Friday, February 28, 2014
The Evolutionary Origins of Human Autonomy
I am working on a paper on autonomy. Here are some preliminary reflections.
This essay concerns the biological origins of human autonomy and thus involves the intersection of biology and political science. My point of departure is the assumption that the two fields of inquiry are interdependent. It is not possible to fully understand human autonomy, individual or collective, without understanding its biological origins. Likewise, to recognize that genuine autonomy emerges from the evolutionary history of life on earth is to understand how metaphysically robust the phenomenon of life really is. This approach avoids both reductionism and any hint of vitalism; it allows biology and the human things to reveal themselves for what they are in the context of the natural world as a whole.
One thing that the Socratic philosophers understood better than their modern counterparts is that the possibility of science rests on the assumption that human intelligence (or Nous, as the Greeks called it) operates on the same principles by which nature is ordered; otherwise, nature is forever unintelligible. Accordingly, I begin with a consideration of the intelligible meaning of the word autonomy.
The philosopher Ernst Mayr famously argued that biology is an autonomous science. He meant by that not that biology contradicts or is free from the principles of physics, but that biology has more principles than physics. I take that as the first clue that autonomy emerges as a space between two realms of laws. This turns out to reflect the history of the term.
The term autonomy is a classical Greek word built on two important roots. Auto means self, as in Socrates himself. It is a very basic word that functions both as a pronoun (him or it) and as an adjective, as in autoagathos, which means “good in itself”.
The second root word is nomos. This word is usually translated as “law.” Like a lot of Greek words, it is borrowed from an earlier use. It originally meant an enclosed pasture. A nomos was boundary imposed by human beings that confined the movement of herd animals but allowed them to move freely (according to their own natural laws) within that boundary. It was adopted to indicate both explicit, codified law and the unwritten moral rules that bound the citizens together into a polis. I am pretty sure that Nietzsche’s phrase “herd instinct” derives from this Greek root.
Herodotus uses the term when he describes the history of the Medes. When they threw off the rule of the Assyrians, they achieved autonomy. They later lost it when they allowed a man known for his fair judgment to establish a tyranny over them.
Herodotus 1.95  Ἀσσυρίων ἀρχόντων τῆς ἄνω Ἀσίης ἐπ᾽ ἔτεα εἴκοσι καὶ πεντακόσια, πρῶτοι ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν Μῆδοι ἤρξαντο ἀπίστασθαι, καὶ κως οὗτοι περὶ τῆς ἐλευθερίης μαχεσάμενοι τοῖσι Ἀσσυρίοισι ἐγένοντο ἄνδρες ἀγαθοί, καὶ ἀπωσάμενοι τὴν δουλοσύνην ἐλευθερώθησαν. μετὰ δὲ τούτους καὶ τὰ ἄλλα ἔθνεα ἐποίεε τὠυτὸ τοῖσι Μήδοισι. 96.  ἐόντων δὲ πάντων ἀνὰ τὴν ἤπειρον, ὧδε αὖτις ἐς τυραννίδα περιῆλθον.
The Assyrians ruled Upper Asia for five hundred and twenty years, and from them the Medes were the first who made revolt. These having fought for their freedom with the Assyrians proved themselves good men, and thus they pushed off the yoke of slavery from themselves and were set free; and after them the other nations also did the same as the Medes: and when all on the continent were thus , they returned again to despotic rule as follows:--
Thucydides uses the same term to indicate the self-government of Greek cities and Xenophon follows suit when he continues the history of the war between the Athenians and the Spartans.
Xenophon also uses the term in his Republic of the Lacedaimonians to indicate the practice in most Greek cities of emancipating children when they become adults. They are then allowed to be autonomous, which means that they are self-governed with respect to their own families.
Xenophon, The Republic of the Lacedaimonians, 3.1 Ὅταν γε μὴν ἐκ παίδων εἰς τὸ μειρακιοῦσθαι ἐκβαίνωσι, τηνικαῦτα οἱ μὲν ἄλλοι παύουσι μὲν ἀπὸ παιδαγωγῶν, παύουσι δὲ ἀπὸ διδασκάλων, ἄρχουσι δὲ οὐδένες ἔτι αὐτῶν, ἀλλ’ ἀφιᾶσιν·
When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his moral tutor and his schoolmaster: he is then no longer under a ruler and is allowed to go his own way.
This does not mean, of course, that the young adult is free from the laws of his city; it does mean that he is in some sense free within the bounds of those laws.
Autonomy then literally means “self-law”. It indicated both individual and communal independence: a person or a political community that lived under its own laws. A political community is free when it is free from the authority of other communities and lords. A man enjoyed autonomy when he could act of his own free will.
However, and more revealing, a poet enjoys autonomy when he exercises poetic license and an animal enjoys autonomy to the extent that it can range freely. Poetic license frees the poet from some convention but it frees him to institute boundaries of his own. Without boundaries, his poetry cannot have meaning, as all meaning binds. An animal that ranges freely will nonetheless range within a boundary set by its nature. It will not go where there is likely to be neither food nor mates nor comfort, but it will turn aside on its own and not for any fence.
The idea of autonomy extends along three dimensions. One opens up a space between the natural laws of animal instinct and the artificial boundaries imposed by human husbandry. The second opens a space between some human community and a larger community seeks authority over it. The third opens between the individual human being and some larger human community of which he or she is a member.
Autonomy means liberty rather than freedom. Freedom is freedom from. It is simple release. Liberty is self-government, which is to say, self-legislation. The topic of this essay is the biological origin of that space within which autonomy is possible. I will argue that this space opens up with the emergence of human beings as moral and political animals.
We were social animals before we became human animals. Social animals must learn to live together. In a harem species, this is achieved by the dominion of an alpha male whose rule, while he rules, is unchallenged. In our own species, like our chimpanzee cousins, the position of the dominant individual was never so secure. Our ancestors evolved into self-legislating creatures. We were able to internalize rules that allowed us to live within the group but that also allowed the group to resist the domination of would-be tyrants. We needed to cooperate, as cooperation was the key to social power. At the same time, cooperation opens up the possibility of cheating and exploitation. These tensions open the space for human autonomy.