Friday, June 26, 2015
My strategy for pursuing political, moral, and biological questions consists of three basic steps in the following order. The first is Platonic. I look for the idea that is expressed in a wide range of phenomena across time and space. The second is Aristotelian. I look for the way in which the idea answers different questions in different contexts. The third is Darwinian. I look for how the idea might emerge in the evolutionary history of the organisms in which it is expressed.
Consider the wing. We recognize wings in a wide variety of animals. In all cases, it is a biological appendage that allows the creature to gain altitude by beating the air. In a fundamental sense, the wing of a bat, a bird, a pterodactyl and a dragonfly, are all the same thing. Plato (or his Socrates) would be pleased. The wings are very different, however, in their basic design. One has to lift a heavy reptile; another, a creature as light as a feather. Aristotle would point this out to his teacher. The various wings are also examples of convergence. This is a term in Darwinian explanations that indicates an independent evolution toward a common trait as opposed to homology, which indicates a trait shared because it is inherited from a common ancestor. Bats and birds don’t have wings because they inherited them from a common ancestor, but because they worked out the same basic mechanics on their own.
I have found this strategy to be fruitful when applied to my primary interest, morality and politics. My work on autonomy (which I hope to be published soon) is an example that is illustrated in previous posts. Here I apply it to reciprocity, one of the basic foundations of cooperation in animals (including human beings). When some party X pays a cost on behalf of some other party Y because there is a reasonable expectation that the cost will be repaid with profit, that is reciprocity. That this is a genuinely Platonic idea is indicated by the abstraction of the terms. It can apply to two teams of dolphins cooperating with one another of different days and to a fellow tipping big at a local restaurant. Obviously the mechanisms are different. Less obviously but very likely, they both owe their operation to evolved dispositions.
Reciprocity is a powerful engine for cooperation, but in its direct form (an exchange between two parties) it is limited to specific exchanges. When we’re done we’re done. Indirect reciprocity, by contrast, can knit together much larger communities of cooperators. This is when an individual is influenced by observing third party cooperation. In such a case, the cooperator benefits by building a reputation as a good partner. The observer benefits by recognizing the altruist as a promising partner.
Tonight I read two accounts of indirect reciprocity. One was a study of cleaner fish and their clients (Bshary & Grutter, “Image scoring and cooperation in a cleaner fish mutualism”, Nature 22 June 2006). Cleaner fish feed on ectoparasites in the mouths of much larger fish. This is a classic example of reciprocity in a morally charged context. If the cleaner fish eats ectoparasites, it will benefit its larger client. However, it prefers mucus, if it has a choice. Eating mucus does not benefit the client. So the cleaner is tempted to cheat. In some cases, the client fish is also tempted to cheat by eating the cleaner; however, in most cases the client fish do not prey on other fish. So how are cleaner fish encouraged to be honest?
The answer seems to be that client fish pay attention. They recognize which cleaners are good cooperators and which are not. They allow the one but not the other to service them. The cleaners then have an interest in appearing to be good cooperators. They are more likely to restrain their appetites and eat only the less preferred food (ectoparasites) when they are observed by other potential clients.
I am pretty sure that there are no moral theorists among Laborides dimidaiatus. Nor do these tiny denizens of the deep reflect on their behavior. Their behavior is nonetheless logically moral.
That this is an expression of a Platonic idea is indicated by the fact that it occurs in very different species. James R. Anderson et. al., have found it in capuchin monkeys [Cognition 127 (2013) 140-146]. “
Here we show that capuchin monkeys discriminate between humans who reciprocate in a social exchange with others and those who do not. Monkeys more readily accepted food from reciprocators than non-reciprocators or partial reciprocators.
Hitomi Chijiiwa et al found much the same among domestic dogs [Animal Behavior 106 (2015) 123-127].
To put it mildly, cleaner fish and their clients, capuchin monkeys, and lapdogs occupy very diverse branches on the tree of life. It seems likely this is a case of convergence rather than homology. That makes the case for Plato stronger. The same basic idea (indirect reciprocity) is expressed independently in a number of distinct cases. Aristotle would remind us to pay attention to the differences. Capuchin monkeys and beagles are psychologically social species. They have, no doubt, a pallet of emotions that from which they paint out their behavior. As for fish, probably not so much. Darwinian theory helps us understand how this Platonic idea arises in each case.
Plato and Aristotle were right, even when they disagreed with each other. Both of them need Darwin to complete their accounts. Aristotle understood that teeth make chewing possible is essential to explaining what teeth are. Darwin explain how chewing explains teeth. Plato understood that shark’s teeth and his teeth were the same thing. Darwin explains why Plato was right.
