Friday, June 17, 2016
In his best book, Kinds of Minds, Daniel Dennett presents a marvelous account of the evolution of mind based on increasingly sophisticated mechanisms by which organisms can modify their responses to their environments. Going from memory here, in the first stage a population of organisms diversifies, and the forms that respond best are the ones that flourish. Each individual has only one trick. In the second stage, single organisms acquire a diversity of responses and try each one to see if it works. The organism can decide to approach or retreat, etc. In the third stage, organisms acquire the capacity to internal maps of the external environment, and more or less safely test each one prior to trying it out in the real world. When last I tried X, it worked. That is the first case of something that everyone might recognize as a mind.
Finally, in the fourth stage, organisms find ways of uploading information into their environments to be used later, thus expanding the information that they can use beyond the storage capacity of their own brains. A bird may decorate the area around its nest to make it easier to find. Since others of its own kind can read the same information, this allows communication. A dog may urinate on something to remind it that it has been here before and to inform other animals that this is its territory. My daughter once remarked, as our dog was inspecting our fence post just after another dog had passed by, that he was reading his pee-mail.
Aristotle’s division of animals into solitary, social, and political is relevant here. Social animals merely congregate but political animals coordinate their behavior for a common purpose in which all share. There are a lot of political animals. When elephants arrange themselves in a circle, with the adults on the outside protecting the young in the center, that is political behavior.
Here I present a section from a previous post on leadership. The passage concerns a piece I read on capuchin monkeys.
When these primates 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.
Something the same can be seen in the waggle dance of honey bees, where returning hunters make their case for this or that patch of flowers. It can be seen also in the function of an animal mind. How does the rabbit in my back yard decide what to do when I step off my deck? Different mental schema compete. One says “freeze”. Another says “run like hell”. As long as I am moving at a tangent and my course is not too close, the animal is a statue. I have seen a cat walk right by a frozen rabbit. If I stop and move toward the rabbit, the “run” schema takes command.
For social animals to become genuinely political, they upload information to the herd and download information from the same. This makes for a collective mind. Each time a capuchin moves off from the group in one direction or another, she is making a proposal. The other monkeys then vote with their feet. That is politics.
The individual human mind is extraordinarily good at creating and manipulating internal models of the external world. That is what its consciousness is doing almost all of the time. When the young man stands up in the town meeting exquisitely depicted by Norman Rockwell, he is trying to lead the other members of his group in some direction. Human beings are more political than the other political animals, as Aristotle says, because we can make a case for this direction or that one. We go beyond merely liking or disliking this way or that. We can recognize that we like one way, but that the better way for us lies in some other direction. We can distinguish between what looks good and what is good, what is tempting and what is right.
Aristotle understood that the more developed organisms are not simply different from the less developed ones, as red is different from blue. Instead, the more developed organisms add new capacities to those that they share with the less developed, as purple is different from red. Plants grow, flourish, and wither. Animals do the same, but also move about and are aware of things distant. When we add modern biology to that model, human beings are still primates but they are more than primates.
This points to the thesis I am developing. What is the human thing? Is it the individual, as the early modern philosophers supposed? Or is it the society, as the later historicists and socialists supposed? The answer is yes. Or to put it more accurately, the human thing is the dynamic relationship between the individual and the community of which he is a part. One cannot reduce either to the other. Were human beings to be entirely subsumed by their societies (as the Borg collective in Star Trek), they would no longer be, in any significant sense, human. A human being who lives entirely alone is human only in so far as she continues to draw on the cultural and linguistic store that she acquired from others. If Aristotle could not imagine the first, he could imagine the later.
Wednesday, June 15, 2016
For many years I blogged on politics at South Dakota Politics. I put it away because it took too much time away from my research interests. It was a wise decision. In the interest of making biopolitics relevant to right now politics, I will begin offering a few more explicitly political posts here.
I begin by saying that I am no supporter of Donald Trump. I think that his nomination is the worst decision the Republican Party has made in my lifetime. I think that his nomination (like the strong run of Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side) is a sign of the loss of confidence in traditional institutions that is evident on both sides of the Atlantic. It is not hard to see why that loss occurred. (I suppose I will have to put that paragraph at the head of every explicitly political post I make).
David Ignatius begins his recent piece with this bit:
Even by Donald Trump's standards, his comments about the Orlando shooting have been reckless and self-serving. They are also dangerous for the country.
This is the exasperation of the political/media elite. He can’t understand why all the villagers (instead of a very few of them) aren’t headed to Trump Towers with torches. This is the way you think when you can’t understand how anyone could think any other way. To see what a more reasonable approach looks like, try Meagan McArdle.
Ignatius has some good news and some bad news. Here’s the good news.
Trump's polarizing rhetoric on this issue may be the best thing the Islamic State has going for it, according to some leading U.S. and foreign counterterrorism experts. The group's self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq is imploding. Its Syrian capital of Raqqah is surrounded and besieged; the gap in the Turkish-Syrian border that allowed the free flow of foreign fighters is finally being closed; Sunni tribal sheikhs who until recently had cooperated with the Islamic State are switching sides. The group's narrative is collapsing -- with one exception.
Maybe this good news is the real news; but if it is, is it really that the ISIS narrative is collapsing? Isn’t the important thing that its battlefield position is collapsing?
