Tuesday, October 09, 2018

The Atlatl (Spear Thrower) in the Cultural Evolution of Lockean Liberalism

                                                 Weapon Masters Videos on the Atlatl

A Fragment of an Atlatl Dated between 15.2-15.9 Thousand Years Ago Made of Engraved Antler with the Hook Still Intact, from El Miron Cave, Cantabria, Spain (Morales and Straus 2008)

Beginning about 1.8 million years ago, our human ancestors could enforce social cooperation by threatening cheaters and free riders with killing from a distance through throwing rocks or javelins.  The effective lethal range of these weapons is about fifteen meters.  Paul Bingham estimates that with such weapons up to about ninety people could encircle a small group of free riders or cheaters while remaining in range.  In this way, Locke's executive power of the law of nature could coercively enforce social cooperation among no more than ninety individuals.  And so, for about 1.7 million years, that was the limit for human non-kin social cooperation, because the scale of their cooperation was limited by the range of their weapons for remote killing.

Then about 50,000 to 30,000 years ago, something happened to produce what paleoanthropologists call "behaviorally modern humans" (Bar-Yosef 2002; Hill et al. 2009; Klein 2009).  Their anatomy was the same as earlier humans, but their behavior showed a stunning increase in their mental complexity and abstraction.  They were able to migrate out of Africa, and by about 20,000 years ago, they had migrated throughout Eurasia, Australia, North America, and South America.  This began the human dominance of the whole planet. Their tools become more complex and sophisticated.  Their ornaments became more abstract and esthetically evocative.  Their art showed a distinctly human sense of beauty, as in this cave art:

There was also an expansion in the scale of social cooperation, as indicated by large "public works" such as huge earthen mounds and by evidence for long-distance trade networks.  If the scale of social cooperation depends on the range of weaponry for remote killing, then there must have been some new weapon with a range greater than that for thrown rocks or javelins.  And, indeed, there is evidence for the first appearance of atlatls (the Aztec word for spear throwers).

An atlatl amplifies the human throwing motion so that the bolt (or dart) is launched to greater distances, higher velocities, and more penetrating power than thrown stones or hand thrown spears.  Originally, the atlatl was invented by humans to be a weapon for hunting wild game, but then it could be used as a weapon against other humans in war or to punish cheaters and free riders, and thus to coercively enforce a larger scale of cooperation.  Bingham estimates that while thrown stones and javelins could enforce cooperation among up to 90 individuals, atlatls could expand this tenfold up to 900 individuals.

Bingham argues that this expanded the range of cooperation because this new weapon allowed law enforcement to encompass a larger group of people, which then increased the scale of information sharing.  This increase in cultural information sharing could then cause all of the other increases in inventiveness and complexity that characterize the behaviorally human revolution--including more complex tools, abstract art, and more intricate human artifacts.

Bingham's theory makes falsifiable predictions that can be tested against the archaeological evidence.  For example, it predicts that the appearance of atlatls in the archaeological record precedes the appearance of the many traits of behavioral modernity.

The throwing stick and the bolt shaft of the atlatl are normally made mostly of wood and therefore likely to perish over thousands of years.  But some apparently atlatl fragments made of bone, antler, or ivory have been dated to around 16-17 thousand years ago--such as the fragment from El Miron Cave pictured above (O'Driscoll and Thompson 2018; Morales and Straus 2008).

The oldest indirect evidence of atlatls come from the sharp stone points that have the shape and size that identify them as atlatl bolt points rather than thrusting spear points or arrow points.  Thrusting spear points are larger and heavier than bolt points, which are larger than arrow points.  Some of the oldest bolt points have been dated at 50 to 40 thousand years ago (O'Driscoll and Thompson 2018; Shea 2006; Shea and Sisk 2010).

John Shea--Bingham's colleague at Stony Brook University--sees some evidence of bolt points in sub-Saharan Africa as early as 100,000 years ago, although they become more common after 50,000 years ago.  Shea admits, however, that he is baffled by the fact that historic hunter-gatherers in Africa have not used the atlatl.  It's perplexing if atlatls were used in prehistoric Africa but not later.

Shea thinks Bingham has part of the puzzle for human evolution, but not all.  Shea thinks the technology of the atlatl is not enough to explain human complexity, and that spoken language is a crucial factor.  By contrast, Bingham thinks the evolution of human non-kin cooperation supported by coercive weaponry to manage the problem of conflicts of interest created the conditions for the evolution of language: non-kin cooperation was the cause, language was the effect (Bingham and Souza 2009, 240-76).  I am inclined to agree with Shea that while the technology of projectile weapons is one critical factor in shaping human evolution--for the reasons indicated by Bingham--it cannot be the only prime cause.

Here's a video of John Shea showing how ancient atlatls were made and used:

One of the most conspicuous signs of behaviorally modern humans is the construction of huge earthen mounds that apparently were used for local gatherings, perhaps seasonally.  Here is one of the Hopewell mounds in Ohio:

As many as one thousand people could have gathered on this mound.  Although archaeologists continue to debate the functions of these mounds, they seem to be designed for local gatherings.  And since Hopewell societies were connected by extensive trading networks, people were probably meeting at these spots for trade--looking for mates, goods, services, and information.  Such centers of commercial activity would have needed law enforcement to sustain peaceful exchange by punishing thieves and cheaters.  The Hopewell culture flourished from 100 BCE to 500 CE, prior to the arrival of the bow and arrow, so their best weapon for law enforcement would have been the atlatl, and the range of the atlatl was great enough to sustain a scale of cooperation up to one thousand people.

Hopewell burial mounds often have symbolic artifacts.

Hopewell Art

These symbolic artifacts were clearly traded over vast distances, and so they probably functioned as currency for exchange.  Symbolic objects can serve as a form of money because they are precious and difficult to counterfeit.  They can also be worn as ornaments or be signs of status, just as gold, silver, and diamonds can be both currency and valuable ornaments in our culture.

The economic trade in such valuable objects would have been impossible without some coercive law enforcement with weapons like the atlatl to punish thieves and cheaters and thus securing the rights of property and contract.

The evidence for such trade over 100,000 years or more refutes Friedrich Hayek's claim that market exchange is a recent invention in human history.  On the contrary, we might conclude that Adam Smith was right in seeing that human beings are economic animals who naturally strive to "truck, barter, and exchange."

Some of my posts responding to Hayek and defending the idea that the extended order of liberal capitalism appeals to our evolved human nature can be found herehere, and here.


Bar-Yosef, Ofer. 2002. "The Upper Paleolithic Revolution." Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 363-93.

Bingham, Paul, and Joanne Souza. 2009. Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. Charleston, SC: BookSurge.

Hill, Kim, Michael Barton, and A. Magdalena Hurtado. 2009. "The Emergence of Human Uniqueness: Characters Underlying Behavioral Modernity." Evolutionary Anthropology 18: 187-200.

