Sunday, March 5, 2017
Darwin & the Declaration
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.