Friday, September 25, 2015
I am about to propose a paper for the IPSA next year in Istanbul. What follows are some reflections that I will distil into that proposal.
Aristotle reflected that the various branches of philosophy often took their essential subject matter for granted. A mathematician might never bother to ask what a number is and someone investigating physics (all motion and change, as the philosopher understood it) might never address the question whether motion and change are real. Modern philosophy, having divorced itself from science, is almost exclusively devoted to topics which other fields take for granted.
In the case of political science, someone studying voting behavior, for example, will probably feel little need to explain what government is and what politics is, let alone what human beings are. Political philosophy, my racket, can and must address these questions.
Politics in its full expression is an exclusively human activity and if the human being is the political animal, as Aristotle says, we cannot understand either the human or the political apart from one another.
I have long thought the beginnings of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Politics offer a clue to this puzzle. Here is how the former opens:
πᾶσα τέχνη καὶ πᾶσα μέθοδος, ὁμοίως δὲ πρᾶξίς τε καὶ προαίρεσις, ἀγαθοῦ τινὸς ἐφίεσθαι δοκεῖ: διὸ καλῶς ἀπεφήναντο τἀγαθόν, οὗ πάντ᾽ ἐφίεται.
Every technology and every methodical inquiry, and similarly both practice and deliberate action, are regarded as aiming at some good; wherefore the good beautifully presents as that at which everything aims.
I often ask my students in ancient political philosophy to tell me what “the good” is. They are always stumped. Aristotle makes it clear. The good is some goal that explains some deliberate human activity.
It is important to note that these activities‑technique, method, practice, and action‑are activities of individual persons. In the most primary sense, politicians politic and deliberate; regimes do so only in a secondary if not a metaphorical sense. If we take the Nicomachean Ethics to be an account of the human being, and it is certainly at least that, then it would seem that the human being is the natural person, the individual.
Here is how the Politics begins:
ἐπειδὴ πᾶσαν πόλιν ὁρῶμεν κοινωνίαν τινὰ οὖσαν καὶ πᾶσαν κοινωνίαν ἀγαθοῦ τινος ἕνεκεν συνεστηκυῖαν （τοῦ γὰρ εἶναι δοκοῦντος ἀγαθοῦ χάριν πάντα πράττουσι πάντες）, δῆλον ὡς πᾶσαι μὲν ἀγαθοῦ τινος στοχάζονται, μάλιστα δὲ  καὶ τοῦ κυριωτάτου πάντων ἡ πασῶν κυριωτάτη καὶ πάσας περιέχουσα τὰς ἄλλας. αὕτη δ᾽ ἐστὶν ἡ καλουμένη πόλις καὶ ἡ κοινωνία ἡ πολιτική.
Since we see every polis to be some community and every community is established for the sake of some good (for the good is regarded to be that for the sake of which everyone does everything) as it is clear that as all communities aim at some good, the one that aims especially at the most authoritative good is the most authoritative of all of them and embraces all the others. This is called the polis, is the political community.
If the Politics is an account of the human being, and it is surely at least that, then it would seem that the human being is the assembly of natural persons, self-organized in a political way.
The two points of departure point to one idea. The human being is not the individual nor is it the social group; it is instead the dynamic that involves both of them. A person can live apart from other persons, as do hermits; however, to the extent that he lives off the culture baggage that he carries (does he take books with him into the woods?) he is not really alone and to the extent that he does not the life he lives is more animal than human. If you don’t believe me, read Rousseau’s Second Discourse.
Likewise, human beings can attempt to integrate themselves and others into a social whole so completely that their individuality disappears. This latter trajectory is more limited than the former. It is possible for one human being to become completely feral; it is not possible (at least not yet) for two or more human animals to become one human being. Only the most awesome force can suppress human individuality and that only so long and so thoroughly as the force is applied.
