemed hopeless.  So they decided to head to the west to the Samoan Islands.  But the distance--over 1,500 miles--was discouraging.

Finally, Pond decided that they would have to row eastward, towards the Society Islands, against the winds.  He persuaded the crew to accept this, but the Chief Officer Coffin disagreed.  On December 3, almost seven weeks after the wreck, Pond with nine other men began rowing the boat east.  Initially, the westerly wind favored them.  But then the wind blew up again from the east, and a violent storm began.  Pond and the others, exhausted from rowing night and day, thought their situation was hopeless.

Then, after four days of rowing, one of the crew members cried out "land!"  They had reached Bora Bora.  There they found a ship that would sail back to the Scilly Isles to rescue the castaways.

28 of the 56 passengers on the Julia Ann were Mormon converts headed to what they called Zion (the Salt Lake Valley in Utah).  Previously, in 1854, the Julia Ann had sailed from Australia to San Pedro, California, with a full load of 63 Mormon passengers headed to Zion.  This was part of a global migration of Mormon converts to Utah.  Captain Pond, who was part owner of the Julia Ann, was so pleased with the orderly conduct of the Mormons on the first trip that he told the Mormon mission leaders in Australia that he would be happy to arrange for a second voyage to America for other Mormons.  The moral character and communal spirit of the Mormon passengers probably contributed to the cooperativeness of the group.  Captain Pond said that they were "so easy to be governed" and "always ready to hear and obey my counsel."  The Mormon passengers and the Mormons who wrote about the wreck of the Julia Ann explained the amazing survival of the 51 castaways as the work of Divine Providence.  (See John Devitry-Smith, "The Wreck of the Julia Ann," Brigham Young University Studies 29 [2] [1989]: 5-29; and F. E. Woods, Divine Providence: The Wreck and Rescue of the Julia Ann [Springville, UT: Cedar Fort, 2014].)

If that is true, then Divine Providence worked through the leadership of Captain Pond.  Esther Spangenberg, one of the passengers who was not a Mormon, said:

"Next to God, our thanks are due to Captain Pond, his officers and crew, for their noble exertions on our behalf.  They fearlessly risked their lives in endeavoring to do all in their power to save the passengers.  For one moment neither the Captain nor his officers ever lost their presence of mind.  Had they done so, the loss of life would have been great" (quoted by Devitry-Smith, 26).

Comparing the shipwreck societies from the Blenden Hall and the Julia Ann points to many of the factors that determine the success or failure of these societies.  Even more instructive, however, is the comparison of the two communities on Auckland Island in 1864.

I will examine them in my next post.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

The Best Critique of John Eastman's Memos for Overturning the 2020 Presidential Election


The Fall 2021 issue of The Claremont Review of Books has a debate over John Eastman's memoranda for overturning the 2020 presidential election, so that Donald Trump could remain in office.  Joseph Bessette's critique of the memos is followed by Eastman's response.  As far as I know, Bessette's article is the most meticulous and rigorous study of Eastman's memos that anyone has produced so far.

I have written previously about some of the Trump lawsuits attempting to overturn the election, in which Eastman worked as one of Trump's lawyers.  I have also written about the debate among those affiliated with the Claremont Institute over whether their support for Trump was justified.

Eastman has been a professor of law at Chapman University in southern California and the director of the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Claremont Institute.  He spoke at Trump's "Save America" rally on January 6, which was followed by the Trump insurrection in the Capitol building in the attempt to stop the Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden.

In September, the publication of Bob Woodward and Robert Costa's book Peril revealed that Eastman had written a memorandum in late December or early January that outlined the plan for how Vice President Pence could overturn Biden's election.  It was also revealed that Eastman had attended a meeting in the Oval Office on January 4, in which he and Trump tried to persuade Pence to refuse to certify Biden's election to the presidency.  On September 20-21, CNN posted online copies of two memoranda written by Eastman: one was two pages long, the other six pages.

The shorter memo described a scenario in which Pence as President of the Senate would preside over the joint session of Congress on January 6, and in counting the ballots, Pence would announce that in Arizona and other states, there were "multiple slates of electors."  The memo then describes what could happen at the end of the count:

". . . he announces that because of the ongoing disputes in the 7 States, there are no electors that can be deemed validly appointed in those States.  That means the total number of 'electors appointed'--the language of the 12th Amendment--is 454.  This reading of the 12th Amendment has also been advanced by Harvard Law Professor Laurence Tribe.  A 'majority of the electors appointed' would therefore be 228.  There are at this point 232 votes for Trump, 222 votes for Biden.  Pence then gavels President Trump as re-elected."

