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A Darwinist Deconstructs the Declaration of Independence

David Klinghoffer | @d_klinghoffer

Declaration of Independence

Stephen Meyer has written here about how the ideas framed by the Declaration of Independence, the “sources of our rights as citizens,” are rooted in design thinking.

There is one source that is more basic than any other, yet that receives less than the attention it deserves. I refer to the idea that there is an intelligent creator who can be known by reason from nature, a key tenet underlying the Declaration of Independence — as well as, curiously, the modern theory of intelligent design.

As Meyer notes, that’s no coincidence given the design thinking of the document’s main author: “Jefferson himself thought that there was scientific evidence for design in nature,” as he indicated himself in writing to John Adams in 1823. So American civilization is rooted in intelligent design, and would likely be very different if informed by the premises of what would emerge, in the 19th century, as the theory of Darwinian evolution.

Rewriting the Preamble

Don’t believe it? Just ask a candid and clear-sighted Darwinist. A friend has been reading the best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, and points out a passage that is refreshing in its candor. Dr. Harari imagines rewriting the Declaration’s revered words in the light of Darwinian biology. He highlights the problematic ideas:

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.

Harari quickly gets down to business, unsentimentally shredding Jefferson’s noble phrases:

According to the science of biology, people were not ‘created’. They have evolved. And they certainly did not evolve to be ‘equal’. The idea of equality is inextricably intertwined with the idea of creation. The Americans got the idea of equality from Christianity, which argues that every person has a divinely created soul, and that all souls are equal before God. However, if we do not believe in the Christian myths about God, creation and souls, what does it mean that all people are ‘equal’? Evolution is based on difference, not on equality. Every person carries a somewhat different genetic code, and is exposed from birth to different environmental influences. This leads to the development of different qualities that carry with them different chances of survival. ‘Created equal’ should therefore be translated into ‘evolved differently’.

Just as people were never created, neither, according to the science of biology, is there a ‘Creator’ who ‘endows’ them with anything. There is only a blind evolutionary process, devoid of any purpose, leading to the birth of individuals . ‘Endowed by their creator’ should be translated simply into ‘born’.

Equally, there are no such things as rights in biology. There are only organs, abilities and characteristics. Birds fly not because they have a right to fly, bur because they have wings. And it’s not true that these organs, abilities and characteristics are ‘unalienable’. Many of them undergo constant mutations, and may well be completely lost over time. The ostrich is a bird that lost its ability to fly. So ‘unalienable rights’ should be translated into ‘mutable characteristics’.

And what are the characteristics that evolved in humans? ‘Life’, certainly. But ‘liberty’? There is no such thing in biology. Just like equality, rights and limited liability companies, liberty is something that people invented and that exists only in their imagination. From a biological viewpoint, it is meaningless to say that humans in democratic societies are free, whereas humans in dictatorships are unfree.

The Rest Is a Non Sequitur

After going on like this, he arrives at a final bold rewriting:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.

With this introduction, what follows the Declaration’s Preamble would be nonsensical.

Harari concedes that it’s possible to imagine a system of thought including equal rights. A society could be founded on an “imagined order,” that is, where “We believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.”

Meaning and Purpose

This is just like the question debated by Jerry Coyne and Eric Metaxas about life’s “meaning.” On the Tucker Carlson show, as I wrote earlier, Metaxas had stated plainly that under the Darwinian view, “our lives literally have no meaning.” Coyne responded furiously over at Why Evolution Is True that this was a “crock,” only to be undermined by a quick scan of comments left by his own readers and the observation of Evolution News contributor Kirk Durston that “Making up a meaning and purpose is quite a bit different from there actually being objective meaning and purpose.”

Or to put it differently, as I did, “You could imagine a meaning to life. But inevitably it would be a fictional rather than objective meaning.” Similarly, you could imagine ideals like those in the Declaration. But inevitably they would be fictional rather than based in objective reality. That’s the difference between trying to ground our civilization in evolutionary versus design premises. It should be obvious that a society whose roots are widely acknowledged as fictions is bound to be less successful and enduring than one where they are recognized as real.

Photo credit: Jefferson Memorial © romanslavik.com — stock.adobe.com.