Klein, Richard G. 2009. The Human Career: Human Biological and Cultural Origins. 3rd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Morales, Manuel R. Gonzalez, and Lawrence Guy Strauss. 2009. "Extraordinary Early Magdalenian Finds from El Miron Cave, Cantabria (Spain)." Antiquity 83: 267-81.

O'Driscoll, Corey A., and Jessica C. Thompson. 2018. "The Origins and Early Elaboration of Projectile Technology." Evolutionary Anthropology 27: 30-45.

Shea, John J. 2006. "The Origins of Lithic Projectile Point Technology: Evidence from Africa, the Levant, and Europe." Journal of Archaeological Science 33: 823-46.

Shea, John J., and Matthew L. Sisk. 2010. "Complex Projectile Technology and Homo sapiens Dispersal into Western Eurasia." PaleoAnthropology 2010: 100-22.

Monday, October 08, 2018

Friedrich Nietzsche and Lou Salome: The Movie

"Lou Andreas Salome: The Audacity To Be Free" is a good movie about the life of Lou Salome (1861-1937)--the Russian philosopher, novelist, essayist, and psychoanalyst, who became a seductive muse for Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul Ree, Rainer Rilke, and Sigmund Freud.  This is a German movie released in Germany in 2016 and then released this year in North America with English subtitles.  It can now be found at Amazon.

Cordula Kablitz-Post is the director of the movie and the co-author of the screenplay.  The movie shows her intelligent study of Lou's life and writings.  Four different actresses play Lou at four periods of her life.

Here is the trailer.

I have written about Nietzsche being "under Lou Salome's whip" (here and here).  She wrote the first--and perhaps most insightful--book on Nietzsche.  She saw that Nietzsche's early and late writings show his struggle with his religious longings, which he overcame only for a time in his middle writings (such as Human, All Too Human), where he showed his devotion to a philosophic and Darwinian science.  Like me, Lou thought that Nietzsche's middle writings were his best.

Nietzsche's struggle with God and with the possible consequences of the death of God is suggested in one scene (about 58 minutes into the movie), where Salome and Nietzsche are playfully swimming in a river.  As they joke about death and drowning, Lou speaks about her loss of faith in God as a young girl. Then Nietzsche says: "Living without faith takes a lot of energy. Perhaps it's even impossible. And it will be our undoing someday."

The meaning of "our undoing" from our loss of faith is suggested by the coming of Nazism to Germany in 1933.  Lou is in poor health in that year in Germany--she will die in 1937--and she is dictating her memoir to a young admirer--Ernst Pfeiffer, who will edit her memoir for publication in 1951.

We see how Nietzsche's sister--Elisabeth Forster-Nietzsche--helped to break up Lou's friendship with Nietzsche.  We also hear about Elisabeth's management of the Nietzsche Archives to turn Nietzsche into the Nazi Philosopher and her scorn for Lou, who fears Nazi persecution.

In this way, the movie intimates the question of whether Nietzsche's death of God and Lou's philosophic freedom from faith lead somehow to the Nazi catastrophe.

I have written about the "Nazi philosophers" here, here., and here.

I haven't yet figured out how all of this is related to another theme of the film: the complexity of human eroticism at many levels--sexual, intellectual, and religious.  I might need to study some of Lou's other writing, such as the first two chapters of her memoir--entitled "The God Experience" and "The Experience of Love."

Wednesday, October 03, 2018

Throwing Stones to Kill from a Distance: The Evolutionary Origin of Lockean Liberalism?

We humans are unique among all animals in our ability to throw projectiles at high speeds and with amazing accuracy.  We must wonder how this is possible and why this has evolved as a trait of our human nature.

This image shows the differences in the position of the shoulder between chimpanzees (left) and humans (right).  These differences can be seen in both the muscular anatomy and in the bony anatomy of the scapula (shoulder blade).

This allows humans to store elastic energy (like a slingshot) in the tendons, ligaments, and muscles crossing the shoulder.  This energy is then used to catapult the arm forward in a fast motion, which allows very rapid throws.  This was made possible by changes in the upper body that appeared first almost 2 million years ago in the species Homo erectus.  This allows humans to throw projectile missiles (such as rocks and spears) with deadly speed and accuracy (Roach et al. 2013).  Today, we see that most clearly in professional baseball pitchers who can throw baseballs at 90 to 100 miles an hour, again and again.  By contrast, chimpanzees trained to throw can throw a ball only about 20 miles per hour, even though adult chimpanzees are physically stronger in some ways that adult humans. 

This helped our hominin ancestors to kill from a distance in hunting dangerous animals.  The archeological evidence for intensified hunting behavior among our hominin ancestors supports this conclusion.

This capacity for killing at a distance also helped our human ancestors to punish other humans in exercising what John Locke called "the executive power of the law of nature."  Locke recognized that punishment could be costly for the punisher, because "such resistance many times makes the punishment dangerous, and frequently destructive, to those who attempt it" (ST, sec. 126).  The costs of punishment come mostly from provoking violent attacks from those who are being punished.  So the power to punish could never be effectively executed until the risky costs of punishment could somehow be reduced, so that the immediate costs of coercive punishment could be less than its immediate benefits in enforcing social cooperation.

Locke never explains how this could have happened. One likely explanation is that human beings became the first animals capable of killing at a distance by throwing rocks at their victims.  Once this developed as a technique for hunting large animals, it could then be used to kill or threaten other humans who deserved punishment.  Many people could throw stones at a misbehaving individual, and the punishers could do this with little risk to themselves. Thus the evolved human power to punish violators of the law of nature through killing at a distance could be a crucial evolutionary adaptation for Lockean liberalism.  The expansion of social cooperation enforced by cheap punishment of cheaters has evolved from the expanding range of the weapons for remote killing--from rocks to bow-and-arrow to guns to nuclear bombs.

Anthropologists studying nomadic hunter-gatherers have recognized their remarkable egalitarianism--that all adult individuals are equally free in their autonomy and freedom from domination by others.  This looks like Locke's state of nature.  Anthropologists have seen that this egalitarianism requires "leveling mechanisms"--means by which individuals can prevent bullies from dominating them.

One of the critical leveling mechanisms is the equal access to weapons for remote killing.  Anthropologist James Woodburn (1982) noted that in hunter-gatherer bands, all males have equal access to weapons.  "Hunting weapons are lethal not just for game animals but also for people.  There are serious dangers in antagonizing someone: he might choose simply to move away, but if he feels a strong sense of grievance that his rights have been encroached upon he could respond with violence" (436).  Some men will try to dominate others by giving orders or by stealing wives and property, but this is punished by violent retaliation.  Woodburn observes:  "In normal circumstances, the possession by all men, however physically weak, cowardly, unskilled or social inept, of the means to kill secretly anyone perceived as a threat to their own well-being not only limits predation and exploitation; it also acts directly as a powerful levelling mechanism."  For Thomas Hobbes, this was the ground for equality in the state of nature: despite all the inequality in human traits, no one was so superior as to be free from the threat of being killed by those he might try to dominate.

