Friday, August 29, 2014

Living Organisms, Autonomy, & Lineages

Miranda: you are better than any student I have ever known at seeing what the next question is.  That is the single most important element in philosophy. 
Aristotle considered metabolism (the ability of a living organism to nourish itself and consequently produce waste) as a sufficient condition for life.  He referred to this as "nutritive soul."  Plants have this alone, whereas animals have additional layers (mobility, perception at a distance) and human beings have still others.  These are the elements that define various levels of autonomy.  I don't think that this makes autonomy just another word for life.  The word life points to what we are trying to understand whereas the word autonomy helps us to understand what life is. 
However, I smuggled in an element that does not seem to belong to autonomy so much: the production of babies.  Some philosophers of biology argue that, in addition to autonomy, living organisms have to be part of a lineage.  Every living organism is the offspring of a line of successful replicators. 
I am not certain, but I think that the addition of the lineage as an essential element of life is an attempt to head off the kind of objection that Scott James raises against me.  A political community, for example, seems to display autonomy or something very close to it.  It seems to struggle to maintain itself and it has to feed and produce waste.  Aristotle himself argued that the political community is precisely that human association that works enough dynamic cycles that it is "self-sufficient".  Well, if political communities are self-sufficient are they not autonomous?  And if they are autonomous, are they not alive? 
I think that the self-sufficient human community is a much stronger challenge to my view of autonomy than are refrigerators or thermostats.  It is tempting to talk about the evolution of political institutions and to see, for example, the United States as, perhaps, an example of political speciation.  The American regime broke off from the British regime in much the same way as homosapiens broke off from the common ancestor with pan troglodyte. 
This is misleading.  Political communities do not form lineages.  The Second Continental Congress formed spontaneously, as relations between the continent and the mother country worsened; it had no mommy or daddy.  Regimes form spontaneously all the time.  By contrast, living organisms do not form spontaneously.  They always have at least one biological parent. 
It is a very interesting question (and one that did not occur to me until your latest comment) whether the biological lineage is an element of life distinct from autonomy or whether it is another element of autonomy.  The cells and organs of my body (with the exception of my reproductive organs) have sacrificed any opportunity to reproduce.  Like sterile castes among the ants, they can have offspring only through the reproductive activity of something else (my gonads in the one case, the queen in the other).  Does this compromise their autonomy?  Every cell in my body is robustly alive as is the sister forager feeding on my picnic lunch.  I will have to ponder this one. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Thermostats vs. Amoebae

Intrepid reader Miranda gets right to the bottom of the question, as usual:
I can accept that amoebas and humans share characteristics and that the human form of these characteristics may be more advanced. I can also accept the idea that autonomy may have different layers. But I am not quite sure I understand how what you are referring to as autonomy in the amoeba differs from the "autonomy" of a thermostat. Or can we say that the thermostat also has autonomy and that the amoeba just has more complex autonomy?
My claim is that amoebae are autonomous but thermostats are not.  Hiding right behind Miranda’s question is the twenty dollar one: what do we mean when we say that amoebae are alive but thermostats are not?  Autonomy as an essential element in living organisms is an attempt to get at that question.
The thermostat regulates the temperature in your house but it doesn’t regulate itself.  It doesn’t eat or go potty.  It doesn’t repair itself when it is broken, or have baby thermostats.  To apply Aristotelian functionalism, we could say that not only isn’t it alive but it isn’t even a thermostat unless it is working under the direction of some human being, some person who wants the house to be at a certain temperature. 
Now enlarge the view considerably to include the device, the home dweller, and the manufacturer.  The desire of home dwellers to keep from freezing their butts off and the desire of manufacturers to make money forms a dynamic circuit.  Skipping a lot of intermediaries, we now have a system that brings thermostats into existence and keeps them operating.  This is, if not an example of an autonomous system, at least a very good analogy. 
In the case of the amoeba, the sub-cellular, molecular mechanisms that allow the organism to move and metabolize, are a lot like thermostats.  They regulate all sorts of internal operations but they do not regulate themselves.  They aren’t alive.  But the amoeba is alive because it does regulate itself.  No one outside the amoeba is telling it what to do.  It is reading the rules off of the information embedded in its DNA as well as that embedded in the structure itself and actively applying those rules. 
So no: the difference between a thermostat and an amoeba is not just a matter of increasing complexity, just as the difference between a corpse and a living body is not about complexity, even if in both cases the one is astonishingly more complex than the other.  The difference is a fundamental state of being: one is alive and the other is not. 
Likewise, human beings are more complex than amoebae; but we aren’t any more alive.  So there is a bottom line autonomy that is present in all living organisms, however simple or complex. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Biology & Political Ethics

