Friday, April 28, 2017
What follows is the central argument I made in the paper I recently presented in Vancouver. I will present a larger version at the APSA convention this fall in San Francisco.
My topic is the relationship between the emergence of the nuclear family and the emergence of political nature in the course of human evolution. My question, as I described it in an earlier post is a chicken and egg question: which came first, the family or politics? My answer is yes.
When our ancestors left the trees, or more likely, when the trees retreated behind them due to climate change, we did so in small bands of mostly related males accompanied by their mates and offspring. Our reason for moving in groups was simple: it was the only defense against predators when we could no longer escape upward.
We were, at that point, a promiscuous species. Males mated with as many females as possible and come into conflict frequently over access. This we may infer from the degree of sexual dimorphism. In a harem species, like gorillas or elk, males are much larger than females. Among elephant seals (an extreme case) males are about four times as heavy as females. This is because a bull has exclusive access to a large number of females, which he guards with his prowess and so gives birth to beefy sons. Chimpanzee males are about twice as large as their mates. P. troglodyte mates promiscuously but in the context of a strong hierarchy where the alpha male gets first dibs on a female in estrous.
Human males are about 1.15 larger than females, which suggests less selection pressure for males in competing with other males for access to mates. This suggests that something tempered the competition but did not entirely eliminate it. What tempered it?
In both of the Pan species and in Homo sapiens, there is a tendency of strong males to dominate other males. In bonobos (Pan paniscus) this tendency has been largely muted by female coalitions based on homosexual partnerships. These coalitions protect the sons of coalition members from aggression by other males, which all but reduced violence and political conflict. That it is still there is evidenced by the fact that a bonobo male whose mother dies is subject to aggression. Among chimpanzees, dominate males are very powerful; still, the alpha male has to tread carefully. Coalitions may arise against him and, if he pushes his weight around too much, the whole group may attack and kill him.
That same tendency of strong individuals to dominate the rest of the group is all to obviously part of human social behaviors. We managed to temper it much as the chimpanzees do, but with much greater success. Existing forager groups are remarkably egalitarian. Food is shared and dominant individuals have to tread very lightly. Anyone in the group who is perceived by the others as being too big for his loin cloth risks ridicule, ostracism, expulsion, or death. Human groups in the context in which our species came into its present form maintained an egalitarian ethos. Anyone who didn’t carry his weight (the free rider who is always slow to join the hunt and fast to join the feast) or who pushes his weight around (the would-be alpha male) is put in his place.
The group ethos suppresses any bully who tries to push around any member of the group in order to protect the autonomy of all the members. What does the bully want? There are only three things that he can hope to gain: the satisfaction of domination, which is very satisfying, more food, and access to females. The first is greatly reduced but not eliminated. Collective decision making may be the rule; however, the group will need to depend on the most competent leader on occasion. The leader will gain some benefit from his position if and only if he is very careful to appear generous and respectful of his fellows.
What the members of our UR human societies would have been most sensitive about is access to mates. The group ethos that reigned in the leader protect the access of males to at least one female. This, I submit, is the origin of the family. Once the group exerts its power against the dominant individual it opens up a space for the other males to claim exclusive access to their mates. Now the male can be reasonably certain that his offspring are his offspring. This encourages him to invest in them.
When the group as a whole polices its members and especially its leaders, it becomes a much more effective unit. Everyone can put his weight into hunting, building, and war, because no one in the group can push his weight around. Each member of good standing is protected, along with his wife and kids. The family is the result of political organization because it was one of its main objects.
As Aristotle first recognized, the political community is the comprehensive community. It includes the families, clans, and villages that are its elements. Without the elementary communities, the polis could not exist. Without the polis, neither could the family.
Friday, April 21, 2017
I just finished Robin Dunbar’s magnificent book Human Evolution: Our Brains and Behavior. Dunbar presents two central hypotheses (if I understand the argument). One is that there is a robust correlation between the brain size of primate species and the size of the groups that they live in and interact with.
The causation that is indicated by the correlation is it problematic for animals to live together. We annoy each other. Living in close proximity means that we can come into conflict over a wide range of things: food, mates, space, etc. This annoyance has to be managed.
One way to manage it is by grooming. When one baboon grooms another (coming through the fur, looking for juicy insects that carry pathogens, it results in the release of endorphins. Endorphins play a large part in the book. Nothing makes it easier to tolerate the presence of another furry conspecific than a warm fuzzy feeling that she produces while she fondles my back.
It is easier, of course, to tolerate others when the others are closely related. Kin selection is one of the foundational theories in sociobiology. If one of my inherited traits is to serve my offspring or my siblings, I am promoting the biological success of individuals who, mostly, inherit the same traits.