Here is the bad news:
The strongest remaining force that propels the Islamic State is the Islamophobia of Trump and his European counterparts, argue senior intelligence strategists for the U.S.-led coalition. Inflammatory, xenophobic statements about Muslims reinforce the jihadists' claims that they are Muslim knights fighting against an intolerant West. Trump unwittingly gives them precisely the role they dream about.
One wonders what evidence Ignatius has for the strength of this force, or how strongly “the Islamophobia of Trump and his European counterparts” really “propels” the Islamic state. Is it really Trump that warms the heart of Muslim knights as they sing themselves to sleep? Finally we get this:
Trump doesn't seem to understand that the real danger for the West is not the isolated acts of terror by disaffected youths, such as Mateen's massacre in Orlando. That's a threat to Americans, but one that can at least be mitigated some with better security and intelligence. The bigger nightmare happens if Muslims, as a whole, conclude that their community is under threat and respond as a group.
This is nonsense on stilts. To see that, just apply the same reasoning to other animosities. Do white people join the Klan because they think that Black people don’t like them? No. They join the Klan because they don’t like Black people. Do anti-Semites because they think that the Jews really threaten them? No. They say that the Jews are a threat because they don’t like Jews. Does ISIS rise and flourish because Muslims worldwide are deeply invested in the Republican primaries? Ignatius gets it ass backwards.
There is nothing that African Americans or Jews could do or not do that would satisfy their enemies. To say otherwise is to buy into the race slander. The position of the radical Islamists and their enemies (pretty much every living thing and a lot of non-living things like ancient statues) is exactly the same.
The best analysis of prejudice is found in Plato’s Apology of Socrates. On trial for his life, Socrates has to explain why so many people want him dead. I interrogate them daily, he explains, and ask them about justice and truth and piety. I expose them as ignorant about the most important things. That is why they hate me. But they can’t admit that, so they invent stories about me that aren’t true.
I used to drive frequently through a little town in Arkansas. On one side of the road was a well-tended graveyard. On the other was a graveyard with overgrown grass hiding old stones. Want to guess which was the White graveyard and which the Black? What was the point of that? The folks on one side lived and died believing that they could only keep what they had if they could keep the other side down. That isn’t true, but it is what they thought. So they make up stories about the other side: they are simple minded, they are just animals, etc. That is how prejudice works, is Socrates’ time and ours.
ISIS doesn’t depend on Trump or anyone else for their narrative. They are capable of constructing it all by themselves. Human political communities, from the earliest tribes, arose for purposes of offense and defense against other human beings. As human cultures became more sophisticated, so did the narratives. Our people are the people; our gods are the right gods. As Nietzsche observed in The Genealogy of Morality, such narrative construction becomes much more problematic when your group is for a long time dominate by others. The relative economic and political weakness of Islamic populations is one such problem. ISIS is an attempt to build an empowering narrative under these conditions. It is the underlying political and economic realities that drive the narrative, not the Donald.
I close by noting that Ignatius view is just as insulting to Muslims, American and otherwise, as is Trump’s.
The bigger nightmare happens if Muslims, as a whole, conclude that their community is under threat and respond as a group.
Why, exactly, should that be a nightmare? American Jews have long had the sense threat their community is under threat and they have long responded as a group. They organize, lobby, and vote accordingly. The same is true of many other American communities, such as the Italians or my Irish ancestors. The Chicago Irish may send a dollar to Sinn Fein now and then, but the only thing that gets bombed locally is the Chicago Irish. Why does David Ignatius think that American Muslims are less civilized than that?
In Aristotle’s Politics, he says this:
καὶ πρότερον δὲ τῇ φύσει πόλις ἢ οἰκία καὶ ἕκαστος ἡμῶν ἐστιν.  τὸ γὰρ ὅλονπρότερον ἀναγκαῖον εἶναι τοῦ μέρους: ἀναιρουμένου γὰρ τοῦ ὅλου οὐκ ἔσταιποὺς οὐδὲ χείρ, εἰ μὴ ὁμωνύμως, ὥσπερ εἴ τις λέγοι τὴν λιθίνην （διαφθαρεῖσαγὰρ ἔσται τοιαύτη), πάντα δὲ τῷ ἔργῳ ὥρισται καὶ τῇ δυνάμει, ὥστε μηκέτιτοιαῦτα ὄντα οὐ λεκτέον τὰ αὐτὰ εἶναι ἀλλ᾽ ὁμώνυμα.
The polis is prior to the family and to each of us, since a whole is by nature prior to its parts. For if the whole is destroyed, [a person] would not exist, nor would a foot or hand, except equivocally, as if someone were speaking of the stone. For all [the parts] are defined by their powers, so it should not be said to be or to be such, except equivocally.
That overly literal translation is a bit murky. I will clear it up momentarily. For now just notice the first, italicized sentence. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says this:
ἀνδρὶ δὲ καὶ γυναικὶ φιλία δοκεῖ κατὰ φύσιν ὑπάρχειν:ἄνθρωπος γὰρ τῇ φύσει συνδυαστικὸν μᾶλλον ἢ πολιτικόν, ὅσῳ πρότερον καὶ ἀναγκαιότερον οἰκία πόλεως, καὶ τεκνοποιία κοινότερον τοῖς ζῴοις.
The friendship appears to belong to man and woman by nature, for [the human being] is by nature more a coupling [animal] than a political one, in so far as the family is more prior and more necessary than the polis and the production of offspring is more common to the animals.
