Tuesday, September 28, 2021

John Locke's New World of Liberal Evolutionary Anthropology: From the "Ancient Constitution" to the "History of Mankind"

John Locke's library of 3,641 books included 275 books that could be classified as travel or geography.  Remarkably, this is slightly more than the 269 books that could be classified as philosophy.  

Compared with other private libraries in late Stuart England, the libraries of Robert Hooke and Robert Boyle were probably the only ones with comparable collections of travel writing.  Significantly, Locke, Hooke, and Boyle were all members of the Royal Society of London.  For scientists in the Royal Society, the study of such travel literature was part of their Baconian project for collecting the factual data about human life around the entire world, including the New World revealed to Europeans after 1492, for developing a natural history of humanity that began in the original state of nature in which the first human beings lived as hunter-gatherers.  

Another significant feature of these collections of travel writing is that they included very few ancient or medieval travel books.  Locke and his colleagues in the Royal Society were constructing a new mental map of the world to replace the ancient and medieval world view like that displayed in the Mappa Mundi of Hereford Cathedral.  Over the past three centuries, this project has been deepened and elaborated by the Darwinian science of evolutionary anthropology (Batz 1974; Harpham 2018; Rogers 1993; Talbot 2010).

Locke's use of the travel literature to sketch a natural history of humanity shows that scholars like John Pocock are wrong in claiming that Locke moved "outside history" in developing a "non-historical theory of politics," although Pocock is right in saying that Locke did not understand English politics through the history of the "ancient constitution" of England (Pocock 1987: 236-37).  Locke's argument for the natural rights of every individual was rooted in what he called "the history of mankind" (Second Treatise, par. 49, 100-112, 175; Essay Concerning Human Understanding I.3.10; II.28.12).  But this was a universal history of mankind rather than a particular history of England, and it certainly did not appeal to any fictional conception of England's "ancient constitution."

The idea of the "ancient constitution" was that the English common law and parliament were the immemorial protectors of English liberty that had originated in Saxon times before the Norman Conquest, and that this remained even after the Conquest.  It was claimed that every monarch was bound by his coronation oath to uphold this ancient constitution of English liberty. This supported the English resistance to absolute monarchy in the 17th century, because royal absolutism of the Stuart monarchs could be condemned as a violation of ancient English liberties.  (Previously, I have written about Magna Carta as part of the "ancient constitution.")

Opposed to this was the claim that William the Conqueror had imposed feudal law on England, so that the kingdom became a feudal estate in which all relationships were determined by the crown, and that parliament originated as a purely advisory council created by the king.  It was argued that there was no historical evidence to support the assertion that an ancient Saxon constitution with a parliament limiting royal prerogative had survived the Norman Conquest.

Whig theorists such as Algernon Sydney and James Tyrrell appealed to the ancient constitution in their arguments against royalist absolutism. Locke did not.  He showed no interest in explaining English politics through the history of English law.  

Pocock says that Locke's lack of interest in the debate over the ancient constitution made him "an exception, perhaps the only one among the important political writers of the age" (237).  Oddly, however, Pocock says that the idea of the ancient constitution was "crude dogma" and a "logical absurdity" (235); and yet he does not consider the possibility that Locke might have agreed with him, and that this might explain why he had no interest in this idea.

Pocock is famous among historians of political thought for being one of the original proponents (along with Quentin Skinner and Peter Laslett) of the "Cambridge School" methodology for reading texts of political thought within their historical contexts, which determine the meaning of a political thinker's thought.  In every era of political thought, it is said, there are a few predominant "languages" or "grammars" or ways of talking about politics that shape the political debate of the time, and no thinker can transcend those historical contexts.  We cannot rightly see the history of political thought as a transhistorical debate among political philosophers speaking to one another across the centuries, which is the mistaken view of the Straussians.

And so, for example, when we study today the political thought of seventeenth-century England, Pocock insists, we must interpret it within the conceptual frameworks that were popular at that time and place, which included the debate over the ancient constitution and feudal law in English history.  We cannot judge the truth or falsity of what those political thinkers said, because what they said was determined by conceptual frameworks that we do not share.

I do not agree.  I do agree that historical context matters for interpreting the history of political thought.  So, yes, when we see seventeenth-century English thinkers debating the "ancient constitution" of England, we must understand what that meant for them.  But we must also see that it was possible for people like Locke to go beyond this fictional history in considering English history as part of the "history of mankind" that was revealed in the travel literature written in the 16th and 17th century.  Moreover, we can judge the truth of that universal history in the light of the evolutionary anthropological studies carried out over the past three centuries.

