American civilization isn't a genetic trait

I take away one important lesson from the past week: Values are not hereditary.

That might seem like a hopeless statement to some, but it's actually a sublimely positive outlook.

Here's what I mean. This past week started out with an inflammatory tweet from Rep. Steve King, who declared "We can't restore our civilization with somebody else's babies."

Not only was Representative King choosing to be incendiary, he was also being downright counter-conservative. In fact, civilization has always been built on "other people's babies", because values are not hereditary. You're not going to find an appreciation for the market economy or the rule of law or the right to free speech inside anyone's genes. Those things aren't in our literal DNA.

These values -- and all of the others that make American civilization what it is -- must be taught from generation to generation, community to community, and individual to individual. They aren't automatic, any more than Communist values or Congolese values or Zoroastrian values. They don't perpetuate themselves without our direct involvement.

The fact that values of any type must be regenerated at every stage and through every age means that we who think we have good values need to stand up for them, teach them, and persuade on behalf of them. So do those with other values, including those whose beliefs may stand as rivals to ours.

That's fine. In fact, it gives good values a fighting chance. If the only values that prevailed were the ones that were handed down genetically, then we would live by the law of the jungle -- kill or be kill, eat or be eaten. But we are better than that, because we have the power to reason and persuade.

Not only do we have the power, we have the obligation. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was in Washington this week to meet with the President. I'm part-German by virtue of geneaology, as are many other Americans. Though, perhaps, I should clarify: You see, I'm one flavor of German by one bloodline, and an entirely different one by another. My family came to the United States from what was then a loose confederation of states well before it was Germany. And, depending on which sources you find in our immigration records, they may have even come from a very small country that was overrun by the Prussians and absorbed into what today is known as Germany.

If values were merely hereditary, then would I be inevitably committed to sharing the values of the country that invaded my ancestors? Or the values of the nation that was overrun? Or the values of "Germany" then? The values of Germany today? The values of Germany at its most aggressive in the 20th Century?

Complicating matters, I have French and Czech and Belgian and Norwegian in my bloodlines too. What of those?

The proof that values aren't hereditary is right there in Germany today: They have been nationally committed to rejecting the values of 20th Century aggression. I don't think their literal DNA changed. I think they began to teach better values.

And so it is with us. If you are a values-fatalist, then you're going to believe that "other people's babies" are destined to express someone else's values. But if you're a values-realist, then you're going to see the need to promote and teach and sustain better values -- values that can adapt to new information, appeal to the better parts of human instincts, and get better with each succeeding generation.

A true values-fatalist would see no reason to teach Plato or Aristotle, nor Jefferson or Adams. Values-fatalism would mean there would be no reason to study John Locke or Edmund Burke or John Stuart Mill. And right out with Adam Smith and Milton Friedman, too. What would be the point? If values could only be inherited, then why would anyone try to persuade?

This values-fatalism isn't conservative. Not by a long shot. The whole idea of conservatism -- that we should conserve what has worked in generations before -- assumes that we are obligated to continue teaching our values all the time, without resorting to gimmicks or resting on our laurels.

What it also means is that we, individually, aren't held hostage to the values of our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. If they passed along good values to us, we have every reason and obligation to pick them up and pass them on. But if their values weren't good, it's not like those were pre-printed in us, like we're some kind of circuit board. We're not hard-wired for these values; we're re-programmable, just like a computer. So if bad values came your way from the generations before you, you have every right -- and indeed, every obligation -- to seek out better ones and adopt them instead before trying to pass those along.

In other words, you can choose your intellectual and philosophical forebearers. In fact, you should -- that is, you should make it a deliberate choice, not just something that you permit to happen passively. You should seek out what others have said about their values and consider them critically for yourself. The key is to think about them. A whole lot of people seem to put all the weight on "for yourself" and not enough on "think".

Which brings us back around to Representative King and his mistake. It is not conservative to believe that we are hostage to our genes, nor that anyone else is. Conservative philosophy has always placed preeminence on individual responsibility. So if the Congressman truly thinks that other people are handcuffed to inherited values, then he must think he is, too. And that's a profoundly un-conservative thing to believe.

Bottom line: The Congressman adopts a small view of American civilization. What matters is not who you parents are, but whether you share our principles. Civilization isn't genetic; it's earned and kept through hard work. We have to teach it and always improve upon it. If you think civilization is all in the genes, you'll neglect the important work of its maintenance. America works because we work at it.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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