The problem with both solutions to the problem of group living is that they don’t allow for very large groups. Kin selection works according to Hamilton’s rule. If the cost of cooperating with someone else is less than my relatedness to the other times the benefit I bestow, then cooperation can be selected for. The formula can be stated simply: kin sacrifice is selected for whenever C < RB.
For example, I am foraging with my brother and I see a predator stalking us. Should I call out a warning? The answer is no. I am related to my brother by a factor of point five. We share fifty percent of the same genes. If my brother survives, that is a factor of one. If the tiger nails me because I called out a warning, that is a cost of one: zero chance of future offspring. 1>.5 x 1. Hamilton’s rule is not satisfied. Natural selection will not favor this behavior because the genes that code for it will diminish in any population.
What if I am foraging with seven brothers when I see the cat? Now the calculation reverses. My cost is still one if I die and the relatedness is still point five. But the benefit (saving seven brothers) is seven. 1 < .5 x 7. If my seven brothers survive and reproduce, I get more of my genes into the next generation than if I have my own offspring. My nieces and nephews will inherit my familial piety.
Kin selection is a robust foundation for cooperation and it explains how closely related individuals can work together. It is limited, however, in its range. While brothers are related by a factor of point five, cousins are related by a factor of point twelve and a half. A willingness to take risks on behalf of cousins will need a lot more cousins to make the calculation work. Kin selection cannot explain the emergence of communities much larger than the clan, let alone communities that include unrelated clans.
Grooming can explain how unrelated individuals learn to tolerate one another. It feels good to be groomed by another, regardless of our relationship. This works wonders for a lot of primate species. Here, Dunbar deploys a second device: a time-budget model. There are only so many hour in a day. Some of these must be devoted to sleeping and resting. More must be devoted to feeding and moving from one source of food to another. Some must be devoted to social bonding activities like grooming. Grooming involves two individuals and so only so much of it can occupy the social bonding segment of the time budget.
The genius of Human Evolution lies in the use of these two devices‑brain size vs. group size and the time-budget model to map out the emergence of human beings as a branch of the family tree. Our ancestors came together in groups and the groups came together in larger groups. This enlargement of the social contract was both a cause and a consequence of the enlargement of our mammalian brains. Laughter (we bond over jokes), language, alcohol, and religion were the devices by which we solved the problems stated above.
Why, for instance, did we survive where the Neanderthals did not? Perhaps because, by the time we encountered one another, we could muster much larger coalitions of cooperative groups than they could.
Friday, April 7, 2017
I was interviewed today by David Tucker, Senior Fellow at the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. The interview will be posted soon and I expect that it will be available to anyone (I didn’t exactly ask!). If so, I will post a link here.
Our topic was Darwin and the Declaration. While I was preparing for the interview, something occurred to me that might be worth further thought. I am thinking it through here for the first time.
One of the greatest innovations in Aristotle’s writing concerned a way of confronting apparent paradoxes. A paradox occurs when something appears to be two things at the same time and the two things are apparently contradictory.
To take a simple example, consider an oblong table not quite so wide than your hips and longer than the reach of both arms. Standing at one end, it appears narrower than you. Now walk around it and look at it from its middle. From this point of view, it is wider than you. That is the paradox: “narrower than you” and “wider than you” are contradictory propositions. It can’t be both at the same time; and so, the table is impossible. If this seems silly, more intelligent people than you or I have been driven to distraction by such things. The obvious solution (once it occurs to you) is that the table is at least a two-dimensional object. Its multi-dimensionality allows it to be both narrower and wider at the same time.
Using this kind of strategy, Aristotle solved a wide range of problems in philosophy. How is it possible that a baby can be both entirely material (the stuff of flesh) and also entirely formal (it’s a baby and not just a lump of stuff)? Because organisms (and indeed all lumps) have these two dimensions‑material and form. To complete the explanation, Aristotle added efficient cause (the baby is being pushed out of its initial state by its phusis, or nature) and it is growing toward maturity (the telos or end of its growth).
Now consider a mature animal, say a horse. How do we understand what this is? On the one hand, it is one thing: this here animal. “This here” is frequent Aristotelian terminology; it points you toward the thing to be examined. On the other hand, it is many things: a head and a haunch, an outside with hide and eyeballs and an inside with organs. We can keep searching down to cells, subcellular devices, complex and simple molecules, etc. It is one thing and many at the same time.
We can also go in the other direction. The horse is one horse but there are other horses. While it is one thing, standing alone in the pasture, it is part of one larger thing: the species Horse. And Horse is one distinct thing and yet a part of a larger thing: Mammal, etc., etc.
Here is what occurred to me today: horse and Horse are not quite the same thing. To speak of a horse is to say that this here animal is horsy. It has traits that we recognize and that allow us to place it in a larger category. To speak of Horse is to speak about something just as real but rather larger: the collection of all the existing horses.
