Sunday, March 19, 2017
In the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress appeals to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. Is a doctrine of natural law and natural rights compatible with a Darwinian account of the evolution of human beings?
The most common argument to the contrary can be found, eloquently and intelligently presented, in S. Adam Seagrave’s “Darwin and the Declaration” [Politics and the Life Sciences, Spring 2011].
The proposition ‘‘all human beings equally possess certain basic rights,’’ or the distilled Declaration, necessarily assumes two important points: 1) that there is a group of beings called ‘‘human’’ whose members are specifically different from other organic beings; and 2) that each individual within this specific group of beings equally possesses things we call ‘‘basic’’ or ‘‘human rights.’’
Taking Darwin’s arguments bearing on the specific differences defining human beings in the Descent and the Origin together, the steps of this argument may be represented as follows: 1) specific differences in general are vaguely and arbitrarily defined, since they actually differ only in amount or quantity from mere individual differences; 2) the entirety of organic nature presents an ‘‘insensible’’ or continuous series rather than a discrete one, since all differences between individual organic beings are in principle commensurable; and, 3) human beings are not exempt from this situation.
According to Seagrave, the doctrine in the Declaration requires an essentialist theory of species. Every species is defined by a specific set of traits such that every member of the species has that set of traits and every individual who has that set of traits is a member of that species. From the traits that define the human species, one can derive natural rights.
In Darwin’s view, the species are distinguished only in matters of degree (some are bigger, some more intelligent, etc.) So one species differs from another as the set of numbers from 13 to 50 differ from 45 to 76. The distinctions between species are largely arbitrary, so there can be no essential natural rights belonging to such a messy smear of organisms.
Darwin has been dead for 135 years, but let us assume that this is his view (I agree that it is) and that it represents the current state of Darwinian theory (it does not). Is it true that there can be no specifically human rights if human beings differ from other animals only in degree? No.
Consider two rights: the right to vote and the right to drive. Suppose that intelligence is a measurable factor and that we can place all mammalian brains on a scale from one to one hundred. Suppose, moreover, that we determine that the capacity to make a choice and vote accordingly requires an intelligence of 67 or above. Is it not obvious that all human beings would be above the line and all non-human organisms far below it? The mental capacity required to participate in the franchise is like one of those height lines at the entrance to a Disneyland ride: you either get to ride or you don’t. Taller people don’t get any advantage. Animals don’t get on. Likewise, being a stunt driver doesn’t get you more rights to drive than the average Joe. Differences in degree could be the basis for specifically human rights even if that is all we have.
The essentialist account of species has been rejected by modern biology because the latter wants a definition that covers all species great and small. The if traits Y then species A just doesn’t work in a lot of cases of mammals, let alone plants and bacteria. Wolves can mate with coyote; one species or two? Horses and Donkeys can have sons but not grandsons. Human beings qualify as species under all basic definitions: we breed only with each other and we represent the sole surviving branch on the hominin tree. No one doubts that this is a real distinction.
Just because the essentialist account of species doesn’t work with most species doesn’t mean that it never works. Let us define a species by the following traits: it is a mammal and it is capable of powered flight. That describes bats and only bats. Let us define a species this way: one member can draw a stick figure on a white board with five lines and a circle. A group of conspecifics can recognize that the figure indicates one of them. That describes human beings and only human beings. I suggest that what I just demonstrated is the power of logos. All undamaged sons and daughters of sons and daughters have it.
Let’s try another. One animal watches two others. One of the observed helps the other and the other refuses to return the favor. The observer is offended. I can’t be certain, but I expect that this is something all human beings and only human beings are capable of. We are capable of conscious, deliberate, moral responsibility. It is in that capacity that the rights mentioned in the Declaration are grounded.
Aristotle advised us that we can’t expect the same precision in moral reasoning that we can expect in mathematics. That doesn’t mean we can’t make rational moral judgments. Biology is messy, but not incoherent. Human beings are more than animals. We are, however, at least animals. There is the direction political theory most face.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
I am participating in a webinar next weekend on “Darwin & The Declaration.” I will also be delivering a paper on the same topic in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Or at least I will if the panel proposal has been accepted. I haven’t heard for sure yet. I am even contemplating a book on the same topic. Offered here are some preliminary thoughts.
The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of a republic, styled the United States of America. That document has the purpose of defending the separation of the colonies from the mother country; its importance lies, however, in the principles on which that defense rests. Here is the central passage.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Charles Darwin, who was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln and came into his own at the same time, is the author of The Origin of the Species. Darwin asked two fundamental questions: why do living organisms display such an astounding variety of forms and how is that these forms are so manifestly adapted to the tasks of surviving and reproducing in their environments?
He answered the first question with descent with modification. Just as a pair of breeding beagles produces a litter with diverse offspring, so an existing species can produce a litter of diverse subspecies. Some of these will become distinct species in their own right.
The answer to the second question, his fundamental breakthrough, is natural selection. Individuals and species that are well adapted to their respective environments continue to branch out on the tree of life. Those that are ill-adapted are culled from the tree by a failure to leave descendants. As the tree branches out into all the available ecological niches we get not only a bewildering collection of creatures but also a progressive assortment of levels of organization, from the simplest single celled creatures to centipedes and certified public accountants.
It is not immediately obvious how the document and the theory relate to one another. The one speaks of inalienable rights, governments, and consent. The other of biological descent and the struggle for survival and fecundity. There is a common assumption, however, that the two are mutually irreconcilable. The Declaration is a political document based on moral principles. Descent with modification and natural selection are, to be sure, amoral processes. If, as may be, homo sapiens inherited the earth by eradicating a considerable number of hominin species, there doesn’t seem to be anything moral about that.
To see what is at stake here, we need to return to the Declaration. This is what precedes the passage quoted above.
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
That famous phrase, the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, is pregnant with meaning. “Nature’s God” indicates an appeal to divine authority, but only such as can be read from the Creator’s work. The “Laws of Nature” are a valid standard only if they are in fact laws of nature.
Confronted with Darwin’s interpretation of the laws of nature, a defender of the Declaration has three choices. First, she could reject evolutionary theory altogether. That would mean rejecting modern biology, as evolutionary theory is its central theory. It would probably mean rejecting geology as well (google “young earthers).
Second, she could argue that moral and political laws are entirely distinct from the laws of biology, much as sociologists distinguish between sex (biological concept) and gender (socially constructed). That would mean that there are two distinct laws of nature, one supported by science and the other…by what? Without a theological basis, the Declaration’s laws of nature become mere cultural artefacts, like a preference for pastel colors in architecture; with a theological basis, in what sense are they natural?
The only viable alternative is to show that the laws of nature as they are articulated by modern biology in fact support the principles articulated in the Declaration. This is what I propose to do. I will argue that the liberty spoken of the document is another iteration of the principle of autonomy, which is itself a fundamental principle of all life. I will argue moreover that the moral equality spoken of in the document is an emergent feature of human evolution. I hold that modern evolutionary theory powerful supports the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. Stay tuned.