Here we have, at first glance, an obvious contradiction. Is the polis prior to the family or vice versa? In the first example, Aristotle’s meaning is textbook functionalism. We cannot understand what a hand or foot really is except by understanding its power, which is to say its function. We cannot understand the latter without understand how it contributes to the greater whole that is the human body. If the family and individual cannot function properly except as part of a complete political community, the polis is logically prior to the family and individual.
I confess that, until tonight, I had careless assumed that in the second example Aristotle was speaking of temporal priority. Perhaps there were families before there were cities. There is no contradiction involved when logical and temporal priority are reversed. A craftsman might fashion a doorknob before the door; however, the former still makes sense only if you understand what the latter is.
Wolfgang Kullmann set me straight in his essay “Man as a political animal in Aristotle,” in A Companion to Aristotle’s Politics (David Keyt and Fred D. Miller, Jr., 1991). Kullmann is trying very hard to demonstrate that Aristotle did not believe in any pre-political period in human history. Aristotle’s anthropoi cannot exist (at least as a species) apart from political life any more than lions can exist without hunting. I am pretty sure that is right about that.
He argues that the first statement belongs to political science and the second to biology. The second statement is biologically correct in so far as coupling is a more common and therefore more basic characteristic of animals than political behavior. That strikes me as correct. The first statement belongs to political science which, Kullmann says is more precise than biology for Aristotle. I am pretty sure he is wrong about that.
His argument does point the way to resolving the two statements by separating out two senses of logical priority. When we are doing functional analysis, wholes are clearly logically prior to parts. Human bodies are logically prior to human lungs. When we are doing cladistics, more universal traits are logically prior to more specific traits. Lungs generally are logically prior to mammary glands generally.
The great innovation of evolutionary biology in general was to map the second type of logical priority onto temporal priority. For the most part, the one is the other. The great of innovation of Darwinian biology in particular is to understand how functionality emerges over time.
My interpretation saves Kullmann’s more important point. When Aristotle speaks of political animals he means creatures that are not only gregarious but are capable of cooperating for some common purpose. This involves a dimension of morality or justice in so far as the goods achieved by cooperation can be more or less equally distributed among the cooperators and some cooperators may be tempted to take a share in the spoils without joining in the common effort. Whether Aristotle recognized the dimension of morality among other political animals isn’t clear to me; however, modern sociobiology leaves no doubt about this. Cooperation is not evolutionarily viable unless there are mechanisms in place to ensure basic fairness.
What distinguishes human beings from all other animals is logos: the conscious communication of views about what is in the common interest and what is just. If political nature is logically prior to logos in the cladistic sense and if this trait is also temporally prior, then our ancestral tree branched into political nature long before it budded into human nature. We were political animals before we were human.
Wednesday, June 8, 2016
A response to my last entry was posted at the International Political Science Association Research Committee #12 Facebook page.
As you implied, the quote from Aristotle of man, in the role of husband and father, as a ruler of a household opens the discussion to controversy. Your first paper did not do this. Plato's views on women are less offensive to those whose social and political views are more gender egalitarian even though his political model is subject to criticism for other reasons.
This is a fair criticism and it comes from a friend and frequent interlocutor. I reply that it is a sign of the immaturity of our academic culture that we need to be afraid of controversy. Controversy ought to invite reasoned even if spirited conversation. Instead, today, it frequently results in accusations and scarlet letters.
I will offer here a reasonable defense of Aristotle for reasonable readers. Aristotle got a lot of things wrong. His physics (in the modern sense) is largely useless. He thought that the function of the brain was to cool the blood. He thought that the female provided only the matter for her offspring while the father provided all the formal elements. He states that the father has natural authority over the mother and her children, and he provides what certainly looks like a defense of slavery.
On the other hand, he got a lot more right. His biology is astonishingly close to contemporary theory, as I have argued in many previous posts and will defend in this one. Even his mistakes lend support to what we know see as the correct view.
Consider his defense of slavery in Book 1 of the Politics. To understand the context of that argument, one must know that Aristotle distinguished three types of rule: political, royal, and despotic. The second type of rule may be best understood as a special case of the first. Both political and royal rule are exercised for the sake of the governed and only accidently for the sake of the governor. For example, the father provides for the family and decides how the provisions will be used; however, he benefits from these decisions only in so far as he is one more member of the family. His superior authority does not entitle him to a greater share.
Aristotle recognizes a range of political animals and only says that human beings are the most political animals. He tells us in the History of Animals, Book 1, that politics animals are those that engage in some one and common work. This means that such animals cooperate in ways that benefit the community of cooperators. As David Depew argues (rightly, in my view) Aristotle was less interested in sorting animals into kinds that in understanding the traits that distinguish kinds of animals.
He thought that the traits were intelligible by their function in their natural contexts. Animals live and move through three great natural realms. Some swim, some walk, some fly, and some (like seals) move between these realms. These are what we now call environmental niches. In the niches in which they operate, their traits are largely determine by how each creature gets its food. This is, obviously, and adaptationist approach. Bears hunt alone. Elk need not cooperate much to eat grass; however, wolves must cooperate to eat elk. In all or almost all cases, cooperation requires a division of labor. When chimpanzees hunt monkeys, the hunters must adopt one of three distinct roles. Obviously I am not limiting myself to Aristotle’s examples, but that makes my point. Aristotle got a lot right.