Aristotle got hung up on this, and had a difficult time deciding whether horse or Horse was the real object of theoretical understanding. Much the same thing happened in the philosophy of biology. Some have thought that Horse is an individual, bounded in space and time and therefore just as much an individual as the horse I am riding on.
We have here a paradox. A species is something attributable to this here animal; yet, it is also a larger thing and, more interestingly, a thing that not only extends across space but also backwards in time. Biological classifications are categories, conceptual boxes into which we place specimens; yet Horse is also a real object that occupies both local and temporal space, back to the ancestor of all horses.
What is the real thing, the individual animal or the species extending backward and forward (hopefully) in time? The task of philosophy is to explain how the answer can be yes.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
What follows is the beginning of a paper I will present in Vancouver next month.
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers, for he today who sheds his blood with me shall be my brother,
In the Politics [1252a ff.], Aristotle presents us with an almost evolutionary account of the origin of political communities. “If we look at the growth of things from their beginning,” he tells us, we will be in the best position to speculate about the nature of the political community. So, he begins with the most elementary human community: that of man and women and their offspring and “that which by nature can rule and that which by nature is to be ruled. The latter include beasts of burden, whether human (slaves) or other animals. That he includes the second association tells us that this is not an evolutionary account, a point to which we shall return.
If we ignore the second elementary community, we can easily make an evolutionary story out of Aristotle’s account. Families, which serve everyday needs come together into villages. The most natural version of the latter is the enlarged clan. This is why the “first cities” were ruled by kings and why human beings still imagine that the gods are so ruled, for the rule of the king is the natural extension of the rule of the father. A union of villages comes next, which must include a number of clans, and this larger group can achieve self-sufficiency. It is the polis, the political community, and while it comes to be for the sake of living (meeting our biological needs), it exists for the sake of the good life. That last comment is vitally important, for it distinguishes the driving force of evolution from the agenda that human beings can follow when their basic biological needs are met with plenty. Alone among living creatures, human beings get to decide what to do with our time.
Until fairly recently, evolutionary social theory followed the same lines as Aristotle. It was assumed that our ancestors first lived together in small, extended families and that these come together in larger and larger groups. In fact, it was probably the other way around. When the Ur ancestors of all the hominims first came down out of the trees, we did so in groups of individuals who were not necessarily closely related. We came down in groups because group size was the only defense we had against the predators which hunted on the ground. It is unlikely that anything like a family existed yet, if we define family as both a mother and a father who together invest in the rearing of their offspring. This doesn’t mean that familial instincts were not a fundamental force in social evolution or that Aristotle is wrong about the family as a template for the emergence of political forms.
In this essay, I will argue that the human family is both a cause and effect of our social evolution. You cannot have a human family as we understand it without a larger community to support it, nor can you have the emergence of the larger human communities, leading up to the political community, without such families. As the pre-human species explored the various routes to cooperation that natural selection allowed, the potentially political larger community and the family co-evolved.
Sunday, March 19, 2017
In the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress appeals to the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. Is a doctrine of natural law and natural rights compatible with a Darwinian account of the evolution of human beings?
The most common argument to the contrary can be found, eloquently and intelligently presented, in S. Adam Seagrave’s “Darwin and the Declaration” [Politics and the Life Sciences, Spring 2011].
The proposition ‘‘all human beings equally possess certain basic rights,’’ or the distilled Declaration, necessarily assumes two important points: 1) that there is a group of beings called ‘‘human’’ whose members are specifically different from other organic beings; and 2) that each individual within this specific group of beings equally possesses things we call ‘‘basic’’ or ‘‘human rights.’’
Taking Darwin’s arguments bearing on the specific differences defining human beings in the Descent and the Origin together, the steps of this argument may be represented as follows: 1) specific differences in general are vaguely and arbitrarily defined, since they actually differ only in amount or quantity from mere individual differences; 2) the entirety of organic nature presents an ‘‘insensible’’ or continuous series rather than a discrete one, since all differences between individual organic beings are in principle commensurable; and, 3) human beings are not exempt from this situation.
According to Seagrave, the doctrine in the Declaration requires an essentialist theory of species. Every species is defined by a specific set of traits such that every member of the species has that set of traits and every individual who has that set of traits is a member of that species. From the traits that define the human species, one can derive natural rights.
In Darwin’s view, the species are distinguished only in matters of degree (some are bigger, some more intelligent, etc.) So one species differs from another as the set of numbers from 13 to 50 differ from 45 to 76. The distinctions between species are largely arbitrary, so there can be no essential natural rights belonging to such a messy smear of organisms.
Darwin has been dead for 135 years, but let us assume that this is his view (I agree that it is) and that it represents the current state of Darwinian theory (it does not). Is it true that there can be no specifically human rights if human beings differ from other animals only in degree? No.