Biologist Paul Bingham has developed this idea into a general theory of human social evolution (Bingham 1999, 2000; Bingham and Souza 2009; Okada and Bingham 2008).  Humans are unique because they are the first animals to be able to kill adult members of their species remotely.  Every other unique feature of humans--such as language, abstract reasoning, morality, and so on--is simply an effect of that one cause.

Bingham argues that the uniquely human capacity for killing at a distance explains the uniquely human capacity for kinship-independent social cooperation.  The evolution of all organisms creates the problem of conflicts of interest that impede social cooperation, because all organisms must compete for the resources necessary for survival and reproduction.  A common way to manage those conflicts of interest is to cooperate with close kin, because kinship creates overlapping interests.  So animals cooperate with close kin, and cooperation with non-kin is typically very limited.  So, for example, among mammals, mothers commonly care for their offspring.  Some animals--such as social insects--cooperate in huge colonies, but this depends on kinship: in ant and bee colonies, most of the (female) members of the colony work to rear their sisters (and a few brothers).

Like other animals, humans cooperate with their kin, but they also cooperate with non-kin much more expansively than is the case for other animals.  To do this, they must manage the problem of conflicts of interest.  And they do that by employing the cheap punishment made possible by remote killing to enforce cooperation: cheaters and free-riders are deterred from their misbehavior by the costs of punishment.

There is a lot of archaeological, anatomical, and ethnographic evidence to support this theory that the uniquely human capacity for throwing stones to kill from a distance initiated the uniquely human evolution of kin-independent social cooperation in a manner that sustains Lockean liberalism (Bingham and Souza 2009, 147-204; Isaac 1987; Marzke et al. 1988; Aiello and Dean 1990; Roach et al. 2013).

Beginning around 2.3 to 2.5 million years ago, there are archaeological deposits in East Africa of stone flakes and fossil prey bones indicating the evolution of hominid scavenging and hunting.  There is also evidence of the evolution of elite human throwing associated with this early scavenging/hunting.  There are piles of stones that archaeologists call "manuports" because the archaeological context suggests that they were moved across the landscape.  Some of these manuports are of the size and shape that would make them good ammunition for throwing at prey animals or at other humans.

There is also skeletal evidence that the first fully human ancestors emerging about 2 million years ago had evolved the anatomical traits--in the hands, arms, torso, pelvis, and feet--that make humans uniquely good throwers.  The hands and arms of our primate ancestors are adapted more for climbing than for throwing, because they were adapted for an arboreal life.

Darwin noticed how skillful hunter-gatherers in Tierra del Fuego were in throwing stones forcefully and accurately.  By contrast, he saw that monkeys and apes were clumsy throwers.  He thought this was one uniquely human trait arising from bipedality and the design of the human hand and arm, which might help to explain human dominance over the Earth (Darwin 2004, 68-72).

Other European explorers of the New World and the South Pacific discovered how deadly this rock throwing could be, because aboriginal people could attack European intruders with a bombardment of stones (Isaac 1987).

If Bingham is right, that evolved uniquely human capacity for elite throwing was the cause for the evolution of the big human brain that arises from a uniquely human life history that depends upon human kin-independent social breeding (Bingham and Souza 2009, 120-146).  "It takes a village to raise a human child," and unlike the social breeding of other animals, the human village that helps in the rearing of offspring includes many adults of both sexes who are not close kin.  It also includes many adult members who are armed for the projection of coercive threat that enforces the village's non-kin cooperation.

A newborn chimp has a very big and heavy brain.  But a newborn human has an even bigger and heavier brain.  Moreover, the human infant's brain will grow much faster and longer.  This growth will extend even into young adulthood.  And while a chimp mother can provide enough food and care for her offspring by herself, a human mother must provide so much more food and better food and so much more care for her offspring that she cannot do this without help from others.  A human mother needs to be a member of a large society--at least as large as a foraging band--that will help in the rearing and protection of her child.  And this society will extend beyond her kin to include unrelated adults.  That's why "it takes a village to raise a human child."

But then we might wonder why the help of her husband would not be enough for her.  Maybe, "it takes a couple to raise a child!"  That's Locke's solution to the mother's problem.  He argues that like many birds, human beings are pair-bonding animals because mothers need the help of fathers in providing food, rearing, and protection for the children, when mothers alone cannot do this.  Human beings are naturally cooperative breeders in families of mothers, fathers, and children (FT, secs. 86-89; ST, secs. 77-84).  Some evolutionary anthropologists today support this idea--that pair-bonding is the crucial evolutionary adaptation in human evolution.

But this doesn't explain why other pair-bonding animals like birds didn't follow the human evolutionary path towards large communities of non-kin members.  And it doesn't explain why human pair-bonded families depend on the support of that large community of both kin and non-kin members.

The proper explanation, Bingham suggests, is that humans are unique in their capacity for non-kin social cooperation, which supports the uniquely human life history for sustaining the growth and rearing of that big human brain.  Non-kin cooperation is impossible without some way to manage the conflicts of interest that necessarily arise among individuals who are unrelated to one another.  Humans are unique because they stumbled into a clever trick for managing such conflicts of interest by the low-cost punishment of cheaters and free-riders through killing or threatening to kill them from a distance.

In foraging bands, most or even all adult individuals have access to such coercive threat, which has a levelling effect in securing each individual's autonomy and freedom from domination.  Consequently, power is democratized in foraging societies, and social norms are formulated and enforced through a broad consensus.

But then, Bingham argues, with the emergence of archaic states, coercive power was concentrated in ruling elites that could enforce their will on the great multitude.  To restore or at least approximate the equal liberty of the hunter-gatherer society--what Locke called the state of nature--access to the weapons of coercive threat would have to be once again equalized.

Here Bingham has rediscovered an insight of some political philosophers--that the structure of political order depends on whether the access to weapons of coercive power is confined to a few or open to many.  In the Politics, Aristotle writes:
"Since there are four parts of the multitude, the farming, the working, the merchant, and the laboring elements, and four parts of the city are useful with a view to war, the horse-rearing, the heavy-armed, the light-armed, and the seafaring elements, wherever it happens that the country is suitable for horses, conditions are naturally apt for instituting a strong oligarchy (for the preservation of the inhabitants derives from a force of this sort, and horse-rearing is done by those possessing larger properties); where it is suitable for heavy arms, the next sort of oligarchy (for the heavy-armed element is made up of the well off more than the poor).  Light-armed and naval forces, on the other hand, are wholly popular.  At present, therefore, wherever this sort of multitude is numerous, and there is a factional split, the oligarchs often get the worst of the contest. . . . This is the way the people prevail over the well off in factional splits: being light-armed, they can easily contend against a force of cavalry and heavy-armed troops" (1321a5-21).


