Friday, June 17, 2016
Kinds of Political Minds
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 make 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.