The relationship between the members of a group of political animals must involve justice. While the “citizens” of a chimpanzee hunting party must subordinate themselves to the whole by accepting their roles, each must also expect to benefit. By contrast, the relationship between the predators and prey is ruthless exploitative.
In this context, we can understand Aristotle’s analysis of despotic rule. When one human being takes command of another, and not at all for the other’s sake but purely for self-interest, this is despotic rule. When is slavery just? He is very clear. If one human being differs from another to the same degree that a man differs from an animal or the soul differs from the body, the superior person may with justice enslave and exploit the inferior person. He notes that many Greeks are comfortable with enslaving barbarians but uncomfortable with enslaving other Greeks. This indicates that they understand, more or less dimly, his distinction.
That is the condensed version of Aristotle’s defense of slavery. The problem is that it doesn’t justify any actual instances slavery for the simple reason that no two human beings stand in the relationship that Aristotle describes. If anthropos is the political animal, then all anthropoi are capable of participation in political life and cannot, therefore, be justly enslaved. Both Plato and Aristotle interpret Homer’s Cyclopes as a version of a primitive, isolated, and violent stage of human life. Both understand this case as the result of some apocalyptic destruction of civilization or, perhaps, the condition out of which civilization first emerged. Circumstances, not nature, make a Cyclopes.
Aristotle made of a defense of slavery that is, according to his own reasoning, a condemnation of all slavery. Was he aware of this? I think so. But then I am in love with Aristotle and you probably should be wary of anything I say about him.
I cannot so thoroughly acquit Aristotle of political incorrect views with regard to his account of the natural structure of the family. He clearly thinks that the father is the natural ruler of the family, with authority over both his wife and his children. It won’t do to point out that his view is in consonance with most human cultures both in his own time, in the times between, and today. Whether the world is round or flat doesn’t depend on how many people think the one or the other. As another friend and frequently interlocutor put it at the same location:
I like to revise Aristotle’s views of FRIENDSHIP between husbands and wives based on female access to education. Husbands and wives are TRUE FRIENDS.
I concur. The natural flowering of the marital relationship requires equality. I would point out, however, how little needs to be adjusted to bring Aristotle’s view in accord with this.
In the Politics he argues that it is barbaric for a man to treat his wife the same way as he treats his slave. This is true for two reasons. One is that the slave is a beast of burden, exploited for the sake of the master and not all for the sake of the beast. Whereas the slave is chattel, the wife is a member of the family and the responsibility of the father is to serve the family and not vice versa.
The other is that the relationship between the father and mother is political rather than royal. A parent commands his children as a king commands his subjects. Any parent who has ever said “because I say so” understands the point. In Aristotle’s view, the father and mother are partners in the governance of the family. They both want the same thing, for the family to flourish; in accord with this aim, their relationship must be based on persuasion and consent. The only difference between the marital relationship and a genuinely political relationship is that in the latter, the citizens are equal and rule or are ruled by turns. In Aristotle’s family, the father is the permanent ruler. Make the marital relationship genuinely political, and you have the possibility of genuine friendship.
I had a friend and colleague who was from Nigeria. He once told me that he thought it was acceptable for a man to slap his wife as a way of settling a marital dispute. I disagreed vehemently. I think that this is just as excuse for abuse. I could not persuade my friend of this. Aristotle was not always right. I still think he was ahead of my friend.
ps. The argument for gender equality in Plato comes from the Republic. In Socrates' "best regime" the men and women in the warrior class will be raised and trained the same. Socrates' interlocutors regarded this suggestion as if he had proposed that we all put on wings and fly about. The Greek view of women was not progressive. This may be the reason that sex in Plato is almost always about sexy men.
Friday, June 3, 2016
This is the second post presenting the elements that will be included in my paper for the IPSA in Poznan, Poland. See The Human Thing for the first.
Perhaps the most famous quote from Aristotle is found in the Politics, 1253a following:
It is evident that the polis exists by nature and that man is by nature a political animal, for he who exists outside a polis because of his nature and not by luck is either worse or superior to man. He is like the man denounced by Homer as “clanless, lawless, and hearthless. Moreover such by nature desires war inasmuch as he is solitary, like an isolated piece on a game board. It is clear, then, why man is more of a political animal than a bee or any other gregarious animal; for nature, as we say, does nothing in vain, and man alone of all the animals has the power of logos.
What does it mean to say that the human being (anthropos) is a political animal? To understand this, we must distinguish between three possible types of animals: solitary, social, and political. As is usual with Aristotle, these are not mutually exclusive categories but instead represent stages of development. A solitary animal is not, in any but the most primitive way, social; however, a social animal may remain, in certain significant senses, solitary. Likewise, an animal can be social without being political, but not vice versa.
For examples of solitary animals, we could consider a male polar bear. He spends most of his life alone, hunting on the ice. His social life will be limited to the time he spent with his mother and, if he is lucky, his mate. We could also consider social amoebae, like the slime mold organisms. In one stage of their existence they crawl around like individuals, without interacting much with their colleagues. Some of my colleagues are like that.
What does it mean to say that these amoebae are social? When food runs low, they crawl atop one another and form a slug with lumbers around looking for a meal. If that doesn’t work, they form a stalk and bulb structure. This is designed so that a passing insect or something else (L.L. Bean hiker shorts) can burst the bulb and carry the spores to greener pastures. This latter business requires that a lot of amoebae sacrifice themselves to make the stalk. Only the lucky ducks in the bulb will have a future.