So, for example, we can understand how Locke's account of the state of nature was shaped by his reading of the travel literature.  And we can decide whether that Lockean view of the state of nature is confirmed or falsified by the anthropological record that we have today.

To illustrate that, my next post will be on how Locke's thinking was influenced by his reading of Father Gabiel Sagard's reports about his life among the Huron in Canada, and whether the modern anthropological studies of the Huron support confirm this.


Batz, William G. 1974. "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke." Journal of the History of Ideas 35: 663-670.

Harpham, John Samuel. 2018. "Locke and the Churchill Catalogue Revisited." Locke Studies 17: 233-241.

Pocock, J. G. A. 1987. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century. A Reissue with a Retrospect. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rogers, G. A. J. 1993. "Locke, Anthropology, and Models of the Mind." History of the Human Sciences 6: 73-87.

Talbot, Ann. 2010. "The Great Ocean of Knowledge": The Influence of Travel Literature on the Work of John Locke. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

Saturday, September 25, 2021

Footprints of the First Americans, 23,000 Years Ago

Fossilized Footprints, 23,000 Years Old, Found in New Mexico

Was Locke right to declare that "in the beginning, all the world was America," and it is "still a pattern of the first ages in Asia and Europe"?

It depends on what we mean by the "beginning" of human life.  In one sense, the answer is no.  In another sense, the answer is yes.

If we're looking for the evolutionary beginning of humanity in its distinctive anatomical, cognitive, and behavioral traits, then the beginning is in Africa, probably 200,000 to 100,000 years ago.  Since then, our human ancestors migrated out of Africa to all parts of the earth, including the Americas.

But if we're looking for the original social life of human beings as living in hunter-gatherer bands, we can see evidence for that in Middle Pleistocene Africa; but we can also see it manifested in the foraging bands of Indians in the Americas that became known to the European explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, which could be seen by Locke in his reading of their travel reports.  This was Locke's original "state of nature."

From his reading of Jose de Acosta's Natural and Moral History of the Indies, Locke learned about Acosta's theory of the original human migration from Asia to North America over a land bridge connecting the two continents.  Over the past 150 years, the paleoarchaeological study of America has generally confirmed this theory, while providing precision in determining exacting when and how this migration happened, although there remains much uncertainty about the details.

In the 1930s, archaeologists excavating a site near Clovis, New Mexico, found some distinctively fluted projectile points--"Clovis points"--that came to be identified with a Clovis culture found elsewhere in America.  These Clovis points were associated with the bones of ancient mammoths and other large mammals now extinct, which suggested that the Clovis people were big-game hunters, who had perhaps hunted these animals to extinction.  These tools were identified at first as being at least 11,000 years old.  Later dating moved the estimate up to about 13,000 years old.

A Clovis Point

Supported by later research in the 1940s and 1950s, this led to what came to be called the "Clovis-first" model among archaeologists and anthropologists studying prehistoric America.  The Clovis people were thought to be the first human settlers in America, who entered North America from Asia through Beringia (the land bridge across the Bering Straits before it was submerged by rising sea levels) between 13,250 and 12,800 years ago (Meltzer 2015).  After entering North America, they could have migrated south through an ice-free corridor east of the Canadian Rockies that had been opened up by the melting of the glaciers.   During the Last Glacial Maximum (26,500 to 19,000 years ago), the time when the ice sheets were at their greatest extent over North America, ice covered all of Canada and extended south to the Missouri and Ohio rivers, which presumably would have obstructed any human movement from Alaska south into the continent (Clark et al. 2009).

Over the past 20 years, however, there has been growing evidence that people arrived in North America long before the Clovis people, perhaps during or even before the Last Glacial Maximum (Becerr-Valdivia and Higham 2020; Braje et al. 2020; Gruhn 2020; Meltzer 2021; Waters and Stafford 2007).  This week, scientists have reported the oldest human fossil evidence in North America--footprints found in the White Sands National Park in New Mexica that have been radiocarbon dated at 23,000 to 21,000 years old.  The dating came from ancient seeds of ditch grass.  The oldest footprints were located below a seed bed carbon dated at about 22,800 years (Bennett et al. 2021).

This still leaves open the question as to exactly when and how the ancestors of these ancient people in New Mexico migrated through North America.  One theory is that even when the glaciers were at their peak, people could have moved south along the western coastline.  Another theory is that the first people arrived more than 30,000 years ago, before the Ice Age glaciers reached their maximum extent, so that the people were able to travel inland through areas not yet covered by ice.