Aiello, L., and C. Dean. 1990. An Introduction to Human Evolutionary Anatomy. San Diego: Academic Press.

Bingham, Paul. 1999. "Human Uniqueness: A General Theory." Quarterly Review of Biology 74: 133-69.

Bingham, Paul. 2000. "Human Evolution and Human History: A Complete Theory." Evolutionary Anthropology 9: 248-57.

Bingham, Paul, and Joanne Souza. 2009. Death from a Distance and the Birth of a Humane Universe. Charleston, SC: BookSurge Publishing.

Darwin, Charles. 2004. The Descent of Man. 2nd edition. London: Penguin Books.

Isaac, Barbara. 1987. :"Throwing and Human Evolution." The African Archaeological Review 5: 3-17.

Marzke, M. W., et al. 1988. "Gluteus Maximus Muscle Function and the Origin of Hominid Bipedality." American Journal of Physical Anthropology 77: 519.

Okada, D., and Paul Bingham. 2008. "Human Uniqueness--Self-Interest and Social Cooperation." Journal of Theoretical Biology 253: 261.

Roach, Neil T., et al. 2013. "Elastic Energy Storage in the Shoulder and the Evolution of High-Speed Throwing in Homo." Nature 498: 483-86.

Woodburn, James. 1982. "Egalitarian Societies." Man 17: 431-51.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Darwinian Science of the Natural Right to Punish in Lockean Liberalism

John Locke's liberalism depends ultimately on two inseparable doctrines--the idea of the state of nature and the idea that in the state of nature everyone has the "executive power of the law of nature."  These two ideas sustain the fundamental thought of Lockean liberalism--that each individual has a natural right to defend himself against those who use or threaten force that would deny his liberty, that the only proper role of government is to use force defensively against aggressors who have initiated force, and that each individual has the right to resist a government that itself becomes an aggressive user of force to threaten individual liberty.

Those two ideas--the state of nature and the natural executive power to punish--are empirical claims about human nature and human history.  Darwinian science can help us test those claims against the pertinent evidence.

I want make a general point here about the study of political philosophy.  Much of the study of the history of political philosophy is rightly devoted to studying the history of ideas. But ultimately shouldn't our primary concern be judging the truth of those ideas based on our assessment of the relevant evidence?

So, for example, Darwinian anthropology can confirm the reality of the state of nature as the original condition of humanity by showing how our earliest hunting-gathering ancestors living in nomadic foraging bands, in which all adults lived as equally free individuals, aggressively defending their autonomy against bullies who might try to dominate them.  This was the evolutionary state of nature in which human nature was shaped.  Some of my posts on this can be found here and here, with links to others.

Some of the scholarly commentators on Locke would object that Locke saw the state of nature as a moral fiction rather than as a historical reality.  John Dunn, for example, claimed that Locke's idea of the state of nature represents "neither a piece of philosophical anthropology nor a piece of conjectural history," because it has "no transitive empirical content whatsoever" (1969, 103).  Other scholars see Locke's state of nature as both historical reality and moral fiction (Ashcraft 1968, 1987; Waldron 1989).  And some others emphasize Locke's account of the state of nature as the natural history of primitive foraging bands like the American Indians (Myers 1998; Pangle 1988; Strauss 1953, 230-31).

The decisive evidence for Locke's state of nature as an anthropological historical reality is Locke's reliance on the many anthropological reports about the American Indians, which was part of the European intellectual interest in New World natural history arising from the European discovery of America (Arneil 1996; Batz 1974; Elliott 1972; Glat 1981; Martens 2016; Meek 2011).  I have emphasized the importance for Locke of books such as Jose de Acosta's The Natural and Moral History of the Indies (ST, sec. 102).  In his edition of Locke's Two Treatises, Peter Laslett provides footnotes with quotations from the books on America in Locke's library that echo Locke's description of the state of nature.  Studying such books led Locke to declare: "In the beginning, all the World was America," and therefore it is a "Pattern of the first Ages in Asia and Europe" (ST, secs. 49, 108).

But here I will turn to Locke's account of the natural right to punish, which he calls the executive power of the law of nature.  This will be followed by another post on the evidence from Darwinian anthropology supporting Locke's idea.

Locke claims that in the state of nature, there is a law of nature "that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his Life, Health, Liberty, or Possessions" (ST, sec. 6).  But then he immediately qualifies this no-harm principle by saying that one may rightly harm another in punishing someone for an offense against the law of nature.  This must be so because the law of nature could not be a true law if it were not enforced by punishment of those who violate it.  Enforcing the no-harm principle requires harming those who would harm us.

In the state of nature, Locke explains:
"The Execution of the Law of Nature is in that State, put into every Mans hands, whereby everyone has a right to punish the transgressors of that Law to such a Degree, as may hinder its Violation.  For the Law of Nature would, as all other Laws that concern Men in this World, be in vain, if there were no body that in the State of Nature, had a Power to Execute that Law, and thereby preserve the innocent and restrain offenders, and if any one in the State of Nature may punish another, for any evil he has done, every one may do so.  For in that State of perfect Equality, where naturally there is no superiority or jurisdiction of one, over another, what any may do in Prosecution of that Law, every one must needs have a Right to do" (sec. 7).
Notice that Locke does not rely on divine punishment to enforce the law of nature.  The law of nature, like all the other laws that concern "Men in this World" would be in "vain" if individual human beings did not punish the offenders of that law.  This punishment has two distinct purposes: restraint and reparation (secs. 8, 10-11).  Punishing for restraint is to prevent or deter misconduct, and everyone has the right to punish for this purpose.  Punishing for reparation belongs only to the injured party, who seeks some recompense for the damages he has suffered.

Locke indicates that this human punishment of offenders in the state of nature works at three levels.  Through first-party punishment, individuals punish themselves through conscience and guilt (secs. 8, 21, 122, 209).  Through second-party punishment, individuals punish their tormentor through retaliation and revenge (secs. 8, 10-11, 18-19).  Through third-party punishment, individuals can join with those who have been injured unjustly for a collective punishment of the offender (sec. 10).

Locke suggests, however, that there are at least three problems with relying on the individual right to punish to enforce the law of nature in the state of nature (secs. 123-126).

First, there's the problem of knowledge:  many individuals do not have a clear and unbiased knowledge of the law of nature.  In the Letter Concerning Toleration (43), Locke says that the American Indians are "strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and the Law of Nature."  But in the Second Treatise (sec. 123), he says that in the state of nature "the greater part" of men are "no strict Observers of Equity and Justice."  In fact, some men are so "degenerate" that they have no knowledge of the law of nature, and they become like wild animals in their violent attacks on others (ST, secs. 10-11, 128).