Social animals are not animals that dwell together. You can find lots of grizzly bears at the salmon spawn. Social animals coordinate their behavior so that all of the contributors benefit. In most cases this means that a solitary organisms or animal has a repertoire that includes both solitary and social behavior. A wolf kicked out of his group will hunt on his own until or unless he finds a mate and founds a new pack.
Aristotle recognized that there were many social animals, including bees. He does not say that human beings are the only political animal; he only says that we are more political than all the other animals. What exactly does it mean for an animal to be political?
An answer is provided elsewhere in the Politics, where Aristotle discusses the evolution of the family.
The ruler of a household, as a husband and a father, rules both his wife and his children, who are free, but not in the same manner. He rules his wife politically, but his children royally.
However offensive this view may be today, it was remarkably liberal for its time. He thought it barbaric for a man to treat his wife the same way as one would treat a slave or a beast of burden.
That aside, what does it mean to treat the children royally but the wife politically? The answer is that the father must explain his decisions to the mother and try to persuade her and thus gain her consent. In this respect it reflects politics in so far as citizens rule and are ruled in turn. Aristotle says that the relationship between the father and mother is like this, except that there is no change of office. So the father must treat the mother as if she would one day rule over him, just as he must treat his fellow citizens while he is in power.
By contrast, he gives his children commands and expects that they will obey them. He may explain, but he doesn’t need to. He knows more than they know about what is proper and safe. Whatever happens in the future, he won’t be ruled by children.
Politics is possible because all social organisms must obey rules that are morally logical. A honey bee worker may be tempted to rear her own offspring; however, if she does, that would threaten the interests of the hive. The worker is offered genetic success through the flourishing of the queen. In that sense, the bees are political.
Human beings are much more political because we possess logos. Logos is the power to distinguish between what something looks like and what it is. This includes the power to distinguish between what looks good but isn’t, and what looks bad but is really the best choice. We anthropoi are political animals because we can attempt to persuade one another regarding the good and the just.
Thursday, May 26, 2016
Okay, so we have our chimpanzee banging away at typewriters. Each keystroke is assumed to be random (this is a thought problem, not a hiring problem). Let’s limit the keys to the twenty six letters of the alphabet so I don’t have to count the keys on my laptop. How long does it take our pan troglodytes to produce Shakespeare’s Richard the Third?
Well, our hairy scribe will produce one “n” about every twenty-six strokes. Multiply 26 by 26 and that is how many strokes will be needed to produce the first two letters “no”. Assuming that Bonzo types 260 letters a minute, how long will it take him to turn out Now is the Winter of Our Discontent Made Glorious Summer by this Son of York?
I once actually calculated this out and quickly determined that it would take more time than the kosmos has existed for our chimp or indeed a whole army of chimps to get even halfway through that first line.
I like to use this popular thought problem to test my philosophy students. Could chimpanzees produce a Shakespeare play by random typing? The answer is that not only could they do so but they would inevitably do so, given enough resources including time. The problem is that the requirements are so vast as to be, for all practical purposes, impossible. She who agrees with what I have just said is capable of thinking logically. He who refuses to acknowledge even the contingent possibility is not.
One might say that Darwin explained how it was not only possible but actual that that random typing produced chimpanzees. What you need is some means of saving the good letters. If every good letter survives and every bad letter perishes, then every twenty six strokes will get you one letter closer to My Kingdom for a Horse!
Darwin can explain how you get from the simplest replicating organisms to certified public accountants because replicating organisms, by definition, have a means of saving and compiling the good letters in the DNA (or RNA) script. But how do you get from inorganic chemistry to those UR organisms?
Physicist Jeremy England has an intriguing guess. His work is discussed in “How do you say “life” in Physics” by Alison Eck in Nautilus. England addresses the problem that life presents to physicists.
To the physicist steeped in statistical mechanics, life can, in this sense, appear miraculous. The second law of thermodynamics demands that for a closed system—like a gas in a box, or the universe as a whole—disorder must increase over time. Snow melts into a puddle, but a puddle does not (on its own) spontaneously take the shape of a snowflake. Were you to see a puddle do this, you’d assume you were watching a movie in reverse, as if time were moving backward. The second law imposes an irreversibility on the behavior of large groups of particles, allowing us to play with words like “past,” “present,” and “future.”
The arrow of time points in the direction of disorder. The arrow of life, however, points the opposite way. From a simple, dull seed grows an intricately structured flower, and from the lifeless Earth, forests and jungles. How is it that the rules governing those atoms we call “life” could be so drastically different from those that govern the rest of the atoms in the universe?
England’s guess is that the solution turns on irreversible shifts in states of atoms. Here is my version, which mixes the metaphors in the Nautilus articles. Someone jumping a fence with a pogo can jump back, given that she has enough energy to do so. That’s a reversible change in state. Someone being shot out of a canon cannot return. His flight is irreversible.
How does this work at the atomic level?
A group of atoms could take a burst of external energy and use it to transform itself into a new configuration—jumping the fence, so to speak. If the atoms dissipate the energy while they transform, the change could be irreversible. They could always use the next burst of energy that comes along to transition back, and often they will. But sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they’ll use that next burst to transition into yet another new state, dissipating their energy once again, transforming themselves step by step. In this way, dissipation doesn’t ensure irreversibility, but irreversibility requires dissipation.
