Saturday, March 18, 2006


Tom Stoppard, The Darwinian World, and The Declaration of Independence

Saturday is always a busy day and after breakfast (having decided to take a day or two off from writing about specific aspects of the proposed mechanism) I scanned the news headlines to see if there was anything about evolution in general that could be briefly commented upon in tonight's post.

"A matter of give and take" by Tom Stoppard in The Guardian (UK) caught my eye:

Tom Stoppard argues that free speech is not an inalienable human right

The idea that being human and having rights are equivalent - that rights are inherent - is unintelligible in a Darwinian world. It is easily and often overlooked that when Thomas Jefferson asserted that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness were inalienable human rights, he did so on the ground that they had been endowed by God, our Creator.

That is how Jefferson deemed "these truths to be self evident". Yet, we do not find that insistence on human rights is the preserve of believers. Still less do we find the right of free expression being derived from God's endowment. Is the right of free expression self-evident?

That was all I had time to read so I printed a copy out and took it with me.

At lunchtime I read the whole article and was quite appalled. I felt that commenting at all would require commenting for hours (mainly about the role cultural conditioning plays in the forming of perceptions such as the world is "Darwinian") and so I decided to think of something else to write about.

On the way home, however, I felt curious about the context in which Jefferson had written "these truths to be self evident". As an Anglo-German living in the UK I have never read the Declaration of Independence, it begins:

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.

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.

Words are only a reflection of the person who wrote them rather than a definition and in that sense, I would suggest, are not to be take too 'literally'. Furthermore, their precise sequences can be affected by anything from the 'mood of the moment' to the 'attitude of a lifetime'. Quite obviously Jefferson hadn't finished with the continuing importance he attributed to the "Laws of Nature" simply because he had finished the first paragraph and the words do not appear in the second!

However, the main point I wish to make, from the perspective of an internal evolutionary mechanism, is that life is individual and no excuse or justification is necessary for the existence of that life.

On the specific question of "Free Speech": when a person reacts negatively to the words of another it may be to the listener's ultimate benefit to ask themselves whether their response is innate or acquired - but also to ask the same question about the behaviour of the speaker!

John Latter

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