Biopolitical theory, based on Darwinian evolution, can turn the two dimensional spectrum defined by the poles of human persons and human communities into a three dimensional and very real structure reaching backward into time. Evolution is not goal-directed. In so far as it has a direction, it teleomatic rather than teleonomic. It is a mechanical force, pushing organic forms into new environmental niches. It is not trying to do anything anymore than a balloon is trying to get high. At any one point in time a biological lineage can branch toward simpler organisms or more complex ones or both. That one or more branches moved into new niches by the emergence of more and more complex organisms is the reason that human beings (and bovine beings and canine beings, etc.) exist on this planet.
Single celled organisms can combine into multicellular organisms and eventually their individuality can be entirely (or almost entirely) submerged into the whole. Multicellular organisms can go the other way or parts of them can go their own way (viruses?). Some, as the scarecrow says, do go both ways, as in the case of slime molds. Multicellular individual organisms can also coalesce with other individuals into larger social wholes, though here complete assimilation is more challenging. Eusocial insects combine into colonies and hives that act more or less like biological individuals. A sterile cast of ant workers is a sign that individuality has been reproductively submerged in a social whole. For the most part, social animals are more individual than social. Sociobiology is all about the ways that individual interests are managed in a way that maintains social integration.
Human beings are capable of a degree of social integration that is greater than anything other than the eusocial insects and is much deeper than that. We are almost certainly the only animal that can try to submerge its individual self in a larger whole, only to fail. I propose that this is the temporal dimension of Aristotle’s great dichotomy. I also suspect that group selection is the key to understanding this existential dimension of the human being. That is what I will present in Istanbul, if my paper is accepted.
Friday, September 18, 2015
To say that a human being must breathe, eat, and defecate, all on a regular basis, in order or write poetry, does not reduce poetry to respiration and digestion; it simply reminds us that poets are biological beings. Biological processes such as these may rarely be relevant to the interpretation of poetry but they are constantly relevant to an historical interpretation of households and cities. Caesar cannot recline and enjoy his feasts if food does not come in and poop go out and neither can Rome.
If you want to understand the idea of justice, as Plato’s Socrates sets out to do in the Republic, you will sooner or later have to account for the existence of human souls and human communities and that cannot be accomplished without evolutionary theory. My position (big surprise) is that the latter completes Socrates’ account.
I have been reading David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? It reminded me of a fairy tale I composed some time ago to illustrate group selection. I offer it here.
Consider a group of imaginary primates living and hunting in small groups in an area covered by tall grass. I’ll call them puds. Some of the primates in each group are taller than the grass. Others are smaller than the grass.
Now consider that this population of puds is subject to two selection pressures. The puds are preyed upon by a large avian animal. I’ll call it a dragon. Dragons cannot spot a single tall pud but can easily spot more than a handful when the group is moving. When a dragon descends on a pud group, however, it can feed on large and small with equal ease. Groups with a lot of tall puds are at a disadvantage, so that is selection against those groups.
Within each group, tall puds have an advantage. They are stronger and can forcibly mate with more females than their shorter male pud compatriots. So in any group with both tall and short males, the taller will proliferate over time. So that is selection against small puds.
If the groups remain isolated from one another, the species is on the road to extinction. Every group will eventually have enough basketball stars to attract a dragon and so every group will be eaten and the dragons will go on disability.
What will save the puds is that some of them will survive a dragon attack. The survivors will find other survivors and form new groups. Groups with more short pud fellows will survive longer and grow larger, increasing the supply of small puds in the total population. If, however, every group has at least a few tall guys, the cycle will continue.
One thing that might alter the trajectory is if the puds are smart enough to figure this out. A bunch of small puds might realize that the two tall puds who made it to the founding council are a problem and vote them off of the island. This rule, whether a product of pud culture or a slowly evolving disposition, would tilt the playing field in favor of puds against dragons. How bad it would be for the latter depends on how tall genes are distributed in the population.
I thought this up before I knew a lot about the research into group selection. I intended it only as a demonstration that group selection was logically possible. D.S. Wilson’s book gave me an example that neatly matches my fairy tale. Pond skaters (Gerridae) are insects that skate across water in search of prey. The males come in two flavors: rapists and gentlemen. The former force themselves on any female they meet. The latter wait until a female approaches to mate.