Because of this passage, Eastman's memorandum has been called the "coup memo."  It looks like a false legal argument for overturning the outcome of a presidential election, and thus a coup d'etat that would have destroyed American constitutional democracy.  This has provoked intense criticism of Eastman and the Claremont Institute for betraying the professed mission of the Claremont Institute in preserving the principles of the American constitutional founding. 

Eastman and others at the Claremont Institute have responded to this criticism by claiming that Eastman did not endorse this coup scenario in the two-page memo, and that his longer memo lays out many possible scenarios without endorsing any of them.  

The longer memo begins by citing Article II, section 1, of the Constitution, which lays out the procedure for electing the President, and prescribes: "Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress."  The memo uses italics to emphasize that this power resides in "the legislatures of the states."  This implies that state election officials must adhere strictly to the electoral laws as made by the state legislature.

According to the memo, however, there was "illegal conduct by election officials," who altered state election laws.  "Quite apart from outright fraud (both traditional ballot stuffing, and electronic manipulation of voting tabulation machines), important state election laws were altered or dispensed with altogether in key swing states and/or cities and counties."  The memo then identifies six swing states in which this happened--Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and Nevada--where Biden won by narrow margins.

Against this background, the longer memo describes nine different ways that Pence could count the ballots.  In five of these, the outcome would have been "Biden wins."  In four of them, the outcome would have been "Trump wins."

Eastman has said that in his Oval Office meeting with Trump and Pence, he recommended that Pence should try to execute the ninth scenario in his memo.  In the memo, Eastman writes:

"VP Pence determines that the ongoing election challenges must conclude before ballots can be counted, and adjourns the joint session of Congress, determining that the time restrictions in the Electoral Count Act are contrary to his authority under the 12th Amendment and therefore void.  Taking the cue, state legislatures convene, order a comprehensive audit/investigation of the election returns in their states, and then determine whether the slate of electors initially certified is valid, or whether the alternative slate of electors should be certified by the legislature. . . ."

. . .

 "If, after investigation, proven fraud and illegality is insufficient to alter the results of the election, the original slate of electors would remain valid.  BIDEN WINS."

"If, on the other hand, the investigation proves to the satisfaction of the legislature that there was sufficient fraud and illegality to affect the results of the election, the Legislature certifies the Trump electors.  Upon reconvening the Joint Session of Congress, those votes are counted and TRUMP WINS."

Since Republicans control the legislatures in five of the swing states where Eastman sees illegal conduct by election officials--Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona--he might have assumed that the legislatures in those states would have certified the Trump electors, so that "Trump wins" the presidency.

I will not attempt to work through all of the complicated issues that arise in this debate between Bessette and Eastman.  But I will briefly take up the four most important questions raised by this debate.  (1) Was the presidential election of 2020 unconstitutional?  (2) Is the Constitution dangerously vague about how disputes over presidential balloting are to be resolved?  (3) Does the Constitution rightly allow the Vice-President to be the "ultimate arbiter" in such disputes?  (4) Does the dispute over this election remind us of the need to abolish the Electoral College? 


Trump and his supporters have claimed that the election was stolen through fraudulent voting.  Remarkably, Eastman does not make that claim.  In Trump's Bill of Complaint in Intervention in the Texas lawsuit filed with the U.S. Supreme Court, Eastman wrote: "It is not necessary for the Plaintiff in Intervention to prove that fraud occurred."  Eastman's argument is that even if there was no fraud, the election was unconstitutional, because in at least seven states, state election officials altered or set aside state election laws, which violated the constitutional stipulation that the legislatures of the states have plenary power to determine the "manner" in which presidential electors will be chosen.  For example, state election officials in some states loosened the legal standards for absentee balloting to make it easier for people to cast absentee ballots, which favored Biden over Trump.

Eastman says that the evidence for such illegal and unconstitutional conduct was clear.  And he complains about "the unwillingness of our courts even to address that illegal conduct (and yes, in almost every instance, election challenges were dismissed on technical procedural grounds without the courts every addressing the significant evidence of illegal conduct that had been presented)" (35).