Consider two rights: the right to vote and the right to drive. Suppose that intelligence is a measurable factor and that we can place all mammalian brains on a scale from one to one hundred. Suppose, moreover, that we determine that the capacity to make a choice and vote accordingly requires an intelligence of 67 or above. Is it not obvious that all human beings would be above the line and all non-human organisms far below it? The mental capacity required to participate in the franchise is like one of those height lines at the entrance to a Disneyland ride: you either get to ride or you don’t. Taller people don’t get any advantage. Animals don’t get on. Likewise, being a stunt driver doesn’t get you more rights to drive than the average Joe. Differences in degree could be the basis for specifically human rights even if that is all we have.
The essentialist account of species has been rejected by modern biology because the latter wants a definition that covers all species great and small. The if traits Y then species A just doesn’t work in a lot of cases of mammals, let alone plants and bacteria. Wolves can mate with coyote; one species or two? Horses and Donkeys can have sons but not grandsons. Human beings qualify as species under all basic definitions: we breed only with each other and we represent the sole surviving branch on the hominin tree. No one doubts that this is a real distinction.
Just because the essentialist account of species doesn’t work with most species doesn’t mean that it never works. Let us define a species by the following traits: it is a mammal and it is capable of powered flight. That describes bats and only bats. Let us define a species this way: one member can draw a stick figure on a white board with five lines and a circle. A group of conspecifics can recognize that the figure indicates one of them. That describes human beings and only human beings. I suggest that what I just demonstrated is the power of logos. All undamaged sons and daughters of sons and daughters have it.
Let’s try another. One animal watches two others. One of the observed helps the other and the other refuses to return the favor. The observer is offended. I can’t be certain, but I expect that this is something all human beings and only human beings are capable of. We are capable of conscious, deliberate, moral responsibility. It is in that capacity that the rights mentioned in the Declaration are grounded.
Aristotle advised us that we can’t expect the same precision in moral reasoning that we can expect in mathematics. That doesn’t mean we can’t make rational moral judgments. Biology is messy, but not incoherent. Human beings are more than animals. We are, however, at least animals. There is the direction political theory most face.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
I am participating in a webinar next weekend on “Darwin & The Declaration.” I will also be delivering a paper on the same topic in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. Or at least I will if the panel proposal has been accepted. I haven’t heard for sure yet. I am even contemplating a book on the same topic. Offered here are some preliminary thoughts.
The Declaration of Independence is the founding document of a republic, styled the United States of America. That document has the purpose of defending the separation of the colonies from the mother country; its importance lies, however, in the principles on which that defense rests. Here is the central passage.
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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Charles Darwin, who was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln and came into his own at the same time, is the author of The Origin of the Species. Darwin asked two fundamental questions: why do living organisms display such an astounding variety of forms and how is that these forms are so manifestly adapted to the tasks of surviving and reproducing in their environments?
He answered the first question with descent with modification. Just as a pair of breeding beagles produces a litter with diverse offspring, so an existing species can produce a litter of diverse subspecies. Some of these will become distinct species in their own right.
The answer to the second question, his fundamental breakthrough, is natural selection. Individuals and species that are well adapted to their respective environments continue to branch out on the tree of life. Those that are ill-adapted are culled from the tree by a failure to leave descendants. As the tree branches out into all the available ecological niches we get not only a bewildering collection of creatures but also a progressive assortment of levels of organization, from the simplest single celled creatures to centipedes and certified public accountants.
It is not immediately obvious how the document and the theory relate to one another. The one speaks of inalienable rights, governments, and consent. The other of biological descent and the struggle for survival and fecundity. There is a common assumption, however, that the two are mutually irreconcilable. The Declaration is a political document based on moral principles. Descent with modification and natural selection are, to be sure, amoral processes. If, as may be, homo sapiens inherited the earth by eradicating a considerable number of hominin species, there doesn’t seem to be anything moral about that.
To see what is at stake here, we need to return to the Declaration. This is what precedes the passage quoted above.
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.
That famous phrase, the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, is pregnant with meaning. “Nature’s God” indicates an appeal to divine authority, but only such as can be read from the Creator’s work. The “Laws of Nature” are a valid standard only if they are in fact laws of nature.
Confronted with Darwin’s interpretation of the laws of nature, a defender of the Declaration has three choices. First, she could reject evolutionary theory altogether. That would mean rejecting modern biology, as evolutionary theory is its central theory. It would probably mean rejecting geology as well (google “young earthers).
Second, she could argue that moral and political laws are entirely distinct from the laws of biology, much as sociologists distinguish between sex (biological concept) and gender (socially constructed). That would mean that there are two distinct laws of nature, one supported by science and the other…by what? Without a theological basis, the Declaration’s laws of nature become mere cultural artefacts, like a preference for pastel colors in architecture; with a theological basis, in what sense are they natural?