In any case, what we do know allows us to draw some important conclusions about the evolution of the first Native Americans.  We can infer that they must have been hunter-gatherers because there is no fossil evidence for horticulture, pastoralism, or farming, and because the domestication of plants and animals would have been impossible before the end of the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) brought a warmer climate.

We can also say that the traditional assumption, based on calculations of Biblical history, that the world is no older than 6,000 years is wrong.


Becerra-Valdivia, Lorena, and Thomas Higham. 2020. "The Timing and Effect of the Earliest Human Arrivals in North America." Nature 584: 93-97.

Bennett, Matthew R., et al. 2021. "Evidence of Humans in North America During the Last Glacial Maximum." Science 373: 1528-1531.

Braje, Todd J., et al. 2020. "Fladmark + 40: What Have We Learned about a Potential Pacific Coast Peopling of the Americas?"  American Antiquity 85: 1-21.

Gruhn, Ruth. 2020. "Evidence Grows for Early Peopling of the Americas." Nature 584: 47-48.

Clark, Peter U., et al. 2009. "The Last Glacial Maximum." Science 325: 710-14.

Meltzer, David. 2015. The Great Paleolithic War: How Science Forged an Understanding of America's Ice Age Past. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Meltzer, David. 2021. First Peoples in a New World: Populating Ice Age America. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Waters, Michael R., and Thomas Stafford. 2007. "Redefining the Age of Clovis: Implications for the Peopling of the Americas." Science 315: 1122-1126.

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Is Trump No Longer God's Chosen One? Is America Returning to Nature's God?

Three years ago, I wrote a post on those Christians who believed that Donald Trump was God's Chosen One as indicated by the fact that his election in 2016 was a fulfillment of prophecy.  This was the argument of Pentecostal Christians like Stephen Strang, the publisher of the Pentecostal magazine Charisma.  Before the election of 2020, Strang publicized the new prophecies that God had foreordained Trump's reelection.  Last March, Strang apologized for this mistake.  "There were a number of prophets who were very certain that Trump would be elected," he explained.  He continued: "I hope that you'll give me the grace--and Charisma Media the grace--of missing this, in a manner of speaking."  As reported in The New York Times, Strang has written a new book--God and Cancel Culture--warning that "there are people who want to cancel Christianity," but the book is silent about his mistaken prophecies.

So where did Strang and the other fundamentalist Christians who believed Trump was ordained by God go wrong?  As I indicated in my post on Strang's book God and Donald Trump, there are two issues here--the interpretation of the Bible and the interpretation of the American founding.

Some of the Trump prophets saw a connection between the 45th chapter of Isaiah and Trump becoming the 45th president of the United States.  In that chapter of Isaiah, God spoke to the Persian leader Cyrus as His "anointed one," although God said "you do not know me."  They saw this as suggesting that just as God used Cyrus, He could use Trump to bring America back to God even though Trump himself is not a Christian believer.

There are lots of problems with this interpretation of the Bible.  For example, God used the pagan leader Nebuchadnezzar as "my servant" to punish Judah by taking them into the very Babylonian captivity from which Cyrus would later liberate them (Jeremiah 25:9, 27:6).  So, if God is using Trump, we can't be sure whether Trump is to be America's savior (like Cyrus) or America's punishment (like Nebuchadnezzar).

The second issue for the Christian Trump supporters is whether they are right in their interpretation of the American founding.  The idea that God would anoint Trump to save America assumes that God has taken America under His providential care as His Chosen People, just as He cared for ancient Israel.  The Christian Trumpets might argue that the American founders established America as a Christian nation specially chosen by God.  After all, the Declaration of Independence appeals to God as the Lawgiver, the Creator, the Supreme Judge of the world, and the Providential Caregiver for America.  So why shouldn't God miraculously intervene in history to support Trump?

But as I have noted in a previous post, Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence has only one reference to a deity--"Nature's God"--which is the naturalistic divinity of Lucretius, Spinoza, and perhaps Darwin.  This is the mysterious First Cause of nature, the ultimate source of nature's laws that never acts outside those natural laws to exercise any supernatural power.

If America's God is Nature's God, we can know that this God would never anoint Donald Trump to save America, because this God exercises no miraculous powers of providential intervention into history.

Against this, American fundamentalist Christians insist that America's God is the God of the Bible understood as the literal Revelation of God's will.  There is plenty of evidence, however, that most of the Americans of the Founding generation did not believe in this Biblical God.  There is also growing evidence that most Americans are moving back towards the deistic religion of Jefferson and the other Founders, a religion that explains the world as governed by the laws of nature that can be known by natural science, including the evolutionary science of human nature and human history.