Thursday, June 18, 2015
Leo Strauss distinguished between statesman, legislators, and political philosophers in this way: the first are concerned with political decisions at a particular place and time; the second, with decisions for a political place but with a mind to the future and perhaps future generations. The last are concerned with the nature of politics across all places and times. I like that neat account and I think it is generally correct. Here, doing a bit of political philosophy, I will add another trichotomy.
We human beings live in regimes. The regime was Strauss’s translation of the Greek term poleteia. This term is sometimes translated as polity or republic. It is the title of Plato’s most famous book. It refers to a political community and includes its social structure, governing body and institutions, and its culture. I suspect that Strauss chose it because of its famous use in the phrase “ancien regime,” which indicated the poleteia in France before the revolution. The most fundamental kind of revolution, as Aristotle and Plato recognized, involves a change of regimes. The people and the place are the same (mostly, as some may have lost their heads) but the social structure, political powers, and ethos have changed in a profound way.
Where do regimes come from? I propose three foundations: nature, culture, and deliberate action. Modern social-political thought since the 19th century has tended to focus on the second. The most influential figures (I suggest Marx, Weber and Freud as examples) tended to reduce deliberate action to a largely derivative role. Human beings act in strictly confined circumstances and when they are supposedly free to act they only express what their culture, class consciousness, etc., have taught them to express. Nature was likewise diminished in most of modern social thought, though it at least appears in Marxism in the form of economic history. Culture has been the dominant theme.
The Nineteenth Century is, finally and blessedly, coming to an end in the Twenty-First. At this point, only prejudice or ignorance or both would allow someone to believe that the biological nature of human beings is not the basic foundation of human minds and human lives, individually and collectively. We are a social and political species because we inherited these traits from our ancestors. Our political and social lives depend upon a pallet of emotions that were shaped by natural selection. Culture can only work on the material that nature has provided. As it is easy to domestic a horse but not a zebra, so it is easy to teach human beings to be nervous about sex but very difficult to teach them to stop doing it.
No one argues that nature is everything but some do argue that culture is everything. The latter have long been at war with those who argue that nature is at least something. There are two ways to end a war: conquest or reconciliation. They are not mutually exclusive. Those who argue that nature is a major factor in human social and political behavior are going to win because they are obviously right. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the nature/nurture dichotomy was a false dichotomy.
Human beings are by nature capable of language but they have to learn a particular language. Infants can tell coherent speech, in whatever language, from incoherent babble and they listen hungrily for the former. Linguistic culture is a part of human nature. Children are born with a capacity to recognize moral obligations and a hunger to learn the local rules. They instinctively grasp the difference between harm to an innocent (bad) and transgression of in-group conventions (bad only for us). As we are primed for language, we are also primed for both universal moral principles and local law.
Anthropologist Christopher Boehm has demonstrated (to my satisfaction) that the most natural human societies, the ones that we lived in while we became human, were largely if not universally egalitarian. Living in small groups, individuals formed coalitions in order to defend their personal autonomy against bullies and other free riders. This required an egalitarian ethos, which is culture if anything is. Etiquette compelled would be alpha males to suppress their predatory instincts or else they faced ridicule, ostracism, or death. The emergence of egalitarian cultures among small band human communities was itself the result of deliberate actions on the part of many members of such groups. They joined together to defend themselves because they wanted to protect their own autonomy.
This went on for long enough that it shaped human evolution. Our capacity for morality is largely a result of deliberately making social rules and then gradually, over long periods of time, internalizing those rules. Those human beings who did this successfully were able to cooperate in a much more efficient way and so they came to dominate the species. That is how evolution works.
The relation between nature, culture, and deliberate action is not one of mutually independent spheres. It is a dynamic. Each shapes the other over time. Trying to tease them apart is fruitful, sometimes, but always difficult. This is analogous to those who try to determine the genes for any given behavioral trait. At each stage of human development, our nature allowed certain possibilities. Among these was the development of culture. Over time, we became as dependent on culture as we were on language, because we were now dependent on one another. Yet culture was nothing other than the accumulation of decisions made and repeated by individuals interacting with one another. Occasionally, some powerful personality recognized the power of culture and deliberately set to change it, laying down the foundations for a new one. Lycurgus’ founding of Sparta is the classical account. The American founding is a modern one.
