“Endowed by natural selection with certain unalienable rights”?

The Declaration of Independence builds directly on the Genesis myth about human origins.

Today, as I was printing out copies of the Declaration of Independence in preparation for a ceremonial group reading of the document in celebration of the Fourth, it occured to me that I had missed a trick in my colloquy with Lindsay Beyerstein about whether there were non-foolish reasons someone might give for defending the account of human origins in Genesis against those who think that the Darwinian account is right, and that therefore any apparently competing account must therefore be simply wrong.

Thomas Jefferson, a deist widely suspected of atheism in his own time, under the editorial eye Benjamin Franklin, whose own religion was anything but orthodox, nonetheless chose to express his central argument for republican as against monarchical government in terms that assume that human beings are the creations of a Divine Being with specific intentions toward them:

… all men are created equal … endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights …

Is that an argument that convinces me? No. Is it the best argument for political equality and individual rights I can think of? No. But it was the argument offered by two of our Founders, neither of them plausibly describable as a religious fanatic, and picked up eighty years later by Abraham Lincoln as the trumping argument against slavery.

That argument that doesn’t make very much sense without the background idea that humans were created by a deity with specific intentions for them. Again, that’s not idea that especially appeals to me, but I don’t see any particular reason to hold in contempt those to whom it does appeal.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com