Those who believe in Nature's God feel no need to participate in religious ceremonies of worship, to pray for God's providential care, or to expect eternal salvation or condemnation in the afterlife, because all of this falsely assumes a divine power--the Biblical God--acting outside of the laws of nature as known by natural science.

The number of Americans who believe in the Biblical God can be measured by tracking membership in religious bodies and participation in religious ceremonies.  Recently, Lyman Stone has published a report that surveys the data for this over 300 years of American history.  He shows that the percentage of Americans who are members of religious bodies hit a high of about 70% in 1720, declined to 20% to 30% in 1800, and then began rising over 150 years and hit a high of about 75% in 1960, but then has steadily declined to about 50% in 2020 (see page 12 of his report).  Notice that the lowest ebb of American religiosity was during the founding period (1770 to 1800).  So the recent decline in religiosity in America could be interpreted as a return to the Nature's God of the Founding.

Another piece of evidence for this is that as recently reported, the majority of Americans now believe that human beings arose by natural evolution from earlier forms of life, which denies the literal interpretation of the Bible, particularly Genesis 1-11.  The surveys clearly indicate this because the primary reason for Americans rejecting evolution is religious fundamentalism, which is measured by how people answer five questions.  (1) They agree that "There is a personal God that hears the prayers of individuals."  (2) They agree that "The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally."  (3) They report that they usually attend at least one religious service in a typical week.  (4) They report that they pray at least once in a typical week.  (5) And they agree that "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith."

Still, one might argue that it is possible to accept both the Bible and evolution, both the Biblical God and Nature's God, by saying that the God of the Bible has chosen to work His creative power through the laws of natural evolution.  That's the argument for "theistic evolution" or "evolutionary creation," the position adopted by people like C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, and Deborah Haarsma.  

But as I have suggested in a previous post, the problem with this position is that one is forced to distinguish between those parts of the Bible that must be read literally and those parts that are not literal.  So the evolutionary creationist will say that while the six-day creation story is not literally true, the Bible's teaching that God is our Creator and Savior who hears our prayers and who will resurrect us to eternal life really is literally true.  The fact that faithful Christians cannot agree about this--what is literal in the Bible and what is not--indicates the failure of Biblical revelation.

If the Biblical God has not clearly revealed Himself, then we are left with Nature's God, who has revealed himself through the natural order of things.

Friday, September 17, 2021

The Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral: The Mental Map of the World Before Columbus, Locke, and Darwin



                                            Videos on the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral

                You can examine some of the features of the map at the Mappa Mundi website.

On the night of October 12th, 1492, Christopher Columbus and his sailors caught sight of land.  They landed on a small island that Columbus called San Salvador.  Although they were the first Europeans to explore the Caribbean islands, Columbus thought they were islands off the coast of East Asia.  Even after four voyages to what would be called the New World, Columbus did not fully understand the meaning of what he had done.

He did not understand that in voyaging to the New World, he and others were opening up for the first time in human history a global network of travel, trade, and communication that would bind human beings from all regions of the earth into one human community, which would become the Modern World.  Underpinning that new global human experience would be a new mental map of the world based on a global science of human history in all of its natural and cultural diversity across space and time.

People like John Locke began to develop that modern mental map of the world at the end of the 17th century through a careful study of hundreds of new traveler's reports from around the world with a concentration on America.  By the middle of the 19th century, Charles Darwin, after his five-year voyage around the world, worked out an evolutionary narrative for that new mental map of the universe.  I will say more about this in future posts.

And yet we cannot properly understand or assess that modern mental map without considering the medieval mental map that it replaced.  I have written a few times about the Medieval Model as compared with the Modern Model, particularly with respect to astronomy and cosmology (here and here).  But recently I have been thinking more about how medieval anthropology fitted into the medieval cosmos.

In doing that, I have been looking at the Mappa Mundi at Hereford Cathedral in England.  There were many of these world maps in medieval Europe.  But this is the only large and complete map of the world from the Middle Ages that has survived to the present.  (The larger Ebstorf map from northern Germany was destroyed in 1943 by an Allied bombing of Hannover.)  For interpreting the Hereford map, some books by Harvey (1996) and Simek (1996) are instructive.

The map was made sometime around 1289.  Over 700 years, its colors have faded.  But there are some images online that restore the original colors, with brightly green oceans, blue rivers, and a very red Red Sea.