The only viable alternative is to show that the laws of nature as they are articulated by modern biology in fact support the principles articulated in the Declaration. This is what I propose to do. I will argue that the liberty spoken of the document is another iteration of the principle of autonomy, which is itself a fundamental principle of all life. I will argue moreover that the moral equality spoken of in the document is an emergent feature of human evolution. I hold that modern evolutionary theory powerful supports the doctrine of the Declaration of Independence. Stay tuned.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Teams of three male dolphins will occasionally raid other pods of dolphins. The object of the raid is to separate a female from the pod in order to mate with her. As she is an unwilling participant, two of the team will wedge her between them while the third swims up underneath to mate. If you are thinking that this sounds like rape, you are probably right; though there is some question about this.
This is not unusual behavior among animals; however, what is unusual about the dolphin drama is that it often involve alliances between teams of individuals.
Dolphins organized themselves into three different kinds of groups that could overlap. One group, usually in pairs or threes, was tasked with gathering fertile females during mating season.
In a "second-order alliance", the animals form "teams" of between four and 14 males which mount attacks on other groups to take their females, or to defend against attacks.
The third group maintained “friendly relations” with all dolphin groups and helped out various teams when additional forces were needed.
The team found the males made a series of alliances with the same sex. They only observed one group of females forming a temporary coalition against young males.
Reciprocity between individuals within a group or even individuals in different species, such as cleaner fish and predator fish, is common enough. The third kind of dolphin group doing something rather different. It is available for offensive and defensive alliances. It hardly seems likely that such assistance would be offered unless there is some prospect of recompense. I can’t think of any other example of this kind of behavior outside of human societies.
This may be the thing that separates the most political animal from all the other political animals. While chimpanzee groups may be governed by an alliance between an alpha and beta male, I have not heard that such groups divide into competing subgroups with more than one individual on each side. This may have been true of human groups until very recently (meaning the last twelve thousand years). Since that time, human political communities frequently divide into groups that compete for dominion over the larger group. That is what we call politics in italics.
How does this division occur? The most obvious answer is that the divide occurs along family lines; however, most human societies consist of numerous families. Isolated human individuals (free radicals?) and third and four rank families must decide which side to back. How does this happen?
I have quoted this passage from an earlier post before.
When these capuchin monkeys forage, how do they decide which way to go? The answer is that individuals break off in different directions. As the pathbreaker moves away from the group, she looks behind her to see who is following. If no one follows, she will give up and rejoin the group. If her entourage includes two or three, or four or more… . The more of her troop that follow, the more likely she is to persist in her chosen direction. Likewise, the more that follow, the more likely the rest of the troop will follow suit. That is leadership in a basically democratic community. Individuals compete for the position of archon, and so the group can act as a unit working for the advantage of all.
I think it rather likely that this is not only how politics works but how the human mind works.
My consciousness is, at best, a prime minister managing various constituencies. My desire to lose weight addresses the ministry while my appetite screams from the gallery about chocolate eclairs. Meanwhile my fellow Republicans seem about to nominate a chocolate éclair to run for president.
Now that the chocolate éclair is the president elect, we may bring the analysis to bear. Political alliances form on the basis of two decisions: which allies will form a winning coalition and which coalition will give us what we want. In addition to getting a better share of the common resources, what we might want is revenge against those who have offended us. That motive has been around at least since the common human-chimpanzee ancestor.
Why did primate Trump win over primate Clinton? The election was determined, as I have written before, by who showed up at the polls. President Obama was reelected in 2012 with a smaller electorate than showed up for him in 2008. I believe that is unprecedented in the post war period. He won because Mitt Romney could not convince enough on his allies to come to the polls. Secretary Clinton inherited Obama’s declining support and saw further decline. Mr. Trump, meanwhile, held onto Romney’s coalition. That decided the matter in the states where it counted.
Individual human beings are extraordinarily complex the creatures. The factions into which they sort themselves and others are vastly more complex. Yet the latter are only the result of a lot of the former deciding which way to forage and who to back. It was not a good thing for Secretary Clinton that a very large portion of the electorate knew that she, and most of the Washington establishment and pretty much all the journalist and pundits in the mainstream press thought were contemptuous of them. It is not clear, however, that this increase Mr. Trump’s margin much. What is clear is that a lot of the folks who followed President Obama down the path last time didn’t follow Ms. Clinton.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
I suppose no one will object if I use primate studies to understand Donald Trump. I voted neither for him nor for Secretary Clinton, which gives me a small feeling of existential freedom in this matter.
At the moment there are all too many explanations for Trump’s election. The most popular on the left are racism and misogyny among the voters or, as Nate Silver put it:
America hasn’t put its demons — including racism, anti-Semitism and misogyny — behind it. White people still make up the vast majority of the electorate, particularly when considering their share of the Electoral College, and their votes usually determine the winner.