Now, if I understand the argument, a shift in a configuration of atoms that dissipates the energy required to effect it is a means of saving information. If the configuration acquires more energy and then jumps to yet another new configuration, then information is in effect compiled. The third configuration has a history. To really understand what it is, you would have to know the steps that led up to it. To the extent that that is true, the history involves the compiling of information. The gaggle of atoms is saving the good letters.
This is a very long way from explaining how genuine organisms emerge out of the inorganic soup. It doesn’t give us any idea of the chimpanzee typing odds. It does give us an idea of how the simplest mechanics might have produced a selection pressure that tilted inorganic processes towards the emergence of life.
The origin of life is one of the major mysteries. The fact that life did emerge on planet Earth tells us that inorganic nature contained within it the seeds of life. I like that idea. England may be onto an important clue as to where those seeds lay and how they germinated.
Thursday, May 12, 2016
I have been reading Aristotle’s Categories tonight. I first read it as an undergraduate philosophy major at the University of Arizona. As always when I return to this master I am again astonished by the power and durability of his thought. Twenty-three centuries after his death, he continues to illuminate and be illuminated by the efforts of those who try to become wise by asking one question after another.
I confess that I did not know until tonight that his word for categories is the same word that is frequently used for an accusation. To categorize someone, in common language Greek, was to accuse him of a crime. So to identify Donald Trump as a man is to accuse him of something. This is the sort of thing that Martin Heidegger would have written a whole, incomprehensible book about.
The Categories begins with a basic fact about language. We use some words as homonyms, which sound identical but mean entirely different things. Think of baseball bat and vampire bat. I got that example from a fellow grad student Kevin Long. Sometimes we use words as synonyms, as when we speak of sexually reproducing organisms and asexually reproducing organisms. Finally, we sometimes use words as paronyms, as when we say that someone who does politics is a politician. That last term, unfortunately, never made its way into English.
From that point of departure, Aristotle dives deep into metaphysics. Consider this statement: “the leaf on the tree is green”. Green is what we say about the leaf. The leaf is what we say green about. Aristotle uses that distinction as the basis of what is more or less real. The things that are most real are the things that are never said about anything else. We might say that a tree leafs out, but we never say that this here tree “that here leafs”. The leaf is a real thing which can be green and fresh or brown and withered. The latter terms are meaningful and true only if they describe something real.
The term for real thing-ousia in the Greek-is usually translated as substance, and for a very good reason. The same words in both languages indicate both a substratum that undergoes change (the iron that goes from black and cold to red and hot in the blacksmith’s forge) and the property of a “man of substance.” See note on Heidegger above.
For Aristotle, the only genuine, “primary” substances are individual things. His examples are always organic: this here human being or this here horse. His real things are the real things in the common sense meaning of the words, the things we can see and touch. Aristotle is presumably arguing with his equally famous teacher, Plato, who taught that apparently more abstract things like beauty, truth, and goodness were the real things.
Having made this point, Aristotle immediately qualifies it in Plato’s direction. He does so by making a distinction between primary substance (this here horse) and secondary substances like horse and animal. The latter are secondary (and hence not quite genuine) substances because they can be said about something else. So one can say that Ken Blanchard is a human being and an animal but one never says that this is a Ken Blanchard or that this Ken Blanchards about anything but yours truly.
We do, however, speak about species and genus (horse and animal in his examples) the same way that we speak about individual creatures, as when Aristotle says that the human being is the political animal. In this case, the human being is what political animal is said about. This gives Aristotle a way to stack the candidates for genuine substance in order of reality. Species (horse) is more real than genus (animal) because the latter can be meaningfully predicated of the former (a horse is an animal), yet less real than Seabiscuit, which cannot be predicated of anything.
The problems that Aristotle is addressing here continue to haunt biology to this day. What is the biological substance? David Hull and Michael Ghiselin have argued that a species is not a class but an individual. I am the particular person I am not because I look like my father but because my mother and father begat me. Dogs are dogs not because they have this or that definitive trait but because they were sired by other dogs.
While I don’t necessarily buy into this, I think they are onto something. Evolutionary biology fleshes out Aristotle’s thinking by extending it backward into organic time. Organisms branched off into plants and animals. Animals split into distinct species. Yet all of this depends, at every actual moment, on actual organisms, then and there, surviving, being fruitful and multiplying. Aristotle’s candidates for substance are ranked as they are in evolutionary history. Pretty good for a guy who never looked into a microscope.
I will close this post with a little quote from Aristotle (Categories sec. 5).
It seems that no substance is more or less [what it is]… I mean that no substance can admit of degrees in itself. For example, the same substance, a man, cannot be more or less a man as compared to another. One man cannot be more a man than another, in the same way that one that one white thing can be whiter than another white thing or one beautiful thing more beautiful than others.
Take that, my Southern ancestors! Aristotle recognized, a good two thousand years before Jefferson, that all men are created equal. Darwin may or may not have been motivated towards his work by an opposition to slavery, in fact confirmed Aristotle’s reasoning. No human being is more human or whiter than another.
Thursday, May 5, 2016
The working title of my paper for this year’s IPSA meeting in Poland is “the Darwinian dynamic of Aristotelian Political Animals.” A bit clunky, but I am sticking with it. The argument between modern liberalism and socialism turns on the question whether the interests of human societies are subordinate to those of individual persons (liberalism) or vice versa (socialism). This is the political application of a fundamental metaphysical question: is the human thing the individual or the polis? I propose that Aristotle’s answer to this question is yes. What emerges from Aristotle’s thinking (whether he intended this or not) is that the human thing is the dynamic relationship between the citizen and the city. Here is the beginning of my treatment of this question.