This is not like a modern map devoted mostly to the physical topographical and geographic features of the land.  Rather, it is a synoptic vision of the whole natural, cultural, and spiritual world of the Middle Ages as experienced by European Christians.  It forms a kind of encyclopedia arranged geographically.  In fact, much of the information conveyed on the map came from ancient and medieval encyclopedias such as Pliny's Natural History and Isidore of Seville's Etymologies.

The map was drawn on a single sheet of vellum--calf skin that was probably from a calf bred for that purpose.  It is five feet two inches high and four feet four inches wide.  It is shaped something like the gabled end of a house with a triangular top.

The Hereford map is a circular map framed by the rest of the vellum.  The frame shows Christ at the top acting as the judge of the world at the Last Day.  To the right of Christ (our left), we see the human beings who are saved being beckoned to their eternal salvation.  To the left of Christ (our right), we see the human beings who are lost condemned to damnation in Hell.

The bottom left-hand corner of the frame contains the command from Caesar Augustus (according to Luke 2:1) ordering that the whole world go to be counted.  The bottom right-hand corner shows a hunter and a rider on horseback with the words passe avant--"forwards!"  The meaning of this is unclear.

The world map is oriented to the east at the top, so that the bottom is the west, the right is the south, and the left is the north.

The top half of the map is Asia.  The bottom left is Europe.  The bottom right is Africa.  The Mediterranean Sea separates Europe from Africa.  In Africa, the southern Nile separates northern Africa from southern Africa, and southern Africa is populated by fabulous people and animals.

Jerusalem is in the east at the absolute center of the map to indicate its central importance.

The terrestrial Paradise (the Garden of Eden) is located on an island at the top of the map off the coast of Asia.  The Straits of Gibraltar at Cadiz are located at the bottom of the map.

The entire map is encircled by oceanic water with islands (such as England and Ireland).

This map of the world as a circular disc has suggested to some people that medieval people thought the earth was flat, and that when Columbus proposed sailing west to Asia from Spain, he was ridiculed for not realizing that he would sail off the edge of the world.  In fact, however, the sphericity of the earth had been generally accepted since Aristotle.  Only a few medieval authorities tried to argue for a flat earth.  The debate provoked by Columbus's proposal was over whether the distance for a voyage west to Asia was too long to be safely traversed.

The map is stunning in its details, with almost a thousand entries, depicting rivers, mountains, cities, buildings, individual humans, strange non-human people, and animals (some familiar and some strange).

The primary sources for all of this information are the Bible and classical books (both pagan and Christian) that were traditionally authoritative.  Actually, the references to the Bible are not as numerous as one might expect.  Most of the biblical references are to the Old Testament--for example, Noah's Ark, the Tower of Babel, and the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt.  The only clear reference to the New Testament is the crucifixion of Christ at Jerusalem.

To the modern viewer, the most amazing items on this map are the many fabulous creatures--such as the unicorn, the horned Satyrs, the headless Blemmyiae with their faces in their chests, people with the heads of dogs, and so on.

Most of us will see at least three major deficiencies in this map:  the ignorance of those parts of the world outside of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the credulous acceptance of what is reported in old books regarded as authoritative, and the ignorance of the evolutionary history of humanity.  Locke corrected the first two defects.  Darwin corrected the third.

We now know that beginning about 10,000 years ago, the rising seas at the end of the last ice age divided the world into four geographic zones that had little or no human communication between them: Afro-Eurasia (Africa and the Eurasian landmass, along with the offshore islands such as Britain and Japan), the Americas (North, Central, and South America, along with the offshore islands), Australasia (Australia, Papua New Guinea, and the neighboring islands), and the island societies of the Pacific (Hawai, the Polynesian islands, and New Zealand, although there were no humans in New Zealand prior to about 1300 AD).

As a consequence of this, the Medieval Mental Map included only Afro-Eurasia, while the humans in the other three zones were similarly ignorant of those living outside their zone.  The people in these four geographical zones evolved their own distinctive cultures until the voyages of European sailors in the early sixteenth century began to connect these zones in a global network for the first time in human history.  This initiated what one can call the Modern Revolution, based on the complex collective learning made possible by this new globalization of human experience.  I have written about this as one of the insights of "Big History" here and here.

Locke first began to develop this insight into the globalist modern revolution through his study of the hundreds of travel books generated by the discovery of the New World.  The very idea of the "state of nature" arose from the discovery of the hunter-gatherer life of the American Indians as manifesting the original state of humanity.  And thus he expanded the boundaries of the European mental map beyond Afro-Eurasia.

In doing that, he had to also correct the second defect in the medieval mappa mundi--the reliance on authoritative books read without critical scrutiny.  Locke's Baconian empiricism elevated experience over books.  Even in his reading of the travel books, he favored those books that were based on eyewitness experience rather than hearsay and other books.

