Friday, April 27, 2018

Which came first: family or polis?

Which comes first: the political community or the family?  This strike me as a theoretically interesting question.  I am sure that it is a politically interesting one.  I suppose that most conservatives would be offended by the suggestion that the political community is in any way prior to the family.  To suggest as much might seem to authorize the examples of heavy-handed government intervention into parental decisions that we have recently seen in Britain.  That, after all, is why we sent the British government packing not quite so recently. 
As often happens, first glance is not the penetrating glance.  To argue that the family is fundamental (either because it is natural or because it is private) and government merely artificial in fact liberates government.  Political institutions can represent a leap into freedom from the individual and the biological foundations of life. 
That is a good deal of what left-wing social science wants to say.  I recently looked at a sociology text on the family.  It presented the family as an institution akin to slavery, with the mother and daughter in bondage.  In good Marxist fashion, the state can liberate the bond servants because it represents a Hegelian antithesis to the primitive familial institution. 
Unfortunately for this position, it works both ways.  If the political association is altogether new and unencumbered by the familial association, then the latter is also independent of the political association.  For that reason, as long as families continue to exist, they serve as a core or resistance to progressive government.  If familial bonding cannot be wiped out, and all evidence is that it cannot be wiped out, neither the final state nor even a genuine republic is possible.  The liberation of the political from the familial makes the problems of nepotism and tribalism unsolvable. 
Here, a theoretical approach may be helpful.  There are two senses in which one thing can be prior to another.  One is temporal priority.  The baby is temporally prior to the child and the latter to the adolescent.  The other is logical priority.  The door is logically prior to the doorknob because the former makes sense without the latter but not vice versa. 
In recent biosocial research, there has been a shift in thinking about the temporal priority of the family and the polis.  The older hypothesis held for a long time.  In Aristotle’s account (see the Politics Book 1) the first human association is the union of male and female, i.e., the family.  A union of families leads to the clan, of clans to the village, and the union of families leads to the polis. 
Aristotle was not making natural history here.  He is only trying to understand the polis by breaking it down into its constituent associations.  He does suggest that this might be the basis for a natural history when he says that men suppose the gods to be ruled by kings since that is how their more primitive societies were ruled.  At any rate, to make this into an evolutionary account, one need only suppose that men and women once mated as solitary animals as do bears.  We can then present this hypothesis as follows:
1.       Solitary animals
2.      Nuclear families
3.      Extended families
4.      Bands
5.      Communities
This progression plays out over time.  I am using Robin Dunbar’s numbers here.  He has evidence that the steps from 2 to 5 scale up by threes: 5, 15, 50, 150.  I note that Dunbar, like Aristotle, is analyzing existing social orders and not presenting a history.  It makes sense, however, that more complex communities emerge out of simpler ones in a step by step fashion.  It just didn’t happen that way. 
The new hypothesis that is emerging goes like this.  Human beings left the trees (or the trees left them) as solitary foragers.  It was every man and women for his and herself.  They coalesced into groups because the group was the only protection they had against predators.  Travelling together, they foraged together and quickly became dependent on one another.  A group can forage much more effectively, especially if they are hunting and willing to share. 
The first step in the evolution of human cooperation was obligate collaborative foraging, according to Michael Tomasello.  It was collaborative because we did it all at the same time, even though we were only doing what we would do if alone.  It was obligate because we had come to depend on the collaboration to get enough to eat. 
Tomasello’s second step was the emergence of group mindedness.  We began to think of our fellow hunter-gatherers as “us” as opposed to “them”.  At that point, I would argue, we are already talking about a political community.  There is a high degree of collaboration and a common interest. 
To get further, one must include the hypothesis of Christopher Boehm.  He brought to light the “egalitarian syndrome”.  All known hunter-gather communities display an egalitarian ethos.  Meat is shared.  Bullies, who want to push their weight around and take more than their share of the spoils, are ruthlessly suppressed.  Free riders, who want to share in the spoils without investing effort, are dealt with in the same way. 
The egalitarian ethos protects each individual against any bully in the group.  What needs protecting?  The bully can’t boss you around or go up side of your head without group sanction.  He can’t take your stuff.  Neither can he take your mate.  This, I submit, was the origin of the human familial association.  The group recognized this mate as your mate and gave you some reason to believe that these offspring were your offspring.  The investment of the father in his offspring can now be selected for.  If the father knows his children, so also the brothers know one another.  Familial instincts can be selected for. 
If this is correct, then the human family is a product of the primitive political community.  It is group recognition that makes a family.  It didn’t stop there.  If the group could recognize kinship by blood it could also recognize kinship by marriage.  The group recognizes this woman as my wife and these children as my children.  It can also recognize my wife’s brother as my brother-in-law. 
Affinal kinship extends the recognized relations beyond the bounds of blood ties.  This allows the unions that extend Aristotle’s clans into villages and then into the polis fully realized.  So now we get this history:
1.       Solitary animals
2.      Simple political animals
3.      Nuclear families
4.      The polis
With the simplest political community, you would have no families.  Without families, you would have no more that the simplest political community.  No political philosophy that ignores the dynamic by prioritizing one over is sustainable.