I have no idea on what the anti-Semitism charge is based. Is Secretary Clinton a Marrano Jew? To be certain, Silver is demonizing the majority of the electorate, which seems to be on the side of the dark lord merely because they are a majority. I beg to differ and I will do so in this post.
Among the problems with the racism charge are that Trump won several states that voted twice for Barack Obama and that Trump seems to have done slightly better with African American and Hispanic voters than did Mitt Romney. The explanation and the facts just don’t fit very well. The problem with the misogyny charge is that Secretary Clinton has never been in a very good position to press the case. She and her party acted as enablers for her husband’s boorish behavior. Suppose for a moment that the Republican candidate had been an African American woman who otherwise spoke and acted exactly as Trump does. I think she wins by 5% points.
Genuine landslide elections are determined by a lot of voters choosing one candidate over another. LBJ over Goldwater and Nixon over McGovern come to mind. For the most part, that is not what happens. Election are instead determined by voters deciding whether to vote or not. Mr. Obama won the nomination and election in 2008 and was reelected in 2012 in part because African American voters came out in large numbers to support him. We have only the exit polls to go by, but it appears that Trump did only slightly better among white voters than Romney. Secretary Clinton lost because she did not get the same support from Democratic constituencies that Mr. Obama did.
Human beings are not the only political animal but we are, as Aristotle observed, the most political animal. Among non-human political animals, politics is based primarily on kinship bonds and secondarily on close personal alliances. An alpha male chimpanzee governs his group by means of personal strength and aggression backed up by a strong beta male and frequently will lead his group in a lethal war against other chimpanzee groups. Human beings took a great leap forward when they were able to expand kinship bonds to include large groups of allies. Though those fighting with me are not in fact biological kin, we are nonetheless a band of brothers. This remarkable, unprecedented ability to attach kinship instincts to non-kin results in enormously complex relationships both within and between mutually hostile groups.
The result is that human politics have always been tribal, or more accurately, familial in nature. Political groups form by individuals deciding whether these or this one is one of us. The criteria for the decision may be class, location, religion, ethnic or racial identity, or ideology. However important those criteria may be to the individual, the political significance of the criteria lies in the group identity. If an Irish Catholic lad hates an Irish Protestant lad, the religious identities function as uniforms. The Catholic lad believes that his people are the original people, the true Irish; the other guy is just one of the invaders. When an American progressive accuses a Republican of being a global warming denier, the same thing is going on.
Winning in a political struggle might appear to be determined merely by which group of primates is larger. In human politics, what really matters is whether the leader on either side is able to rally his foot soldiers or, in larger scale confrontations, whether he or she can assemble a coalition of groups that is willing or able to provide support at the critical moment. Members of her loyal core may have different reasons for supporting her (she is a woman, a Democrat, a liberal, etc.) and so do the different groups that she is hoping will coalesce behind her. If she fails, it is because too many of the folks on the other side moved and too few on her side did the same when both leaders yelled “charge!”
Donald Trump is a primate and so is Hillary Clinton and so are the voters who sided with the one and the other. Upwards to 90% of African Americans vote for Democrats. A lot more moved for Mr. Obama than for her. It would be silly to accuse these voters of racism because of this. They calculated their loyalties, more or less consciously, just as everyone else does. The same is true of Trump voters. It might be wise to recognize them as just people making choices, instead of victims of demonic possession.
Friday, November 4, 2016
I have been reading Bernd Rosslenbroich’s book again: On the Origins of Autonomy: A New Look at the Major Transitions in Evolution. Rosslenbroich notes that Darwin himself confronted the paradox of progress in evolutionary history and attempted to solve it
A paradox occurs when the same phenomenon appears to present two, logically irreconcilable faces. On the one hand, common descent from an Ur organism seems to produce only an increasingly diverse number of branching lineages. As we survey the tree from bottom (earliest) to the top (presently existing organisms), each fork (plants fork from animals, mammals branch from reptiles, etc.) each new branch represents only the extension of original lineage into available ecological niches. The driving force is natural selection, which is altogether undirected. Evolutionary history flows, as flood waters do, around obstacles and into the next available plain. Okay, I am mixing metaphors; the point is, in this account, slime mold amoebas and certified public accountants are equal in ontological status in so far as they both made it to the present moment.
On the other hand, it seems obvious that multi-cellular organisms represent an advance beyond their single-celled ancestors, animals an advance beyond plants, mammals an advance beyond reptiles. If evolution is driven by an undirected, efficient causation, how can we understand these apparent advances? Darwin attempted to account for this by appealing to the idea of increasing fitness. More advanced organisms are better able to survive and reproduce; why else would they have emerged in the first place?
This explanation is untenable. Cockroaches are more fit in terms of natural selection than elephants, slime molds than slimy politicians. Darwin’s explanation fails. Many biologists have been tempted to try to give up the idea of progress altogether; however, they have been unable to do so. Ignoring the distinction between higher level and lower level organisms means ignoring a conspicuous feature of biological reality.