I am writing a chapter in a forthcoming Handbook of Biology & Politics.  My chapter will focus on Biology & Political Ethics.  Here are some first reflections on the topic.  
Political Ethics concerns the field of right and wrong behavior in a political context.  As is common with term ethics, it can indicate both ethical behavior in politics and the study of such behavior.  Modern political ethics as a field tends to focus on the distinction between public and private morality, with the former indicating the actions of any political officer from a chief executive down to a voter or jury member, and the moral evaluation of policies.  Classical political ethics (Plato and Aristotle) tended to gravitate between two perspectives that were presented as complete in themselves: the political community (or polis) as a whole, which consisted of classes, villages, families, and citizens, and the individual as a whole, whose life involved such roles as husband, father, friend, citizen, solider, etc. 
In the light of that distinction, a problematic becomes visible for anyone wanting to write about biology and political ethics.  The classical political philosophers understood human beings to be political animals.  Every actual polis was in some sense artificial‑the work of particular human beings acting at a particular time. Moreover, the life in a polis made affordable more pleasures and leisure than biological necessity required, and so and so taught human beings to desire such things.  Nonetheless, the tendency to form political communities is as much an expression of human nature as the formation of the pack is an expression of lupine nature. 
The early modern political philosophers, by contrast, understood man as a solitary animal by nature.  Political institutions are artificial, the result of human inventiveness applied to the inconveniences of nature.  They allow human beings to conquer both human and non-human nature, but have as much to do with biology as a bear taught to ride a bicycle.  This has been the dominant view of moral and political thought until very recently.
To argue that biology has something to offer political ethics is thus to side with the ancients against the moderns.  I am inclined to think that this is inevitable but it doesn’t mean that it is possible or necessary to reject the history of work in modern political ethics.  It does mean that we must reinterpret it. 
Ethics is about morality.  Morality is an existential dimension of the human being, along which possible choices are arrayed between those that are obligatory, those that are forbidden, and those that are neither.  Because it involves a choice between possible actions, the right is a subspecies of the good.  The good is the choice worthy.  Whenever something‑an objection or action, a state of mind or physical experience, is worth choosing, to that degree it is good.  Thus the healthy is good and the unhealthy bad.  When something is simply good, there is reason to choose it and no reason not to choose it, then morality is not involved.  There is no ethical weight.  Often, however, there are some reasons to choose something and some reasons to avoid choosing it and it is necessary to weigh the one against the other.  Often enough, one is tempted to do what one ought not to do, which is to say that what looks good is not the same as what is really good.  Whenever that happens, morality is involved.  That is what Ethics is about. 
Human beings may be more than animals but we are at least animals.  However marvelous our powers of conscious deliberation may be, they are elaborations of mental schema that are much older than our species.  The dilemmas that other animals face are the result of a tension between distinct evolved inclinations.  The coyote wants the bait but has learned to be wary of the trap.  Human beings are social animals and many of our moral emotions have been fashioned by natural selection to encourage cooperation.  Not all of our evolved psychological mechanisms encourage cooperation and some of them are designed precisely to avoid the costs of cooperation or to allow us to cut and run when cooperation collapses.  We are, as my sainted Grandmother put it, a piece of work. 
When we act politically at any level we are employing the capacities with which our evolutionary history has provided us.  No matter how artificial our political institutions and processes may be, we are still political animals making choices.  Political ethics cannot be understood without rooting it in human biology.