What is the human thing?
One way to approach this question is to consider the nature of parts and wholes. The one is fundamentally subordinate to the other. A doorknob is a part of and hence essentially subordinate to a door because the definition of the former necessarily includes the latter. You can’t understand what a doorknob is unless you understand what a door is; however, you don’t have to understand the knob in order to understand the door. The same is true of semicircles and circles.
Applying this to biology, a hand or a kidney is part of a body and cannot exist or be what it is without being integrated into a body. Logos must proceed from the whole to the parts in order to understand the phenomena. Aristotle also argues that the body is essentially secondary and the soul primary, for a body without a soul (a corpse) isn’t really a body anymore. It is just a lump of interestingly shaped material. The soul, as he puts it in the De Anima, is the actuality of the body.
So what about the relationship between the individual human being and the political community? In the Politics, Aristotle famously states that an individual who is no part of such a community is like a severed hand. Of course unlike a severed hand, an isolated individual can go on living; however, he cannot live a human life. He is like a beast or a god, below or above the human thing. That seems to answer the question decisively in favor of the polis as the human thing.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, however, Aristotle takes the opposite approach. He begins with the individual as the primary thing and family, friendship, and citizenship emerge from the individual’s pursuit of the good things for himself and for those he cares about. So which is it?
Aristotle grappled with a similar problem with various attempts to identify the fundamental unit of biology. At first glance it seems obvious. A horse is a horse, of course. From that fundamental thing, present to observation, one can abstract in two directions. One can go downward to the parts of the horse: legs and organs and organic matter. One can go upward to the species to which the animal belongs and thence to genus, etc. But these logical steps are necessarily abstractions. A leg only makes sense as a leg if it is part of a whole animal. The species, likewise is real only in the sense that it is something true about this here animal: that it belongs in this category.
Yet Aristotle was also drawn in the other direction. What is most knowable is that which is less subject to qualification. To say that a horse has four legs may not be true of this particular horse since she might lose a leg and yet remain, for a little bit at least, a horse. It is reliably true of the horse species, however, and so the species is more knowable. If the knowable is the real, and this is a necessary assumption for all rational understanding of nature, then the species is more real than the individual.
This conundrum should be understood in the context of Aristotle’s argument with Plato. Plato’s Socrates can down decisively in favor of the species form. He argued famously that the form is primary and exists independently of the individual. When Aristotle makes the individual primary he is reducing the species form to a mere abstraction. When he makes the species primary, he is nonetheless keeping his distance from Plato. The horse species is nothing more nor less than all the horses present in every place and time.
Aristotle’s equivocation on this topic has its analogy in the problem of the species in modern biology. Is the species a set of characteristics by which we place an individual into a more or less artificial class? If it looks like a duck and waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably… a duck. Alternatively, a species can be understood as a large object scattered across time. Chimpanzees are this branch of the ape clade and human beings are another. A third alternative is Ernst Mayr’s definition of an interbreeding population of sexually reproducing creatures. Each approach has its power. None can settle the matter in its favor.
To ask what is the human thing is to arrive at the same dilemma. The most obvious answer is that it is the biological individual. Social groups, including the primary social group which is the political community, are institutions. Individuals do the instituting. Yet Aristotle had a point in his Politics. If a linguistic community is an institution then so is an individual linguistic animal, the latter cannot become what she is without the former. Without a family or its functional equivalent a human person can neither survive to adulthood nor acquire that capacity for logos that is the definitive characteristic of human beings. It is possible to go a step further and point out that all human communities are possible because of the history of the human species on earth. Perhaps that is the human thing and particular societies stand towards it just as individuals stand towards groups.
I will argue from Aristotelian principles that the human thing is neither the individual nor the polis but, instead, is the dynamic relationship between the two. Individuals create societies and vice versa. This is possible precisely because the individual and the group are each asserting themselves against the other. This is not explicit in Aristotle’s writing; however, it is more or less intentionally what his thinking is pointing toward. It makes sense of Aristotle and, I will argue, it makes sense of both the theoretical questions discussed above and of their explicitly political implications. Applying Darwinian biology to Aristotle’s principles will allow us to understand both the human thing and, necessarily, the political thing.
Friday, April 29, 2016
The Washington Post has an excellent piece with a provocative title. “The disturbing thing scientists learned when they bribed babies with graham crackers”, by Ana Swanson, does not quite deliver on its title. If anything, I think, what the scientists learned is the opposite of disturbing. It does, however, deliver a fine summary of a very interesting study. Moreover, it is bristling with links to scholarship on the subject, including the study it focuses on.
The study, “Costly rejection of wrongdoers by infants and children,” by Arber Tasimi and Karen Wynn (Cognition 151 (2016) 76–79), came out last month. It begins by placing the study’s focus in context.
From infancy to adulthood, humans exhibit an aversion to individuals who treat others poorly. Even in the first months of life, infants reject agents who behave badly (Hamlin & Wynn, 2011; Hamlin, Wynn, & Bloom, 2007, 2010), and before their first birthday, not only avoid wrongdoers themselves, but expect others to do so as well (Kuhlmeier, Wynn, & Bloom, 2003)…
Here we ask about the strength of this aversion: Is it sufficiently powerful to lead people to resist one of the most alluring aspects of everyday life: profit?.
