Darwin and the Declaration of Independence

Panel Code

The fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are articulated in the Declaration of Independence and codified in the Constitution. These rights rest in turn the doctrine of natural law as it was developed by the early modern philosophers, including especially John Locke. According to this view, human beings are naturally in a state perfect freedom and perfect equality. When we enter into civil societies, we necessarily surrender some rights; however, the most basic rights are unalienable as they are said to rest on the foundation of a universal and unchanging human nature.

According to Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, human nature is not unchanging; rather, it has emerged over time from the common ancestors of man and other apes. Darwin’s theory is frequently supposed to incompatible with the natural rights articulated in the Declaration, for the following reasons. Darwinian accounts of human evolution seem to reduce all motives to one: the drive to reproduce. For that reason, genuine concerns for justice cannot be taken seriously. If there is no unchanging human nature, then there can be no natural laws. If the distinction between human beings and other animals are differences of degree rather than kind, then the moral equality of which the Declaration speaks is utterly arbitrary.

This panel will consider the questions whether the account of contemporary Darwinian biology is accurate and fair and whether that biology might not be a stronger foundation for natural liberty than was provided by the early modern foundations.