Some of those books described animals that were so similar to human beings that they seemed to be intermediate between human and nonhuman animals, which might suggest some evolution of human beings from nonhuman ancestors.  Although such evolution was not part of the medieval mental map, there were intimations of that in the medieval reports of animals that combined the human and nonhuman.

For example, the Hereford map has pictures of Cynocephales and Pygmies in northern Europe.  Cynocephales (literally, "dog-headed") were people with human bodies but dog heads.  The ancient Greeks and Romans called a species of baboons cynocephalus, because their heads are dog-like.  Even today the yellow baboon is identified as Papio cynocephalus--a baboon in the family of Old World monkeys that is found in central Africa.  In the middle ages, people debated whether these animals were human or at least some hybrid of human and nonhuman.

Similarly, the Pygmies were identified by some medieval scholars (such as Albert the Great) as intermediate between simians (monkeys and apes) and humans.  The simians and Pygmies, Albert said, show a "human likeness beyond all other animals."  I have written a previous post on this.  Darwinian evolutionary science has explained the natural causes of this human likeness among the primates.

Although Locke did not develop a scientific theory of evolution, he did suggest something like evolutionary history in seeing that human nature as we know it today was shaped in the original state of nature of our human ancestors, who lived in ways that resembled those hunter-gatherers discovered by the European explorers in America.  This was carried forward into a science of evolution by Darwin and those who developed Darwin's theory.

This laid the foundations for a Darwinian evolutionary science of Lockean liberalism.  This consummated a tradition of thought--linking liberalism and evolution--that goes back to ancient Epicureanism, which I have written about herehereherehere, and here.


Harvey, P. D. A. 1996. Mappa Mundi: The Hereford World Map. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Simek, Rudolf. 1996. Heaven and Earth in the Middle Ages: The Physical World Before Columbus. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press.

Monday, September 06, 2021

The Evolutionary Moral Psychology of the Abortion Debate: The "Texas Heartbeat Act"


                                                  An Anti-Abortion Protest in Austin, Texas

                           A Zygote.  The Male and Female Nuclei Are Beginning to Fuse

                                An Embryo at Seven Weeks, Less Than Two Centimeters Long

                                                            A Fetus at Three Months Old

I have often argued that the evolutionary psychology of moral judgment shows the combination of reason and emotion in our moral experience.  My understanding of this point has been shaped by my reading of Aristotle, David Hume, Adam Smith, and Charles Darwin.  In some previous posts (here and here), I have said that the debate over the morality of abortion illustrates this complex interaction of reason and emotion.  

Human beings have an evolved natural desire for parental care.  So we tend to feel a sympathetic concern for needy children.  And we condemn the unjustified killing of children as murder.  Condemning abortion as murder will depend on our rational judgment as to what is being aborted and on the strength of our moral emotion of care for children.  The more a zygote, an embryo, or a fetus resembles a human person, the more claims it exerts on our evolved moral feelings for children.

We can see this at work in our current debate over the "Texas Heartbeat Act"--Texas Senate Bill 8.  This law prohibits abortion any time after a "fetal heartbeat" can be detected, which is said to be at six weeks of gestation.  This is so early that often women are not yet aware that they are pregnant.  The only exception in the law is for a "medical emergency."  There are no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.  So a woman who has been impregnated by a rapist could be forced to give birth to his child.

Remarkably, the most novel feature of this law is that it prohibits any Texas governmental official from enforcing the law.  Instead, it allows any American citizen to file a civil suit against anyone who contributes in any way to an illegal abortion in Texas.  If they win the suit, they must be awarded $10,000 and have their legal expenses paid.  So, in effect, any citizen can become a bounty hunter or a private attorney general to enforce the law.  This makes it almost impossible to challenge the law as unconstitutional, because one cannot sue the Attorney General of Texas or any other governmental official as the enforcer of the law.  (This strange legislative tactic was devised by Jonathan Mitchell.)

The effect of the law is to prohibit almost all abortions.  This overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision in a case coming from Texas that declared that woman's decision to have an abortion was a constitutional right as long as the abortion occurred before the third trimester of the pregnancy.  (By the way, I am not agreeing with the Roe decision, because I do not see that it is clearly grounded in the Constitution.)

In the moral rhetoric of the debate over this Texas law, we can see that people have to appeal to both reason and emotion.


The anti-abortion banner pictured above says "Every Heart Matters."  Why doesn't it say "Every Zygote Matters"?  Isn't it because the word "heart" has literal and metaphorical meanings that have more emotional weight than "zygote"?  