Within groups of skaters, the rapists have an advantage. They mate more often and produce more offspring. So their sons proliferate in the group. However, their appalling behavior doesn’t leave the females with enough time to feed, so they lay far fewer eggs than they would if they were well fed. The result is that groups with more gentleman grow faster than those with more rapists.
What keeps the gentleman in business is that females have some choice. When groups are forming, females are more likely to join a group with more gentlemen. That simple, biologically trigger preference, rewards chivalry with the precious coin of reproductive success.
This explains so much. It explains why cooperation is so difficult and how it is possible. It explains why rules of justice are necessary among human beings and other social organisms and how justice is possible.
Something more important now occurs to me. The balance between group selection and individual selection can tilt either way. When it tilts toward the group, eventually you get the assimilation of individual organisms into a new whole, as when a multi-cellular animal emerges from a cooperation of cells. When it tilts the other way, the community with its social interactions disintegrates into individual competitors.
Human beings are social animals but we are also individuals. The entire field of justice and morality emerges from this fact. All human activity, including poetry and politics, is possible because within group selection and between group selection balanced out, over a long period of our life on this earth.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Whatever it means to belong to the genus Homo, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with brain size. If Homo is more than an artificial category (like Socrates’ “all the numbers except 17”), if the homonini are a large trunk branching off from the chimpanzees, one branch of which led to Homo sapiens, the question arises whether all the homonini are indeed members of the human clade in some essential sense. Are (or were) Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis human?
This question occurred to me today as I listened to news of the discovery of a new hominid species, Homo naledi. A treasure trove of naledi bones were discovered deep in a cave 30 miles from Johannesburg, South Africa. Listening to one of the explorers describing how they reached the bones affected me so strongly I had to pull off the road. I have explored a number of wild caves and suffered once from an almost disastrous case of claustrophobia. She had to insert herself, pretzel-style, through a crack that was only seven inches wide. She’s a better man than I am Gunga Din.
Here is the creature they brought back:
Their feet were incredibly similar to those of modern humans, says Harcourt-Smith, who led the study of the newly discovered creature's feet. Homo naledi stood about 5 feet tall, and yet they had a skull whose volume was only about one-third of ours, a tiny brain in comparison with that of the modern human. Despite their ability to walk upright, with stiff feet and toes that couldn't grasp things as easily as more primitive animals, they had shoulders and hands indicating they would have been quite comfortable climbing through trees and, perhaps, through caves.
This is astonishing. It has been generally assumed that as our ancestors evolved they maintained a more or less even aspect ratio‑feet getting bigger along with the ass and the elbows and the earlobes. These critters seem to have been evolving from the ground up. They had to buy size 9 shoes and hats that would fit a cabbage patch doll.
And yet… They were admirably fit for climbing up into trees or down into caves, but why the latter? It must have easier for them to negotiate the narrow passage than it was for our modern day cavers but they had to do it in the dark. So what the hell were they doing down there?
Geological features show that the bodies arrived in the cave over a period of time, meaning this wasn't a one-off event or catastrophe of some sort. Teeth show that the remains come from individuals of many different ages, from young children to teenagers to elderly adults. There aren't signs of violence, falls, or cannibalism. And there are almost no remains from any other creature, indicating that this was a place that had to be sought out deliberately — not a place that some kind of creature dragged its prey.
The only explanation that stands at present is that this was a burial chamber. They were going to a great deal of trouble to hide their dead.
To crawl that deep into the dark in order to inter the remains of their loved ones suggests a consciousness of mortality that is fully human, despite their small brains. Whatever changed when we and our nearer relatives branched off from the chimpanzees, it was more than just bigger or smarter brains. It involved a much more sophisticated self-awareness. We evolved not just into more sophisticated physically and mentally subtle forms. We evolved in the direction of more sophisticated ideas. That is spiritual evolution and it may yet be the next frontier in evolutionary theory.