Eastman is incorrect.  As I have indicated in one of my posts on the Trump lawsuits, both state and federal judges have examined the "evidence of illegal conduct that had been presented," and they have concluded that there is no evidence here of unconstitutional conduct.  They have pointed out that when state legislatures exercise their constitutional power to determine the "manner" by which presidential electors are chosen, they often give state election officials a broad discretionary power in interpreting and applying the election laws.  If state legislators had believed that election officials in 2020 were abusing this discretionary power in violation of state law, the legislators (or lawyers for the Trump campaign) could have filed lawsuits in state courts to challenge this illegal conduct.  They did not do that before the election.  Instead, lawsuits were filed after the election, when Trump saw that he had lost those swing states by small margins.

For example, in the case of Donald Trump v. The Wisconsin Elections Commission, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, Trump's lawyers argued before U.S. District Judge Brett Ludwig that the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC) had departed from the election laws enacted by the Wisconsin legislature.  The WEC had set up rules that allowed for a huge increase in the number of mail-in ballots, and if one assumes that many of these ballots were votes for Biden, then this would account for Trump's narrow loss (by 22,700 votes) in Wisconsin.  Trump's complaint asked that Judge Ludwig throw out the voting results and then ask the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature to appoint their own slate of presidential electors.

Judge Ludwig decided that Trump's lawyers had not shown a "significant departure" by WEC from the rules set down by the Legislature, because the WEC was explicitly given a broad discretion in clarifying the statutory rules for conducting the election.  

Ludwig declared: "Plaintiff's Electors Clause claims fail as a matter of law and fact."  He concluded:

"This is an extraordinary case.  A sitting president who did not prevail in his bid for reelection has asked for federal court help in setting aside the popular vote based on disputed issues of election administration, issues he plainly could have raised before the vote occurred.  This Court has allowed plaintiff the chance to make his case, and he has lost on the merits.  In his reply brief, plaintiff 'asks that the Rule of Law be followed.'  It has been."

Judge Ludwig was appointed to the federal bench by Trump, who picked his judges from lists given to him by The Federalist Society.  In some of his other losing lawsuits, Trump's lawyers failed to persuade Trump-appointed judges. Trump was defeated because his own judges are devoted to the constitutional rule of law. 

Eastman is silent about this.


Bessette and Eastman agree with one another in answering yes.  Bessette observes: "To our misfortune, the authors of the Constitution and of the 12th Amendment did not make provision for settling disputes about electoral votes in presidential elections" (26).  Eastman says that the language of the 12th Amendment is "ambiguous" about who actually counts the electoral votes for the president (29).  The 12th Amendment says: "The President of the Senate [the Vice President] shall, in the presence of the Senate and House of Representatives, open all the certificates and the votes shall then be counted."  It is clear that the Vice President is authorized to "open" the certificates.  It is not clear as to whether and how the Vice President is to "count" the votes, because this power to count is put into the passive voice: "and the votes shall then be counted."  

Section 15 of the Electoral Count Act of 1887 provides that four "tellers"--two each from the House and Senate--are to do the counting after the ballots are opened by the Vice President.  But Eastman argues that this law is unconstitutional because it takes away the Vice President's constitutional power to count the votes.  Eastman believes that Vice President Pence should have ignored the Electoral Count Act.

Even as Eastman admits that the language of the 12th Amendment is ambiguous, he chooses to follow those constitutional scholars--probably in the minority--who say that the Vice President has complete power to count the votes and even to reject the lists of votes certified by the state governments.


Yes, Eastman declared at the end of his shorter memo: the Constitution makes the Vice President the "ultimate arbiter."

Although Bessette admits that the vague language of the 12th Amendment is open to this possible interpretation, he rejects this as contrary to the spirit of the constitutional principle that ours should be "a government of laws and not of men" (the language used in the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780) (26).  Bessette wonders:

"What is the principle here--that whenever proposed electors from a state which the other side officially won meet on the designated day, vote for their candidate, and send in their 'votes' to Congress, the vice president on his own authority may simply refuse to count the officially certified votes from enough of these states to give the victory to the vice president's preferred candidate--who could, of course, be the vice president himself or herself?  If that's the principle, then, of course, in the future proposed delegates from all the states that the other side won in the certified vote will send in their 'votes' to Washington so that the vice president can, in effect, choose the next president.  One doesn't have to be a scholar of the American Founding, a professor of constitutional law, or an expert in election law to know that this simply cannot be right" (20).