In a range of studies, children show a tendency to dislike persons who harm other persons. This aversion emerges very early in life, even before the emergence of linguistic ability. It is thus unlikely to be learned behavior and it is certainly not taught behavior. Tasimi and Wynn conducted two experiments to measure whether infants and older children could be bribed to suppress this aversion to wrong doers.
In the first experiment, one hundred and sixty children ages 5 to 8 were shown photographs of two fictitious benefactors Craig and Max. Children randomly assigned to the baseline condition were told nothing else about the benefactors. Then they were invited to accept a prize (stickers) from one of the two. The offers were unequal. Some of the children were offered one sticker from one benefactor and two from the other. Some faced a one to four choice, others a one to eight choice, and others a one to sixteen choice. The fictitious identities were randomly switched to control for name (or face?) preference.
Not surprisingly, the children almost always chose the better offer. Who wouldn’t? That established a baseline measure: what the children would choose when they knew nothing about Craig and his buddy.
Children randomly assigned to the character-information condition were presented with the same two fictitious persons but were also told that one of the two benefactors was mean. He hit someone on the playground. The other is always nice. He hugged someone on the playground. Then the children were divided into groups and faced the same assortment of offers: 1:2, 1:4, 1:8, and 1:16. The contrast with the baseline condition was striking. Fewer than 25% of the children accepted the offer of the mean benefactor when the offer was one to two. Fewer than fifty percent accepted the offer from the mean person when the cost was one to four or one to eight. Only in the case of a one to sixteen contrast did a majority of children make a deal with the devil. The results were still slightly lower than the baseline results.
The children were willing to pay a significant cost to deal with the do-gooder rather than the wrong-doer. At the very least, this suggests that the children liked the one and disliked the other. It may suggest that this is a case of altruistic punishment. The subjects were willing to pay a personal cost to inflict a cost on a transgressor and to reward a helper. Perhaps this is the same thing.
In the second experiment, the subjects were sixty-four 12 to 13 month old infants. In this case the competing benefactors were rabbit puppets identified only by their orange or green shirts. The prizes were graham crackers. The same controls were instituted, with the rabbits switching shirts. This time the distribution was either one to two or one to eight. As in the first experiment, a baseline condition was tested and again the infants preferred more crackers to fewer.
The children assigned to the character-information condition watched as one rabbit assisted a lamb puppet in opening a box to get at something the lamb wanted. The other rabbit then slammed the box closed, frustrating the lamb. The infants preferred the gift of one cracker from the good rabbit when the cost was one to two. They held their nose and dealt with the bad rabbit when the bribe increased to eight over one.
As I said earlier, I think that this is the very opposite of disturbing. It suggests a robust moral instinct that emerges before the infants can talk or engage in “reputation management.” The older children may have been worried about what the experimenter would think about their choices, but the infants were too young for that. They just didn’t like what they were seeing when they saw the bad rabbit reveal herself. To quote the authors:
The current findings show that a willingness to pay personal costs to avoid transactions with wrongdoers is an early-emerging and fundamental aspect of human nature. Our study contributes to a growing literature uncovering the origins and nature of social preferences, and extends this work by highlighting the psychological significance of social assessments to young humans.
This tells against the social science model according to which we are born amoral that morality is simply a social construct. It appears that in fact we are by nature moral animals. That is an important finding. That children can be bribed is not. They are not little angels any more than adults are.
I think that there are profound consequences for ethics in this study. Sacrificing self-interest for the sake of justice is both beautiful and good. We may admire individuals who cannot be purchased at any price, and such persons frequently emerge as heroes in our literature. The character of John Proctor in The Crucible comes to mind. He ultimately sacrifices his life rather than confess to a lie. That is beautiful. And yet…
Do we really want our morality to be that inflexible? Maybe. Maybe not. Here I am instructed by that moral authority, my beagle. Bella knows that when I walk to her bowl with a scrap of food, she has to sit before she gets it. I suppose I could easily teach her to wait before I say ok to gobble it up. It’s a good thing that dogs can internalize such rules. It made the alliance between our canine and human ancestors possible and so richly rewarding for both. Beagle socialization reveals the primitive form of evolved psychological mechanisms that underwrites human morality.
It would not do, however, for the beagle to be too good. I wouldn’t want her to starve to death with food in front of her just because I wasn’t around to bless her meal. So her evolved social instincts compete with her evolved appetite. When she gets hungry enough, she will throw caution to the wind.
By way of analogy, suppose that one of my loved ones is kneeling in a line of hostages. A gunman is going down the line asking each person “are you an American?” He shoots anyone who says yes and leaves unharmed anyone who says no. What would I want my loved one to do? I say lie. Despite what John of Patmos says about liars, and despite my view that lying is immoral, I would prefer that self-interest trump righteousness in this case.
If self-interest seems unimportant to you, then consider this scenario. An SS officer is at your door asking you if you have seen any Jews in the neighborhood. The truth is that you have. There are six of them hiding in your basement. I would argue that telling a lie in this instance is not only morally permissible, it is morally obligatory.
We might wish that human beings were incorruptible, but probably we should not. That would make us like the ants, blindly following rules with the capacity to deliberate. Our corruptible nature is one of the costs of being genuinely moral beings.