Political theory and molecular biology
I just got an invitation to a Brisbane conference on the 300th anniversary of the death of John Locke (Interested readers can email [email protected], there are also events at Yale and Oxford).
I was first introduced to Locke through his demolition of Sir Robert Filmer’s Patriarchia in which the divine right of kings is derived from the supposed natural rights of fathers, beginning with Adam. Locke has great fun with this, pointing out that if Filmer is right, there is a single rightful monarch for the entire planet, namely the man most directly descended from Adam under the rules of primogeniture – by implication, all existing monarchs (except perhaps one) are usurpers who can justly be overthrown.
I was very disappointed then, to discover that Locke’s own analysis of property rights was no better than Filmer’s theory of divine right; in fact worse. Rights to property are supposed to be obtained by the first productive user and then passed on by inheritance and voluntary transfer. So, if we could locate the Garden of Eden, where Adam delved, his lineal descendent, if not king of the world, would be the rightful owner of Eden. To determine a rightful allocation of property, we would need to repeat the same exercise for every hectare on the planet. The Domesday Book wouldn’t even get you started on this task.
That was thirty years ago or so, and science has advanced a lot since then, to the point where we can award victory to (a modified version of) Filmer. By careful analysis of DNA, we can now postulate a mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosomal Adam from whom we are all descended (of course, there’s no reason to suppose the two were contemporaneous). Suppose, following the practice of various hereditary monarchies, we identify the rightful heir of Y-chromosomal Adam as the man with the smallest number of accumulated mutations (defects from the point of view of a strongly hereditary principle). In principle, this man could be identified uniquely. In practice, I imagine it would be possible to identify the ethnic group to which this man belongs, probably somewhere in Africa, and crown some prominent member of that group. A feminist version, with descent on matriarchal lines, is equally reasonable and, on the current state of scientific knowledge, a litte more practical.
Of course, for those of us who don’t buy patriarchal/matriarchal arguments in the first place, this isn’t at all compelling. But I don’t find Locke’s theory of property any more compelling and, unlike Filmer, his theory is no closer to implementability than it was 300 years ago.
[Posted with ecto]