Rosslenbroich demonstrates that this is a persistent problem in the philosophy of biology. Biologists can’t do with and can’t do without a theory of progress. Among the attempts to model progress in evolutionary history are: increasing complexity, increasing division of labor among cells, increasing efficiency or energy intensive activity, increasing genetic information, and increasing body size. All seem to come up short of a satisfactory account of what distinguishes the lower levels of biological activity from the activities of the higher levels. Without that, how can we understand how sentient moles and heartbroken playwrights emerged from the primordial soup?
Rosslenbroich’s answer is increasing autonomy. The most basic feature of living organisms is that they build a barrier between themselves and their environment. The simplest living cell builds a wall around itself. Within that wall it maintains itself and controls interactions with the environment in order to resist equilibrium with its environment. If the external environment is too salty, the cell blocks the admission of salt and so maintains its less salty interior. If the internal self is polluted with waste, paste is passed on to the external environment.
The efficient cause of the movements of a fallen leaf are external to the leaf: the autumn wind. The efficient cause of the movements of a mouse or of the cat stalking the mouse, are internal to the one and the other.
Rosslenbroich argues that what distinguishes higher from lower organisms is increasing autonomy. The simplest cell builds a wall between itself and its environment and maintains the one against the other. More complex cells build internal walls, protecting the nucleus against the rest of the cell. Animals build walls around their organs and walls protecting brains and sex cells against the flow of energy and materials within the body. The walls don’t have to be material. A hive of bees distinguishes its social self from other insects.
I think that this is dead spot on. It explains the difference between the primitive and advanced organisms without any need to suppose a directed force in evolution. Just as tectonic plates collide to rise up into mountains, so the forces of evolutionary history pushed up in the direction of increased autonomy.
I also think that it holds the answer to a number of basic philosophical questions. To mention only one: the problem of personal identity. The psychological self is one more advance in the expansion of biological autonomy.
Friday, October 28, 2016
I was a student of the late Harry V. Jaffa. One of the seminal moments in my intellectual career took place over two days, when I read Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided. Anyone who has read that amazing book will sympathize with my experience. When I went to bed on the first night, I was convinced that Stephen Douglas was right in his argument with Lincoln. When I finished the second half of the book the next day, I was persuaded that Lincoln was right: slavery is by nature always and everywhere unjust. I have never revised that opinion, and I have been a natural right thinker ever since.
Another seminal moment came many years later when I was reading a primer on evolutionary psychology. It had occurred to me that, if we want to talk about natural right, we might want to know something about nature. Sitting on my deck one grey afternoon, I realized that Darwinian evolution was not opposed to Aristotle and to the classical natural right that Jaffa championed. On the contrary, evolutionary theory can provide powerful support for the thought of Aristotle. I later concluded that the same was true for Plato.
Most of those who take the writings of the classical philosophers seriously, not as mere historical artifacts but as guides to the truth about morality and politics, see evolutionary thought as utterly opposed to classical thought. A good example of this is the first two paragraphs of a 2013 conference paper written by Steven Forde.
As a political theorist by training, I avoided tackling the problem of Darwin for many years. I suspected that the theory of evolution would call into question the very enterprise of political theory, as traditionally understood. My fears have largely been borne out, as the following indicates. Yet it is impossible in this day and age to deny that evolution is the truth—that human beings, like all existing life forms, evolved out of prior, typically simpler life forms. Our organs, including our brains, are all descendants of organs found in earlier primates. Certain key intellectual capacities, such as the capacity for language, are “hard wired” into our neural makeup. Certain emotional responses appear to be so as well, including some closely tied to our sense of morality. These include such natural responses as empathy and indignation, emotions that have analogues in other primates today, and presumably in our evolutionary ancestors.
These facts, along with findings of neuropsychology concerning gratification received from cooperative and other putatively moral behavior, suggests that morality is hard wired into us. This is good news and bad news. The good news is that it seems we are destined to remain a moral, cooperative species regardless of intellectual or cultural trends. The bad news is that this morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought. It is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage. This is the conclusion I dreaded all the years I avoided this topic of study.
This is an example of what I would call a pious dread. It reminds one of the famous quote from the wife of the Bishop of Worcester who, when informed of Darwin’s theory, supposedly said:
My dear, descended from the apes! Let us hope it is not true, but if it is, let us pray that it will not become generally known.
The most significant passage in that quote is this one:
Morality has no grounding of the sort that ordinary human beings believe it does, and that traditional political philosophy sought. It is simply an artifact of our evolutionary heritage.