Deliberate founding by one or a small set of individuals is rare; but all regimes are deliberately founded in another sense: they are the result of actions of human beings, responding to disparate circumstances, modifying the cultures that they had to work with. Human nature changes slower than culture, yet it is shaped by culture and provides the foundation for culture in turn. I do not hold with those who would abandon the nature/nurture distinction. You can’t understand a dynamic without understand how forces interact with one another. Adding deliberate action to the dichotomy can account for the existence and nature of regimes.
Saturday, June 13, 2015
One of the books that has been from shelf to shelf over the last thirty years is Primo Levi’s Other People’s Trades. Levi was a Holocaust survivor and is known for his writing on that topic. This isn’t that. It is a collection of elegant essays on topics largely beyond his expertise but not outside his range of interests. I love it because, like Levi, I find almost everything interesting.
Tonight I read his essay on ‘The Fear of Spiders’. He confesses to and describes his own arachnophobia and then considers some possible explanations for this common fear. He easily disposes of a number of weak arguments. Spiders are not crueler, hairy, uglier, or more vicious than any number of creatures that we admire or even love. He seems to take more seriously the psychological argument that the spider wrapping its prey lovingly in silk before devouring it reminds us of the figure (common enough in story and song) of the evil mother.
He offers his own explanations. He thinks that the nearly universal and often false belief that all spiders are venomous is one part of the story. The other is that spider webs are common reminders of decay. Nothing says that a house or a room is dead as much as an abundance of cobwebs. I find these arguments literarily elegant and evocative, but not much more plausible than the ones he rejects. Rust and rot are signs of decay, but they do not inspire the same universal dread. Wasps, bees, and stinging ants are venomous and they are feared, to be sure; however, they are far less commonly pressed into service as symbols of evil and I doubt that phobias about them are nearly as common.
Here is yet another case where evolutionary thought deepens our understanding of our human psychological landscape in the direction of our history on this world. When we inherit the fear of something it almost certain that it was something that threatened our ancestors and, this is very important, it was some danger that inherited fears can help us avoid. Common phobias include fear of water, heights, and tight places, open spaces, but not tobacco, firearms, or cars. The latter kill far more of us today but have not been around long enough to be selected for. The former fears directed us efficiently away from things that might have killed us before we had time to mate or might have killed our children.
If I am right that fear of spiders and, I would add, snakes is more common and more robust both in psychology and in myth, than fear of wasps, how should we explain that? I suggest that the solution lies in largely in the direction of the threat. Stinging insects are pretty good at advertising their presence and they come mostly from the air. Like many wasps and bees, vipers often sport warming colors; however, they are also slither along low to the ground. Our fear councils us to be on the lookout for them. It councils us, as it does horses, to react to one under our feet by jumping about and stamping.
The problem with spiders is that they sneak up on us, hide in places we are about sit, or slide our feet or bodies into. For our ancestors, the bite of even an innocuous spider could be very serious. Spiders can be hard to find but are easy to kill. It was much easier for our ancestors to learn to kill any spider whenever it came too close than to learn which species is the more serious threat.
Nothing in this explanation diminishes the literary power of the spider as Levi presents it. On the contrary, to learn that our ancestors succeeded in becoming ancestors by fighting a war against spiders over hundreds of thousands of years puts extra legs, if you will, under the literary motif. Gustave Doré’s marvelous illustration of Arachne’s transformation refers to a Greek myth that warns against hubris. Arachne was a brilliant weaver, having studied with Athena herself. She became contemptuous of her divine teacher and as a result she entered a duel with the goddess. Athena wove a tapestry displaying the glory of all the gods. Arachne wove her own which displayed the gods as corrupt and as exploiters of mortals. In anger, Athena transformed Arachne into the mother of all spiders. Arachne would never stop weaving as a lesson to human beings.
That is a good lesson. Armed with the deeper account of our fear of spiders that I have presented, we can see a theme that is present in the story but not as obvious as the general admonition to fear the gods. Arachne is not only transformed into something that it is terrible to be. She is transformed into something that is terrible to behold. She is transformed into an enemy of those who remain human.
Hubris, excessive pride in one’s own powers, does not only get someone in trouble with the gods. It frequently makes them a threat to their fellow human beings. A genius, brilliant in mind and robust in spirit, if she gives rein to her hubris, can become venomous. That was, in other terms, Abraham Lincoln’s point in his Lyceum speech. We need to be on the lookout for such creatures. They are terrible. That is what I managed to weave out of Arachne’s story, because Darwin taught me to look at the deep history of the fear of spiders.