This emotional rhetoric of "the heart" originated with Janet Folger Porter, an anti-abortion activist in Ohio, who formulated the slogan "Abortion Stops a Beating Heart."  It's the popularity of this slogan that led to the Texas law with the official title "Texas Heartbeat Law."

If you read the law, you will see that it defines "unborn child" as "a human fetus or embryo in any stage of gestation from fertilization until birth."  But if human life begins at fertilization, then why doesn't the law protect zygotes from abortion?  Isn't it because "zygote" doesn't evoke that same deep emotions as "heartbeat"?

The emotional overtones of "heartbeat" will be evoked only if we conclude that there really is a heartbeat at six weeks of a pregnancy.  So our emotional reaction depends on a factual judgment about embryological development.


The Texas law provides that the ban on abortions begins whenever there is a "detection of fetal heartbeat."  Notice that the law does not specify that this occurs at six weeks, although the people promoting this law have generally assumed that six weeks is the critical point for a heartbeat.

The medical and embryological evidence suggests, however, that to speak of "detection of fetal heartbeat" at six weeks is false.  At six weeks, it's not a fetus but an embryo, there is no heart, and so there is no heartbeat.  At six weeks, if a doctor puts a stethoscope on a mother's belly, he will not hear a heartbeat.  It is true that in recent years ultrasound technology has become sensitive enough to detect a flutter in the cardiac cells of the embryo caused by electrical activity, but there is no sound of a heart beating, because there is no fully formed heart with contracting valves.

This indicates a flaw in the language of the law.  A doctor in Texas could now perform an abortion with a woman whose pregnancy is past six weeks, while arguing that this does not violate the law, because the doctor could say that an examination with a stethoscope did not detect a heartbeat in the embryo.  For most mothers, fetal heartbeat is not heard with a stethoscope until about 18-20 weeks of pregnancy.

This factual judgment that there is no "beating heart" in a six-week old embryo would deny the emotional appeal of the anti-abortion "heartbeat" rhetoric.

Another strange feature of this law is the provision stating that "pregnancy . . . is calculated from the first day of the woman's last menstrual period."  This makes no sense because in an average 28-day menstrual cycle, ovulation usually occurs about 14 days before the start of the next menstrual period.  So if a woman's egg is fertilized, this occurs about 14 days after her last menstrual period.

Notice also the implications of the law's calculation of pregnancy.  Most women have no hint that they might be pregnant until they miss a menstrual period, and then they might take a pregnancy test.  According to the law, they are already 4 weeks pregnant.  So women will have at most 2 weeks from the time they know they are pregnant to decide on a possible abortion before the law will prohibit this as beyond the 6 week limit.


The Texas law says nothing about divine law, because the Texas legislators wanted to avoid any religious language that would expose them to the charge of an unconstitutional establishment of religion.  But of course most of the opponents of abortion are Catholics and evangelical Protestants who are moved by the conviction that abortion is contrary to God's law.

Oddly enough, however, there is almost no evidence in the Bible or in biblical religious traditions that abortion violates divine law.  The Bible never condemns abortion.  There is no biblical evidence that Moses or Jesus or the apostles ever opposed abortion.

Until recently, Christian theologians like St. Augustine and others have refused to say that abortion is wrong.  In his Inferno, Dante has no place in Hell for the punishment of abortionists.

St. Thomas Aquinas identified the beginning of human life as coming not at the start of a pregnancy but near the end.  Following Aristotle's biology, Aquinas believed that in the earlier stages of a pregnancy, there was first a nutritive soul (like plants) and then an animal soul, but only near childbirth did the truly human rational soul emerge through a miraculous infusion by God.

Since they cannot appeal to divine law, the Catholic and Protestant opponents of abortion must rely on reasoning about natural law--that is, reasoning about the natural process of human embryology and the natural moral emotions that might be evoked by that process.  The "Texas Heartbeat Act" has tried--and failed--to do that.


Shortly before midnight on September 1, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision--by a 5 to 4 vote--to refuse emergency petitions to block the implementation of the Texas law.  This meant that for the first time in 50 years, the Supreme Court had allowed Roe v. Wade to be effectively overturned.  This was a stunning victory for the Republican Party's anti-abortion movement.

Or was it?  Many Republican leaders have been silent about this.  And many have downplayed the significance of the Supreme Court's decision.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell dismissed the court's decision as a "highly technical decision."  Republican Senator Bill Cassidy said the court's decision was "clearly not an assault . . . upon Roe v. Wade."  But it clearly was!