Second, there's the problem of partiality: individuals being partial to themselves often cannot render impartial judgment in their own cases, and they are often negligent or unconcerned in judging the cases of others.

Third, there's the problem of cost:  punishment can be too costly to execute, because the offender will fight back and inflict injury on those who try to punish him.

To solve these three problems, people will give up their powers in the state of nature for legislating, judging, and executing the law of nature (secs. 128-131).  They will consent to enter a political society with governmental institutions for legislating, judging, and executing positive laws for the whole community that conform to the law of nature.  This can solve the problem of knowledge, because the legislative power will publicly promulgate the laws.  This can solve the problem of partiality, because the judicial power will decide legal cases through impartial and fair judges.  This can solve the problem of cost, because the executive power will employ the collective force of the community to punish lawbreakers in ways that minimize the costs of punishment for individuals.  All of this should serve the common good of the whole community--in securing the natural rights of all individuals to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, this goal can never be fully achieved, because the inevitable conflicts of interest that arise in every community will incline those with political power to use that power to favor their own interests over the interests of others, and thus government will often fail to promote the public good in securing the natural rights of all.  If government becomes utterly tyrannical, then the rights of those being exploited are less secure under government than they would have been in the state of nature, because in a tyrannical government, the rulers can use the collective force of government to exploit the ruled (secs. 91-93).

If the government was imposed on the people by conquerors, and if the people never consented to that government, even if only by acquiescence, then they are still in a state of war in a state of nature, and they can exercise their natural executive power in violent resistance to their rulers (secs. 175-196J).

If the people did originally consent to their government, they can still rightly resist their government when it becomes tyrannical, because "the Obligations of the Law of Nature, cease not in Society" (sec. 135).  And so if government does not conform to the law of nature, individuals have the natural right to resistance in meeting force with force.

The question will always be "Who shall be Judge whether the Prince or Legislative act contrary to their Trust?" Locke's answer is "The People shall be Judge."  Or even "every Man is Judge for himself." They can "appeal to Heaven," as did Jephtha, which is to say that they can go to war against their government, and this dispute will be settled by battle (secs. 20-21, 239-243).  The assertion of natural rights depends on the forceful resistance to tyranny, which suggests that it is really true that might makes right.  Natural rights emerge in history as those conditions for human life that cannot be denied without eventually provoking the natural human tendency of individuals to forceful rebellion against exploitation. Thus it is that individuals claim their executive power of the law of nature in punishing those who violate their natural rights.

But then we might wonder why Locke refers to this teaching about the natural executive power as a "very strange Doctrine" (secs. 9, 13).  Leo Strauss and the Straussians--such as Michael Zuckert (1994)--have argued that Locke is intimating that this doctrine is "very strange" in the sense that it breaks with the traditional Aristotelian and Thomistic teaching about natural law.  As a statement of the traditional teaching, Strauss (1953, 222) cites a passage in Aquinas's Summa Theologica (II-II, q. 64, a. 3), in which Aquinas answers no to the question "Whether it is lawful for a private individual to kill a man who has sinned?"  Aquinas explains that only those with public authority to punish criminals can do this, not private individuals.

Strauss is silent, however, about the fact that a few pages after this passage, Aquinas answers yes to the question "Whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense?" (II-II, q. 64, a. 7).  Killing in self-defense is not murder as long as one's primary intention is to save innocent life from attack, and killing the attacker is an unavoidable side effect.  One can rightly kill an attacker in self-defense only when there is no non-lethal way to stop the attacker.  Contrary to Strauss's claim, this seems to coincide with Locke's teaching that when innocent life is threatened by an attacker, and there is no way to call in a public authority to stop the attack, then at that moment one has been put into a state of nature where one can use one's natural executive power to kill the attacker, thus enforcing the right of self-preservation in the law of nature (secs. 11, 16, 18).

Strauss is also silent about Aquinas's argument that vengeance (vindicatio) is lawful and virtuous so far as it moves us to punish harmful wrongdoers, either in defending ourselves from harm or in avenging a harm (II-II, q. 108, aa. 1-3).  Vengeance belongs to the virtue of justice, and it expresses a natural inclination that we share with other animals who show an irascible power to retaliate against those who attack them.  This natural inclination to punish those who threaten us with harm expresses "natural right" (ius naturale).  (I have written a post on Aquinas's remarkable support for vengeance, in contrast to the turn-the-other-cheek teaching of the Sermon on the Mount.)

This natural law of self-defense and vengeance was recognized by Thomas Hobbes in The Leviathan, if only briefly, and then elaborated by Richard Cumberland in his Treatise of the Laws of Nature.  Cumberland's account was a likely source for Locke's idea of the natural executive power, as suggested by Strauss (1953, 222, n. 83) and Zuckert (1994, 364-65).

Near the end of Chapter 31 of Leviathan, Hobbes has a short section on "natural punishments."  Hobbes observes that natural laws are enforced by the natural punishments that arise as natural consequences of violating those natural laws.  So, for example, injustice is punished by the violence of enemies.  Or as he puts it in the Latin version of Leviathan, "those who use violence are punished by the violence of others; . . . and such are what I call natural punishments" (Hobbes 2012, pp. 572-73).

Cumberland's Treatise, first published in 1672, was one of the first attempts to refute Hobbes's theories.  In arguing that Hobbes was inconsistent with himself in denying the obligations of the law of nature in the state of nature, Cumberland points out that Hobbes's remarks about "natural punishments" show how, even in the state of nature without any civil government, human beings are naturally inclined to vengeance against those who violate the law of nature, which provides the natural sanction for that law of nature.  And since human beings are equal in their liberty in the state of nature, each individual would have the equal natural right to punish wrongdoers, so that the likely costs of wrongdoing would outweigh any likely benefits.  Consequently, even those men who might be so evil as to lack any conscience that would recognize God's punishment of sin could not escape the punishment coming from human vengeance against injustice (Cumberland 2005, I.26, V.25).

The crucial point here is that for natural law to be truly natural, it cannot depend upon belief in divine law enforced by eternal rewards and punishments from God as the moral lawgiver.  A purely natural law can be sanctioned by the natural human propensity to punish violent injustice, which expresses a natural inclination to vengeance shared with other animals.

This is an important element of the Lockean liberal argument for religious liberty and toleration.  If the good moral order of any society depends on certain religious beliefs, this supports using legal coercion to enforce those religious beliefs.  But if the natural moral law can be enforced by natural punishments, regardless of religious beliefs, then there is no justification for legally compelling belief in religious doctrines thought to sustain moral conduct.  This point is clear in Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration, where he argues that it is unjust for the European conquerors of America to use legal coercion to compel the Indians to convert to Christianity, because these "innocent Pagans" are "strict Observers of the Rules of Equity and of the Law of Nature, and no ways offending against the Laws of the Society" (Locke 2010, 40, 76-77J).