My question, which I do not think was addressed in Forde’s piece, is what kind of grounding do ordinary human beings think morality has? What kind of grounding does traditional political philosophy seek? Human beings, ordinary or otherwise, are moral animals. We are endowed with moral emotions, including guilt, righteous indignation, and admiration. Perhaps what we seek is an account of moral right that satisfies those emotions. What sort of account might that be?
The most satisfying account is this: justice is what God demands and human beings must choose, or else. Divine law provides powerful support for moral emotions; however, as such, it doesn’t provide much that the philosophically inclined can work with. What does provide that material is the fact that a lot of moral rules seem to be socially functional. Prohibitions against murder, theft, adultery, and incest, are all defensible by rational argument.
The strongest defense of justice without direct appeal to divine law is found in Plato’s Republic. In the first book Thrasymachus argues that justice is no more than a confidence game played by the strong in any political community in order to persuade the weak to accept their lot. The weakness in that argument is that it can’t explain why the con job works. If all of us want the same things, power, prosperity, revenge, why are moral admonitions useful to the strong?
Socrates argues that even a gang of thieves must observe some rules of justice among themselves if they are to effectively exploit others. In the second book, Glaucon and Adiemantus challenge that answer. Glaucon presents a view of justice that he himself finds repulsive. Most people would like to exploit everyone else but know that they are not powerful enough to do so. Principles of justice are then a mere compromise: we agree not to exploit others so that others will not exploit us. Adiemantus argues that people do genuinely value justice, but what they care about is not the thing itself but the reputation for it. A man who appears just will attract good friends and arrange good marriages for his offspring.
Why are the two brothers unsatisfied with their respective accounts of justice? While these accounts provide objective grounds from justice, they are vulgar rather than noble or, what is the same thing, beautiful. Apparently, only a beautiful account of justice will be genuinely satisfying.
In the body of the Republic, Socrates presents an account of justice as an element in a well ordered soul. In such a soul, intelligence rules the passions and the passions rule the appetites. An ideal regime would reflect that order, with the philosopher (Socrates or someone like him) ruling, the exquisitely trained military class obeying his commands, and the producer class minding its own business by producing.
This account provides a beautiful and coherent solution to the problem. If an individual behaves unjustly, he feeds the worst part of himself and that means that he cannot have the kind of soul that makes for the best possible life. The same is true of political communities. Thucydides supplements this account. Cities that behave unjustly toward other cities encouraged injustice among their own citizens, thus undermining the cooperation upon which their strength depends. What is most beautiful is the human being who lives the most admirable life and the city that governs itself and its foreign policy in a way that makes for the most admirable civil life. If justice contributes to that, then justice is indeed beautiful.
Socrates takes the moral emotions of his interlocutors for granted. He does not try to explain how we became such creatures for whom a beautifully ordered soul and a beautifully ordered regime might be possible. He does suggest that the most natural political community is one that provides for the minimal physical needs of human animals with the least effort. For justice to be genuinely beautiful, it has to provide for a life that includes more than that: noble deeds and, last but not least, the leisure for some to pursue philosophy.
Evolutionary theory explains how we became the kind of animal that Socrates examines. Our moral emotions were shaped by eons of natural selection. They made it possible for us to cooperate on a level far beyond that of other animals. At some point, they made it possible for us to satisfy our basic biological needs and then seek satisfactions beyond those needs. The rise of civilization made it possible for some people (and eventually most people) to stop worrying about the next meal and look instead for something interesting to do.
The best human lives are ones that are not merely physically and emotionally satisfying. They are interesting. What interests us is rooted in our evolutionary heritage but necessarily goes beyond that heritage. We inherit preferences for color, symmetrical lines and objects, and landscapes including mountains and water. That doesn’t mean we have genes for liking a J. M. W. Turner painting. An appreciation for great art depends on evolved dispositions; however, it explores new existential space that cannot be reduced to those dispositions. We inherit preferences for fat, sugar, texture, and color in foods. That doesn’t mean that we have genes for liking a four star Michelin meal. We inherit preferences for certain kinds of sounds and harmonies. A William Parker jazz composition builds on those evolved dispositions to produce something that will not advance the interests of my genes but is simply beautiful.
A house is an artificial product. Houses do not grow as trees do. It is nonetheless natural in so far as it satisfies natural inclinations for a safe, warm, and dry shelter. Political communities are artificial. As Aristotle recognized, we have to build them more or less deliberately. They come to be, he said, for the sake of mere life. That is Darwinian thinking. Political communities emerged in a long history of human beings trying to survive in as comfortable a way as possible. They exist, Aristotle said, for the sake of the good life. Once a political community has achieved self-sufficiency, its citizens can turn to explore the benefits of existential freedom.
This is the ground for morality that Forbes craves. Cooperation based on reciprocity is central to every code of moral behavior. It not only allows individual human beings to form communities that secure the most basic needs; it also allows for the production of surpluses that allow us to live beautiful lives. His pious fear is unfounded.