What's going on here?  Why aren't the Republican leaders celebrating the overturning of Roe?

Could it be that they never intended for this to happen, because they knew that this would provoke a public backlash that would devastate the Republican Party?  For many years, Republicans could pass state legislation overturning Roe with the expectation that the federal courts would block the enforcement of these laws.  Consequently, Republican leaders could pretend that they were attacking Roe, while remaining confident that Roe would be preserved, and so they would never face the public anger that would be stirred up if they actually did overturn Roe.

Now, suddenly, Republican leaders face the consequences of a great political blunder, which could give the Democrats a great victory in the mid-term elections next year.

Thursday, September 02, 2021

Evidence for Hunter-Gatherer Warfare in the Stone Age 13,400 Years Ago


Human Skeletons Found at a Stone Age African Cemetery in Sudan Known as Jebel Sahaba (Site 117) Dated at More Than 13,000 Years Ago.  Pencils Mark the Locations of Spear or Arrow Points and Stone Artifacts.

I have written about Steven Pinker's archaeological evidence for prehistoric warfare among hunter-gatherers.  His oldest evidence is from a prehistoric cemetery known as Jebel Sahaba or Site 117 in Nubia, an area along the southern Nile River in Africa.  The skeletons show injuries caused by stone spears, arrow points, and close combat.  Fred Wendorf led a team of researchers who found and excavated these skeletons in the early 1960s.  They were dated at around 14,000 to 12,000 years old.

I have also written about skeletal evidence from a Kenyan site called Nataruk showing a massacre of 12 hunter-gatherers dated at about 9,500 to 10,500 years ago.  I have presented this as evidence that John Locke was right in claiming that while the hunter-gatherer state of nature could often be a state of peace, it tended to become a state of war as people fell into violent feuding and raiding.

I have also noted, however, that there is debate over this evidence.  Some of Pinker's critics have argued that this prehistoric violence might have arisen among complex sedentary hunter-gatherers rather than simple nomadic hunter-gatherers.  They have also argued that this violence cannot rightly be identified as warfare if it was actually personal homicidal violence within a group.

Now we have a new study of the skeletons from Jebel Sahaba (Isabelle Crevecoeur et al., "New Insights on Interpersonal Violence in the Late Pleistocene Based on the Nile Valley Cemetery of Jebel Sahaba," Scientific Reports 11[2021]:9991).  Bruce Bower has written a news story about this article (Bower, "Hunter-Gatherers First Launched Violent Raids at Least 13,400 Years Ago," Science News, June 19, 2021).

Crevecoeur and her colleagues did a microscopic examination of the 61 skeletons that Wendorf donated to the British Museum.  Their work supported five conclusions.  First, their radiocarbon dating confirmed that the skeletons were between 13,400 and 18,200 years old.  Second, they saw that most of the lesions were caused by projectiles (spears and arrows), and that most of the skeletons had both healed and unhealed traumas.  Third, they found that most of the stone artifacts associated with the burials were elements of composite projectile weapons.  Fourth, they inferred that the injuries were probably not from a single violent event but from many sporadic episodes of interpersonal violence--most likely, the result of skirmishes, raids, or ambushes.  Finally, the evidence that this period of the Late Pleistocene was a time of major climatic changes suggested that the interpersonal violence could have been caused by climate change that threw these people into violent competition for resources.

Although this seems to support Pinker's claim that prehistoric foraging bands were often at war, it does not resolve the two points of contention raised by his critics.  First, should the "interpersonal violence" indicated by this skeletal evidence count as true warfare between groups, or should it rather be seen as personal violence within a group?  Crevecoeur and her colleagues say that "the concept of warfare can encompass all forms of antagonistic relationships from feuds, individual murders, ambush attacks, and trophy taking to bloody clashes and larger armed conflicts" (7).  And so they seem to agree with Richard Wrangham that feuding and raiding among forager groups should indeed be identified as war, even if a "simple" form of war.

The second point of debate is whether the people buried in Jebel Sahaba were fully nomadic foragers, and thus typical of the earliest human ancestors, or were they sedentary foragers living in permanent settlements, and thus more like the complex sedentary groups appearing later in human evolution, who accumulated property that could be the source of violent competition.  Crevecoeur and her colleagues infer that the people of Jebel Sahaba belonged to "culturally distinct Nile Valley semi-sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherers groups" (9).  

Semi-sedentary?  Are they trying to split the difference between nomadic and sedentary groups?

Although I am generally on Pinker's side in this debate, it's hard to see any decisively demonstrative evidence here that would settle the debate.