Remarkably, Eastman does not deny that this really is the principle for him.  Nor does he deny Bessette's claim that this principle could be used by Vice President Kamala Harris in counting the electoral votes for the 2024 election, so that she could refuse to count the officially certified votes for Trump and substitute the votes pledged to Biden.

Does the Claremont Institute want to endorse this principle?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps the publication of Bessette's article in the Claremont Review of Books is meant to signal that at least some of the people at the Claremont Institute want to repudiate Eastman's memos.


Although Bessette and Eastman do not raise this question, I think we should raise this question when we see that the Electoral College has created the fundamental problem here--that so many presidential elections have been decided by a few thousand votes in a few swing states, and that the electoral votes are not in proportion to the popular votes, which creates doubts about the legitimacy of the election. 

An even more troubling manifestation of this problem was the presidential election of 2000.  While Al Gore won the popular election with a margin of over 543,000 votes, George Bush won in the Electoral College when he won Florida's 25 electoral votes, because he had 537 more popular votes than Gore in Florida, which gave Bush 271 electoral votes, one electoral vote more than the 270-to-win majority in the Electoral College.  This cannot be right.

Moreover, we should keep in mind that according to the Constitution, the state legislatures have the absolute power to select electors for the Electoral College in any "manner" they wish.  The state legislatures could--and some did in the early history of the country--select electors directly themselves without having a popular election at all.  If a state legislature is controlled by one party, it could decide to select as presidential electors only people pledged to their party's candidate.  Since the majority of the state legislatures today are controlled by the Republicans, they could select the Republican candidate as president without holding a popular election.

Today, most of the states have adopted a winner-take-all procedure--the popular vote winner across the whole state wins all the state's electoral votes--so they make it possible for the Electoral College winner to be the loser in the popular vote, as was the case in 2000 and 2016.

We could avoid these problems by abolishing or at least reforming the Electoral College process for selecting presidents.  We could abolish the Electoral College and have the winner of the national popular vote become president.  Or we could eliminate the winner-take-all procedure within each state.  We could require that all states adopt the Congressional District Method that is followed in Maine and Nebraska.  The popular vote winner in each congressional district wins one electoral vote.  The popular vote winner state-wide wins two electoral votes (corresponding to the state's two U.S. Senators).  This would virtually eliminate the possibility of the popular vote winner across the country being the loser in the Electoral College.

We could also amend the 12th Amendment to make it clear that the Vice President must count only the certified electoral votes for president submitted to the Congress by the states.  Vice President Pence decided that it was his constitutional duty to do this on January 6.  America was fortunate that day when he rejected Eastman's advice and stood up to Trump's pressure.

ADDENDUM (4/2/22)

I need to make one point that I ignored when I first wrote this post.  

One of Eastman's main proposals for overturning Biden's election was to have Pence declare that the electoral votes from those states where Trump was disputing the outcome should be reexamined by the Republican controlled legislatures in those states; and if these legislatures decided that many of the ballots cast in the 2020 election were illegal, they could then decide to replace the Biden electors with Trump electors.

Neither Eastman nor Bessette say anything about the most obvious problem with this proposal.  If Republican state legislators decide that Joe Biden's victory in their state was illegal, doesn't this mean that their election to state office was also illegal?  If a ballot is disqualified as illegal, then all votes for all offices on that ballot must be disqualified, including the votes that gave Republicans control of state legislatures.

In 2020, Trump lost, but Republicans did well down the ballot, including in races for state legislatures and the U.S. Congress.  The obvious explanation for this is that many Republican voters split their tickets by voting for Biden but then voting for Republican congressional and state legislative candidates.  If a Republican controlled state legislature were to declare those ballots illegal, this would mean that the votes cast for Biden were illegal, but it would also mean that the votes cast for Republican candidates were illegal.  And since many of the state legislative races were decided by narrow vote margins, this would nullify the election of those Republican controlled state legislatures.

Consequently, Eastman's proposal for overturning Biden's election was utterly incoherent and illegal.