Here, then, is the fundamental idea of Locke's natural executive power, implicit in the thought of Aquinas and Hobbes, developed by Cumberland, and elaborated by Locke.

Once we have traced this idea in the history of ideas, the next step for the serious student of political philosophy is to test the truth of this idea by formulating some testable predictions that follow from this idea, and then gather and assess the relevant empirical evidence.  I can think of at least seven testable predictions.

1.  We should see evidence for retaliatory violence in the human prehistoric foraging era and in ethnographies of foraging bands.

2.  We should see evidence for vengeful violence in some nonhuman animals, particularly those closely related to humans.

3.  We should see evidence for a natural human propensity to punish cheaters in experimental games.

4.  We should see evidence for neural mechanisms in the human brain for first-party, second-party, and third-party punishment.

5.  We should see evidence in human natural history for mechanisms that reduced the costs of punishment.

6.  We should see evidence in human history that the establishment of bureaucratic states during the agrarian era had a generally pacifying effect in reducing human violence.

7.  We should see evidence in human history of resistance to tyrannical dominance and support for political institutions favoring some approximation to the equal liberty of the evolutionary state of nature.

I have written various posts on how Darwinian science might confirm these predictions.  I will say more in some future posts.


Aquinas, Thomas. 1981. Summa Theologica. Westminster, MD: Christian Classics.

Arneil, Barbara. 1996. John Locke and America: The Defense of English Colonialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ashcraft, Richard. 1968. "Locke's State of Nature: Historical Fact or Moral Fiction?" American Political Science Review 62: 898-915.

Ashcraft, Richard. 1987. Locke's Two Treatises of Government. London: Allen and Unwin.

Batz, William G. 1974. "The Historical Anthropology of John Locke." Journal of the History of Ideas 35: 663-670.

Cumberland, Richard. 2005. A Treatise of the Laws of Nature. Ed. Jon Parkin. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Dunn, John. 1969. The Political Thought of John Locke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Elliott, J. H. 1972. "The Discovery of America and the Discovery of Man." Proceedings of the British Academy 58: 101-125.

Glat, Mark. 1981. "John Locke's Historical Sense." Review of Politics 43: 3-21.

Hobbes, Thomas. 2012. Leviathan. 3 vols. Ed. Noel Malcolm. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Locke, John. 1988. Two Treatises of Government. Ed. Peter Laslett. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Locke, John. 2010. A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings. Ed. Mark Goldie. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.

Martens, Stephanie. 2016. The Americas in Early Modern Political Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Meek, Ronald. 2011. Social Science and the Ignoble Savage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, Peter C. 1998. Our Only Star and Compass: Locke and the Struggle for Political Rationality. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Pangle, Thomas. 1988. The Spirit of Modern Republicanism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Strauss, Leo. 1953. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Waldron, Jeremy. 1989. "John Locke: Social Contract Versus Political Anthropology." Review of Politics 51: 3-28.

Zuckert, Michael. 1994. Natural Rights and the New Republicanism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Could Trump's Denial of Presidential Greatness Make the Republic Great Again?

It is good for America that Donald Trump is not a great president, because this can teach Americans that a republican form of government does not depend on presidential greatness.

The republican government designed by the American Constitution gives the primary powers of the national government to the Congress, which is to be the central body for deliberation about national policies.  The executive and judicial branches of the national government and the state governments contribute to the process of political deliberation within a system of checks and balances in which no one person or group can have predominant power.

Abraham Lincoln warned in his Lyceum Speech of 1838 that the greatest threat to the American republic would come from the rise of ambitious men who would seek the glory and distinction of becoming the national leader--men like Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon--acting outside the rule of law.  But now, far from worrying about populist Caesarism as a threat to republican government, many Americans have accepted the argument of the American Progressives for presidential government--a form of government in which the President becomes the great Leader of the People who rules by executive decrees that have not passed through any deliberative lawmaking in the Congress.  I have written about this in a previous post in 2008.

One clear measurement of Presidential Caesarism in American government is the stunning increase in the number of executive orders signed by the president, in which the president attempts to rule by decree without congressional lawmaking.  From Reagan to Trump there has been a steady increase in these executive orders.  There was a big increase with Obama, who explicitly identified himself as a Progressive promoting a Progressive view of Presidential Government.  But now Trump has surpassed even Obama in this signing of executive orders that have not been subject to congressional debate.  One can see this at the website for the American Presidency Project, where there is a chart comparing Trump with the previous four presidents in the number of executive orders issued during their first 100 days.

Now that Trump is nearing the middle of his first term, we can look back over his behavior in the White House and judge the quality of the deliberation about policy in his Presidential Government.  Bob Woodward's new book--Fear: Trump in the White House--is a good account of Trump's attempt to rule by executive decree, and it shows how dangerous this is.  In fact, it is so dangerous that many of Trump's own appointees in the White House and the Executive Branch have tried to protect the country from the consequences of his erratic impulsiveness.  As the writer in the recent anonymous Op-Ed essay in the New York Times has written, "many Trump appointees have vowed to do what we can to preserve our democratic institutions while thwarting Mr. Trump's more misguided impulses until he is out of office."  This is what Woodward identifies as the "administrative coup d'├ętat" in the Trump administration, in which those around Trump have "worked together to derail what they believed were Trump's most impulsive and dangerous orders" (xix).  This is the chaos created by Presidential Caesarism.

One illustration of this in Woodward's book occurred in early September 2017.  For many months, Trump would impulsively have an idea and then say, "I want to sign something."  He would start scribbling an order or dictate it to someone.  His advisors would tell him that his authority to issue executive orders was often restricted by law.  They would "slow walk"--stall and delay--his orders until he forgot about what he had ordered.  And sometimes when they saw a draft of an executive order on his desk, they would secretly remove it; and because of his short attention span, he wouldn't ask about it if the draft was not laying on his desk.

So, for example, Trump wanted the United States to get out of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the United States-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS), and the World Trade Organization (WTO).  "We've talked about this ad nauseam," Trump said.  "Just do it. Just do it. Get out of NAFTA. Get out of KORUS. And get out of the WTO.  We're withdrawing from all three" (264).

Many of Trump's advisors--including Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Jim Mattis, H. R. McMaster, and John Kelly--defended these free trade agreements.  In particular, they argued that KORUS was vital to American interests, not only economically but also militarily.  The free trade agreement with South Korea was part of an alliance against the threats from North Korea.  This included the stationing of 28,500 U.S. troops in the South and top secret intelligence operations  If North Korea launched a missile with a nuclear warhead to attack the United States, it would take 38 minutes to reach Los Angeles.  The intelligence operations in South Korea could detect  a missile launch in North Korea within seven seconds, allowing the U.S. time to shoot it down.  Detecting such a missile launch in Alaska would take 15 minutes, which could be a fatal time difference.  For these and other reasons, withdrawing from the free trade agreement with South Korea could have disastrous consequences.  On September 1, Trump said: "All right, we're not going to do it today.  It's not that we're not going to do it, but all right, we won't do it today" (265).

But some of Trump's advisors--particularly Peter Navarro and Wilbur Ross--were opponents of free trade agreements who urged Trump to leave KORUS.  On September 5, Cohn, Porter and others saw a draft letter on Trump's desk in the Oval Office--probably written by Navarro and Ross--that gave notice to the President of South Korea that the U.S. would withdraw from KORUS.  Cohn removed the letter.  "I stole it off his desk," Cohn later said.  "I wouldn't let him see it.  He's never going to see that document.  Got to protect the country."  Trump's mind was so disordered that he never noticed the missing letter (xviii-xix).

Woodward concludes from this:
"The reality was that the United States in 2017 was tethered to the words and actions of an emotionally overwrought, mercurial, and unpredictable leader.  Members of his staff had joined to purposefully block some of what they believed were the president's most dangerous impulses.  It was a nervous breakdown of the executive power of the most powerful country in the world" (xxii).
The fundamental problem here is that the Congress has in many ways abdicated its constitutional responsibilities by delegating its powers to the president.  In Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power to "lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises," to "regulate commerce with foreign nations," and to "make all laws which shall be necessary and proper" to carry out these specific powers.  And while the President has the power to negotiate treaties with foreign nations, the ratification of treaties requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate (Article 2, Section 2).  So this clearly gives Congress the legislative power over foreign trade agreements.  But in some of its legislation for foreign trade agreements, the Congress has given the President discretionary power to renegotiate or withdraw from trade agreements, which has created the possibility that the President could withdraw from a free trade agreement without Congress's approval.

Most international free trade agreements have been approved as congressional-executive agreements by a majority vote of each house of Congress.  All of these agreements include clauses allowing for withdrawal from the agreement after advance notice to the other parties.  The Trade Act of 1974 applies to most free trade agreements, and one provision in Section 125 of that Act states that "The President may at any time terminate, in whole or in part, any proclamation made under this chapter."  It is not clear whether Congress could prevent the President from terminating a trade agreement.  Other legislation seems to give the President broad authority in this area.  The Trade Expansion Act of 1962 authorizes the Secretary of Commerce to investigate whether imports threaten the national security of the United States, and based upon the Secretary's report, the President can "take such other actions as the president deems necessary to adjust the imports of such article so that such imports will not threaten to impair the national security."  This has allowed President Trump to declare high tariffs against Canada and other countries because imports from those countries threaten the national security of the United States.  (Some of these questions about the relative powers of the Congress and the President over free trade agreements are taken up by Brandon Murrill in a paper for the Congressional Research Service.)

In any case, it is clear that the Congress has the constitutional power to alter existing laws or to pass new laws that prohibit the President from changing trade agreements without congressional approval. The question, however, is whether the Congress has the will to exercise its constitutional powers to constrain the President.  If the Congress refuses to do this, then those people in the White House who see the danger to the country from a man like Trump must act to frustrate his plans, which creates the chaos that we now see in the White House.

Another example of the unconstitutional turn away from Republican Government to Presidential Government is the Congress's allowing the President to usurp the congressional power for declaring war.  Declaring war is one of the clearly enumerated powers of the Congress.  In the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, some critics charged that the Constitution would set up the President as an elected monarch.  In The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton answered this charge by pointing out the powers of the British Monarch that the President would not have--most importantly, the power to declare war, which belonged to the Congress.

Remarkably, in teaching college courses in American politics, I have asked students who has the power to declare war; and many say it's the President.  Despite what the Constitution says, this is correct!  Because the Congress has given this congressional power to the President.

Consider, for instance, the war in Afghanistan.  It's the longest war in American history--soon to be 17 years--with no end in sight.  There has never been a congressional declaration of war for Afghanistan, and therefore there has never been any formal deliberation by Congress about whether that war is justified.  After the attacks of September 11, 2001, George W. Bush attempted to get a formal declaration of war from Congress comparable to the declaration of war after the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  He failed to get this declaration.  But he did persuade Congress to pass the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists," which was passed as a joint resolution by Congress three days after the 9/11 attacks.. This resolution declares that "the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons."

Two months later, George W. Bush used this authorization to launch an invasion of Afghanistan, although there was no evidence that the state of Afghanistan had attacked the United States or approved any such attack.  Of the 19 people said to have committed the 9/11 attacks, 15 were from Saudi Arabia!  Although the government of the Taliban was overthrown, the U.S. with its NATO allies has never been able to defeat the Taliban insurgency.  Moreover, it was never clear as to exactly what the mission of the U.S. was in Afghanistan.

When Obama came into office in 2008, he promised to end the war.  Instead, U.S. troop levels increased to 100,000 in 2011.  After trying to completely withdraw, Obama decided to return.  When he left office in 2016, there were over 8,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Trump had campaigned on a promise to end the war in Afghanistan because it was a waste of money and lives in a war that could not be won.  Then, on August 18, 2017, Trump met with the National Security Council to decide on a new strategy for the war.  Jeff Sessions and Keith Kellogg argued for pulling out of Afghanistan.  CIA Director Mike Pompeo argued for expanding the CIA paramilitary role to replace the regular military soldiers.  H.R. McMaster, the National Security advisor, and Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, argued for continuing the war while adding 4,000 troops.

As Woodward indicates, Trump was adamant in declaring "I want to get out."  But he was finally persuaded by Mattis that withdrawal from Afghanistan would create a sanctuary for terrorists, who could use their base in Afghanistan to launch another 9/11 style attack on the U.S.  Trump approved a 60-page strategy memo signed by McMaster.  On August 21, he gave a nationally televised speech endorsing this new strategy and insisting three times in the speech that the goal was to "win."

Trump did not read McMaster's strategy memo, because Trump refuses to read anything longer than one page.  So he did not see the statements buried in the memo saying "Stalemate likely to persist in Afghanistan" and "Taliban likely to continue to gain ground" (258).  And, indeed, one year later, the Taliban has continued to gain territory.

Woodward reports that after Trump's NSC meeting on August 18, Trump called Senator Lindsay Graham:
"'You're the first person I called,' Trump told Graham. 'I just met with the generals. I'm going to go with the generals.'"
"'Well, Mr. President, that's probably the smartest thing any president could have done.'"
"'That was a hard one,' Trump said. 'It's the graveyard of empires.'  It was a reference to a book by Seth G. Jones on Afghanistan."
"'It's my luck the only book you ever read was that one,' Graham joked."
"Trump laughed along" (259).
It's clear, however, that neither Graham nor Trump has read Seth Jones's book--In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan (2010).  Jones tells the history of Afghanistan over thousands of years in which colonial invaders--from Alexander the Great to the British and the Russians--have failed to win in a country dominated by tribal warlords.  And he shows how the U.S. has failed to learn the lessons of that history in sinking into a quagmire of endless war with no possibility of victory.

Donald Trump is incapable of seriously deliberating about any issue of policy, such as trade agreements or the war in Afghanistan.  Secretary of State Tillerson has said: "He's a fucking moron" (225).

But the real problem is not that Trump lacks the moral and intellectual virtues necessary for deliberation.  The problem is that the Constitution designed a Republican Government in which the Congress would be the primary deliberative body.  There is no reason to believe that any President can take the place of Congress in providing deliberation.

As citizens in a Republic, Americans should not demand great leadership from their presidents.  They should demand that their presidents serve a republican structure of government in which deliberation on policy is found primarily in the Congress.

Some of my previous posts on Trump's chimpanzee personality can be found hereherehere, and here.

Thursday, September 06, 2018

Evidence for Rousseau's Pure State of Nature as Solitary But Not Asocial: Lemurs, Galagos, Tarsiers, and Orangutans

I have argued (here and here) that the evolutionary science of primatology provides no evidence for Rousseau's claim that the earliest ancestors of human beings lived in a pure state of nature in which individuals lived utterly solitary and asocial lives.  Rousseau wondered whether savage man in the pure state of nature might have been an orangutan, and so "a sort of middle point between the human species and the baboons."  But studies of orangutans have shown that while adult individuals, and particularly male adults, often seem to be solitary, they do have a loose social structure.  Mothers are bonded to their offspring, their communities are organized around a dominant adult male who is intolerant of other adult males, and these communities have cultural traditions.  Consequently, orangutans provide no evidence for Rousseau's pure state of nature.

Nelson Lund--the author of Rousseau's Rejuvenation of Political Philosophy--has responded in the comments on a previous post by saying that I have misinterpreted both Rousseau and the orangutan studies.  Rousseau's "nascent man" is not "utterly solitary," Lund says, because Rousseau acknowledges that mothers care for their offspring, and individuals in the state of nature do "perhaps" recognize one another individually.  The life of orangutans looks "much like" this--"an original asocial state of nature in which our ancestors lacked speech and did not form families."

After thinking more about this, I will now say that while there is evidence that some primates--lemurs, galagos, tarsiers, and orangutans--live largely "solitary" lives, they are still social animals, and therefore there is no evidence for "an original asocial state of nature."  Moreover, there is some evidence that the earliest form of social organization in primate evolution was solitary but social.

Primatologists distinguish three basic categories of social organization--solitary, pair-living, and group-living.  All primates--nonhuman and human--are unusually social animals.  So even "solitary" primates are still "social."  One primatologist explains:
"By definition, the adults of solitary primate species are typically encountered alone during their period of activity . . . . Because mothers may associate with their offspring, because some individuals may form sleeping groups regularly, because communication among neighbors by sounds and odors is widespread, and because individuals meet conspecifics regularly, 'solitary' should not be confused or equated with 'asocial.'  Instead, this term simply reflects the fact that, unlike those of group- and pair-living species, activities of individuals ae not synchronized in a manner that results in permanent spatial association, and thus primatologists encounter solitary primates as single individuals most of the time.  A solitary lifestyle is therefore a highly complex and rather challenging system to study" (Kappeler 2012, 24).
About a third of all primate species are solitary in this sense.  Most of these solitary species are lemurs, galagos (also known as bushbabies), or tarsiers.  All of these small primates are nocturnal.  Orangutans are the only solitary ape species, and they are the only solitary species that is diurnal.
                                                                The Mouse Lemur

                                                   The Southern Lesser Galago
                                                        The Western Tarsier

Lemurs are endemic to Madagascar.  Galagos are found in Africa and Asia.  Tarsiers are limited to the Indonesian archipelago and the Philippine islands.  Orangutans in the wild are found only in Borneo and Sumatra.

Shultz et al. (2011) studied the genetic distances and phenotypic social-structural similarities of 217 living primate species, which showed that social organization tends to be similar among closely related species--and thus suggesting that social structure is genetically determined.  They also concluded that the earliest primates lived some 72 Mya as solitary foraging individuals who came together only for mating.  Then, multimale/multifemale groups appeared first some 52 Mya.

One could infer from this that the earliest hominids lived in multimale/multifemale promiscuous social bands, as is true for chimpanzees today (Gintis et al. 2015).  But still the earliest primate ancestors of these hominids would have been a solitary but social species.  If Rousseau's "nascent man" is this kind of animal, then the evidence of primatology can be seen as confirming Rousseau's speculation about the pure state of nature.


Gintis, Herbert, Carel van Schaik, and Christopher Boehm. 2015. "Zoon Politikon: The Evolutionary Roots of Human Political Systems." Current Anthropology 56:327-353.

Kappeler, Peter M. 2012. "The Behavioral Ecology of Strepsirrhines and Tarsiers." In The Evolution of Primate Societies, eds. John C. Mitani, Joseph Call, Peter M. Kappeler, Ryne a. Palombit, and Joan B. Silk, pp. 17-42. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shultz, Susanne, Christopher Opie, and Quentin D. Atkinson. 2011. "Stepwise Evolution of Stable Sociality in Primates." Nature 479:219-222.

Wednesday, September 05, 2018

The Resistance to Trump inside the Trump Administration: Bad Character Does Matter

The New York Times has just published a remarkable Op-Ed essay that is anonymous, because the author is a senior official in the Trump administration identified as "part of the resistance inside the Trump administration."  It is said that the author must remain anonymous to keep his job.

The author claims that "many of the senior officials in his own administration are working diligently from within to frustrate parts of his agenda and his worst inclinations," although they "want the administration to succeed and think that many of its policies have already made America safer and more prosperous."

The author says:
"The root of the problem is the president's amorality.  Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making."
"Although he was elected as a Republican, the president shows little affinity for ideals long espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets, and free people.  At best, he has invoked these ideals in scripted settings.  At worst, he has attacked them outright."
I agree that the root of the problem is the president's amorality.  In previous posts (here and here), I have argued that the fundamental problem with Trump is that he lacks both the moral and intellectual virtues of a good person, and that he suffers from a grandiose narcissism.  I am shocked that many conservatives don't see this as a problem, but I am encouraged to see that some of the conservatives in his administration do recognize this as a dangerous problem for the country, and they are doing what they can to frustrate Trump's bad impulses.

I was also encouraged to see the author of this essay paying tribute to John McCain, as I did in my last post.  "Mr. Trump may fear such honorable men, but we should revere them."